Charles’ Last Run

"It is good to have an end to journey towards; but it is the journey that matters in the end."

“It is good to have an end to journey towards; but it is the journey that matters in the end.”

 

What do mushers do with their sled dog when he/she retires? Just as they had the best life before their journey through the Iditarod, they have the best life still, but more relaxing. Our best bud here at Vern’s, Charles, retired as a sled dog on March 1, 2014.

CharlesCharles is a 10-year old Alaskan Husky. Charles was not born at the Dream a Dream Dog Farm. Vern acquired him from Jeff King. Charles has quite the sled dog resume. Charles has finished many sled dog races in the state of Alaska. What is most impressive is he has finished five Iditarod races.

Unbeknownst to Charles, this season would be his last. Charles took his last pre-race truck ride down to 4th street in Anchorage. He jumped up and down anxiously in his harness, in lead, under the starting line in Anchorage for the last time. He heard the announcer call, “5, 4, 3, 2, 1….GO,” for the last time. He charged out of the starting chute one final time. This one last run for Charles was the Ceremonial start of the 2014 Iditarod. He led Cindy Abbott, her “Iditarider”, and his best friend Vern, down 4th street around Cordova and out to the Campbell Airstrip. He was unharnessed and unhooked one last time. He took one final post-race truck ride to the kennel.

When Charles was taken out of the truck after they arrived at the kennel he was not hooked up. Instead Vern said, “You are free!” Free to roam the kennel. Free to sit on any kennel he wants. Free to sleep anywhere he wants. Free to be “King of the Kennel.” Charles just stood there. He didn’t know what to do. His journey through the Iditarod had come to an end. Nobody asked him. I think if Vern had given Charles a choice, he would continue to work as a sled dog for the rest of his life. That is how much he loves it, and how much all sled dogs love their job.

CharlesWatching Charles around the yard now that he is retired is awesome. He comes right up to us wanting love and attention. He sticks his paw out as to say, “Pet me. Love me.” So, what do we do? We pet him. We love him. He struts around that yard as if he owns the place. He sits up top of Aspen’s house like it is his. It is, of course, exactly where his house used to sit. Charles still thinks he is a working sled dog. He will forever be an extraordinary lead dog.

Charles is now a pet. Most sled dogs become musher pets when they retire. Some dogs will sell their retired dogs to select homes that will take extra good care of their special friends. All sled dogs will miss their job tremendously. But, just as humans enjoy their retirement, sled dogs will enjoy the relaxing and love and attention they receive with retirement.

Teacher turned Dog Handler

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“Life is an interesting journey, you never know where it will take you.”

My journey today was quite interesting, however, it was awesome.  This morning Terrie Hanke, author of the Eye on the Trail blog for the Iditarod, and I went to breakfast before beginning our shopping list for camp.  When we got back to Vern’s Dream a Dream Dog Farm we started helping Linda prepare sandwiches for the 9:00 tour group, no big deal.  After making sandwiches it was time to turn our attention to that shopping list….or not.  After about a minute upstairs Linda shouted up the steps, “Terrie, Erin, get out here and help harness up the dog teams!”  We looked at each other and headed down.  My thought was how in the heck am I going to do this.  I have harnessed a dog before, once.  That was exactly one year ago when Vern taught us at summer camp.  I quickly asked Terrie, “how do I do this again?”  Terrie is a seasoned veteran at harnessing dogs as she has her own sled dogs back home in Wisconsin.  She reminded me and off we went.

"Aspen, put your leg through there."

"Aspen, first put your head through here."

So, Linda, Serene, Cindy Abbott, and Terrie and I harnessed and hooked up two 16 dog teams.  Ten minutes of noise and controlled chaos was followed by complete silence and peace.  After the two teams took off, I took a deep breath and looked around and said to myself, “Wow!”  Terrie and I proceeded to high-five after a job well done.

We attempted to start that shopping list again while we waited.  As soon as the teams arrived back at the kennel we headed back down to water the dogs.  After earning their water and a fish snack, it was time to unhook and unharness the teams and take them back to their kennel.  Not quite as crazy, but this time muddy and wet.  During the dog ride the dogs splash through a mud pit.

Remember that shopping list?  We finally got to it.

This day provided me with a thrilling adventure and a great deal of thought.  So many different journeys taking place.  Serene, Vern’s handler, to her this is just a normal day.  She is working for Vern during the summer handling sled dogs.  Linda, Vern’s employee, again, to her this is just another day setting up and taking down for a tour.  The dogs, this is their summer Iditarod training schedule.  Cindy Abbott, she is here to sign up for the 2015 Iditarod and this is normal to her too.  For Terrie and me, this was an awesome new experience.

Behind the Scenes

Part of me lives at the Smithsonian now…

And my students’ artwork is there too…

Talk about being honored and proud!

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I recently had the honor of visiting the Smithsonian’s American History Museum and taking a “backstage” tour with Jane Rogers, curator of sports.  You may remember that I first met Jane two years ago when she attended the Winter Iditarod Conference for Teachers (LINK).  She was there to learn more about the race and to begin to collect artifacts for a possible exhibit about the sport of dog mushing and the Iditarod.  The race is such an integral part of Alaska’s history and culture; it’s not just a sporting event!

The whole journey started for Jane when someone donated Libby Riddle’s sled to the museum (LINK).  By setting out into a storm that held must mushers up in the checkpoint, Libby became the first woman to win the Iditarod.  She is still a presence at race time… she greeted team after team under the Burled Arch and provides specially made hats for the highest placing female Junior Iditarod mushers.

But one object doesn’t make an exhibit, and the sled needed to be put into context, so Jane set about learning about mushing and gathering other Iditarod items.  This is one of my favorite conversations to have with kids.  What if you needed to create a museum exhibit about the Iditarod but you could only include ten items?  What would you include?  From whom would you collect them?  What part of the Iditarod story would you tell?  It’s fascinating, because from speaking with Jane and visiting the Anchorage Museum with her, I’ve come to realize that the Smithsonian isn’t just about collecting “stuff.”  The stories that the “stuff” tells and represents are the key!  And as you know… the stories are what drew me to the race in the first place!

So, while I was on the trail this year, Jane asked me to help her acquire a few things to represent the race.  I headed down to the Smithsonian to donate the artifacts I had collected for the museum.  Here is the list of items if you want to challenge your kids to think about what part of the Iditarod story these items tell:

  1.  Used Drop Bags from Martin Buser and Jeff King
  2. A No Pebble Mine Flag carried on the trail by Monica Zappa
  3. An unused dog urine sample collecting bottle
  4. A program from the Junior Iditarod Banquet
  5. A program from the Iditarod Finishers’ Banquet
  6. An Iditarider badge

Now… here’s the really amazing part of the list:

  1.  My Iditarod Teacher on the Trail patch designed by three of my students
  2. My Iditarod Teacher on the Trail name badge with the pins I collected

Yes, you read that correctly… the Teacher on the Trail program is represented in the Smithsonian American History Museum!  Jane realized that education is such a huge part of the Iditarod story that it needed to be represented in the collection.  I am so honored to represent all of the amazing teachers who have realized the value of using the race and as you can imagine my kids are over the moon to know their art work is there!

So I took a day off from school and took the train down to DC with my bag of artifacts.  Jane met me in the lobby and took me up to the storage area and opened cabinet after cabinet after cabinet to let me see all of the Smithsonian goodies in storage.  The sports are in the Division of Culture and the Arts, so the storage room I got to poke around I was amazing….  I got to see skateboards and snowboards, Lance Armstrong’s bike, Olympic uniforms, tennis rackets, ice skates, trophies, professional wrestling costumes, sports balls of all sizes, and more.  The cool thing is that not just professional athletes are represented… part of the American sports story is the millions of kids who play sports too! So there are kids’ trophies in cases right next to trophies won by people like Tiger Woods.  This room was also where all of the TV and Movie memorabilia is stored as well!  So I got peeks at Fonzie’s leather coat, Klinger’s dresses, Batman’s masks, Edith Bunker’s chair, the typewriter from Murder She Wrote, Ginger Rogers’ gown, the Muppets, and so much more!  It was really amazing… like exploring America’s attic!

But, of course, I wanted to see the rest of what Jane had been gathering for the Iditarod collection.  What a treasure trove she has…. DeeDee Jonrowe’s Humanitarian Award, her pink parka, and the full set of dog tags from her team…  Lance Mackey donated his parka, hat, boots, and bibs…  Ken Anderson gave dog coats and booties…

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And there sits my little patch in the middle of all of it.

Wow….

The Sleeping Bag Patch

One thing that each Iditarod Teacher on the Trail™ is required to do is to create a patch for inclusion on the official Teacher on the Trail sleeping bag. You can learn more about this tradition and the sleeping bag here: LINK

I decided a long time ago, that this was going to be a wonderful way to get my school involved in my adventure, and I approached my student council to see if they would be willing to help me out with this project.  They readily agreed and decided that the best thing they could do would be to have a school wide contest to design the patch.  I explained that the patch needed to reflect my theme for the year, “Tales (and Tails) from the Trail” and that it should represent our school and show that we are located in Maryland.

The contest was announced and the boys ended up with over fifty designs to judge and choose from.

They finally settled on a design which was created by three students in my homeroom:

patch

Next came the fun part.  We submitted the design to the company who would make the patch and they forwarded it to their graphic designers.  The graphic designers in turn provided us with the first version of the patch:

patch proof 1

The artists were not impressed.  They quickly sent back a list of corrections and received this version:

patch proof 2

Again, the artists had more edits.  They finally got back this version which seemed to satisfy them.  And just recently, we got the completed patches in the mail:

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I think it represents my adventure perfectly!  The open book is for the tales I will collect from the trail.  The left hand page shows the map and flag of my home state, Maryland.  The right hand page shows the map and flag of Alaska.  The crest in the middle is my school’s crest, and the two tails coming from its sides are the “tails” part of the motto.

I stitched it onto the sleeping bag today, and it will now and forever be a part of Iditarod Teacher on the Trail™ history!