Red Lantern: Committed Through The Last Mile

Why is the Red Lantern so important? The Lynden “Committed Through the Last Mile” Red Lantern Award recognizes the musher to make the last run from Safety to Nome.  It symbolizes perseverance and commitment to finishing, even though there are challenges. This morning at 2:22 am, I greeted Jeff Reid as he and his dogs mushed off the sea ice and onto Front St. I’ve been told by some mushers, the Red Lantern is not really the award they’re going for. But for some, the Red Lantern Award represents the achievement of a goal they have been working toward for years.  

Jeff Reid Finishes in 29th Place and Receives Red Lantern (Photo: Insider Video)

Lanterns have a rich tradition in mushing and wintertime. The “widow’s lamp” is traditionally placed in a window so that travelers can see their way home, and so folks know that someone is still out on the trail.  On the burled arch in Nome, a silver lantern burns during the race. The Red Lantern is a bit different. It’s an award for the last person to finish, and it represents perseverance and overcoming obstacles. See Teacher on the Trail Jim Deprez’s excellent explanation. 

The silver widow’s lamp hangs from the burled arch throughout the Iditarod. Photo: K. Newmyer

I’m a huge fan of the Red Lantern award. In education, it’s satisfying in a way that can’t be explained when students who struggle start to make huge strides in learning. In my career, I have had students step foot on a stage for the first time and play a solo, make a speech even though they’re terrified, write a powerful persuasive letter to an adult, or discover a work ethic that can’t be stopped. The Red Lantern is a symbol of this effort.

To me, both lantern traditions represent looking out for one another through difficult times.  It’s a sign that loved ones are out in the dark and danger, and until they are safely home, we will shine a light for them. We will encourage and congratulate them on not giving up. That’s a lesson we can reinforce in our classes every day.

I have been looking forward to presenting the Red Lantern to the last 2024 Iditarod finisher for a long time. I had a picture in my mind that it would be a moment with lots of people and cameras.  But it was a small, private moment instead. Because it occurred in the wee hours of the morning, the darkness closed in around us. My helper guided me to stand in the right spot so that when Jeff and his team of dogs came up off the ice, he would see the red lamp and know that his Iditarod race was successful.

But it wasn’t just Jeff that struggled through those last miles—it was his dogs, also.  Jeff said that he was coming into Safety and the dogs were running along well. All of a sudden, the brush bow of his sled hit a rise in the trail, causing the dogs to stop still.  This bump threw all the dogs off their stride. They didn’t want to go any more. Jeff decided to rest and snack the dogs to see if they would change their minds. He wanted to give them time to recover.

Here’s what struck me: Jeff knew that the finish line was only 20 miles away, but the dogs didn’t. And there was no way he could explain it to them. He had to give them time and patience. Time and time again, he walked out in front, leading them down the trail. Jeff said, he had to become the leader. He was ready to walk the 20 miles to Nome if he had to, because he knew how close the finish line was. He didn’t want to come so far and give up. He was prepared to encourage his team every step.

Team Departs Safety for Nome (Photo Credit: Terrie Hanke)

Has this ever happened to you or a student? It reminds me of when students hit a wall and they shut down. They refuse to try any more.  Being jolted out of their stride by a sudden, unexpected challenge upsets their mind.  Jeff worked really hard to give his dogs time to recover. He rested, snacked, talked to them, gave them love, and encouraged them.  Doesn’t this sound like what we as teachers do for our struggling students?

This is not the first time Jeff has been sidelined by a dog. His beloved dog Frank, whom he adopted while on duty in Afghanistan, was struck by a car. Jeff thought he would never have a bond with a dog again until he read Gary Paulson’s book Winterdance, which tells of Paulson’s Iditarod experiences. Jeff and his family worked hard to develop Frozen Trident Kennel and complete Iditarod qualifiers. Perhaps Jeff earned a Red Lantern award when he entered the 2024 Iditarod in fulfilment of his goal. 

Close-up of Red Lantern Award Iditarod. Photo by Jeff Schultz/ (C) 2018 ALL RIGHTS RESERVED

In my class I give a Red Lantern Award at the end of every nine weeks. The award is for a student who really struggles in some aspect of school, whether it’s socially or academically, and who works hard every day to overcome what is testing them. All students nominate someone they feel deserves the award, and then I take the top three or four and students cast their vote. The students take this very seriously because we talk about the award frequently. We remind each other how important perseverance is. We read sled dog stories and I share Iditarod stories that show characters working through struggles, and we often write about times when they had to overcome a challenge in life. 

The Red Lantern Award certificate that I use in my classroom. K. Newmyer

I keep a decorative red lantern in my classroom, and when students receive the award, they write their name on a card and put it inside. The award is a certificate that shows a red lantern and explains the Iditarod tradition. I encourage you to start this tradition in your school or classroom, and to use whatever certificate, reward, or method of choosing the recipient that works for you and your students.

With Jeff’s patience and leadership at Safety, the last checkpoint, his team of canine athletes became comfortable running along the trail again. In the still of the winter night, Jeff carried the softly burning Red Lantern up the chute and under the Burled Arch. 

Tell me about your Red Lantern traditions. Email me at