Iditarod Sled Dog Race Teacher on the Trail Martha Dobson recently rewarded J.J Jones Intermediate school students interest in the event with a presentation from her unique perspective as a participant.
Dobson was the Teacher on the Trail in 2011 and has been involved with the race to some degree for seven years.
According to Reading Specialist Cindy Wilson, Dobson saw an article on the students’ Mini Iditarod Dog Sled Race in the Mount Airy News and asked if she could come and give the students in grades 3-5 even more information on the race. The schools mini Iditarod is organized by Wilson as part of the after-school enrichment program.
Dobson lives in Mount Pleasant and shares an enthusiasm for the event with the students.
“There’s something about seeing dogs that gets your attention,” said Dobson. “The fascination increases when you talk about sled dogs. This is especially true here. It’s unique.” She said she was inspired to witness the Iditarod by the book Wood Songs by Gary Paulsen, which chronicled his sled dog race experiences. Dobson said she attended a talk by the children’s book author and went to Alaska to see the race for herself. She found out about the teacher on the trail program at the race’s web site.
“I decided to make applying for that my goal and that’s really when I became involved,” remembered Dobson. “I became the red lantern teachers on the trail, ” said Dobson, referring to the Red Lantern award given the last musher and team across the line in recognition of perseverance.
Dobson said being the teacher on the trail was an “awesome experience” and bringing that back to classrooms across the nation is another great experience for her.
“It’s not just teaching what it is. It’s organizing all the information the race generates to support the skills students need to learn,” added Dobson, who said part of her presentation to Jones students included contrasting the vastness of Alaska to North Carolina.
“I told them there aren’t roads built from village to village in Alaska,” explained Dobson. “It’s like being able to drive around in Mount Airy but you can’t drive to Dobson.” Another part of the presentation included film footage shot from inside a dog sled during a ceremonial start before the race which gave students a musher’s eye view of the race.
Dobson used her slide presentation to take students along the race route and showed them what mushers do at checkpoints and how they care for their dogs. She said most of the workers on the race are volunteers. She also told the students little-known Iditarod facts.
“There is an Iditarod Air Force,” said Dobson. “It is an all volunteer group of bush pilots who use their own planes to fly supplies and support missions for the race. This is done because their are only two airports big enough for large planes near the race course.” She said veterinarians from around the world volunteer their talents to keep watch and treat sled dogs.
“I’ve done this presentation for groups from seniors to first graders and they are all interested in the same things,” said Dobson. “They want to know what the Iditarod is, how it works, what it looks like and how cold it is.” She said one of the best ways to demonstrate the cold is to show the protective gear she wore for the race. She said she has been in temperatures 20 degrees Fahrenheit below zero.
Dobson said teachers are only allowed to serve once as the official teacher on the trail where pictures and information are posted on the Internet. She has since offered her services as a communications volunteer which coordinates documenting mushers’ arrival and departure times, a crucial part of the adopt a musher program which many local schools participate in.
The veteran English teacher admits she was “bit by the bug” for the race in 2002 and has enjoyed contact with its participants.
“I still struggle from not having two words other than awesome and cool to replace much of what I feel about the Iditarod,” said Dobson. “I truly admire the mushers who are tremendous athletes and they are much more accessible than other professional athletes. There’s trust between them and their dogs with them trusting the dogs’ instincts at certain times and the dogs trusting them to care for them. It takes a special type of person and I couldn’t do it. They have to have a huge amount of self reliance and confidence to compete.”
Perhaps the most important lesson for students is the Red Lantern award. Dobson explained that every participant in the Iditarod is honored just for finishing the grueling race.
“Everyone is honored from first to last place. The Red Lantern Award goes to who finishes in last place,” said Dobson. “It is given in recognition of perseverance. There is respect for every finisher and it is recognition for their efforts. This has a direct application to school. I tell the students they must be like the mushers. Just because you don’t get there first you don’t quit.”
Reach David Broyles at firstname.lastname@example.org or 719-1952.