Often called the "Last Great Race on Earth," Alaska's Iditarod will provide the backdrop and inspiration for my summer adventure in writing. I will travel to Alaska--explore, examine, live, and breathe the Iditarod--and then share my discoveries through writing for my students and all those who travel along with me through this blog.

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Mountains, Please Don't Make Me Leave!

Imagine the whitest white you have ever seen multiplied times 100, and you might be able to picture the brilliant white outside my Alaskan Airlines window as we take off and head toward home.  AHHHH!
My mountains!   Besides the dogs and having the best adventure I have ever had, the mountains were the  thing I  regretted leaving behind the most, and, yet, here they were...bright as bright could be, shining in all their sun-lit splendor through my plane window--as if just for me.

The brightest summer sun made them glow as their ultra-whiteness intermingled with the billowy white clouds floating by.  Range after range spread across the sky.  I didn't dare take my eyes off of them.   They called up so many memories from our trip.    I remembered the first ranges we had seen when we set foot in Alaska after a whole day's journey so many days ago, and the glory of them on our first road-trip driving south of Anchorage the next day.  I remembered them in rain and fog, and I remembered them as we headed north of Anchorage another day, when mountains surrounded us on three sides.   We were told not to expect to see Mt. McKinley (a.k.a Denali) as we headed toward Talkeetna, but it was clear as clear could be on the one day we could be there.   No writing was completed on those trips; I was simply entranced by them and could not bear to be distracted.   All of these memories competed with one another as I watched the panorama of white majesty unfold in front of me now as we were flying over them, as we traveled away from this Alaska that had claimed a new and precious place in my heart.

Gradually, I could tell my mountains were becoming fewer and fewer.  I turned around and looked backwards through my plane window until I could see them no more, much the way I do when one of our daughters is leaving on a trip.   I console myself:   hold on, hold on, hold on:    I can still see a spec, an outline, a familiar gate.  But then, they are gone--except still and always in my heart.  Farewell, Alaska:   I will never forget.  Bye, mountains: you are unforgettable and rise ever in my heart.   Promise to stay there until I return again.

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

DOGS: Alaska's Best Friends!

The DOGS were the reason we were in Alaska!  Without them, there not be sledding OR the Iditarod.
 I loved them all!  Before we left for AK, many, many people told us to bring a puppy back for them!  I am the one who really, really, really wanted a puppy!  In this post, I will feature many of the cutest,        smartest, and most endearing that we met.

 Our very first dog farm!  Iditarod Musher Karin Henrickson gave us our first tour of a dog farm.  This energetic guy greeted us before we even got inside.

                                                   This good dog greeted us with a smile!

 The bond between Karin and her dogs is obvious.  The love and respect is always evident.

 As Karin made her way around the dog yard, she stopped to talk to each dog, introducing us to him, and telling a few of his special characteristics, his bloodlines, his records, special feats he had done.

                                                   A smile and a hug for each dog!

                                                 And a smile and a wag FROM each dog!

 From Karin Hendrickson's dog farm, we went to Vern Halter's  DREAM A DREAM dog farm, located near Wasilla, AK.  There, I met my favorite dog, Breve.  Breve, part of the litter named after coffees, lived next to his brother, Mocha.  Mocha was a great dog, but Breve reminded me of our own dog, Ziggy, as his coloring and disposition were similar to Ziggy's.  He was just a peach.  Here, he takes a nap on top of his doghouse.

Breve did not sleep all the time!  Like the other dogs, he loved to pull.  See him in the picture at the right here?   He is howling and trying to tell his owner to HURRY because he wanted to get on the trail. Notice his buddy at the left looks as if he is not even touching the ground.  Those people on the cart (way off in the distance behind) had better be ready!

Of course, the puppies were everyone's special delight.  Here, they anxiously wait for their dinner.

On daily morning puppy walks, the puppies scramble to get across the slippery slope of a bridge.


We also visited Lisbet Norris's farm which is unique in that she has only Siberian huskies, and they were wonderful!

One seemed especially happy to kiss my little head!

Check back later...many more dogs yet to be profiled in days to come!

Monday, June 30, 2014

Tales about the Iditarod Trails!

One of the reasons I went to Alaska was to learn more about the Iditarod--as my students and I share a love of studying it--and I certainly had ample opportunity through listening to all of the Iditarod experts who shared their experiences with us throughout our time there!

 First and foremost was Vern Halter, owner of the "Dream a Dream" Dog Camp, where we had the unique experience of staying for three days and nights.  Vern entered and finished eighteen Iditarods with NO scratches and a career best of third place in 1999.  He is a walking encyclopedia of all things Iditarod, and he kept us spellbound with all of his stories!

 In the photo above, Vern tells us info about his equipment, most importantly his sled, and talks about the "good old days" when the 1,000 mile Iditarod trail was not even marked as it is today...today there are 12,000 trail markers set out before the race to guide the mushers; in the early years, there were none.   It was also significant that he noted that, in order to complete this race,  it takes more than a body that is in shape; he said it takes "tough mental composure" and definite reliance on the "mental ability of the sled dogs."  He impressed us with his care and concern for the dogs, saying, "Every dog is special in his own way."   It was not unexpected that he called the Iditarod, "the best challenge of my life."

 During one of his presentations, Vern showed us all of the layers of clothing the mushers put on to insulate themselves against the cold, when temperatures can often dip well below zero.  I was particularly impressed with the three layers of gloves he wears, including double thick fur mittens.   He also makes sure he has "hot hands Heet" packets in his pockets and tells us to remember "Wool, wool, wool" for warmth.  Above, I tried on the fur mittens, almost too good to be true!

Another intriguing speaker was Katie Mangelsdorf, author of Champion of Alaskan Huskies, a biography of Joe Redington Sr.,  who is known as "Father of the Iditarod" because he founded the race we have today.  Katie was introduced as "the true expert on Joe Redington," and we quickly understood why.   She is a true historian, being born and raised in Alaska and having lived there during the beginning of the race.

 She said she saved everything written about Joe Redington Sr. and started incorporating that  information into her classroom presentations when she taught fifth and sixth grades.   When she realized no one else had written a book about Joe, she approached him about the project, and he agreed to permit her to do it to preserve the historic Iditarod Mail Trail and to preserve the Alaskian husky and sled dog mushing.  Katie Mangelsdorf explained that Joe Redington  is the only person to take a sled dog team to the summit of Mt. McKinley and that from his first Iditarod race in 1974, he had an abiding belief  that "you always have to be prepared."  Above, Katie talks about the replica doll of Joe Redington made by Judy Bowers and shares a few of the stories that comprise her book.

Another speaker who truly lived history was Joe May, winner of the 1980 Iditarod.  Talk about tales!
Joe said that the single best addition to distance racing today is the fact that when mushers stop to rest their dogs, they put down hay to make the dogs' resting places.   When Joe was mushing and needed to give his dogs a break, he had to cut spruce boughs, which took up to 45 minutes to locate and cut and another 45 minutes to haul back to the dogs.  He said the present-day practice of shipping straw to have it ready and waiting for this use at checkpoints has changed the race.

 He also said he got into trouble in his Iditarod race when the wind picked up and tipped over both the dogs and the sled, so he had to crawl on his hands and feet in front of the dogs to lead them.  "Nobody wants to stop because of the weather," Joe explained.   He also talked about his encounters with moose and being chased by a grisly bear, chuckling as he shared, "If you spend enough time in the woods, you are going to run into other folks who live out there."  Several times he compared his experiences to those of writer Jack London, saying, "It was just like a scene out of Jack London."  We can all read more of his experiences in an upcoming book he is writing with a co-author called, Iditarod, the First Ten Years, which is scheduled to be released in December.

Another much-loved speaker was Cindy Abbott, who is "Dream a Dream's" musher for 2015.  She has started the Iditarod twice but unfortunately had to scratch both years. Although she has not been the official Red Lantern (in last place), she laughed out loud that she had been Red Lantern coming out of a few checkpoints, and that "it was cool because I got a beaver collar and pecan pie."  This will be her year, we are sure!

 Cindy has already climbed Mr. Everest and compares training for that to training for the Iditarod by saying the Iditarod is more challenging because with the Iditarod she is behind a sled or an ATV, and the dogs can take her anywhere!  She shared her life philosophy by saying, "Everyone gets thrown hurdles in life.  I am just trying to jump my hurdle" and reminding us of the quote,  "Life isn't about waiting for storms to pass.  It's about dancing in the rain."

All of the speakers we were fortunate to hear definitely had their share of "rain dances," and the stories they shared were some of the best ever told.

Sunday, June 29, 2014

Glaciers, Moose, and Bears, Oh My!

A day to explore took us about an hour south of Anchorage. The drive was breath-taking.  It was  bright and sunny as we made our way around the most scenic drive ever, which took us right next to one of my favorite Alaskan treasures, the mountains.  In other trips in the past, I would have had my nose buried in a book or would have been painstakingly scribbling postcards, but I just could not take my eyes off the mountains.  And our destination was something similarly unique that we had yet to experience on this trip, a glacier!

Don had discovered a cruise that promised to take us very near the massive Portage Glacier itself, and we were not to be disappointed.  When we were in Alaska several years ago, there had been so much rain that the glaciers looked more like mountains with chunks of ice floating nearby.  However, this time, we were to experience "the real deal."

As the cruiser launched and started to move away from the shore,  the warm sun could not keep up with the brisk wind and the temperatures that kept dropping and dropping.  It was obvious that we were destined to points much colder than we had yet experienced in Alaska.  I zipped up my jacket and my windbreaker and even put up the hood, which I had rarely done during the whole trip.  Out came the gloves we were told to bring, and I was really glad I had them!  We rounded the bend, and we could see the massive white and blue glacier!  Quite an impressive showing from Mother Nature.

Everyone quickly made their way to the side of cruise-liner with the best view...the voice of the guide was quickly drowned out by a huge crashing, crashing, crashing sound.  The glacier was calving before our very eyes, and huge pieces tumbled down and splashed dramatically as they hit the water!  What a display!

Our guide from the U.S. Forest Service told us the visible part of the glacier was at least 300 feet high, but what we could not see was the submerged part, going another 300 feet beneath the surface.  We learned the "blue" sections of the glacier are the coldest, and our captain took a sampling of the water around the boat, and we dipped our hands into it and were told it was 36 degrees F.  Burrrr!  We did typical tourist things, such as had our photo taken with the ship's rescue life-preserver and just generally had a very memorable afternoon.

 The next adventure was equally intriguing.  We traveled just a few miles to the Alaskan Wildlife Conservation Center.  This was literally a safari of Alaskan wildlife, which a traveler could view from his  car while traveling around the large acreage, or he  could get out to get a more close-up view.  As we watched a brown bear mother and cub interact just a few feet from us, Don commented, "I am pretty sure that top wire (on the fence) is electric."  We hoped!  It was really wonderful to observe them so "up close and personal. " We had found our Alaskan bears!

Not to be outdone, in another area in close proximity were the black bears.  They were being fed and were harder to photograph because of their dark color and the shadows, but Don managed to get this really wonderful shot of one as he scampered around in the sunlight for a few moments.

Everyone we encountered seemed to be intrigued by the Alaskan moose, and there were frequent signs along the highway system reminding us to be on the lookout for them.  Imagine our amazement when this one seemed to be staring right at us!  We will remember that gaze and his wonderful massive antlers, flanked in the background by the scenic mountains.  What a view!

We quietly returned to our car and were satisfied that we had seen amazing things today, which one cannot duplicate in the midwest...glaciers, bears, and moose!  What a day!

Saturday, June 28, 2014

Mushers Take First Step toward 2015 Race to Nome!

 Saturday was one of my top three favorite times* at Summer Camp!  It was the long-awaited "Mushers' Picnic."  This is the day when many mushers descend on Iditarod Headquarters to sign up for next year's race.  We did not want to miss any mushers, so we arrived early.  We immediately headed for the "puppy pen" to get our "puppy fix" for the day.  Above, 2015 Teacher on the Trail Erin Montgomery and I enjoy playing with what we agree are the cutest puppies of the week1

 Soon, the mushers started to arrive.  The first to sign up was Rohn Buser, son of Iditarod Champion, Martin Buser.  When his father arrived a few minutes later, one could not help but love seeing them together.    Martin has always been one of my favorite mushers because one of my first years following the race with my students, he was the winner, and he personally went out to the finish line to congratulate finishers every time a new one crossed under the famed "Burled Arch," signifying that the racer had finished.  Martin was not required to do this, but he did, and in doing so, he taught a tremendously valuable lesson about sportsmanship to my students!   (It is also interesting to note that Martin and Mrs. Buser named all of their children from checkpoints in the Iditarod!)

 Another great moment was when Karin Hendrickson arrived. Her home and kennel were the first we visited on our first day in the area, and it was such a wonderful visit that I am sure I will never forget it.  Karin has agreed to let my classes "adopt" her and follow her preparation for the race throughout the year.  This has to be a wonderful learning experience for my students!

 It was similarly awe-inspiring to get to meet Aily Zirkle, who finished second in the last three races!  She is just as personable as her winning smile hints, and it was so much fun to be able to meet her and talk a few minutes.  It is interesting to note that she attended elementary school for a year at the school where our daughter will be a teacher in the fall!  Small world!

Another important part of this day is when one "Teacher on the Trail" finishes her year and passes on the official Teacher on the Trail sleeping bag and all of the other responsibilites of this important position.  Jen Reiter(left) has done an exceptional job, but we now look forward to working with Erin Montgomery, who is equal to the task, we know.

It was so great to be able to meet some of the legends we had only known through the Internet before--Jen and Erin included!

*In case you were wondering, there is a three-way tie for my favorite things in Alaska so far:  Vern Halter's "Dream a Dream" dog camp; our visit to Karin Hendrickson's kennel; and Saturday when we could actually meet many of the mushers who will be in the great 2015 Iditarod!

Thursday, June 26, 2014

Visit to HQ

A celebration of all things Iditarod would not be complete without stopping by the Iditarod Trail Headquarters in Wasilla, Alaska.   The entrance sign is reminiscent of the Iditarod finish line--or "Burled Arch" as it is called--in Nome.  This, above all other things, brought home the realization that we are really in Alaska!  Seldom does our Lead Photographer, Don, show up IN photos, but he looks rather happy and right at home by the official HQ sign.

It was fun to walk the grounds, see the puppies, and go on another mini-cart ride pulled by Iditarod dogsled dogs and mushed by former Iditarod standout Ramy Reddington.  Here we also took note of the statue of Balto which honors all sled dogs for "endurance, fidelity, and determination."

But what was inside is probably more interesting to my students, the Red Lantern trophy!

My students have always been intrigued to learn that the Iditarod is one of the few sports which actually presents a trophy for LAST place.  This award bears witness to the perseverance and determination necessary to just finish this race of more than a thousand miles across our country's largest state.    There is great honor for a musher and his or her dogs to actually have finished this "Last Great Race,"--even in last place!   It was just awesome to see this trophy which says so much about this race, as well as the unusual caution signs that dot the landscape in this area...

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Only in Alaska: More Dogs and a Favorite Artist

 Even though today brought zero sun and more rain, it will probably be one of my favorites from the whole trip.    We ventured to Eagle River, AK to find more dogs and a pleasant surprise at the picturesque home and studio of "Alaska's Artist," Jon Van Zyle.  I could hardly believe it when I glanced at the children's books to find one of my all-time favorites, Sled Dogs Run, available for purchase.  Only at that moment did it register with me  that the famous artist we were visiting and one of my favorite illustrators were one and the same--Mr. Van Zyle himself!  I have shared his book with my classes for years, and then I was standing in the presence of the living, breathing illustrator.  When I expressed regret that I had not brought his book so that he could sign it, he quickly presented me with a lovely notecard with his original dogsled design on it which he signed for my classes so I could take the autograph home to put in the front of his book.   What an unexpected and wonderful gift!

Then, we went outside to one of the most beautiful dog yards ever.  We walked through a lovely flower garden to reach it and found it dotted with sun umbrellas, which Mr. Van Zyle explained, were there to provide the dogs shelter from the sunlight.  It was a lovely sight!  We got pretty wet, so once we had visited the dogs,  Mrs. Van Zyle said they wanted to give us a reward for venturing out into the rain "Just to say hello" to the dogs.  She brought us back into their  home and spread out prints from about 50 choices of Jon's amazing artwork on a table.  We were then invited to each choose one as a gift, and Mr. Van Zyle methodically autographed each.   This was just the most lovely ending to a perfect visit!

PS  This is for follower Trekka:
The sled dog today, a Siberian huskie, did have blue eyes!  Stay tuned for more info as we try to
answer his question about whether or not all huskies have blue eyes!