Summer Camp Re-Cap

Photo by Jansen Cardy

Photo by Jansen Cardy

The 2013 Iditarod Summer Camp for Teachers has been over for almost a week now, and I’ve had a chance to reflect on what a truly wonderful professional and personal experience it was.  It is always rewarding to be surrounded by educators who believe the same things you do, but when your entire focus is on something as rich and exciting as using the Iditarod as a teaching tool, the experience is unparalleled.

We had so many opportunities to do amazing things… live and work at the Dream a Dream Kennel, visit the home and studio of official Iditarod artist John Van Zyle and his wife Jona, explore the Native Heritage Center, and attend the Volunteer Picnic and Iditarod Sign-Up.  We met with author Katie Mangelsdorf and learned about race founder Joe Redington and his vision for what the race could be.  Pam Flowers regaled us with stories from her arctic adventures and gave us a sneak peek into her newest book.  We got a different perspective on the race from volunteers Jansen and Stacey Cardy and Sonny Chambers.  Mushers Angie Taggart and Vern Halter intrigued us with their tales from the trail.  Past Iditarod Teachers on the Trail™ Terrie Hanke and Linda Fenton shared amazing pictures and lesson ideas with us.  Anchorage teacher Sara Lamont shared her school’s Iditarod math project and taught us about the different groups of Native Alaskans.  In our free time Sara took us on plenty of adventures as she shared “her Alaska” with us… moose sighting tours, glacier hikes, and more!

The teachers collaborated and shared lots of ideas about how they will use the Iditarod as a teaching tool in their classrooms next year.  The race will serve as a tool in Math, Science, Reading, Character Development and Social Studies classrooms from kindergarten through high school as a result of the conference.  Many students will be learning about the race and its lessons from the first day of school!  We all passed our final exam challenge from Vern – making an Iditarod race plan, predicting the outcome of next year’s race, and getting a dog bootied and harnessed!  One fun thing we got to do was dig through some archived materials that will be a part of a future online Iditarod museum and create some lesson ideas!  Look for those on the Iditarod Education page soon!

I know that many of the teachers are making plans to return for the Winter Conference for Educators where they will have the chance to participate in more sessions and field trips.  They will also have the opportunity to attend the Musher’s Banquet where the mushers draw their starting numbers, and then the Ceremonial Start, and then the Restart! If you have never attended one of these Education Department sessions – you definitely need to make plans to hit the trail and join us for one!  It will be the highlight of your professional development experiences!

Cooling Down

Alaska is having super hot temperatures this summer.  Everyone keeps commenting about how hot it is and there is a big concern about possible wildfires.  As you can imagine, sled dogs would much rather have it be cold than hot…. so how do sled dogs cool off when it’s hot?  Well, in addition to their  natural adaptions, some have swimming pools!

The teachers and I were blessed to be able to visit Jon and Jona Van Zyle’s kennel, home, and art studio last evening.  In addition to being an Iditarod finisher, Jon is the official Iditarod Artist, a painter, and book illustrator.  Jona is an artist as well, specializing in amazing textile and beaded items.  We were fortunate enough to see some of the projects Jon has in progress including a new painting and a series of illustrations for a new picture book.

This is the third picture book he has done this year!  I asked him to explain that process a bit.  He says that a publisher will send him a manuscript.  He reads it over and if, while he is reading, he sees pictures in his mind, he will agree to do the project.  He prints out the manuscript and starts thinking about where the pages should be divided based on the pictures he is visualizing.  He divides the pages and then, perhaps, makes a note or two at that point.  The next step is to create a mock up of the way the book will look.  He makes rough sketches of the pictures and decides if the paintings will take up one page or two and where the text will be.  These sketches are really rough, with very little detail.  Jon explained that he does it this way because he really only wants to do each of his paintings one time, as he needs the ideas to be fresh as he paints.  The final paintings are then shipped off to the publisher.  I also tried to get a sneak peek or insight into what this year’s Iditarod poster and print will be… but I was not successful!

The Van Zyle’s home is essentially a work of art itself… Jon built it himself, and every nook and cranny is filled with keepsakes and treasures, each of which comes with its own story as you can imagine!

The kennel is essentially heaven on earth for the ten huskies living in the kennel.  They have a multilevel play area, beach umbrellas for shade, swimming pools to frolic in, and a large exercise wheel for when they feel like doing some training!  Not a bad place to try to beat the heat!

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Puppy Walks

The best way to start the morning in Alaska is with PUPPY WALKS!


Vern, Iditarod finisher and owner of the Dream a Dream Dog Farm, explained that the walks are a way to help the puppies gain confidence.   They free run with the handlers and usually an older dog.  They will run up ahead and then turn around and come back, explore the woods, and generally get lots of good exercise while they get used to their bodies and their abilities. When the DSC_0676gates to the pens are opened, the puppies are encouraged to hop out and trounce down the trail with the handlers (and in this case a rather large group of excited teachers and just as many cameras).  The trail at Dream a Dream that we used winds through the woods and includes two bridges over small streams.  The first morning, the pups, needed some encouragement to get over the first bridge because they had only seen it once before.  When they got to the second bridge, they had to be lifted up onto the bridge and encouraged to cross it because they had never gone that far before.  In the days following,  you could always tell when the pups reached the second bridge  because they yipped and yipped as they called for someone to come and lift them up!  At some point a couple of the pups decided it was just as effective to go UNDER the bridge!  Smart!

Vern currently has two sets of puppies at his Dream a Dream Dog Farm.  One set is six week old twins named Hillary and Benghazi who are puppies of Walnut and DSC_0734were born at the farm.  The other set is a group of six puppies from Ray Redington, Jr.’s kennel.  These pups are between eight and nine weeks old.  They don’t all have names yet, but the theme is going to be Iditarod Jobs… so they will have names like Judge, Comms, Pilot, Vet…  We tried to help out by naming a few for him!  One is already named Checker…he’s adorable.  One of the white puppies always had to be last on our puppy walks.  He would intentionally stay behind the last person on the trail.  He’d be right at their feet, and if they stopped… he stopped!  So we started calling him Sweeper in honor of the Trail Sweepers. Then… of course…. we HAVE to have a puppy named after the Teacher on the Trail!

We think this one should be named after the Teacher on the Trail!

We think this one should be named after the Teacher on the Trail!

Down on the Farm

What is the perfect spot for teachers to stay during camp?


How about a place they can roll out of bed and go on puppy walks?  A place they can learn to harness and bootie an Iditarod race dog?   A place they can speak to and learn from an Iditarod finisher?

The perfect place is Vern Halter’s Dream a Dream Dog Farm!

DSC_0589Vern explained that while other mushers call their locations “kennels” he uses the word “farm” because he grew up on a farm and that’s what he is used to!

The teachers spent four days at the farm learning about the race, the dogs, the strategy, the animal care, the volunteers … everything Iditarod!  In addition to learning the race content, we also had a chance to collaborate and share ideas on how to incorporate the race into our classrooms.

My school’s mission is to educate our students in mind, body, and spirit. As I began the process of asking for permission and gathering materials to become the 2014 ExxonMobil Iditarod Teacher on the Trail™, I realized the Iditarod is the perfect companion to our school mission.  The race itself is truly a test of the athletes’ minds, bodies, and spirits and it provides teachers with a perfect vehicle – a dog sled – to challenge their students in all three areas. It has been a lot of fun and very inspirational to spend time with teachers who share that same passion… and we are only about halfway through camp!  I can’t wait to see what happens next!

At the Starting Line

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At the 2013 Restart

Today we are at the Starting Line for the Iditarod Summer Camp for Teachers.  I’m leaving the Grand View in Wasilla in a few minutes to head to downtown Anchorage to meet the teachers at the Wells Fargo Historical Museum for our first session.  Being at the starting line for camp makes me naturally think of another starting line… the restart line on Willow Lake.

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Willow Lake in March

Now, I knew in my head that the starting line was on Willow Lake.  I’ve been there.  I’ve handled dogs for the restart there.  I’ve watched teams head off on their journey to Nome from there.  I have taken hundreds of pictures standing on that “lake.”

I didn’t realize that Willow Lake was really a lake until yesterday.  Yes, yes,  I know.  I’ve been told that it is a frozen lake. But honestly, that doesn’t mean anything to a girl from Baltimore.  We don’t have large bodies of water that freeze up like that at home.

I may be a little more hesitant to step out onto that lake next winter…. told you there was stuff under all of those piles of snow!

Willow Lake in June

Willow Lake in June