Day 10: Every Picture Tells a Story…
For our final blog post, we were informed that we had to choose one–and ONLY ONE–picture to help us summarize our experiences. One…seriously? This felt like an impossible task! I literally took hundreds, so there were many to choose from! What would it be–a shot of the beautiful mountains? One of the snow sculptures we saw in downtown Anchorage? Me standing thigh-deep in snow, or on the back of a sled, or with a musher (because I still can’t quite believe I met so many mushers!!!!), or me and the three finalists standing below the starting line banner? Such a tough decision…but in the end, it was a simple one:
Those paws belong to Gail Force, one of the residents of the 17th Dog, musher Matthew Failor’s kennel. Gail is running her first Iditarod this year as a part of rookie musher Kaci Murringer’s team. When I was hanging out with Gail Force, she spent the majority of our time together up on her hind legs. While I took many pictures of, and with, Gail, this one is my favorite; the way she’s crossing her paws over my arm is, to me, her way of offering me a hug. I spent minutes with Gail and this is how she treats me–me, a stranger, whom she’s never met before.
While I am far from a musher, when I look at this picture it symbolizes the relationships I saw between not just Matthew and Gail Force, but all of the mushers and their dogs. Before journeying to Alaska, I had studied mushers and sled dogs for years: read articles and books, viewed pictures, watched online videos, you name it. I could see it (granted, from a remote/removed position) and I knew it in my mind. But physically coming out here…I didn’t just see it with my own eyes; I saw it, and felt it, with my heart. These dogs have got to be some of the most looked-after creatures on the planet; the love that these mushers have for their teams just RADIATES off them–and it’s clearly reciprocated by these incredible canines.
I mentioned in an earlier post that the Iditarod could not happen without the volunteers who give of their time and talents to the Last Great Race. While this is unequivocally true, so is this statement: the Iditarod would not happen without the mushers and their teams. They may be ordinary men and women, and ordinary dogs…but, together, through their incredible bonds, they become something extraordinary.
I will forever be grateful to Past Bridget for being brave enough to take a chance on herself; to my family and friends, colleagues and students for their support; and to the ITC EDU faculty who granted me this amazing opportunity. This journey was one of a lifetime. I left Alaska with new knowledge, new relationships, new memories, new insights, and with appreciation for being given the chance to become a small part of this “something extraordinary.”
Happy Trails. 🐾💙
Day 9: They’re On Their Way To Nome While We Are Heading Home
We kicked off the first night of the race by working COMMS–Jim, Teresa, and I were part of the crew working in communications during the midnight to six a.m. shift! (*Fun fact: none of us had pulled an all-nighter since college, so it was a bit of a challenge!) We had attended a COMMS training earlier in the week and last night was our chance to do our part to give avid Iditarod fans information about their favorite mushers–such as what checkpoint they coming into or how many dogs they have running.
After our shift, we managed to grab a couple hours of sleep before our exit interview with members of the selection committee; it was nice having the opportunity to sit down together and discuss how this entire experience had impacted us.
While my fellow finalists and I were working in our hotel lobby, we heard about some “returned dogs” that had been brought back to the Lakefront, so we decided to pay them a visit.
Not all dogs make it all the way to Nome for a variety of reasons: injury, illness, musher strategy (e.g. perhaps taking a younger dog out to get them a little bit of experience running in a long-distance race, knowing from the start that they wouldn’t go all the way). These dogs used to be called “dropped dogs,” but the term has been changed to “returned dogs”–we’re all struggling to remember the change! These guys are just resting and snuggling–they’re happy and safe and well-cared for.
I’m having many thoughts and emotions swirling around my brain as I sit here with my fellow finalists in “our office” for the last time…
I miss my family and can’t wait to be home with them again, but at the same time, I’m not quite ready to start missing Alaska, my new friends, and this up-close-and-personal Iditarod experience.
After our exit interview today, we discovered something that had been unrolled in the hallway:
I thought it very fitting that we came upon this today. After all, we may not be at the Burled Arch in Nome (this year!), but we made it to our own finish line. 💙
Day 8: Snowmageddon for the Iditarod Restart
The Restart of the Iditarod was exceptionally snowy today! That could bring some difficulties out on the trail, but I will say this–I actually found it easier to trot along with dog teams today in Willow than I did on 4th Avenue yesterday! Mushers and dogs alike were busy getting their game faces on:
It was another fun-filled adventure in dog handling today! After getting our first assignment (“93-94-95!” Sorry ~ inside joke with my fellow finalists!!!), we trekked down to musher Wade Marrs’ area. Since Wade is Bib #7 this year, we didn’t have too long to wait…
Instead of leashes, we dog handlers held on to tug line toggles to help get the team in place. Since Wade’s area was a little further from the starting line, we had a bit of a hike, but it wasn’t too bad–just a nice romp in the snow with some very excited dogs. (*Fun fact: while they were waiting, Wade’s dogs were so calm; once they were attached to the gang line, their excitement started to show!) When approaching the starting chute, mushers and their teams have to wait their turns–kind of like first graders who have to wait their turn for the restroom at school.
After we successfully saw Wade Marrs take off down the trail, my fellow finalists and I dashed back to the dog handler coordination area in the hopes of another assignment and we were in luck: our next task was to handle for rookie musher Tom Frode Johansen! With Marrs being in the top ten bib numbers and Johansen having drawn Bib #39, we had some time to wait; we checked in with Tom and he said he was fine for awhile, and that we were welcome to say hello to his dogs.
After watching a snack break (you gotta stay fueled and hydrated!), I made my way back to our musher’s area. As luck would have it, because I was nearby, Tom asked me if I would mind watching and holding his lead dogs if he were to go ahead and hook them up; my response was, “Absolutely!”
Before I knew it, it was time to move this team to the chute. Unlike Anna Berington’s team where I held a leash or Wade Marrs’ team where I used a tug line toggle, Tom told me to hold on to the lead dogs’ neckline (the bit of line between the two lead dogs’ collars). Fun fact: being a fairly rookie dog handler that is leading an entire dog sled team by grabbing on to the lead dogs’ neckline is STRESSFUL–I was worried I would make some sort of major error! Luckily, the lead dogs were good and I was able to help get the team where they needed to be; furthermore, despite snow and slippery conditions, I am happy to report that I did NOT fall once while dog handling–that may not sound like a big deal, but for this librarian…that’s a major accomplishment and a source of pride!
Helping with Johansen’s team was our last handling assignment for the 48th Iditarod. This gave us the opportunity to watch the last few mushers come up to the starting line:
Fred Lebow said, “It doesn’t matter whether you come in first, in the middle of the pack, or last. You can say, ‘I have finished.’ There is a lot of satisfaction in that.” I think this sentiment rings particularly true with the Last Great Race; I tell my students that whether the musher comes in 1st place or 51st place, just FINISHING is an incredible accomplishment. Best of lucky to all of the mushers who started their Iditarod journey today–Happy Trails to you all!
Day 7: A Dream Come True
Ever since I started studying the Iditarod with my first grade students seven years ago, I’ve had a “pipe dream” or “bucket list” goal of making it to Anchorage to see the Ceremonial Start of this amazing dog sled race.
I still almost can’t believe that not only did I make it here and see everything with my own eyes, but I get to return to my home in Virginia and tell an entire school of students about my experiences! Better still–I get to share a little bit of an insider’s perspective; I had the opportunity to volunteer and be a part of the tremendous community of volunteers that enables the Iditarod to happen!
I had the honor of being a dog handler for musher Anna Berington’s team today! Here’s what that looks like: you stand with the team, while they’re waiting their turn to move up the chute to the starting line. The other handlers and myself were all given a leash to attach to the gangline. When we were given the signal, we walked/trotted/ran with our musher and her team in little stop-and-start bursts. Another responsibility we had was to distract a dog if they started chewing on one of the lines, in order to get them to stop. The dogs were SO EXCITED to take off! I handled a sweet dog named RT. Whenever he started to whine because we weren’t moving soon enough to his liking, some nice words, scratches, and head pats were enough to keep him calm; in fact, a spectator commented to me that it looked like I had the best-behaved dog! When we got up to the starting line, before the team was counted down to take off, we detached the leashes, holding onto the dogs by their harnesses, until it was time to let go. The number of dog handlers is a personal preference choice for each individual mushers–some only have a handful, some have more, some opt for no handlers at all. Anna Berington had one handler for each dog on her team. It was an incredible experience–such a privilege to be a part of the Ceremonial Start in this capacity.
Throughout the course of the Ceremonial Start, I saw numerous mushers and their teams getting ready for their debut in the big event:
Everyone I saw, human and canine mushers alike, was so happy and excited to be out on the street of Anchorage, getting ready to do what they love.
Later on in the afternoon, we three finalists decided to have a little more fun on 4th Avenue; we joined the “tourist heat” for the 13th annual Running of the Reindeer! This is a fundraiser that supports “Toys for Tots” in Alaska–we were happy to support this great cause and excited to step outside our comfort zone…after all, none of us have run around with reindeer before…
Our day ended with a trip to the Alaska Zoo where we saw arctic animals and beautiful lights.
While there were many beautiful light arrangements, this one was my favorite:
A musher with their dogs, represented with lights. A simple reminder of this amazing day–a day I’d hoped for for years, a day which, in reality, turned out to be better than even the most seemingly impossible dream.
Day 6: It Takes a Village
Elizabeth Andrews said, “Volunteers do not necessarily have the time; they just have the heart.” By this logic, there’s a great deal of heart that goes into the Iditarod because there’s a great deal of volunteers needed to make it happen! We joined other volunteers at dog handling training this morning, where we became certified to handle dogs at the Ceremonial Start.
Next we got to hear a presentation by Chief Veterinarian Dr. Stu Nelson. He discussed the process that mushers go through with getting their dogs race ready, such as the pre-race blood draws and EKGs, as well as the physical exams performed at the vet checks. Dr. Nelson also spoke to the relationship between the race veterinarians and the mushers–how the mushers come into checkpoints ready to communicate with the veterinarians about what they have observed, with regards to their teams, along the trail. Did you know that there are 57 veterinarians helping out with the 2020 Iditarod? That’s 114 medically-trained volunteer eyes looking out for the canine athletes. Fellow educators: you could have your students do a writing piece on the needs of their own pets compared with the needs of a sled dog running in the Iditarod; they could add an element of persuasion to their writing–which animal need do they think is the most important and why?
Our final session for the day was Race Communication Training (or comms training, for short!).
Once more, we three finalists were surrounded by volunteers–this time our training involved computers, not canines! In order to keep fans and facilitators of the Iditarod “in the know,” race information and updates need to be distributed to the trail; this includes musher standings and stats, such as musher positions, which checkpoints s/he is presently located, how many dogs are with each musher, which layover(s) have been taken, etc. There are 57 mushers competing in the 2020 Iditarod–that’s quite a bit of information to disseminate! This amazing sled dog race would not be possible without the many hands–and hearts–of all the race volunteers. I’m grateful that I have been given the opportunity to throw my hands (along with my heart!) into this year’s race.
Day 5: Field Trip Fun & Musher Meetings
My fellow finalists and I started our day with a field trip to the Alaska Native Medical Center. Our tour guide gave us some background information about the facility and also showed us the collection of native artwork located throughout the building.
Our guide shared something that really stuck with me. She pointed out a doll that reminded her of her great-grandmother and then she told us that many children who come to ANMC see the artwork and share that it’s made by someone in their own family! How amazing to see a piece of your family’s history and identity that’s being shared with others. Seeing these amazing displays of native art makes me want to seek out cultural displays at home that perhaps I have previously missed; the stories of communities are all around. Encourage your students to look around for pieces of their past; it might help them better understand their present!
After our field trip, we listened to fellow educators share ways they have used the Iditarod in their classrooms, including this year’s Teacher Kelly Villar, who shared a fun Iditarod twist on yoga! Then it was time to head to the Dena’ina Civic and Convention Center for the Musher Meet & Greet!
It was incredible to meet people I’ve been reading and learning about for years! They were all so kind and happy when I shared with them that certain classes at my school had chosen them for their class musher. I had the privilege of attending the Musher Banquet tonight, as well, where this year’s 57 Iditarod mushers drew their bib numbers!
I’ve been enjoying getting to know my fellow finalists on this journey; it’s great to have people like them who truly appreciate just how special this entire experience is for me.
Day 4: A Day to Remember
My arms are sore from pinching myself all day to make sure everything really happened! (OK, that’s an exaggeration–they’re sore for another reason, which I’ll come back to later!) Today we visited Iditarod Race Headquarters in Wasilla. We had the opportunity to observe vet checks that were going on while we were there. Vet checks are very detailed and thorough. It was an interesting process to observe and so moving to see all of these canine athletes surround by people who clearly care deeply for their health and well-being: the veterinarians, the technicians, and the mushers.
And speaking of mushers…!
After lunch, our travels took us to Willow and to 17th Dog, which is musher Matthew Failor’s kennel. Matthew was a very friendly host; he answered our questions, explained about the day-to-day running of a kennel, and–the best part–he let us meet his dogs!!!
We ended our day back at Birchwood Camp to learn more from members of A-CHILL; they even let this rookie take a quick ten minute/two-mile ride on a dog sled!
I can’t wait to see what my Alaskan adventure brings tomorrow!
Day 3: A Plethora of Presentations
We traveled to Birchwood Camp today!
Members of the A-CHILL (Alaska Care and Husbandry Instruction for Lifelong Living) program spoke on a variety of topics such as utilizing sled dogs IN schools, as an integral part of the curriculum. ITC EDU faculty highlighted the IditaRead program and myself and the other two finalists presented on the various ways we have used the Iditarod in our classrooms to engage our students. It was so inspiring to be around other educators who are just as passionate about the Iditarod as I am!
I even found something that reminded me of home! We have a “Little Free Library” in our small town, within walking distance of my school (literally just a few steps down the road!) and it made my heart happy to find this little library at Birchwood Camp.
Day 2: All Quiet on the Western Front
Today was calm and quiet. I had an opportunity to FaceTime with a couple of my classes back home for a few minutes. One of my students asked me if I liked Alaska better than Virginia; I made sure to let them know that as amazing as it is out here, I’ll be coming home before they know it! Jim, Teresa, and I had our interviews with the selection committee and then we went exploring, taking in some beautiful scenery.
I also got my official volunteer badge! Exciting times–I can’t wait to see what tomorrow brings!
Day 1: The Adventure Begins!
Today was my first full day in Alaska! My fellow finalists and I were able to watch the Fur Rondy—this is a sprint sled dog race that takes place the weekend before the Iditarod. We also had the opportunity to explore downtown Anchorage and learn about the city. I’ve traveled so far from my home in Virginia and this engaging sign shows how far Anchorage is from many other hometowns as well:
Teachers–this is a great opportunity to practice some math skills with your kiddos! Why not review place value: which city is closer, in air miles, to Anchorage–Boston or Washington, D.C.? Review addition with a dash of estimation: if Traveler A is journeying to Anchorage from Edmonton and Traveler B is coming from Dallas, about how many miles did they travel combined? Get some subtraction practice in there: how much farther away from Anchorage is Jerusalem compared with Frankfurt? Don’t forget about cross-curricular connections! Let’s add a little geography in there–can your students locate the continents which contain these various cities? Add some new vocabulary to your students’ repertoire: just what is an “air mile” and how does that different from a mile on the ground? Oh, the place you can go…Anchorage!