A Favorite Alaskan Treasure

This morning started bright and early for the teachers who are a part of the Iditarod Winter Conference for Educators.

I started the morning right off by sharing some ways the teachers could keep in touch with their classes while they are way, via Skype or blogging.  I also shared some of really cool distance learning activities my class has been involved in over the last few years.  The finalists for the 2016 Iditarod Teacher on the Trail spoke, and I got some cool new technology things to try out when I get home (how does an online quiz bowl sound boys?)!  After lunch I did my keynote presentation and talked about learning through objects and stories and how to tie it all into Iditarod.  I showed off some of my boys’ work from the past few years, and hopefully gave the teachers some ideas they can use in their own classrooms…. I already heard that one classroom will be making our Sled Dog Angle Harnesses this week in class!  Sara Lamont shared some ideas she uses for math with her kindergartners, and then it was time to head out to a field trip to one of my favorite places on earth:  Jon and Jona VanZyle’s home, kennel, and studio.

I often joke that I plan to retire to the VanZyle’s home.  It is a little piece of heaven for someone like me… chock full of dogs in the yard and collections of everything and anything inside the house.  Every time I go there I am astounded by Jon and Jona’s hospitality, artistry, and space.  Jona creates beautiful artwork with beading and textiles.  Jon is probably most known for the amazing artwork he creates for children’s picture books, but Jon is also the official Iditarod artist and as such, creates a new poster and print for the race each year. He is also an Iditarod finisher. So besides sharing his art with us, he also talked to us about some of the changes that have happened to the race over time.

One thing he talked about today which I hadn’t heard him really say before is what he looks for in his lead and wheel dogs. He says most people think your wheel dogs have to be very strong, as they are the ones who feel the brunt of the sled weight.  Jon’s theory is that the wheel dogs need to be your most agile dogs.  They have to have the sense to jump over the gang line in such a way as to steer the sled away from obstacles and such.  He says it’s not something you can teach a dog, they have to just figure it out on their own.  As for lead dogs, he says clearly your lead dogs have to be smart, but they also have to be the best listeners and have to have the drive to always move forward.  He told a story that was new to me….

He said one time he was racing, and was getting fairly near to the next checkpoint.  As they were about to pull in, there appeared a driveway on the right hand side.  Jon’s leader, Belle, who was always an amazing leader tried to pull the team into the driveway. Jon gave the command, got Belle back on the trail and moved on.  A second time, Belle, moved to pull the team into that driveway. Again, Jon was able to redirect her and get her back on track.  A third time, Belle, tried again to pull the team into that same driveway.  Jon, who was now getting  a little irritated, one more time got Belle back on track and finally made it into the checkpoint. Now at that time, early on in the race, the mushers were allowed to stay with host families in the villages. So Jon, pulls in and after being checked by the checker asks where he should go, which family was hosting him.

The checker replies, “That driveway your lead dog tried to take you in three times? That’s the driveway of your host family.  Turn there.”

Can you imagine? How on earth did she know that?

Here are a few pictures of the amazingness that is the VanZyle’s:

One thought on “A Favorite Alaskan Treasure

  1. Love your stories about the VanZyles….. just don’t want you to retire there until I’m just a memory!!!!

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