On Sunday, June 25th, 25 Iditarod educators arrived in the UP of Michigan for the beginning of the 2023 Iditarod Summer Conference. Teachers from all over the country were in attendance, from states as far as Massachusetts, Virginia and Nevada! It is the first time in a while that there has been a conference in the “Lower 48”, and attendees were anxious for the opportunity to learn about the Iditarod a little closer to home.
The morning started with an Introduction of the 5 former Teachers on the Trail; Linda Fenton (2013), Erin Montgomery (2015), Annie McGuire (2017), Heidi Sloan (2018) and Jim Deprez (2021 & 2022). Stories and lessons from the trail were shared as well as some of the funnier and unexpected moments. There was some Q&A from the Teacher presenters, and then an introduction from each of the attendees.
Erin Montgomery, fresh off a recent trip presenting her classroom integration of the Iditarod at a conference in Idaho and the Idaho Sled Dog Challenge, led with “Harnessing the Power of the Iditarod”. She talked about Jeff King and his ingenuity with different inventions that many other mushers have since adopted, and highlighted many lessons available on the Iditarod EDU website that integrate STEM and other subjects as well.
The first guest speaker on the itinerary was sled dog veterinarian Tom Gustafsen, who addressed everyone with his presentation on dog care. Tom is one of the lead veterinarians in the UP 200 Sled Dog Race, and has volunteered at other races in the upper midwest including the Beargrease. His talk educated the audience about the differences between dogs as house pets, and working/racing sled dogs. He talked about everything from pre-race checkups, to in race equipment and dog care, as well as what makes an “Alaskan Husky”. Some of the most interesting things discussed were the concept of thermoregulation in the dogs and the difference in “rest” versus “sleep” for the K9 athletes. – Jim Deprez
In the afternoon, Tasha Sielstra of Nature’s Kennel arrived with sled dogs and some of her handlers. Giving us background knowledge on vet checks and the body condition score, she allowed us to examine the dogs, checking their joints, body fat, hydration, and heart with a stethoscope! She emphasized how healthy and strong these Alaskan huskies are, needing minimal medical intervention.
Heidi Sloan, 2018 Teacher on the Trail, then presented ways to use the Iditarod as a tool to teach the ever-increasing standards teachers are expected to cover. These included lessons on statistics, measurement, STEM, geometry, reading comprehension, grammar, and creative writing. The goal is to use the race to motivate and engage students in learning their academic standards.
Jim Deprez, 2021-22 Teacher on the Trail, explored the Iditarod EDU website with us. We viewed a clip of the Insider documentary of the 2023 race, showcasing Ryan Redington’s run to Nome, as well as a book reading by Joe Redington Sr.’s great grand-daughter, Ellen, for a book she has written, illustrated, and is preparing for publication: “Wiley Wants to Win”. When it comes out, it will be a great addition to our classroom libraries! – Heidi Sloan
Day two of the conference kicked off with Linda Fenton, 2013 Teacher on the Trail, teaching attendees all about vet care – it was a great connection to Tasha’s presentation from day one. We were even treated to a special insider video created for the Education Department about vet checks before the race.
Following Linda’s presentation was Annie McGuire, 2017 Teacher on the Trail. Annie gave teachers a bunch of lesson ideas- everything from using checkpoint locations to teach latitude and longitude to “Mathing Down the Trail” with all things Iditarod. One of the big takeaways from Annie’s presentations was the book list… two of the favorites being ordered by teachers: Born to Mush and Sled Dog School!
The first part of day two finished up with a second presentation from Tasha Stielstra from Nature’s Kennel. This time Tasha went through the school presentation she usually does for students. She taught the teachers all about the different commands and positions on a dog team and even had them line up (with a sled and gangline) to demonstrate what a team looks like. Then she had them move using the commands gee, haw, and whoa (a great listening activity for any Iditarod classroom). Overall it was a great morning of learning! – Annie McGuire
The afternoon brought a lot more information and ideas to share in the classroom. Sarah Kimball, Iditarod race volunteer, started us out with stories and lots of pictures from her years on the trail. Her experiences from dog handling to checkpoint volunteering were interesting and exciting.
Next up was the latest member to join the Teacher on the Trail team, Kate Newmyer. Kate gave us some insight to how she will be sharing lessons and ideas throughout the 2023-24 year as well as blogging from the trail. Teachers were then put to work creating a race bib using math equations. Watch for this lesson in the upcoming year.
Jane Holmes, 2008 Teacher on the Trail and current director of Iditarod EDU, then popped in via ZOOM. She shared some of the bigger changes in the Iditarod rules that were just posted! They are marked in red if you go to: Race Center, 2024 Information for Mushers on the website.
The final presentation of the day came from Jim Deprez. Jim shared STEM lessons he uses in the classroom culminating in a challenge for teachers to create the “Fastest Sled”. Teachers formed groups of 3 to modify a sled to send down the chute in a bracket style tournament dubbed “Mush Madness”. – Linda Fenton
Tuesday was the day everyone was waiting for all week, a tour of an Iditarod Sled Dog Kennel. Our workshop for this day was spent at MI Dog Sled Dog Center. Upon arrival at the center we entered the shop and were immediately greeted by two retired Iditarod sled dogs, Maple and Woodstove. Our hosts for the day were Laura and Jeri Neese. Laura is a veteran musher who has finished both the Iditarod and Yukon Quest. Jeri, her mother, is a homeschool teacher that incorporates the Iditarod in her teaching.
We were split into two different groups. One group was directed down a trail to the racing kennel with Laura to learn about the Iditarod and sled dogs. We were greeted by a chorus of enthusiastic barks and wagging tails. We could immediately tell the profound bond Laura has with her dogs. Laura started her program by telling us all about sled dogs and how they live. We were able to meet several of the dogs in their free roaming pen. Laura also talked about times on the Iditarod Trail and the Yukon Quest. She shared many exciting stories with us including being stuck in Elim for multiple days with several other mushers. These mushers were dubbed the Elim 11. The other group participated in a hands-on activity with Laura’s mother, Jeri. She explained how Laura got interested in the Iditarod through a school activity and continued to share how she uses Iditarod in homeschooling. We were then able to actually complete our own “lapbook,” foldable about the Serum Run, Iditarod, and sled dogs.
During the break was probably a fan favorite. We all got to cuddle 4-week old and 3-month old puppies. As some were cradling the puppies in their arms, feeling the soft fur as they stroked them gently, a couple noticed that cute cuddly experience turned to “poo,” as the pup could no longer hold it. This experience definitely brought immeasurable joy and warmth.
Our final activity of the day was to actually go in the racing kennel and meet the sled dogs up close and personal. We were able to watch Laura feed and water the dogs. She knows each dog by the sound of their bark and whine. It was amazing to see the bond she has with her best friends. If you are ever up in the U.P. of Michigan, make sure to schedule a stop at MI Dog Sled Dog Center. – Erin Montgomery