Into the Wild with Musher Monica Zappa


Iditarod clay diorama – complete with a husky, the northern lights, and paw prints in the snow

What do mushers see on the trail?  In art classes, the Iditarod and the study of Alaska and the Arctic have been a special project this year.  The students at Eanes Elementary School researched the geographic landscape and animals found along the trail and created amazing clay dioramas to represent what they found.   The results are stunning!unnamed-8

The question about certain polar animals always comes up when learning about Alaska.  Many times, students, and even adults, make the mistake of thinking that penguins live at the North Pole.  

Erik Brooks, the artist and illustrator, has written the perfect book to solve this mystery!  Polar Opposites is a lovely children’s picture book about a polar bear and a penguin who are friends and pen pals.  It talks about their respective homes at the North and South Poles and really helps students learn the difference once and for all.  Our dioramas were penguin free, and with a little research, students had the opportunity to learn about other unique Arctic creatures and landforms.

For help and insight into this special project, I turned to Iditarod musher Monica Zappa.  Monica lives in the remote Caribou Hills of Kasilof, Alaska, and her passion for nature and conservation is well known and respected.  Monica shared a video of her morning salmon and turkey snack time at her kennel…but with a special visitor.  A bald eagle flies in each morning hoping for a treat, much to the delight of her beloved dog team.  Will the eagle snatch the treat away from Dweezil, her lead dog?  Watch and find out:



Although this is a typical morning for Monica, it certainly seems extraordinary to me!  Her video was wonderful inspiration for this unique and thoughtful project.  Our students worked closely with our art teachers, Erin McElroy and Caitlin Maher, to recreate their Alaskan landscape scenes with clay, art tools, paint, and a lot of love.  We learned a lot about what an Iditarod musher sees and experiences along the trail in the remote wilderness.

It is so easy to bring the study of the Iditarod into any classroom.  This is a beautiful project that integrates the Last Great Race on Earth® and the study of wild Alaska into an art and research project.  When we finished, our students displayed their dioramas in a touring gallery display.  The next step is to allow students to tell a story about their dioramas in a narrative form or an expository research project in Writer’s Workshop.  This would also be wonderful for a companion poem with each Arctic scene.  The possibilities are endless!

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Monica Zappa has had a very adventurous life, inspired by her parents who were both mushers.  It was her father’s dream to run the Iditarod, and now she is fulfilling that dream for him with her third Iditarod this year.  Monica has degrees in meteorology and geography, and when she is not mushing, her main occupation is commercial fishing.  She is passionate about protecting Alaska’s wild salmon and the pristine waters of Bristol Bay.  She is truly a conservation advocate for her state!

How’d They Do That?

Check out the steps below to easily create your own Arctic clay dioramas:


Find out more about Team Zappa on their website:

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Into the Wild – Arctic Diorama Lesson Plan

Want to know more about Monica Zappa and 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.


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


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

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!

Petchup or Muttstardt?

As you probably know, we were thrilled to be able to announce to all of our followers that our favorite musher Monica Zappa had gotten a new sponsor:  Petchup.  LINK

So my kids were really intrigued by the whole idea of ketchup and mustard for dogs.  We knew that Monica was experimenting to find out the best way to feed it to her dogs, so we decided to do our own experiment.

Monica told us that she was experimenting to find the best way to use the product with the dogs both in the kennel and on the trail.  At the kennel, she could just mix some with the dogs’ food and they slurped it right up!  On the trail, things may get a bit more complicated.  She is playing with adding it to water in warm races, putting it on the dogs’ kibble, squirting it directly into their mouths, and even making Petchup ice cube pops as a treat.  Monica feels like the product is having a positive impact on her dogs’ energy and overall health.  We were anxious to see if we could add anything to her discoveries.

DSC_0205So first, we needed a subject for our experiment.  Enter Atti, our service dog in training.  Our math and science teacher, Ellen Rizzuto, is training a service dog with the help of our Lower School.  Atti gets used to being around a lot of people and activity and our boys learn how to handle a dog that is working and isn’t to be treated like a pet.

We wanted to see if Atti would prefer Petchup or Muttstard and if she would prefer it alone or on her kibble.

We let the boys smell the two products – the Muttstard is turkey flavored and the Petchup is beef flavored. They made their predictions about which one they thought Atti would prefer.  We put a little of each product in a bowl, showed Atti where they both were, let her smell them both and then let her go…. She chose the Muttstard first and totally devoured it!  She also then devoured the Petchup, so she liked them both, but we think she preferred the Muttstard.  For the second experiment we put a bowl of plain kibble, a bowl of kibble with Muttstard, and a bowl of plain Muttstard out for her to select.  We think the first time she just went to the bowl that was the closest, so we reset it up so the bowls were closer together.  This time she chose the kibble with Muttstard first.  She did eat them all again, but we think her preference was kibble with Muttstard.  So, our recommendation to Monica is to carry Muttstard and squirt some on the dog’s food and they should love it, just like Atti did!

It actually turned out to lead to a very interesting discussion about the fairness of the experiment and how certain we could be of our results. Plus – it’s fun anytime Atti visits us!

Tales from the Trail: Monica Update!

We checked in with Monica a few weeks ago, and her busy training schedule finally gave her a chance to get back to us!

She and Tim have been training up in the Fairbanks area and last week they competed in the Denali Doubles. The Denali Doubles is a unique race that runs 265 miles from Cantwell to Paxson and back.  What makes it so special is that each team consists of twenty dogs and two mushers!

This will probably be the last time we are able to check in with Monica for an interview before the race!  We want to wish her and the Zappa Huskies all the best of luck for an amazing race!

You can read the full interview here:  Monica Zappa Feb. Interview

Tales from the Trail: Monica’s on the Road Again!

With all this crazy warm weather in Alaska, Monica, and many other mushers are traveling the state in search of snow.  Maybe they should think about turning their trucks south and heading in this direction!  Several races have been cancelled, including the T200 which Monica was planning to run.  It has really put a damper on the mushers’ preparations.  Not only on their training runs, but as Monica pointed out, if they are travelling hundreds of miles to find snow, they aren’t able to be at home leisurely preparing their drop bags!  Luckily for us, Monica took time out of her travels (she’s currently in Fairbanks) to give us an update of where she is with preparing the drop bags, planning her Iditarod strategy, and how she felt about her run in the Knik 200 a few weeks ago.  You can read our whole interview withe her here:  January Interview with Monica