“Houston, We Have a Connection:” The Dog Star

Iditarod family, this is my last post as 2024 Iditarod Teacher on the Trail. It has been a wonderful ride and a life-changing experience for me. I have so many people to thank: Terrie, Jane, Linda, Erin, Jim, Whitney, Emily, Nicolle, Jennifer, Debski, Josi, Angie, Sara, and many others who took care of me and taught me, on and off the trail. Thank you also to the teachers, students, friends, colleagues, and race fans around the world who followed my posts and lessons.  

I want to leave you with something to think about when you look up into the night sky. The brightest star in the sky is Sirius, the dog star. Iditarod fans and family already know deep in their hearts and souls that the dog is the brightest aspect of the race. Therefore, it makes sense to connect our beloved Iditarod with the star Sirius, located in the Canis Major constellation. The dog star appears so bright due to its intrinsic luminosity and because it is close to our solar system–just as the dog is close to our hearts. In modern times the dog star rises in late August or early September, depending on your latitude, and sets in mid-April. The star’s appearance throughout this time of year naturally coincides with sled dog training and racing.  

Sirius shines bright above the horizon at Finger Lake. Photo: Terrie Hanke

The name Sirius comes from Greek, and it means “scorching” or “burning.” The word comes down through Latin and Middle English meaning “the brightest star.” In ancient Egyptian times, the dog star rose above the horizon for the first time of the year right around the time of the annual Nile floods in early summer. The Nile River waters provided soil with new nutrients and refreshed cropland, allowing farmers to produce abundant grains to nourish people for another year. Thus, the dog star was associated with a new year and new beginnings. Our dog star, the Iditarod—the brightest sled dog race—nourishes hearts, souls, and minds for the coming year.  

Sirius, the dog star, appears to the left or to the south of Orion’s three-star belt. (Stargazing apps such as SkyView will help you locate Sirius this month before it reappears in the sky.) Of course, Orion the hunter has a faithful dog companion by his side in the night sky. You might also know that Sirius is part of a binary star system. Sirius A has a companion star, Sirius B, first observed in 1862. Sirius B is often called “the pup.” Because Sirius is relatively low on the horizon, it might appear to twinkle or change colors due to Earth’s atmosphere. I think this is lovely when we remember how beautiful and varied the coats and colors of sled dogs appear.  

Monica Zappa’s lead dogs Manilix and Blue Steel’s faces shine bright. Photo: Terrie Hanke

It did not surprise me to discover that cultures around the world independently of one another associated this star with canines. To the ancient Greeks, the dog star’s heliacal rise portended the hottest days of the summer. This is where the phrase “dog days of summer” comes from. In Chinese astronomy, the star was called the “celestial wolf.” In Indian stories, the star was associated with Svana, the loyal canine companion of prince Yudhisthira. In ancient Chaldea (Iraq), people called it “the dog star that leads.” For Native Americans located in what is now the Southwestern United States, the star was known as “the dog that followed mountain sheep.” Inuit people call the star the Moon Dog, named Singuuriq, meaning “flickering” or “it pulsates.” My personal sense is that it is no coincidence that so many cultures around the world, who value dogs for their loyalty, intelligence, work ethic, and loving companionship, associate this star with the dog. Those societies who used the sky for predicting and connecting important life events would, in my mind, naturally choose the brightest star to signify their most loyal and helpful companion.  

Jody Bailey’s trusted leader, Orchid. Photo: Terrie Hanke

Gathering all these meanings and science together, we can conclude that the dog star is one of the most significant stars in our sky. The dog star portends new life, the cycle of seasons, and challenges ahead. Its brightness and atmospheric flicker remind us to keep returning to view and examine this celestial guide. Sirius the dog star is Orion’s faithful companion, symbolizing the faithfulness dogs show to mushers and to all humans. The timing of the dog star’s appearance and its place in our northern skies signifies great importance to the seasons and cycles of mushing, birth of new sled dog puppies, and even the seasons of learning and growth in education and in life. The dog star signifies the change to the 2025 Iditarod Teacher on the Trail, Maggie Hamilton, and a new season of growth, learning, and joy for her.  

Finally, friends, I encourage you to let the Iditarod be your dog star. Reflect on the Iditarod as it is connected to your role as an educator, student, race fan, citizen, volunteer, and as the canine’s faithful human companion. Become more active in sharing and promoting the race. Learn about dog care or volunteer at a shelter. Become an Iditarod volunteer. Share the many books and stories found on the Iditarod web site with your children, grandchildren, students, and friends. Support the Iditarod with your financial giving. Like and follow mushers and their kennels and handlers via social media. You can be the Iditarod’s brightest star. And you, my audience, were my “dog star” throughout my 2024 Teacher on the Trail experience. Thank you.  Email me at emailtheteacher@iditarod.com.