Iditarod 2019: 2020 Reflections

Memories for a Lifetime

Pete and Nic are in Kaltag, with Jessie and Joar on the way.  The back of the pack is leaving Iditarod for Shageluk, and I’m back in Oregon.  Now that I’ve had a few nights’ sleep, it’s time to look back at the 2019 Iditarod Educators’ Conference and our journey as finalists for the 2020 Iditarod Teacher on the TrailTM.

It’s hard to know where to start.  Ten days in Alaska. Ten days of Iditarod.  Ten days among Idita-family.  It’s larger than life, but it’s close and personal.  Starting to reflect, I realize how much I already miss Team KLM.  Kelly, Lisa, and Mary Lynn.  The Teachers.  Thrown together for 10 days that none of us will forget.   IditarodEdu faculty. Conference participants. Iditarod volunteers and mushers and dogs that we got to interact with.  They all are now “mine”. My Idita-family.

Being a repeat-finalist (2015), there was a tendency to compare.  Right away, I knew that wouldn’t be helpful.  First, my flight. I missed the amazing view from the window seat 2015, looking over a clear blue sky and white peaks all the way up the coast of North America.  This time, the view was as splendid, but I was stuck in an aisle seat. I spent a minute on regret, then realized that this was my journey, a new journey.  

“Eyes wide open,” I said to myself.  I think I meant, “be open to all that is.”

The Challenge was awesome.  Sara was awesome.  Just as I was feeling sad that I couldn’t see many mountains from the Lakefront, Sara took us up to the “hillside,” and a stunning sunset.  The zoo was fun. Our team got to know each other a little better, and I got to try out photography in the cold and dark (not very successfully).

Interviews were a whirlwind.  At least, they are a whirlwind in my head.  I remember seeing Brian Hickox’s  face nodding and smiling, and felt encouraged.

My presentation at the conference was frustrating.  From the start, when I was creating it, I could tell it was too big.  I loved the images and ideas that I had to bring, but I had trouble focusing and narrowing down to bite-size messages.  If I had practiced it more in front of people, I may have done a better job with the timing.  After introducing myself, I wanted to give a glimpse of the big picture as well as a closer look at one chunk of my Idita-curriculum: Sled Dog Science.  The last part, sharing my heart and Idita-soul, got lost.

I am more comfortable in front of a group of children than peers.  When planning an activity for the presentation, I had a hard time coming up with something that would be meaningful and fit within our time frame.  My students and I do more projects than activities, and they often take multiple days to complete. Most are too complicated for a 15-minute activity, so I decided to use the Kahoot as a means to get the audience involved.  Kelly and Lisa did great activities.  I loved working with my table neighbors, being creative engineers with hat design, and being detectives with the lock box.

MV Sleddog Race

The best part of the conference (other than the field trips, which totally rock), was learning, learning, learning from everyone else.   Even presentations similar to ones from 2015 were inspiring (Oh yeah!  I remember that! ). Bringing home a lot of notes, we have already tried a couple ideas.  This week, we will try our first annual Historic Mt View Trail Sled Dog Race, modeled on the I-Kid-a-Rod.  I’ve talked to my principal about the ACHILL program, and hope to have him watch the video.  So many things in my sled bag jumping and ready to pop out!

I’ve written about the excellent field trips to Iditarod Headquarters and vet check, to the Van Zyle’s, and to Matthew’s.  They were fabulous, and it was a blast traveling with so many fun educators.  At the start and restart, I was glad to spend the time as part of Team KLM: The Teachers.  From chasing down dump trucks full of snow, to handling (and falling) together at the start, to watching returned dogs disembark from planes on the lake, to hanging out at the Lakefront as we waited for our planes that would take us away, we shared both the fun and the stress.  Kelly and Lisa are inseparable from my 2019 Iditarod memories.

Looking back at the whole experience, it was simply amazing.

Do I have what it takes?  Full disclosure

Back home, watching from Oregon.

Pete has won, three women have come in top 10 (Woohoooo! Girl Power!), but many teams still are on the trail. The next piece in my reflection: Do I have what it takes?

At both interviews, we finalists were asked about challenges.  What did we think would be our biggest challenge?  Looking back, what was our biggest challenge? 

At the initial interview, my answer was, “sleep deprivation”.  While it was challenging, the lack of sleep wasn’t as bad as I feared.  Somehow, I think I got more consistent sleep this year than when I was there in 2015, even if it never amounted to more than 5 hours a night, and often a lot less. There was a bit of fog-brain, but not bad.  I think it helped that we three finalists were having a lot of fun together!

At the exit interview, my answer to this question was, “second-guessing myself.”  I think self-doubt was, and still is, probably my biggest challenge.  

It started before I left Oregon.  Which boots? Do I take the old Baffins or the new Stegers?”  Which coat? Which hats?  Base layers? How many packages of hand- and toe-warmers?  I ended up over-prepared, especially since it was not very cold.  I packed the things that kept me warm in Fairbanks last year, at 25-30 below 0.  I gave away and brought home a lot of hand warmers.

I guess this kind of self-doubt isn’t too unusual, and doesn’t have to be too detrimental.  I know many mushers (most?) go through the same thing, especially rookies.  Better overpacked than unprepared.  The part niggling at me is how hard it was to just decide, act, and let go.  I found myself what-iffing a lot.

Self doubt also crept in on a more psychological level.  I found myself comparing myself and questioning my own fitness to be a teacher on the trail.  THE Iditarod Teacher on the Trail™️.  Brian Hickox is gregarious, good-natured, and larger-than-life (size and personality).  All of the IditarodEdu faculty are wonderful educators and seem confidant and at ease in their roles. Kelly and Lisa both have strengths that I admire, and that would seem to make them the better candidates.  I was pestered by worries that I’m not outgoing enough, not conversational enough, not focused/concrete enough (my vision tends to get a little broad). Maybe I’m not “Alaskan” enough.  I’m not sure what that means exactly, but it is some combination of hardy, tough, bold, and able to drive on very snowy roads.  And fly in bush planes without throwing up. And live off-grid, running to an outhouse at 40 below, under the northern lights. 

Not ___ enough.  Luckily, despite my doubts, I showed up and stepped up. They say courage isn’t the absence of fear but the ability to continue through it. Despite my doubts, I did it.  And I loved it.  I may not have done or been the best at everything we tackled, but that would be pretty unattainable.  And arrogant.  Everyone has strengths, and I saw so many strengths in those around me I started to doubt my own.

Somewhere In the book Iditarod:The First Ten Years, Joe May says that he does with words what his friend Jon Van Zyle does with paint. Or something like that.  I’ve scoured the book and haven’t been able to find it again. But it stuck with me.  I have my strengths and vision to offer.  Perhaps I am enough.

Why? Why do I want to do this?  Why me?

Lance will be into Nome in a couple hours.  The BOP/Red Lantern foursome is getting ready to leave Koyuk, and it’s time for the Big Question: WHY do I want to do this?  WHAT’S MY WHY?

In 2015, I wanted to be there, to be part of Iditarod, and to share what I experience and what I know with teachers and students.  Those things still are in my bag full of why, but there’s more. There needs to be more in order for me to Really Do This Thing.

What I’ve learned: you don’t have to be Iditarod Teacher on the TrailTM in order to be part of the Iditarod.  Volunteer. Follow and support the race and the mushers.  There are many ways to be part of Iditarod, and I”ll be there.

Also, you don’t need to be Iditarod Teacher on the Trail in order to share Iditarod curriculum, with students and with other teachers.  In any visit to the livestream chat, anytime, day or night, you’d find teachers. Lots of teachers sharing what we do with our classes.  This conversation can continue, and we can grow a PLN (Professional Learning Network) for #IditarodEdu on Twitter.  I plan to be part of this network, whatever my role may be.

Of course, I’d love to stand on the Yukon, where my great grandfather traveled in 1898. Stand on the Kaltag Portage, or Cape Nome. Feel the deep history, the Big History of the Iditarod Trail. Look west toward Siberia.  Stand on 1,000 years and more of Inupiat and Yup’ ik history. Stand on ancient Beringia. Stand on 25,000 years of history, where Siberians brought their lives and their dogs, and became Athabascan Native Americans.  Visit the villages and meet the descendants from those first Americans.   I have to admit: that’s a big part of my WHY: experiencing the Big History of the Iditarod Trail.  

But, why me? What do I have that I can bring to Iditarod? To Iditarod Education? What’s special about my vision? 

Well,  there’s the land (Have you seen it?).  Today, I ran across an article describing how the sense of awe is good for our mental and physical health  I wholeheartedly believe this is true. One of my favorite books is The Sense of Wonder, by Rachel Carson.  I believe that this sense of wonder, the sense of awe in front of something so much larger and grander than ourselves, is the secret.  It is the Spell. The Spell of the Yukon and the Call of the Wild.  I believe that, if we can help people glimpse Iditarod, Alaska, mushers, and sled dogs, they will get hooked.  They will come along with us, to look deeper into what it means to live the lifestyle of the sled dog, to experience the grandeur of Alaska, to be part of Iditarod’s Big History.  Some of them will be hooked so deeply they will come participate, to go “all in”. 

I am no Robert Service.  I’m also not Joe May, with his lyric stories that wind back through Iditarod and back further through time.  But I can bring them and their poems and stories, and the stories of others who share similar visions, to 2020 Iditarod Education.  And I can add my research, experience, and voice where they fit.  I can share my sense of wonder in the hopes others will find theirs.  I suppose this has been my biggest “why” as a teacher all along: help students discover their sense of wonder. 

Final Thoughts: On Beyond #UglyDogs

Insider GPS Screen

Last night, Sarah Stokey rested in White Mountain, the lone musher between Safety and Elim.  Today, past Safety,  she is struggling over the last hill before descending to Nome.  She is sooooo close!  The red lantern is almost to White Mountain, and only seven other teams remain on the trail.

On Twitter, an #UglyDog named Erica Dana posted the link to a “thing” she wrote in Medium, an online zine.  It’s titled: The Next Great Race.  She lists her ideas for improving Iditarod.  Having tasted Iditarod, she was hooked.  Full of enthusiasm and the naive impressions of an admitted “newbie,” she proposed ideas about what Iditarod should do in order to survive in the age of social media.

It’s a thoughtful article, positive in tone, and I found a lot of good ideas in the article, but it reminded me a bit of reading the livestream chat.   As much as I love the #UglyDogs, and consider myself a confirmed #UglyDog, “newbie enthusiasm” often lapses into “know-it-all-ness.”  Add to that a dose of 30-something-ness (I have first-hand experience with this in my family) and they can sound a bit arrogant and entitled, especially when their voices are thousands-strong, and amplified by Harry Smith and NBC Today. But their hearts are in the right place, and they have good ideas to share.  Ideas that we can learn from if we stay open. 

What strikes me is that the kernels of truth, the ideas most worth looking at and learning from, are actually the things that Iditarod Education already does well.  Yes, she suggests we improve our social media presence and move out of the Facebook dark ages into the Twitter present (okay, got it).  But that’s not it.  What she really calls for is:  More! More! More! More of the quirky, intimate, and personal stories about dogs and mushers and volunteers and villages and village children and schools. And The Land.  Not just the exploits of the top racers. 

If she delved more deeply into, or if she joined the Insider, or if she checked out IditarodEdu, she would find it.  In IditarodEdu, that IS what we do.  It’s in Terrie Henke’s Eye on the Trail.  It’s in the Teacher on the TrailTM blog. It’s in the way we bring Iditarod to schools and children, with hands-on lessons that engage and empower children through the wonder of Iditarod. It’s in the way we highlight character and perseverance and integrity.  It’s there, but there could be more, and I can help.  This is what I want to do.

Not long ago, like the #UglyDogs author Erica Dana, I thought Iditarod was in trouble, that it needed saving, and that IditarodEdu and my voice might help.  With animal rights advocates stirring up controversy, and controversies erupting even within the mushing community, I was afraid for the future. After what I saw and heard during Iditarod 2019, I see that was wrong.  Iditarod is alive and well, and in good hands.

Yes, we can make better use of social media. Yes, we need the voices of Iditarod to be heard. But our messages are spot on, and I hope to help carry those messages: Come!  Experience the wonder of Iditarod!  Marvel at the dogs, the struggle, the beauty, the tender bonds between musher and dog, the expansive giving in the Iditarod community, the depth of character, the trails of history.  The Land.  Catch the Spell, the Spirit of Iditarod.

Let the wonder of Iditarod open up your eyes and heart!  If we can touch the hea rts of children, if we can help them find the sense of wonder, we can be the teachers they need.

One last #UglyDog reference.  While Blair was resting in White Mountain, they started a #MyNome thread.  The #UglyDogs ask: What’s your personal “Nome”?  I like it.  Now, Blair is out of Safety and approaching Cape Nome, and I just watched Sarah Stokey walk the last 20 miles to Nome, leading her young team.  Through tears, I feel Sarah’s grit and her love for her dogs. I feel the intense determination it took to get to her Nome.

It has been an exquisite privilege to be part of Iditarod Education 2019, even for a short time. What is my Nome? To be of service to Iditarod Education, however that might look.  I would love to be “going to Nome” as 2020 Iditarod Teacher on the Trail.

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