Painter and Ugly: Friendship at the Jr. Iditarod

 

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Friendship is…

One of the special benefits of the Jr. Iditarod is that the young mushers bond with each other in a unique and lasting way.  In the woods at Yentna Station, after taking great care of their dogs for the night, they bonded over a campfire and shared trail stories.  It was remarkable to see, and I am sure these memories will last a lifetime for them.

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Photo courtesy of Iditarod.com

What is friendship like in the Jr. Iditarod for these young people?  Can your sled dog be your friend?  For help, I turned to former Jr. Iditarod champion, and 2016 rookie Iditarod musher Noah Pereira.  

Noah, born in Brookport, New York,  became the first non-Alaskan to win the Jr. Iditarod in 2013.  This week, I met up with him at the Jr. Iditarod start where he was offering support and help to the young mushers before his 1,000 mile adventure next week.

My class wanted to know more about this very special Iditarod event, so we sent Noah one of my favorite books about the Jr. Iditarod, called Painter and Ugly, by Robert J. Blake.  The book is from the perspective of two Jr. Iditarod lead dogs who are good friends and finish the 150 mile race together.  

I asked Noah about his friendship with his sled dogs and he said, “My dogs are my friends because I really truly trust them, and they truly trust me.  No matter what happens I know I can depend on them.  With that bond we can do some incredible things.”

 

Noah was so gracious and recorded himself reading the book aloud with his sled dog, Rainy!  How often does an Iditarod musher read a children’s story to classrooms around the world?  As a bonus, Allison Perry’s wonderful second grade class from my school in Austin, Texas, created sled team friendship books after listening to the story.  The book inspired them to think about friendship for themselves and what qualities they look for in a friend.

They pretended to be mushers in the Jr. Iditarod and colored their own sled dog scene. When they were finished, they added their faces to the musher and put their lovely writing in a special book about friendship.

 

Noah shared his inspirational experiences from his champion Jr. Iditarod year and what his friendship with his dogs meant to him:

  The Jr Iditarod is a 150 mile race meant to prepare young mushers for future dog sled races. Mushers from ages 14 to 17 can take up to 10 dogs and compete.  For many, Jr Iditarod is just way to have fun with dogs, but for myself it was so much more. 
         In 2012 I was a sophomore going to a high school in upstate New York.  I had dreamed about Jr. Iditarod since my first sled dog encounter during 5th grade.  When I heard of an opportunity to race it I could not pass it up. In December of 2012, my father and I left New York headed for Alaska and the Jr Iditarod.  That February I would be a rookie in the race.
         There was little hope for me to win the race, but I had some very talented dogs to get me to that point.  The first 75 miles was simple and we made it to the halfway point with ease.  During the mandatory 10 hour layover I fed my dogs, took care of their feet, and gave them all straw to sleep on.  After all that was finished I finally was able to eat something myself.  Morning came and it was time for me to take off.  I was the second musher to leave the checkpoint.  We eventually caught the first place musher about 40 miles from the finish.  We mushed together and neither one of us could take the lead for long.  About 10 miles from the finish I was able to take the lead.  I kicked and I pushed as hard as I could for the whole way to the finish constantly looking over my shoulder to see if he was catching up.  I made it to the finish line in first place.  If there’s one thing I learned throughout my experience it’s that where you come from doesn’t dictate what you can become.

 

Sleds Dogs in Winter PDF

Noah Pereira Kennel

 

Check out more wonderful images from this special lesson for Noah:

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Follow my journey this year as 2016 Iditarod Teacher on the Trail™. We have partnered with Skype as a virtual field trip experience, and I will be sending recorded video messages daily along the trail to classrooms around the world.  Sign up for a free Skype account first, and then join the “Iditarod Classroom Club” to follow along.  Remember, you must have a Skype account first, or you only be in my club for 24 hours as a guest!  Click the link below:

Iditarod Classroom Club

Want to know more about other 2016 Iditarod mushers and their teams?  The name says it all.  The ULTIMATE INSIDER ultimate-school-300x300 gives a school access to everything!  All of the benefits of the INSIDER VIDEO combined with the ability to “Track the Pack” with the GPS INSIDER!  Access to all of the commercial-free video.  Spotlight up to 5 of your favorite mushers and receive email alerts when they enter and leave a checkpoint.

HIGHLIGHTS:

  • GPS Tracker
  • Commercial-Free access to all video content
  • Highlight 5 Mushers with email alerts

Virtual Fieldtrip

We had a chance to take a virtual fieldtrip to Windy Creek Kennel, home and kennel of Ken Anderson.  Ken completed his rookie race in 1999 and has run consecutively since 2002.  He’s had five top ten finishes and has finished twelfth in the last two races.  He has always finished in the top twenty since his rookie year!  Ken offers a wonderful virtual fieldtrip to his kennel using GoTo Meeting.  He typically shows a slide show where he discusses sled dog racing, the Iditarod, and his life in rural Alaska.  He also has the capabilities to take the kids right into the dog yard and introduce them to the athletes.  I have participated in this virtual trip with my classes for the past three years and it is always one of the highlights of our year!

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Since it was after the race, and our time was limited, we changed things up a bit for our visit this year.  Ken showed the kids the scenery around his home.  He pointed out where Fairbanks and Denali were and gave us a quick glimpse at the dog yard as a tease of what was to come later!  Then we just started asking questions!  It was really interesting to have a conversation with a competitive musher after wrapping up with Monica Zappa, who as a rookie, had  totally different goal for this year’s race.

Ken reports, as most other mushers have, that yes indeed, this year’s race was hard.    He said that he felt it was especially hard coming out of Elim. There were steep hills and no snow and it was downright scary.  “I used to think the Yukon Quest was tough, but this was terrifying,” he said.  He feels successful because he didn’t seriously hurt himself and his sled held up well.  Concerns about the rookie and less experienced mushers really worried Ken however.  He said he was always confident that he is a good sled driver and would make it, but he was very worried about many of the other mushers.

The boys wanted to know if the dogs slipped on the ice when it was really windy and slippery.  Ken told us that the mushers sometimes take the booties off on ice to give the dogs a little better traction with their claws. This isn’t a foolproof strategy though.  The dogs nails are intentionally clipped short to save wear and tear on booties, so they don’t really have long nails to grab the ice.  He said that were places on the trail this year where the dogs actually blew sideways on the trail!

“Was there someone on the race you really hoped to beat?” was another question presented to Ken.  He kind of laughed and said, “Yeah, all of them!”  As a competitive veteran, Ken is in it to win it!  He always goes into every race with the goal to win.  And he’s been very successful with that strategy!  He says that he gets along with the other mushers, but they are competition.  He has beaten them all in one race or another at some time in his career… except Jeff King! He says he has never finished ahead of King in a race.

Summer training was another popular question.  Ken says he has tried different things over the years to keep the dogs in shape during the summer.  In years past, he has taken the dogs to glaciers to work in the summer.  Cruise ship passengers on vacation can take an excursion in a helicopter to the glacier to take a dog sled ride. This is a good way to keep the dogs running and to keep them socialized when there is not a lot of snow in the rest of the state.  One year he offered summer cart rides at his home kennel.  He feels, however, that the dogs aren’t really made to do hot summers.  He will run them on the trails around his home only if the trails have water on them.

This summer he has a new strategy to try.  He is planning “swim” the dogs. He is putting in a pool and is going to let the dogs “run” in the pool, or swim, to keep their strength up.  The boys suggested that he might want to join the dogs in swimming laps to keep himself in shape as well!

The highlight of the trip was getting to go to the dog yard and meet the dogs!  Many of the boys saw and heard about dogs who they have drafted for their own fantasy teams, which was just amazing!  Ken explained that the dogs were lethargic at the time of day we were talking (early afternoon). He said it is just part of their biorhythms, and if we looked at the team’s run times during the race, we would see that they often rested on the trail during this time of day.  The boys were tickled to meet the dogs of the Thomas the Tank Engine litter – I think they relived their childhoods for a few minutes remembering all of their old train friends!

Ken says it definitely the plan to run the Iditarod again next year.  He doesn’t think he will do the Yukon Quest though.  This year it was pretty tough on the team to do both and he needs to work carefully to balance his family and his dogs!  He does have five year old twins and a three year old!

I’m so glad we had the chance to visit Ken and his dogs at Windy Creek Kennel. If you’d like to schedule a virtual visit, you can get more information here: Windy Creek Kennel

Catching Up with Monica

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We had the chance to catch up with Monica Zappa via Skype last week!  She joined us from her home to tell us about “life after Iditarod!”  The boys were so excited to talk to her and had some great questions for her.  She even introduced us to Dweezil, the superstar puppy!  Dweezil has become somewhat of a rockstar on social media sites, and my own son met (and instantly fell in love with) him at the Ceremonial Start in Anchorage, but the boys hadn’t heard his story so that was as good a place as any to start!

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When Monica left to go out on the race, Dweezil started to get sick, really sick.  No one could seem to figure out what was wrong with him.  When Tim left home to head to Nome to meet Monica, he got even worse.  He was super weak and got to the point where he couldn’t even walk!  No one has ever really figured out what was wrong with him, but since Monica and Tim have been home, he’s been getting stronger and stronger every day and is walking a bit further every day!   The boys and Monica discussed just how much dogs are in tune with what is going on in their surroundings and how much they need the companionship of their fellow dogs and their humans.  The boys seemed pretty convinced that Dweezil was depressed being left behind and that may be why he got so sick.  It reminded me of being in Nikolai with the dropped dogs and sitting with them while they howled and howled and howled.  They clearly did not like being left behind while their teams moved down the trail without them.  As pack animals, they long to be with their clans.

The boys asked Monica about the race and how she felt about it. She is deservedly proud of herself and the team for getting to Nome. That was her original, ultimate goal after all!  She said she took her time at the beginning because she was concerned about the lack of training they were able to do and with such young dogs she didn’t want to push it to hard too fast.  She felt that had she had the chance to do more training in better conditions, the team would have been able to move faster.   But, she also pointed out; there is always the risk of training too much.  Training too much means that the dogs are bored of running and they don’t have the excitement or the drive to get down the trail and see what is around the next bend.

Our socks were a hit!  If you remember, we had a fundraiser to buy warm wool socks to help Monica keep her feet warm!  She says it wasn’t as cold as she expected it to be, but the socks and warmers were definitely used.  What she really appreciated the most though was the encouragement notes we sent for her to include in her drop bags!  She even sent them all home in her return bags so she would have them!  The most amazing story was that when she reached Unalakleet, she heard that Dallas Seavey had won the race.  The note in her drop bag for that checkpoint said “You have done it; you have reached the three-quarter mark.  You only have one more quarter of the race to go.  I hope you have utilized Dallas Seavey’s strategy – sit back early and attack later.”  Pretty amazing timing, right?

As for her summer plans, she and Tim plan to keep training.  In the summer they will use wheeled carts and give rides to passengers. This will help keep the dogs in shape physically and mentally.  Mentally it will keep them used to listening to commands and working with people.

Looking into the future and future races, Monica’s biggest wish for next year is for the snow to be better than it was this year!  She is planning to run more races next year and is already looking forward to the Tustumena 200 which will be held in February in the Caribou Hills which is right in her backyard!  She even mentioned that she’d like to do the Yukon Quest someday!  Iditarod 2015?  Well, she’s not committing yet, but she may, or maybe Tim will make another run!  She says she’s a little intimidated by the southern route.  Apparently, running the Yukon River on the Southern Route is a little harder because the winds become headwinds instead of tailwinds.   We pointed out that we are pretty sure that if she could handle this year’s Iditarod she could handle any year’s Iditarod.

We are so grateful to Monica for allowing us to be a part of her race.  She was amazingly generous with her time and we are so very proud of her for all that she has accomplished!

A Magical Day!

The Ceremonial Start of the 2014 Iditarod has been completed.  Mushers and teams are doing their last minute chores and hopefully getting a good night’s rest before tomorrow’s restart.  Tomorrow it starts for real, but today was all about the atmosphere, the fans, the celebration and the fun – for mushers, friends, family, fans, and dogs!

It was a beautiful day in Anchorage!  The fog rolled in for a little bit, but rolled out again almost as quickly.  I headed down to the start line around 8 am and the streets were already filled with dog trucks and the fans were starting to gather. One of the things that continues to amaze me about the Iditarod is how approachable the mushers are.  The fans are able to be on the streets until about an hour before race time to greet the mushers, take photos, and pet the dogs.  I can’t think of any other sporting event that gives such amazing access to its superstars!

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I wandered around for a bit, but I really wanted to check in with Nathan Schroeder and Monica Zappa.  I came to Nathan’s truck first… since he is bib #25 he was pretty far down the street. They park the lower numbers farther away from the starting line so that they can get their trucks out first.  Remember, the trucks need to leave as soon as possible so they can get to Campbell Airstrip to meet the mushers at the finishing line for today.  Nathan had a great spot – right on Fourth Avenue. His dogs were amazing. They were so calm, cool, and collected… much like Nathan himself.  It was almost as if they were saying, “No need to waste our energy… we got this!”

Monica was parked on one of the side streets.  She was so bubbly and full of energy!  My son described her as a “brightly colored blur!”  Her Posh House sponsor has given her some super bright gear for the trail – she will be easy to spot for sure!  She even brought five month old Dweezil along for the ride.  What a sweet puppy he is!  He was taking it all in… maybe he’ll get his chance to run the Iditarod some day!  She even put the banner my class made for her on the front of her truck!  I know the boys are sending her all their best wishes….  she has been so amazing to work with this year…  and we are thankful to have played a small role in her journey.

I made my way back to Nathan’s area.  It was kind of cool to see the whole thing unfold. Usually I’m so busy walking around trying to see every musher and every dog. It was a different perspective to see the whole process take place with one musher.  When I got back, the dogs had been put back in the truck and they were all chilling out inside. Laying on their straw and taking one last snooze before the the first leg of their first run.  I don’t know much about these things, but the entire hook up and start seemed flawless from start to finish… well almost.

When the other teams started moving toward the start, Nathan was still calm and collected.  He remarked that it seemed early, and it was… only 9:30 really.  Things were getting crazy around him and he kept his cool.  Eventually he got the dogs out of the truck and put their harnesses and booties on. The dogs were still so calm. Team after team passed them and they watched them go by.  They weren’t phased at all.  As teams 22 and 23 passed, and the volunteers gave him a two or three minute warning, Nathan said it was time to hook them them up.  He literally hooked the last one and it was time to walk to the starting line.  This is were we had a little snafu.  Nathan won the new red collars all of the dogs were wearing at the Denali Doubles race. They are really sharp looking.  He even wrote each dog’s name on the collars so that if one of them has to be dropped, the vets and volunteers will be able to call the dogs by name.  Well, as we were making our way to the starting line, one of the dog’s collars slipped off his neck!  The dog was still pulling with his tug line, but there was a red collar dangling on it’s own from the gangline.  Dusty, who was riding the tag sled behind Nathan, got off and had to fix it while we kept walking to the starting line!

Once we got to the line for our two minute countdown, Nathan got off the sled and gave each dog some love and encouragement. The wheel dogs started slamming in their harnesses.  I know announcements were being made. I wanted to look for Kathy Cappa and see her signing the starting announcements.  I wanted to look for my fellow teachers I knew were in the crowd… but I couldn’t.  All I could do was watch Nathan and try to imagine what he was feeling.  The Iditarod has been his dream for so long.. and it was happening!   The countdown was on….. 10…9…8…7…6…5…4…3…2…1…. and we were off!

It was amazing!  Fans lined the streets, calling Nathan by name and wishing him good luck!  He was having a blast!  At one point he even took a video with his phone to send to his wife back home!  He was impressed with how many people there were all along the trail.

Once we got past the crowds downtown, it was truly magical. We got to go through so many different settings – over bridges, through tunnels, through the woods, through wide open spaces.  It didn’t take too much imagination to pretend I was out there on my own with my own dog team…  a small taste of the power of the team and the beauty of the trail.

But it was also so fun to be there with Nathan! He was having a blast!  Collecting hotdogs, muffins, and cookies from the crowds.  Talking about how great his team looked.  Thanking the crowd for their well-wishes.  The pride for his team showed through so much. He talked about Achilles, who has been with him for his three John Beargrease Sled Dog Marathon wins.  Nathan was impressed with how Achilles just knew where to move on the trail to avoid obstacles.  He talked about how the team just knew how to follow the trail. How they responded when he whistled to them and the picked up the power up a hill.

And when the finish was in sight, his comment echoed my own, “We’re there already?”

Nathan’s dad met us at the end to lead the team to the truck.  Nathan visited with each dog and checked them out.  “They look great. They ran great.  I hope they do this great tomorrow,” he said.

As much fun as the Ceremonial Start was… both Nathan and Monica said the same thing.  They are ready to be away from the crowds, out on the trail, and off on their adventure with their sixteen best friends.  As for me, I can’t wait to soak up every single minute of it.  It’s going to be awesome!

Tales from the Trail: Nathan Schroeder

IMG_1500Today I will check another item off of my Bucket List:  being an Idita-rider in the Ceremonial Start of the Iditarod.  I’m riding with Nathan Schroeder from Minnesota.  My students have been very concerned about the idea of me riding eleven miles in a dog sled.  It may be my fault; I may have filled their heads with stories of mushers wiping out on the turn.  The race start is on Fourth Avenue right in downtown Anchorage.  The sleds travel down Fourth Avenue for many blocks, and then they have to make a right turn to head out of town.  One of the stories I have been sharing with kids is Jodi Bailey’s story of using photographers as trail markers – “If there is a red x be careful, if there is a red x and a photographer, hold on to your sled for dear life.”  Well – if the amount of photographers is a mark of the danger level of the tail, then the turn in Anchorage is one of the worst sections of the trail.  At least one person wipes out there every year.  And there are a hundreds of fan photographers there to witness it!

So my boys had discussed it and they really wanted me to ride with a veteran.  They figured that veterans had run the race before and therefore would be more careful going around the bend.  Diane Johnson, Director of Education, pointed out to them that it might be better to ride with a rookie.  A rookie would be more careful going around the bend because they won’t want to embarrass themselves in their first race!

When the boys learned that I was riding with Nathan Schroeder, they were a little concerned that he is a rookie in this year’s race.  But, then they quickly realized that while he is a rookie for this race, he is by no means a rookie musher.  In fact, he is a three time John Beargrease Sled Dog Marathon champion.    The Beargrease race has been happening for thirty years in Minnesota.  It honors the life of John Beargrease who, among his other accomplishments, delivered mail by dog sled.  There is a fantastic kid’s book that talks about his life and the race called Fearless John:  The Legend of John Beargrease by Kelly Rauzi and Mila Hook.

I had several chances to meet and talk with Nathan yesterday.  What a great guy!  He is soft spoken, kind, and thoughtful.  He says he isn’t nervous; he’s just really ready to get started. He’s looking forward to getting out of town and onto the trail.  He thinks he has his team all picked out.  We’ll have twelve dogs on his team for Saturday and then the full sixteen for Sunday.  He has been living and training up in Alaska since February fifth, so his dogs are acclimated and prepared to run on these trails.  He first got interested in dog sledding when he was in fifth grade and he saw a presentation at school about mushing.  Actually, he said that his regular homeroom teacher was on maternity leave and that it was a substitute teacher who brought in the presentation!

It’s going to be amazing!  Check back later for pictures!!!

Rock Start Sighting: Dallas Seavey!

2014-02-24 21.42.55I got a chance to check in with Dallas Seavey at the ExxonMobil Welcoming reception for the Winter Conference for Educators last evening.  The question on everyone’s mind?  The trail conditions.  Dallas’  point of view is that it’s the Iditarod and it’s not supposed to be easy.  He says this isn’t the first time the trail has been this way, nor will it be the last time it will be this way.

He seems to think that this year’s trail will favor mushers who have experience and who can think on their feet.  Dallas’ predicts that the mushers who are running the race with a solid “race plan” will have a hard time.  They will go into the race thinking they have to get to point A by a certain time and then when they get out on the trail and realize it’s not going to quite work that way, they won’t be able to make the adjustments.  He says that he races his team, not the race.  So he listens to what his dogs want and runs his race that way.

He’s really excited about his team this year.  This team is really HIS team. In the past he’s run dogs that he’s gotten from his dad and other mushers, but this year he has raised and trained all the dogs for himself.  They have been born and raised in his kennel and are truly a product of his training and coaching.  Dallas referred to himself as a teacher and coach.  His role in the team is to teach his dogs their roles and commands, form the team, and then coach them to reach their fullest potential. His favorite thing is to take dogs out in small teams (five or so) and really work with the dogs to learn.  He says when they are small puppies they are like sponges. They soak everything up and are so eager to learn and please.  Sometimes they don’t always remember what they learned the next day…. Sometimes they need to hear it a few times – kind of like some students I know!  But they all love to learn, love to run, and love to be on the trail!  Just like Dallas himself.