Teacher on the Trail Tales

The teachers who have had the privilege to serve as the official Teachers on the  Trail™ have had some amazing and varied experiences.  Their stories are a glimpse into what happens behind the scenes of the Greatest Race on Earth.  Their memories, particularly of the people they met, will stay with them for their lifetimes.  Here are a few of their favorite memories:

Picture Perfect
By:  Martha Dobson, 2011 Iditarod Teacher on the Trail™

In Nome, I tried to meet all the mushers I could at their finish line arrivals, making for some late nights and early mornings. One musher I saw arrive was Justin Savidis, a rookie. He had started the race the previous year, but scratched in McGrath when one of his dogs, Whitey-Lance, went missing. Justin found the dog, but it took several days, and he scratched, ending his first race in McGrath. In 2011, Justin and team made it to the burled arch. Rebecca, his wife, was ecstatic to meet them, and the best moment of all was watching Justin cradle Whitey-Lance in his arms, lifting Whitey up to high-five the top beam of the arch with his paw.

Hurry Up and Wait

by:  Linda Fenton, 2013 Iditarod Teacher on the Trail™

The first lesson I learned as an Iditarod volunteer was that I always needed to be prepared for the next step of the race.  I would wake up in the morning and pack so I was ready to go at a moment’s notice.  The call would come – Linda needs to be here NOW.  I would grab my bags, get to the designated spot, and wait . . . and wait . . . and, sometimes, wait.  It seems that this could be frustrating, but it was during these waiting times that I was able to relax and actually talk to people.  We had something in common; we were waiting.

Linda Pee TeamIt started in Nikolai where waiting opened the door for me to be part of the Pee Team and collect dog pee for drug testing.  In Takotna, I stood on a mountain with two Coms (communications) men for a few hours while we waited for a plane.  We talked, laughed, explored our surroundings, worried we were left behind, and were finally picked up by planes.  I could have been angry for having been left for a few hours, but it was fun.  In McGrath, I had to wait in the Café where I was able to get to know other volunteers, Vets, and Pilots.  ThereLinda Music was even a morning guitar serenade by a pilot enjoyed by early risers.  Awesome.

 Finally, in Nome, there were several plane delays, so I took a walk and ended up in a Tea Shop.  The proprietress was
charming and we began talking.  It turns out she grew up in a Wisconsin town 30 miles from me, and she was the first cousin of my son’s high school sweetheart.  Had I not been waiting, I would have never met her.  It was fun.

 Waiting can be frustrating, but if you relax and take it the moment, it can be rewarding.  Enjoy the wait.

No Room!

by:  Kim Harrick, 2002 Iditarod Teacher on the TrailKim Harrick

A funny story I guess was when I was at the ½ way point (Cripple) population ZERO.  The only things at the check point were Iditarod workers and 4 tents:  one was a communication tent, a bunk tent, the kitchen tent and a toilet tent.  Communications called to say a plane was on the way to get me.  I packed all of my belongings to board the plane.  Low and behold when the plane landed to take me, there were too many dropped dogs and there wasn’t enough room for me…the athletes stole my plane!   The next plane arrived several hours later if not the next day!  The dogs always take precedence over anything else during Iditarod!!

Overcoming Obstacles

by: Diane Nye, 2001 Iditarod Teacher on the Trail

The theme of my year as Teacher on the Trail was “Overcoming Obstacles.”  Once I announced the theme, I heard from Iditarod fans all around the world about their experiences.  I chose the theme because mushers have many potential difficulties that they might face during the race and it fit a basic human condition: overcoming difficulties in life.  Every human being has difficulties throughout their lifetime.  Planning based on prior race experiences helps the inexperienced mushers face the fear of the unknown as well as not knowing how their dogs will respond during the race.  Preparation based on planning and previous races alleviates some of the experienced mushers’ fears around possible problems.  However, mushers still have obstacles during the race to overcome.  It seemed like a topic students could understand and then apply to their own lives.

Resiliency in an individual is based on their belief that they can overcome difficulty.  Why do some people have resiliency and others who have faced the same life experiences don’t?  During the race I watched mushers and fans deal with frustration over illnesses, lack of flights, weather conditions (sometimes it was too windy to fly or too hot for the dogs to run) as well as other obstacles.  The vast majority of the mushers showed great resiliency.

My greatest memories revolve around watching how different mushers handled their time in the checkpoints and the obstacles they overcame.   I watched Martin Buser rub one of his dog’s front shoulders while he sang to her for 45 minutes.   His reported nickname, the Singing Swiss, seemed to fit that afternoon.  He finished the 2001 race in his worst position to that date but came back to win the race the next year.

I watched another musher after he had gotten the news that day that one of his dogs died when it got home.  He was devastated and sat in the straw with his remaining dogs and one of the veterinarians checking each dog in his team, looking under every harness ensuring no dog had rubbed spots.  The vet gave each one a very thorough exam.   I can’t imagine a more shocking experience for a musher still on the trail.

I watched as mushers pre-race strategy fell apart when illness struck either the musher or some of the dogs, when the team didn’t gel the way the musher thought they would, or some other unforeseen thing happened during the race.   The mushers are highly competitive whether they are competing for the first place trophy or to beat their personal goals.  They don’t enter the Iditarod unless they have met the requirements of running two races of 500 miles combined and finished  within a certain time period of the winner; check the Iditarod’s qualifying rules if you want more information.  Some enter just to complete the race and earn a Finisher’s belt buckle and patch.  More people have climbed Mount Everest than have finished the Iditarod; that means it is an awesome feat to finish the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race.  Others race to win; every year, many mushers could win the race.  They have put in the time to train their dogs; usually running more than a thousand miles in practice runs leading up to the Last Great Race.

What differs about the mushers in addition to their pre-race strategy and preparations is how they make adjustments during the races.  Most mushers plan for their sleep deprivation by sleeping less and less in the months leading up to the race.  However, they all experience the bone deep fatigue by the time they hit the Yukon River;  sometimes it is at Grayling or Galena or it might be at late as Kaltag but the lack of sleep catches up with all mushers at some point in the race.  They speak of hearing voices along the river.  Are they the voices of previous racers?  Are they spirits of the Native Alaskans who have passed on?  Could it be the wind?  Are they only in the mind of the musher?  Many spoke of hearing the voices.

Mushers are different in checkpoints depending on how well they have prepared for their race.  They send out different amounts of dog food, human food, booties, sled repair kits, sled runners to different checkpoints.  If a musher takes his or her 24-hour layover before he or she planned to, the supplies needed for the 24 are at a different checkpoint.  I watched three mushers enter Skwentna on the first night, Sunday night of the restart.   The first was totally prepared, going up and down the gangline.  He did one dog related task such as unhooking the necklines and then did something else when he came back up the gangline. He didn’t waste any time.

The next musher wasted thirty minutes looking for something in his sled bag.  He hadn’t given his dogs straw and they were still standing around while he rooted around in his sled bag.

The next musher was a top five musher.  He signed in, put straw down for his dogs, snacked them and then crawled inside his sled bag.  He said “good night” to the race fans standing around and zipped up his bag.  The elapsed time since his arrival was ten minutes.  That was my first chance to observe the difference in how mushers were prepared for their race.  Top racers have their checkpoint routine down pat.  They have their sled bags organized and they know what they are going to do when they arrive at a checkpoint.  They do it efficiently and that allows them to rest.

Part of a musher’s ability to deal with obstacles comes from getting their dogs enough rest.  If the dogs are rested, they pull better.  If they tire, their speed falls and they can get discouraged.  That, in turn, discourages the musher.

My favorite memory is a scary one.  Flying into Grayling on the Yukon River, my pilot was getting closer and closer.  I was snapping photos and enjoying seeing the village unfold in front of my eyes.  One minute I was sitting upright in a vertical position and in the next second the plane had turned 90 degrees and I was sitting in a horizontal position.  It was very scary because it happened so fast.  My pilot said, “It is easy to deal with wind sheer at 2,000 feet but it is another at 200 feet.”   I was just hoping we could land safely.  He straightened the plane and flew out in a very wide pattern over the tundra.  He came into Grayling from the south and entered the Yukon River at a different angle.  We landed safely.  I was tempted to kiss the ground when we landed but we were on several feet of snow so I didn’t.  Thank goodness my pilot was able to overcome the obstacle that the wind sheer presented him.

I continued to see examples of mushers overcoming their obstacles as the race unfolded.  I was in awe of the mushers who continued their race, long after the top mushers had come in.  They plodded on, determined to finish the race.  One of my favorite photos of the 2001 Iditarod was after the red Lantern winner, Karen Ramstead, came in and several of the other “Back of the Pack” mushers greeted her and we took their picture together.  I had the impression that they had enjoyed their camaraderie on the trail.  It seemed that they really like each other and hated to see the race end.  I know I felt that way coming into Nome. I always smile when I see the picture of them under the Burled Arch – all smiling huge grins!

On a purely personal note, I have cherished memories of my husband accompanying me on my interview trip in 2000 and my parents meeting me in Anchorage for the 2001 race.  They flew out to Finger Lake but I missed seeing them there.  They enjoyed seeing the race up close and person and getting teased by Martin Buser and Charlie Boulding.  I enjoyed seeing a very strong Susan Butcher at the race start in Anchorage but then sad that I lost my dad and Susan Butcher, one of my heroes, within four months of each other in 2006.  One regret I have was writing about the wind sheet and near death experience I felt I had as I scared my family, my students and the others at my school.  When I learned how much I worried everyone I thought that I should have waited until I got home to have told that story.

One of my greatest memories is to reflect on the love and support that my community of Elizabeth, Colorado showed me when I decided I wanted to try out for the Teacher on the Trail program.  One local family sent me to Alaska for a week to see if I could “do” the small planes.  87 people or organizations wrote letters of support that I included in my application packet.  I was “the Iditarod teacher” and I shared my ideas and unit plan with teachers all over the west before I applied for the position.  I was honored to be chosen as a finalist and was impressed with the other two finalists. I had the support of my family, my school and my community; it is a memory I will cherish forever.

I continue to follow the race each year and give school presentations about it; I still love it after almost 30 years of teaching with it.  It is one of the most exciting events for students as the race contains all the things students love:  adventure, competition but also cooperation, dogs, other unique animals, exotic locations, many obstacles, all kinds of interesting geography and history, weather phenomenon, the relationship between the musher and his or her team, etc.   As a teacher, I loved that all students were starting with the same basic knowledge of the race:  very little to none.  All students could show great growth and their learning.  The Iditarod as a unit topic could include practically every subject in the elementary curriculum.

Tale from the Trail….Grayling
 By “Finney”, First Teacher on the Trail, 1999
I met a teacher in the village of Grayling, which is on the Yukon River, who will always have my deepest respect and admiration. She grew up in a nearby village but for the time being was teaching in Grayling. She reached out to me and invited me into her very small home where she showed me beautiful birch baskets that had been woven by her grandmother. The teacher especially loved porcupine quills and, after carefully collecting them, designed and made amazing earrings and other jewelry. As we left her home to visit the school, she reached into her freezer at the top of her refrigerator and pulled out two white frozen solid sticks that looked like long “popsicles”. I happily accepted mine and thoroughly enjoyed the seemingly tasteless thick “popsicle” as we chatted and walked along. Because my hand was relatively warm around the base of the “popsicle”, it began to melt causing an oily substance to run down into the sleeve of my parka. There was nothing to do but to lick the oily substance while my mind began to wonder what this “popsicle” might be! We finally arrived at the school and I had slowed down a bit trying to consume the “popsicle” while licking the running oil. The teacher noticed this I’m certain, because she then asked me if I would like to have a few Pilot Crackers while I finished off eating the EEL! I took her up on her offer, and was delighted when I realized that I had just enjoyed eel that she had caught and willingly shared with me, a non-native and perfect stranger. EEL, I still am amazed that I actually ate frozen EEL from the Yukon River!
As we settled in to chat again the teacher began to tell me her personal life story, which immediately cemented the bond we were forming. She had a daughter when she was very young, became an alcoholic, was sent out of her village to live in Washington state, tried to return to her village about three years later and was not accepted because she had been living in the white world. She gathered all the strength she had and turned her life around by graduating from the University of Alaska and returning to teach but in the nearby village of Grayling. She was still not accepted in her own village. She dealt with a great deal of sadness and loneliness but with determination and perseverance she changed her life and was a positive influence in many children’s lives. On my flight to the next checkpoint my thoughts remained on her and the challenges she faced and overcame, and what an incredible person she had become.
Flying back to Anchorage from the Finishers Banquet in Nome, my bush pilot had to stop in the village of McGrath to refuel, check the weather and grab a bite to eat. We walked to a distant bed & breakfast/restaurant, and much to my surprise there was the teacher and her daughter! We hugged and had a chance for a brief reconnection, and then I had to be on my way. I could not believe my good fortune in seeing her once more. I often wonder how she is, where she is and if she married the fellow who was a teacher in another village but was visiting the weekend I was in Grayling.
Birch baskets, porcupine quill jewelry, frozen eel from the Yukon River, and an inspirational teacher…………all treasures that I will forever carry in my heart from the village of Grayling on the Yukon River. One of my many Tales from the Iditarod Trail in 1999!

It’s a Small World

by: Herb Brambley, 2010 Teacher on the Trail™

The night on the floor of the library in Takotna was quite pleasant compared to how it would have been if I had been sleeping outside in the -20 degree temperature. Before getting breakfast, I decided to go for a walk and check out this thriving metropolis.

As I moseyed down the main drag I saw several mushers tending to their dogs. Some were feeding, some were taking care of paws, and some were getting ready to leave. I snapped a few pictures and continued on my way. As I approached the end of the village, a man in a blue coat was walking the opposite direction. We stopped and began a conversation.

As the conversation progressed, I found out that this man owned a construction business in Kenai, Alaska, but he had not lived there all his life.

He asked me who I was and wondered how I came to be in Tokotna. I told him I was the 2010 Target Teacher on the Trail. I asked him where he was from and he said, “Pennsylvania originally.”

I told him I was from Pennsylvania also. I asked him where in PA was he from. He said he was born and raised in Doylestown, PA.

I said I was born in Doylestown, also; at the old hospital, up town. I then asked him his name. He said his name was George Nyce.

I asked him if he was related to the people who owned Nyce’s Planning Mill.

He said, “That was my father.”

I was simply floored. I traveled all the way to a remote village in Alaska just to meet my neighbor.

As a boy, we bought lumber and hardware many times from Nyce’s Planning Mill. I can remember several specific projects that we were working on for which we bought materials there. What a fantastically pleasant surprise!!! What are the chances of this happening?

Ruby, a Magical Experience

by Terrie Hanke, 2006 Iditarod Teacher of the Trail™

We landed at the airstrip high above the Yukon River village of Ruby.  Almost immediately a snow machine appeared to provide a ride down to the village.  After about a mile we came to the school where we stopped so I could meet the principal and check on using Internet.  Another mile down the road and I was at the community center where the checkpoint was housed.  Upon arriving at the checkpoint I followed my usual routine, check in with the comms people to be counted in the evening personnel report, find a place to sleep, locate Internet and ask directions to the village store.

Having accomplished the first three tasks, I headed out to find the Ruby Commercial Company not because I needed to purchase anything but because one can learn a great deal about a village by looking around in the store.  There were numerous interesting notices and ads posted around the store.  From a little business card on a door jam, I noticed George Alberts made Athabascan snowshoes and from a poster I learned there was a second store in the village that was open in the evening after the Commercial Company closed.  I asked directions from a fellow at the store and headed down the road in the way he had pointed.

As it turned out, the snowshoe maker lived right next door to the evening store and the fellow who gave me directions was the owner of the evening store.  He was also the agent for Air West and would soon be meeting a plane to pick up supplies that were arriving for his store and the Commercial Company.  He invited me to come along and give a hand with the loading and unloading.  I hesitated for a moment as my mother had always told me to never ride with strangers but then suddenly I heard myself say, “Sure, I’d love to help out.”  I had introduced myself back at the Ruby Commercial Company.  Now as we drove up to the air strip, it was my turn to learn who he was.  His name was Pat McCarty and he’d lived in Ruby all his life.  His father Billy McCarty, Sr. carried the serum from Ruby to Whiskey Creek in the 1925 Serum Run.  There I was in the front seat of a white Toyota pickup riding up to the airstrip with the son of a serum runner!  Pat shared many of the stories his father had told him about the mission of mercy and about his experiences of living in the village and fishing the Yukon River.

After returning to the checkpoint, DeeDee Jonrowe would be the next musher into Ruby.  The checker put on a blue fur trimmed anorak and green fleece hat than headed out to meet DeeDee and officially record her arrival to the northern route’s first checkpoint on the Yukon River.  The checker stood facing away from the incoming team.  When she was next to the checker, DeeDee set the snow hook.  What happened next brought tears to DeeDee’s eyes as well as any spectator’s fortunate enough to be in the right place at the right time.  The checker turned to face DeeDee and offer the official “Welcome to Ruby.”  It took a moment for DeeDee to react but she was facing the last person she ever expected to see on the trail, Susan Butcher.  DeeDee herself a cancer survivor was face to face with her dear friend who was undergoing treatment for leukemia.  The women hugged sharing not only the bond dog mushing and Iditarod had for many years nurtured between them but also the fight to survive cancer.  Susan, between treatments, was strong enough to be on the trail with her husband and two daughters visiting friends and enjoying the race as a spectator.  My life long dream had come true in Ruby.  I met and conversed with the legendary Susan Butcher.  Five months later, Susan lost her battle against cancer.

In the early years of the Iditarod Sled Dog Race dogs were strong and steady, sleds were heavy, technology hadn’t yet improved food, clothing or communication and strategy was simple – get to Nome.  Dick Wilmarth made Nome in just over 20 days in 1973 and Carl Huntington completed the race in 20 days and 15 hours in 1974.  The mileage of the long endurance race didn’t change but strategy did.  In 1975 a musher from Ruby turned Iditarod into a race.  Emmitt Peters claimed the 1975 Iditarod crown with a remarkable time of 14 days, 14 hours, 43 minutes and 15 seconds.  That’s an improvement of SIX days!  As a musher, Emmitt was renowned and respected by all.  He’s known as “The Yukon Fox.”  Peters is the last rookie to win an Iditarod.   He’s finished the race 13 times, placing in the top ten in seven of those runs.  He is a mushing legend, strategic innovator and master of the Last Great Race.  In the year 2000, twenty-five years after he led the pack to Nome, Peters crossed the finish line with his best time of 12 days, 2 hours and 42 minutes for 40th place.  How the race has changed!  Emmitt and several of his brothers live in Ruby and they all are about the same height, have the same walk and look quite a bit alike.  Hearing that the Yukon Fox was coming down to the checkpoint, I asked a few fellows if their name was Emmitt, their answer was no, my brother will be around after a while.  Finally a fellow wearing a broad smile said, “Yes, I’m Emmitt.”  There I was in Ruby with another one of the legendary greats of Iditarod.  What does one say to or ask a guy like the Yukon Fox?  When all else fails, hand your camera to somebody, get a picture and delight in the moment!

The people of Ruby were wonderfully hospitable.  I had tea with Pat, his brother Billy, Sr. and Billy’s wife.  They shared more wonderful stories.  The next morning in the checkpoint, Butcher’s oldest daughter, Tekla, took over the kitchen and made pancakes for hungry mushers and volunteers.  As the leaders of the race guided their dog teams out of the checkpoint and down the road to the Yukon River and on to Galena, they passed a couple of kids sledding from the peak of a cabin roof.  Ruby was a magical experience!

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

The Games WePlay

Jeff Peterson, 2004 Teacher on the Trail ™

One thing that really good teachers often say is that they learn just as much from their students as their students do from them.  Jeff Peterson, 2004 Teacher on the Trail ™,  had this experience in a uniquely Alaskan way during his time on the trail.  Jeff considers himself to be pretty athletic and was a college athlete, so naturally one afternoon in McGrath, Jeff when to the school gym where he helped some native students learn the game of basketball.  They played a fun game, afternoon turned into evening, and the teacher became the student as the students taught Jeff two sports that are a part of their Native Youth Olympics.  The two events that Jeff learned and practiced were the One-Foot High Kick and the Seal Hop.  The students took great pride in teaching him about their games, and their enthusiasm is one of Jeff’s favorite memories from the trail.