Who Pulls the Sled?

Brent Sass’s dogs race down the shoot. Photo Credit: Iditarod

Iditarod is where dogs run the race, but the race runs on volunteers. This is a pretty bold statement, one I made in a post earlier this month, and I stand by it. I’m not alone in recognizing that the volunteers are the heroes of the Iditarod. The mushers are aware that their ability to participate in Iditarod rests on the generosity and dedication of hundreds of individuals donating their time, on their own dime, to support all aspects of the race.   

Brent Sass greeting volunteers and fans coming into Koyuk. Photo Credit: Iditarod

2022 Iditarod Champion Brent Sass sums it up, “I don’t have a career unless these people are doing their job.” From the office staff at Volunteer Registration to the Finish Line announcer in Nome, the volunteers are present at every point in this race.  When I interviewed Sass following his win this year I mentioned that in several Iditarod Insider videos you can hear him yelling “Thanks everyone!” to the crowds as he leaves a checkpoint.  His take, “You get out on the trail and you see all of these villages and all of these volunteers that come from all over the world to come help and you can’t help but be grateful for those people. You can’t help but understand that they’re taking time out of their busy lives to come and volunteer and help for this race. I see all the infrastructure that goes into making it easy for me to come into a checkpoint, to be there for three minutes and be gone again. You know, you can’t help but be grateful for that, and everyone that made it happen.” The volunteers work long and hard to give the mushers a chance at the best race possible, and that effort does not go unnoticed. 

Local kids enjoying getting a hands on look at dogs

Huslia kids enjoying a hands on look at sled dogs. Future mushers in the making? Photo Credit: Iditarod

For Sass the volunteer experience is one he hopes is inspirational as well.  “I started as a volunteer for the Yukon Quest in 2000.  As I watched people coming in and out of the check-ins I got really addicted to wanting to run the race.  Part of me is like the nicer I am to [the volunteers] maybe I’ll inspire somebody else to want to go out and [race] as well. I want to leave a good impression on that kid that’s out there watching in Kaltag.  It’s really important we are very positive and appreciative of all the people out on the trail helping to make the race happen.”  By showing gratitude Sass is hoping to also grow the sport. That is how gratitude works isn’t it?  When we are truly thankful for the gifts we are given, somehow it always comes back around to bless us with more kindness in return.

Jody Bailey thanks Orchid in Nome. Photo Credit: Iditarod

Indigenous author Robin Wall Kimmerer states in her book Braiding Sweetgrass, “we all know the power of gratitude to incite a cycle of reciprocity.”  An education example is when a student tells me “I love library. It is my favorite special. Thank you for making it so fun Mrs. Westrich.” That expression of gratitude ignites a fire in me.  I respond to their “thank you” by making sure the next class is an even better lesson, and I work hard to find that child the perfect book, and I work to improve my teaching so I can live up to their vision of me. “Appreciation begets abundance” according to Kimmerer.  When a volunteer is thanked it is an expression that their efforts were truly seen, and when we are seen we want to be caught doing our absolute best.

Nome dog lot hands. Photo Credit: Iditarod

Long-time Iditarod volunteer Kathleen Janczak knows all about the gratitude of thankful mushers.  She runs the dog lot in Nome, keeping track of, and watching over, all the canine finishers as they wait to be returned to their homes.  This monumental task is mapped out with the precision of a drill sergeant, and enacted with good humor, flexibility, and grace necessary to deal with the unexpected.  Several years ago it was clear that those volunteering in Nome needed an “office” at the dog lot, to get out of the elements, and also keep organized. The grateful mushers stepped up. Ray Redington, Jr.  worked to get an enclosure, Aaron Burmeister helped with construction, along with musher Scott Janssen.  A team effort to support the team of volunteers who support the mushers; another reminder that gratitude is cyclical.

The volunteers’ passion for Iditarod can’t be matched. It keeps the race moving forward.  Like any volunteer position, one done from the heart, born of true passion, Kathleen acknowledges that she gains as much from the race as she gives to it.  An unexpected encounter at the airport on arrival turned into a decades long friendship, mushers are known on a first-name basis; even her wedding to husband and fellow volunteer Tim, was held at the Nome dog lot!

Tim and Kathleen met as volunteers, were married in dog lot in Nome, and are still 100%.  Photo Credit: Iditarod

This month the lesson plan is called “Who Pulls the Sled?”  We all know that the dogs pull the Iditarod sleds, but if they arrived at a checkpoint without the volunteers who had so painstakingly sorted, shipped, and stored the food bags, their race would end right there.  The lesson looks at the volunteer jobs necessary to make the Iditarod run smoothly; then challenges you to work as a class to create your own “sled” pulled by the unsung helpers in your school.  Consider the alternative if individuals didn’t show up to make lunches, or clean classrooms, or supervise recess?  How are these people “pulling the sled” of your school to reach the end of the year successfully?  Then take time to express that gratitude; show those around you that they make the school, district, community, or race, better.  

Click HERE for the full Lesson Plan: Who Pulls the Sled?

Jr. musher, Calvin Daugherty, drives a team of Jim Lanier’s Northern Whites sled dogs. Photo Credit: Iditarod

Library Learnings: I simply adore the book Thank You, Omu! By Oge Mora to talk about gratitude with students.  In this story everyone can smell Omu’s delicious stew and stops in for a taste. She shares generously and in the end has no stew for herself – until her neighbors thank her with a banquet of delightful treats. It is about food, community, and appreciation. If you’ve been following along with my Teacher on the Trail posts you can see how this story hits all the lessons I’ve shared recently – indigenous comfort foods, the coming together of the Iditarod family, and truly thanking those who have shared their gifts with us.