Trek to Matanuska


The 2015 Iditarod Summer Camp teachers trek the Matanuska Glacier

According to the Merriam-Webster online dictionary, a glacier is, “a large body of ice moving slowly down a slope or valley or spreading outward on a land surface.”  This definition hardly does justice to the splendor of these stunning frozen formations, as some of the teachers from the Iditarod Summer Camp found out firsthand on their trek over the Matanuska Glacier in June.

I fully expected to be one of the lucky people in the world to strap on my crampons and make the journey across Matanuska with them.  I had packed my new hiking boots, a waterproof jacket, taken a one-on-one camera class in Austin, and I was excited and prepared for bragging rights upon my return home from this once in a lifetime experience.  Sadly, it was not meant to be!  Breaking my wrist the third day of my Alaskan adventure as the 2016 Iditarod Teacher on the Trail™ was never in my plans.  I knew that night that I would have to pack away my hiking boots for another day, another adventure.  I also realized very quickly after leaving the Mat-Su ER that night that, as the Beatles once sang, I needed “a little help from my friends.”  The teachers from the Iditarod Summer Camp became my “eyes” on their glacier trek.  Lorraine Crane, an inspiring PE teacher from California, shared her adventure to the Matanuska Glacier with me.

When I asked Lorraine about her journey she wrote, “the mysterious beauty and grandeur of the Matanuska Glacier is enthralling!  With each step comes the realization that this glacier is very much alive, cracking and moaning as we progressed over crevasses and past moulins, hiking ever higher. A chance to taste glacial melt from a waterfall, the purest water! The gorgeous Matanuska has at once saturated my being completely!”  I could not have put that any better!  Her photographs from the trip reveal the beauty of the glacier and the special opportunity it was for the teachers that day to spend time there.

The study of landforms is an essential state skill for science and social studies classes everywhere.  I love comparing and contrasting the Alaskan landscape to Texas.  For my students, the differences are obvious and always spark an interesting conversation!

A great resource for these observations is the National Park Service.  It is celebrating its centennial birthday this year, protecting our special places and unique wildlife across our country each and every day.  I also find great information about the Alaskan parks on Twitter or Facebook.  The photos and daily feeds make the study of our national parks timely and relevant in the classroom.  Park rangers across our country love to share their passion for these wild places with us.  Their dedication is inspiring.  The NPS site for Glacier Bay has wonderful multimedia resources for teachers including web cams and video presentations for the classroom.  Glacier Bay: Forever Wild is a video created by NPS that showcases the “beauty, majesty and wild nature” of the park.

Another great resource for researching information about the park system is USA Today magazine.  Each year they highlight our national parks in an extra news insert.  Teachers can download it for free, share it digitally with students, and use it to research and compare and contrast different landforms across our country.  Teachers can also buy paper copies for $4.95 and have them delivered to their classrooms.  In this issue, titled “National Treasures”, Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve in Alaska is highlighted with great information and facts, a wonderful resource for any social studies or science class.

Click below to download the free digital “National Treasures” PDF


I love teaching my students all about glaciers.  They are a fascinating piece of Alaska to me, just like wild moose and the elusive northern lights.  For now, I can only read about glaciers until the Iditarod Summer Camp next June.  I really appreciated the opportunity to experience the Matanuska trek through the eyes of the teachers at camp.  They inspired me with their beautiful photography and excitement and joy from that day.  Hopefully, next summer, I will be joined by another group of adventurous teachers, and I will make the hike myself across Matanuska, another goal on my bucket list checked off!


A final view before the journey back to camp!

Balto Lives WHERE?

Did you know that Balto currently resides in the Cleveland Museum of Natural History?

After the famous Serum Run, Balto quickly achieved hero status and traveled all over North America.  Eventually Balto and his teammates were sold to a vaudeville show owner in California where they were mistreated.  George Kimble, a businessman from Cleveland discovered the dogs living in squalor and organized his hometown to save the dogs.  They were moved to the Cleveland Zoo where they were well loved for the rest of their days.  Today, Balto’s preserved body is on permanent display at the Cleveland Museum of Natural History… and in fact… a new display is being planned around Balto as we speak!

While there isn’t an Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race tie to Balto directly, there is definitely an Iditarod Historic Trail tie in… and it’s a wonderful story to boot!  Contrary to popular belief, the Iditarod race was never meant to commemorate the Serum Run of 1925 where the lifesaving diphtheria serum was carried to Nome by dog sled.  Joe Redington, Sr.  founded the race to both commemorate the Iditarod Historic Trail and to save the sled dogs who were being systematically replaced by snowmachines.

Still, the Serum Run is a part of Iditarod Trail History and the Cleveland Museum of Natural History has a wonderful distance learning program developed around Balto!  I introduced the story of the Serum Run to my boys with the book The Great Serum Race:  Blazing the Iditarod Trail by Debbie S. Miller.  This book has amazingly beautiful pictures by Official Iditarod artist, Jon Van Zyle.  We also talked about the idea that many people believe the Iditarod race is based on this historic event, but we reviewed Joe Redington, Sr.’s real motivation for starting the race – preserving the huskies and the historic trail.

On our assigned day and time, we connected with the museum where our guest teacher Lee Gambol led us through the program.  We learned so much more than just the story of the Serum Run and how Balto ended up in Cleveland.  We learned about the difficulties the mushers faced, we learned about the art of taxidermy (Did you realize they take the animal’s skin off and put it over a sculpture of the animal?  I’m not sure what I thought happened, but that wasn’t it!), we learned about Balto’s life after the event, and some history of the time period.  It was fascinating for the students AND the teachers!

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When you make arrangements for your “trip” to the Cleveland Museum of Natural History they send you a big blue kit full of hands on materials to share with the kids.  The kit includes modern day attire (snowsuit, boots, gloves, hat) so that they can compare them to historic photos of the Serum Run mushers, a husky skull so that the students can look at the teeth to learn what kind of eaters the dogs are, booties and harnesses.  One of the harnesses is even people sized so that the kids can try it on and see what it feels like to pull!  It was great for showing the boys where the dogs feel the pull of the weight of the sled in their bodies.

We followed up the program just with a class discussion about Balto, but you could easily follow it up with a more in depth study or a writing assignment.  My kids are still convinced that Togo got the raw end of the fame deal! Togo by Roger J. Blake is a great book to share for Togo’s story.   We also had a fascinating discussion of the Disney movie Balto and why so much was changed for the movie.  Just look at the pictures The Real Balto (picture link) and the Disney Balto (picture link).  The biggest change as far as the boys were concerned was that Balto actually never had any offspring. He was “fixed” early on because he wasn’t viewed to be a great enough dog to breed!

You can find more information or book your Distance Learning Trip here:

Compare Alaska’s Symbols

The school year is gearing up. For students in my class, it will be the beginning of our Iditarod adventure together. I’m going to start with the attached lesson plan comparing State Symbols of Wisconsin and Alaska. Being that it is the beginning of the year, I plan to ask one question each day starting with the Wisconsin symbols. Students will be encouraged to find pictures of each symbol from books, magazines, or the internet.


Try this lesson as a quick, easy way to introduce Alaska and make some comparisons.  Have fun and good luck!

Alaska Comparisons