The Iditarod sled dog race is underway in Alaska and the students in Joy Yoakum’s second-grade class have studied up and are cheering for their choice of musher to win.
The students are charting the course and marking off the progress of the race that started in Fairbanks last Monday.
The winner may reach Nome by Tuesday.
Yoakum, retiring in June, said she has presented an Iditarod unit in her classes for 15 years as a platform for learning about many topics.
“We call it a cross-curricular unit,” Yoakum said. “It is so exciting for the kids and they get so much information out of doing everything. This brings in math, geography and social studies.”
She introduces the unit a week before the race and the students look at the entries and select a musher to cheer.
“Then the race runs 10 to 15 days and we follow it to the end because they want to see how their musher does,” she said. “I talk to them about who the main entries are and who has performed well in the past. Nathan selected musher Nathan Schroeder because he has the same name.”
The students had a treat Friday when local musher Brandi Williamson brought her equipment, including two sleds and three of her dogs, to school.
Williamson, with her husband and two sons, own the BY DOG kennel in Corvallis. She owns 10 Siberian huskies, competes in races and just enjoys mushing.
They are part of the Bitterroot Mushers, the group that puts on the local sled dog competitions.
Williamson said she first tried mushing about nine years ago.
“I had a friend who said she had an extra sled and a lead dog so I tried it and said, ‘Yeah, we’re doing this,’” she said. “It is addictive if you do it once.”
Williamson cautioned that it is a lifestyle.
“You’re doing it 24/7 and you’ve got to really like picking up dog poop,” she said. “The dogs are self-grooming except for just around their collar.”
Williamson shared the good aspects and the hazards of racing. She shared the tools of the trade with the students, including dog booties.
“You put these on the dog’s feet to protect them,” she said. “I don’t have to put them on my dog’s feet because we don’t run far and I run Siberians - they have tough feet. I have the booties because sometimes we do need them.”
Williamson described a piece of equipment called snow hooks as “emergency parking breaks for sleds.”
“You have to have snow or it doesn’t work,” she said. “This digs into the snow and so you need deep snow. I guess you could hook it around a little tree.”
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The students have been watching videos of the mushers and knew them by name. They had also read all the books Williamson recommended.
Williamson brought a special two-section cooking pot used by mushers. The students already knew what the large cooking pot was for and how to use it.
“In the Iditarod they rely on it being cold,” Williamson said. “When it has been not cold, above the temperature of a freezer, it causes problems. They send food to all the checkpoints and if it is warm, it thaws it and the food goes bad. But the mushers need this two-section cooking pot so they can warm up the food.”
Williamson said she initially bought the cooking pot because she was gearing up to participate in the Race to the Sky, Montana’s premier sled dog race held each year in February.
She has not done it yet.
“The big problem is I don’t have enough dogs right now for those big races,” she said. “The big races take 12 to 16 dogs.”
The students were thrilled to hear that Williamson’s 4-year-old son competed in his first sled dog race this year.
“They have pee-wee races so little kids can do it, too,” she said. “I’ve brought his sled to show you. We host a pee-wee race in January and we’ll even provide the sled and dogs if you want to race.”
Williamson showed magazines featuring the many forms of mushing including bike jore, dry land mushing, Iditarod, skijoring with dogs or horses, and fan harnesses used over flat tundra or crevasses.
Williamson said she was cheering for Aliy Zirkle and a big cheer went up as several students had also selected her. Other top picks included Jessie Royer (in third place as of Friday), Jeff King, Dallas Seavey and Scott Smith.
“The thing with the Iditarod is you don’t know who won until it is over,” Williamson said. “Lots of stuff changes during the race. Some mushers have to drop out because their dogs aren’t feeling well. Some mushers come from way in the back. A lot of stuff happens.”
The class went outside where there were a few piles of snow but temperatures were nearly 60 degrees.
It was windy but that did not stop curiosity.
Williamson showed the gear that mushers wear and taught how to load a sled. She brought out three gray-and-white Siberians from their cozy trailer stalls. Children could climb on the sleds and pet the dogs, who were appreciative of neck rubs.
The students had learned the details and names of the positions of the dogs in their stations in front of the sled: wheel dogs, swing dogs and lead dogs.
Yoakum said her Iditarod unit takes about two and a half weeks total.
“It is such a fun unit,” Yoakum said. “I mean, who doesn’t love dogs, competition and snow? The Iditarod has it all.”