And They’re Off

*** Better late than never right? ***

Sunday

Willow, Alaska

30 degrees – but what a beautiful day!

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IMG_2002My day started super early as we had to drive to Willow from Anchorage which is about a 90 minute drive and we needed to be “at work” at about 8am! The first job of the day was helping to check in the volunteers who would be acting as ITC Handlers for the official start. At the start, handlers are needed to help the teams move from their parking space to the start line. Today, this would prove to be an extra challenge. The parking area on Willow Lake is quite a bit smaller than it is typically due to overflow on the lake that needed to be avoided. Since the parking area is smaller, the dog trucks are parked much closer together. This means that maneuvering teams of sixteen strong, pumped up dogs, around other teams of strong, pumped up dogs would be more important then ever! Once the handlers got the teams past the other teams and into the starting chute, they had to help hold the teams back so that then didn’t jump the gun and take off too soon! Most musher have a few of their own handlers to help, but most requested additional help in the form of ITC (Iditarod Trail Committee) handlers. Some of these folks will help multiple teams to the start line. How cool is that?

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Once everyone was checked in, I headed down to the lake by about noon to check in with everyone and take some photos for the ITC Facebook page. Monica was in great shape! She seemed calm and collected. She was making some last minute adjustments to her load. In fact, she pulled out a large rectangular metal container with holes it that I had never seen before.

“Are you literally taking the kitchen sink with you this year?” I teased.

It turns out that it was her dog food cooker! The University of Oregon made it for her and she used it last year and loved it. It fits really well in the seat part of her sled, which let me get some clarification on the rule about where you can and can not carry things which has really been confusing me. So apparently, you can not carry any dogs or mandatory gear on a drag sled, but if it is on your main sled (like the seat part), even if it is behind your body, it’s okay. I noticed that there were just a couple of people who were pulling those drag sleds behind them this year, much less than usual.

Since Nathan isn’t running this year, I didn’t really have a definite job for the start. In the past, I’ve handled for his team at the start, so this was a different feeling. So, after checking in with the other mushers and wishing everyone good luck, Kerry and I decided to head out an find a good spot to watch the parade of mushers and teams head off for Nome.

We decided to walk across the lake, through the woods, and then out onto the road where we could see the mushers without the orange fencing that marks the official starting chute. It was a great spot! We could just hear the loudspeaker announcing the mushers leave the starting line, and then about four minutes  later they’d pop out of the woods behind us, run down the road for a bit, and mush off into the woods in front of us. I literally sat on the edge of the berm (a snow wall built up to mark the trail) and was able to cheer and wish good luck to each musher as they passed by. It was pretty funny to see their reactions when they realized it was me sitting on the edge of the trail calling their names! Monica said, “See you next year! Thanks to you and the boys for everything!” Matthew Failor said, “See you around somewhere soon!” It’s so hard to imagine they will all be together again in a week or so in Nome while I’ll be watching from home on my computer!

Once everyone was safe on the trail, we headed back across the lake, checked in with the staff in the Community Center, and wished everyone good luck as they head off down the trail. Kerry and I gave Julien Schroder a lift back to Anchorage. He’s serving as a photographer on the trail this year. Watch for his work…. it’s amazing!

At 10pm I headed to the airport for my 1am flight. I flew to Seattle, where I had a five hour layover, then finally to Baltimore, where I arrived at 6pm on Monday. It was a long trip – but well worth it! Now I’ll be glued to the tracker along with the rest of the Iditarod fans!

Ceremonial Start – check

Saturday

Anchorage

16 degrees and snowing

While the snow fell most of the day, the 67 teams in this year’s Iditarod got to stretch their legs on the first eleven miles of the Ceremonial Start. The day officially began at 5:30am when the dog trucks started arriving and parking along Fourth Avenue and several of its side streets. I headed down around 8:00am to get our official Teacher on the Trail photo taken and then wandered off to check in with the mushers. My official duty today was “Social Media Team.” So I took pictures and pushed them out to the Iditarod Facebook page all morning.

unnamedEveryone seemed to be in great spirits – the energy on this day is always so high! The fans crowded the streets to meet their favorite teams, the mushers have fun greeting friends they haven’t seen since last year, and the volunteers were all busy trying to keep everything under control. As for the dogs, the emotions ranged from stoic calm, to shaking nerves, to jumping excitement, to cowering under the truck shyness. But one thing they all had in common? As soon as they were hooked to the gangline they were in game mode – some peered intently down the trail ahead others jumped in their harnesses to go – but as soon as the command was given, all the focus was on what was on the trail ahead of them. As a team they were ready to meet whatever challenges lay ahead.

In class we have been talking about how the Iditarod is the perfect example of all the different forms of conflict wrapped up into one. You have the man vs. man conflict in terms of the competition between mushers. You have man vs. self as the mushers must make decisions that are the best for the team. And you have man vs. nature as Mother Nature has played a significant role in more than one race. This year seems to be no exception. It’s currently snowing. It’s been snowing since yesterday and according to the forecast, except for a brief respite tomorrow, it’s going to keep right on snowing until next Saturday. Now, while snow is probably great for the mushers, it’s causing a bit of a stress for the logistics of the race, because if it’s snowing, no one can fly. And if no one can fly, no volunteers can get to the checkpoints. So plans are changing here right and left. Volunteers are being sent our earlier than they anticipated, reporters are skipping the first checkpoints so that they can stay out ahead of the race and not get stuck in a checkpoint too early. The snow is also apparently causing problems for the teams who are currently making their way seventy miles north to Willow. There have been reports of road closures. Cross your fingers that everyone makes it safe and sound.

I did manage to break out my big camera and get some pretty decent shots – so here’s what things looked like on Fourth Avenue today!

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Starting Line – Check

Friday Night

Anchorage

19 degrees and snowing!

It’s beginning to look a bit like Iditarod…

The banner has been placed at the start line with care,

In hopes that the mushers soon would be there….

The Teacher’s Conference officially wrapped up today with the speakers series. There were three main themes for the speakers today, the history of the race, the checkpoint of Shaktoolik, and what’s happening behind the scenes in preparation for the start tomorrow. Author Katie Mangelsdorf spoke about Joe Redington’s life and the reasoning behind his creation of the race. The Old Iditarod Gang spoke about their book, The First Ten Years, which talks about the early days of the race. Two teachers and fifth grader Ray told us a bit about life in Shaktoolik, especially around race time. Chief Vet Stu Nelson told us about how the canine athletes would be cared for during the race. And then a few volunteers stopped in to teach us about their volunteer duties.

When the conference was over, I had some time to explore. I checked out the snow sculptures and the carnival before wandering up to check on the race start progress.

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They have closed the streets, have started putting the fences up, and will start dumping snow soon! Mother Nature is helping a bit… it’s now snowing like crazy and shouldn’t stop until after 8:00 pm tomorrow!

The excitement level is rising!

 

Starting Order – Check!

Thursday

Anchorage

7 degrees (evening)

We have a starting order!

At this evening’s Musher Banquet the mushers took the stage one by one to put their hand into the mukluk and draw out the chip that would give them their official starting order.  Cody Strathe will lead the pack out in position #2 (remember, #1 is reserved for the Honorary Musher) and Hugh Neff will bring up the rear with bib number 68. Not that I think Hugh is planning to stay in the rear for long. When he drew his number he said, “That just means there’s a lot of teams to pass.”

Shaynee Traska will be the first rookie on the trail with bib #5. Somehow that brings it full circle for me…. she was the first person to sign up for the 2018 Race, she was one of the two mushers to win her entry fee back at the picnic drawing, and now she’s the first rookie to hit the trail. All signs that this should be an amazing run for her!

Monica drew number #48 which she is happy about. She says her lucky number is 8, so with 48 she gets 1 and a half times luck!

It looks like we are going to have to revamp our Musher Banquet though, they have changed up the way they did things this year! This year, the musher Meet and Greet was held BEFORE the banquet. From 4-6pm, fans were invited in to meet and greet the mushers. Each musher was given a standing table and the fans could mill around meeting all their favorite mushers and collecting autographs. (Special thanks to Ray, a fifth grader from Shaktoolik who took care of getting my poster signed for me!) Many mushers brought goodies to share with their fans: special posters, stickers, trading cards, etc. The room was packed and the energy was high during this portion of the program!

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Then at 6pm, the excitement moved downstairs for the official banquet. Another change? Hobo Jim wasn’t there this year…. so no Iditarod Trail song 😦  The benefit of the Meet and Greet became apparent when, after exiting the stage, the mushers didn’t have to go through the two and a half hour long autograph chute, instead they just did their interviews and off they went!

Yes, our centerpieces made it safely to Anchorage! They were proudly displayed on lots of tables along with ones sent from all around the country!  Lots of banquet attendees collected the centerpieces to take home as souvenirs. Good work boys!

For the teachers, the Banquet was the highlight of another packed day. During the day, the teachers had several sessions and gathered lots of ideas for things to take back to their classrooms…. but I think everyone will agree that the Banquet was the best part of the day!

Excitement is building! One more day of calm before the chaos of Start Day!

Field Trip Mania!

Wednesday

Anchorage, Wasilla, and Willow

3 degrees

 

If it’s Wednesday of Race Week, it must be teacher field trip day! It was a beautiful day to soak in the sunshine as we hit the road heading north. The scenery of course was breathtaking as we took in the view of the snow covered mountains on our journey.

Stop #1 –

Iditarod Headquarters was hopping today as mushers were coming in to get their vet checks completed and turn in their paperwork prior to starting this weekend’s race! As soon as a dog truck pulled up, a team of vets would jump into action, giving each dog a full examination. They would check the microchip, listen to the heart and lungs, give a physical examination and speak to the mushers about each dog individually. We got a chance to see Charley Benja, Rick Casillo, Tara Cicatello, Alan Eischens, Marcelle Fressineau, Matt Hall, and Mats Pettersson as they brought their teams in. The teachers had a wonderful time taking pictures and chatting with the mushers.

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Stop #2 –

Our second stop was Settler’s Bay for a delicious lunch. The highlight was that  Monica Zappa and Tim Osmar stopped by for a chat! They drove up today from their home in Kasilof. They stopped in Anchorage first to take Spurr (one of the Volcano litter – Dweezil’s puppies) to the cardiologist to get him cleared to race! The news is super – Spurr seems to not have the same heart issues that Dweezil has, so it looks like he’s made the team! They brought 19 dogs with them, so she hasn’t totally finalized her team yet, but she’s pretty close. There are three of Dweezil’s pups in the running. She also let me know that there is an author following her on the trail this year… so maybe we’ll be able to read a book about Monica in the near future! How cool would that be?  Another intriguing thing that was mentioned today is that Tim said “maybe next year” when we asked him when he was going to run Iditarod again! And the icing on the cake? King Dweezil himself was in the cab of the truck, so I got a chance to say hi to him right before we headed out!

Stop #3 –

After a somewhat harrowing trip up some very snowy and very steep hills, we arrived at Matthew Failor’s kennel, 17th Dog Kennel. Matthew’s kennel is home to three mushers this season and several of the dogs that will be on his Iditarod team just finished the Yukon Quest in 6th place with Tim Pappas. Matthew’s kennel is a true family affair. His mom and dad followed him from Ohio to Alaska and now live with him on his property, and his sister is the team manager.

Matthew introduced the teachers to his fifty dogs and gave them some time to wander the yard and meet and greet the canine athletes. There were lots of licks and belly rubs all around!

Tim talked to us a bit about this year’s Yukon Quest…. the hardest part? The cold. He said it was 50 below zero for most of the beginning of the race and then 30 degrees above zero by the end of the race. Imagine, an 80 degree temperature swing! By the end of the race the trail was getting soft, so the team had to break trail for several hundred miles. He said, in his opinion, there are two big differences between the Quest and the Iditarod. First of all, handlers are allowed on the Quest. Their primary focus is to clean up after the team leaves the checkpoint. In fact, the handlers are not allowed to actually help with the team when the musher is there. The exception is during the mandatory layover when the handlers are allowed to be totally hands on with the team while the musher gets some rest! The other big difference he noticed was that he was totally alone on the trail much more then he was when he ran Iditarod. In the Quest there were fewer teams and the race legs are longer, so the teams don’t see each other as much.

At that point, the teachers totally got distracted from what Tim was talking about. Why?  Twenty-two day old sled dog puppies were brought in!! There are five adorable puppies in the litter. Their names aren’t finalized yet, but Matthew said they are thinking “things that are big, loud, and fast” like Sonic Boom and Typhoon.

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For our final treat, we watched Matthew hook up 19 dogs and head out of the kennel on a training run. Probably the last one before the race. Right before he headed out, he popped over to where I was standing to let me know he downloaded a ton of Spanish – language lessons. He’s wondering if he can learn some Spanish as he heads down the trail this year! We’ll have to catch up with him after the race to see if he was successful!

 

The Teachers Have Arrived!

Tuesday

Anchorage, Alaska

4 degrees

The day is closing on our first full day of the Iditarod Winter Conference for Teachers! After welcoming the teachers to Anchorage at last night’s reception, today was a stellar first day! I did my keynote presentation and shared with about 75 teachers from around the world some of the things we do our classroom using Iditarod as a focus. There are a few teachers here from Shaktoolik who brought one of their fifth grade students. He seemed to have a great time trying some of the activities we do in class, particularly building the finishing arch with the Newspaper Builders. We also heard about lessons in overflow, coding, language arts, math, writing and so much more as the day went on.

It’s a special year for us; it’s the 20th Anniversary of the Teacher on the Trail program. Thirteen of the twenty former Teachers on the Trail are here as we honor Finney, who’s amazing idea to become the first teacher on the trail has changed all of our lives forever! Finney has been given a very special job for start day… she actually gets to cut the ribbon to start the race! What a honor!

I got a chance to talk to Monica Zappa today! She says things are going well. Spurr is going to the cardiologist tomorrow to see if he is cleared to run the race…. so maybe one of Dweezil’s pups will make the team! She also let me know that an author is going to be following her on the trail this year for a special project! We’ll have to wait and see how that all pans out, but it’s pretty exciting sounding!

Tomorrow is everyone’s favorite day: Field Trip Day ! Stay tuned!

 

 

Bellies Growling and Races Finishing

Sunday

Talkeetna, Alaska

-1 degree

Sunday  morning found me nestled quite contently into the home of my good friend Debski. Debski is the world famous cook for the Nome checkpoint. She is an amazing cook and spoils everyone who is lucky enough to find themselves in Nome at Iditarod time.

We spent a lovely day visiting and catching up. She showed me the tables and charts that debskiare used to organize and order all of the people food that is sent out to each checkpoint. Every checkpoint gets food, but only the three largest hub checkpoints get cooks – McGrath, Unalakleet and Nome – and this year they aren’t sending a cook to McGrath as the owner of the cafe is going to cook for everyone!  At the other checkpoints, the volunteers take turns lending a hand with the cooking duties. She also showed me the food lists for the various checkpoints. Some of the things I remember from the list: English muffins, bologna, stew meat, frozen chopped onions, pilot bread, Tang, coffee, peach halves, berries, paper towels, pudding cups, bacon, M&Ms, and cereal bars.

So, I asked Debski, “If you could only take five ingredients from your list with you to Nome, which would you take?” Debski and I have a Chopped Cooking challenge for you to think about:  Suppose you were given her five favorite ingredients, what meal would you create? Remember, as the Chopped rules state, you MUST use all of the basket ingredients in your dish. Here’s her list:

Debski’s Chopped Basket Ingredients:

  • Breakfast sausage
  • Hamburger meat
  • egg beaters
  • spaghetti noodles
  • frozen stew veggies

The weekend’s races wrapped up also. Blayne Streeper ended up winning the Rondy races, and so our rookie didn’t hold on to win this time. Bailey Schaeffer, a 17 year old Inupiaq girl won the Junior Iditarod. One of the super cool things is that as the Junior Iditarod champion, she gets to be the first sled out of the chute for this year’s Iditarod. She will also get to go to Nome for the finisher’s banquet. What an exciting time for her!