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January-February 2007 Selected Content

From Anchorage to Nome - Lisa Amstutz

The Iditarod, the haunting name, has caught me, transformed me, and will never let me go.
-- Susan Butcher, 4-time Iditarod champion

On her seventh birthday, my daughter built a dog sled out of Popsicle sticks to top her birthday cake. This was highly unusual for a girl who normally chooses things like pink ponies or kittens, but not too surprising considering our family's obsession at the time: the Iditarod.

By the time my daughter's birthday arrived in February, we had already spent a month exploring Alaska. After carefully charting the course, we selected a team and prepared to run the world's most extreme race--vicariously, of course, courtesy of the Internet and the public library. This just-for-fun unit study ended up having more educational and entertainment value than anything else we did all year.

How we did it

Our starting point was eIditarod, an online project found at www.surfaquarium.com/eIDITAROD/index.htm. It gave us a framework to work with, and guidance in, making a map and choosing and tracking a musher, or dog sled driver. Then we went all out at the library, lugging home piles of materials on Alaska, the Iditarod and dog sledding. Studying the Iditarod naturally broadened into studying the history, geography and culture of Alaska.

The first step was to create a trail map. We plotted out the trail on a AAA map of Alaska, using the maps at the eIditarod site. There are two different routes Iditarod races take; they alternate every other year. This map went up on the bulletin board so we could mark the team's progress each day. The map-making process reinforced the children's map-reading skills and acquainted them with Alaskan geography.

After creating the map, we chose a musher to follow. The eIditarod site lists all the mushers, along with website and email information if available, or you can read about them on www.iditarod.com. The children quickly settled on homeschooler Ellie Claus, the youngest person ever to run the Iditarod. Ellie was also the 2003 Junior Iditarod champion.

As we waited for the race to begin, we delved into an in-depth study of Alaska. The children's section of the library yielded many books and videos about Alaska, the Iditarod and dog sledding in general. Www.iditarod.com now has additional resources for educators and kids, including lesson plans at http://www.iditarod.com/4-5.html, Zuma's Paw Prints (news reports from Zuma, the famous Iditarod K-9 mushing reporter), and actual 3-D fly-over views of the race at http://www.earthslot.org/iditarod. Immersion in these materials gave us a good feel for the state and its culture.

The Iditarod spilled over into playtime too. For weeks, our home resembled a musher's convention with dog sleds parked everywhere. Some days the children built them out of Popsicle sticks or Play-doh; other days they hunted down all the Beanie Babies bearing even the faintest resemblance to a husky and strung them with yarn to the piano bench. On snowy days the game moved outside. These hands-on activities reinforced the kids' interest in, and connection with, the project.

By the time race day arrived in March, the kids were chomping at the bit. They eagerly checked the Internet each day, marked Ellie's progress on the map, and excitedly cheered her on. Though she did not win this time, Ellie made a respectable showing, finishing in 45th place. As the race ended, we wrapped up our study, already looking forward to next year's race.

The history of the Iditarod

The Iditarod is an annual dog sled race covering over 1100 miles from Anchorage to Nome. The racers must cross frozen tundra, mountains, forest, frozen rivers and coast. Icy winds and treacherous terrain make it truly an "extreme" sport. Mushers leave with 12 to 16 dogs, and take 10 to 17 days to cover the course. Both men and women participate as equals, and most prepare for the race year round.

The Iditarod trail was originally part of a mail and supply trail. Dog teams carried necessities to various small towns along the route. The trail became famous in 1925 after a heroic effort to carry serum to Nome, which was being threatened with diphtheria. Dog sled teams carried the serum almost 700 miles through a howling blizzard in a relay fashion, ending with Gunnar Kaasen and his lead dog Balto. The serum arrived in the nick of time and spared hundreds of lives. The trip took 127 hours and involved 20 mushers. The mushers became heroes, and a statue of Balto can still be seen in Central Park, New York City. Balto's team was sold to a movie producer, then to a Los Angeles museum. A businessman named George Kimble eventually learned that the team was being mistreated and collected money to purchase and bring the dogs to Cleveland's Brookside Zoo, where they lived out the rest of their days.

An interesting side note is that while Balto received most of the recognition for the successful serum run, the real workhorse of the run was Togo, who covered 261 miles, compared to Balto's 53. Not long before he died, Togo finally received a formal recognition at Madison Square Garden in New York City, where Captain Roald Amundsen, the famous Arctic explorer, awarded him a gold medal.

The mushers were a veritable melting pot of people, comprised of several Athabaskan Indians, Yupic Eskimos and pioneers of Russian, Norwegian or Irish ancestry. All were paid between $30 and $40 and given a citation by the governor.

The first full Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race was run in 1973. It was begun by mushing enthusiasts who wanted to revitalize the nearly-forgotten sport of dog sledding. Today dog mushing is the official state sport of Alaska. The Junior Iditarod began in 1977 so that mushers ages 14 to 17 could participate in a shorter race. The Junior Iditarod covers approximately 150 miles and lasts two days.

Why the Iditarod?

"The Iditarod isn't about winning; it's about surviving," writes Walter Mackenzie of eIditarod.com. The Iditarod has been called "the last great race." And yet it isn't just about the competition, though the $50,000 purse for first place is certainly an incentive. Crowds welcome each musher to the finish line, and just finishing the race is a formidable accomplishment. The Iditarod is about survival, teamwork, strength and phenomenal endurance.

The Iditarod commemorates the kind of courage and determination that is rarely seen these days, or at least not mentioned on the evening news. As Bill Sherwonit writes, the Iditarod is "a celebration of Alaska's--and the nation's--frontier past and the venturesome spirit within us all." Though we experienced the Iditarod from the comfort of our home, our family got a taste of adventure and a new appreciation for this piece of our national heritage. All too quickly the race was over and the Beanie Babies and the Popsicle sticks put away, but the lessons we learned will last a lifetime.

Sources

Miller, Debbie S. The Great Serum Race: Blazing the Iditarod Trail. New York: Walker & Company, 2002 (ISBN: 0802788114).

Shahan, Sherry. Dashing Through the Snow: The Story of the Jr. Iditarod. Connecticut: Millbrook Press, 1997 (ISBN: 0761301437).

Sherwonit, Bill and Jeff Schultz. Iditarod: The Great Race to Nome. Anchorage: Alaska Northwest Books, 1991 (ISBN: 1570612919). www.iditarod.com

© 2007, Lisa Amstutz

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