Iditarod from the Air: Big Ideas

Today was an amazing travel day. While mushers cruised along the Yukon River at 5-8 miles per hour on average, they were able to appreciate individual trees dripping with snow, fallen branches, the craggy edges of river bends—all the details of a magnificent, slow journey by dog team.

Instead, today I got a bird’s eye view of the trail. I flew with pilot Jerry in his C-180 from Galena to Nulato to deliver a box of coffee, then to Kaltag to drop off photographer Siri Raitto (check out her 2023 Iditarod photographs here) and then on to Unalakleet on the coast. The landscape abstracted into broad vistas of snow with areas of dark and light areas of vegetation. Pale blue mountains created a tantalizing faint line on the horizon as we flew down the Kaltag Portage, an ancient route used for millennia for trade and transportation.

My view of the landscape through which the trail runs. Photo: K. Newmyer

My travel today gave me a broad, high view of the Iditarod Trail. I often had to search the ground for several seconds to see dog teams. My brain worked hard to make out details. Getting away from the trail on the final leg from Kaltag to Unalakleet, the land under the airplane became masses of dark and pale intertwined, with swirls of white waterways over a gray-green undulating valley. Seeing such an expanse of the Iditarod trail made me think about how big ideas can be used in the classroom to connect ideas across curricula.  

Grant Wiggins, author of the book Understanding by Design, describes big ideas like this: “A big idea is alive. We develop understanding by extending and challenging understanding. A big idea reaches out, it pushes against boundaries, it asks us to possibly rethink other things we thought we knew. It raises questions and problems – and thus, generates new ideas. We see new connections and we initiate inquiries to validate or critique the idea. A big idea activates thought and permits transfer – and, thus creativity.”

A dog team from the air becomes part of the land. Photo: K. Newmyer

One big idea that I observed from the air today is, The Iditarod Sled Dog Race is connected to the landscape of Alaska. Most people see the excitement of the start of the race, with excited, noisy dogs, big sponsor banners, and lots of cheering. When the mushers disappear into the woods after leaving the starting chute with their dogs, they begin to interact with the land. The trail itself is an integral part of the land. The big idea that the race is connected to the landscape allows us to ask questions about the types of landscapes the trail runs through, the challenges the dogs encounter, or the feeling of time and distance it takes to complete long runs between checkpoints.

Dogs get fed, cared for, and then bed down for the night. Photo: K. Newmyer

Another big idea about the Iditarod I often think about is Dogs provide the Iditarod with its reason for existence. Most people know that Joe Redington, Sr., started the Iditarod to preserve the Alaskan husky sled dog and the mushing way of life—that’s a fact. But with this concept, students can creatively think about the nature of dogs, what makes dogs especially suitable for such a journey, and the history of humans’ relationships with dogs. Exploring the idea of “dogness” and how dogs became so connected to humans helps us understand the traditions, history, and customs behind the mushing way of life that Redington sought to maintain.

I wrote about community yesterday. A big idea might be: The Iditarod is a community.  Explore with your students ways that the Iditarod is a community.  What is the overarching community, and what are the sub-groups within it? How do these sub-groups behave? How do they interact with each other, and with the larger community? What values are part of the Iditarod community, and how do people turn these values into actions? Consider the groups of volunteers including vets, trail crew, comms, pilots, logistics, social media, the Insider crews, and so on. 

Wiggins also says, “What makes an idea big? An idea is big if it helps us make sense of lots of otherwise meaningless, isolated, inert, or confusing facts. A big idea is a way of usefully seeing connections, not just another piece of knowledge. It is more like a lens for better looking than something additionally seen; more like a theme than the facts of the story.”

No matter where you are on your Iditarod teaching journey, I encourage you to think of the Iditarod as a lens. As you read books and articles about the Iditarod, and as you explore the lessons, resources, and blog posts on the Iditarod Education site, consider using big ideas about the Iditarod as an entry point through which to teach other topics. For example, Iditarod rules keep everyone safe. How do rules keep people and dogs safe in the Iditarod? How are the rules of the Iditarod similar and/or different to our school or government rules? What makes people have rules for different things? Another example might be, The Iditarod is scientific. What science does the Iditarod use, and how does that science influence Iditarod innovation?

Following the ancient trail. Photo: K. Newmyer

Once you latch onto the big ideas of the Iditarod, you can really start to use the Iditarod as a lens to help students become more creative and inquisitive with other learning.  A view of the Iditarod “from the air” can connect ideas across content areas and let students reach further with their thinking. Rather than just teaching facts about the Iditarod, big ideas will inspire students to deepen their understanding of this iconic occurrence become more effective learners.

Let me know how you use the Iditarod’s big ideas as a lens for learning. Email me at