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The Iditarod: The Last Great Race


Alaska's annual Iditarod Dogsled Race is a perfectly "teachable moment." Wise teachers use the race and the many Web sites connected with it to teach geography, math, reading, and language arts. More than that, this annual race can teach students a thing or two about fairness in competition and about the pride and dignity that comes with seeing a job through to its completion. Included: Iditarod activities for use across the grades!

Have you considered using the Iditarod as a teaching tool? Are you unfamiliar with all the Iditarod resources available on the World Wide Web? Then you've come to the right place. Below you'll find an avalanche of activities and Web sites that are perfect for teachers to use in bringing the Iditarod to life in their classrooms.


Commemorating a 76-year-old act of heroism, the modern Iditarod Sled Dog Race has been run since Joe Reddington Sr. reawakened interest in 1971. There are many ways to examine the beauty of this historic event, but the best thing about "The Great Race" for teachers is its many connections across the curriculum.

What a great way to spark enthusiasm in students who are suffering through the winter doldrums!

Consider the geography of our northernmost state, its weather, the history and culture of the Inuit people, and the race itself. Consider also the care of the dogs, the science of sledding, the strategies of racing, and the math of elapsed time over distance. Then there are the health concerns of people facing the harshest of nature's elements, the natural link to current events, and the numerous opportunities for writing that spring forth from this two-week event. The list of potential curriculum tie-ins is endless!


The most obvious Iditarod classroom tie-in is geography. Students can follow the race on a wall map hung in the classroom -- or outside the classroom door, so all students in the school can follow along!

Maps of the trail can be found at the Official Website of the Iditarod Sled Dog Race. I grid a printout of the map, and from that I create a larger proportional grid on a display board by gluing side-by-side two large sheets of art board. (The display map ends up measuring about 36 inches by 108 inches.) Students work in turns copying one block of the map from the printout onto the corresponding larger block on the wall map. It's a wonderfully kinesthetic way to have your students experience the concept of map scale!

Upon completing the wall map, a math activity comparing the area of one block on the small map with that of one block on the wall map is a great reinforcement lesson in the numerical meaning of map scales.

Then comes the work of labeling the Denali Mountains, the various rivers and the Klondike itself, as well as the bodies of water off coastal Alaska. Once the physical features are in place on the map, the labeling of the major cities and towns -- and the stops along the trail -- completes this mapping activity. Students can add a legend, a compass rose, and any other details before displaying the wall map for the start of the race.


Both the Official Iditarod Site and offer online musher biographies. Those career summaries offer the inside scoop on everyone registered to start in Anchorage. (Actually, the start in Anchorage is ceremonial in nature -- the official start is a few miles up the trail in Wasilla.) Students can peruse the biographies and photographs of the entrants and select a particular team they are interested in following through the duration of the race.

This process can take anywhere from a day to a week, depending on how detailed the students' musher biographies get. But once you have accomplished this task, each student has a vested interest in following the race and learning its outcome.

A nice extension of this activity is to make a template of a musher's team (usually no bigger than an inch by 2 inches in size), or have students create their own small facsimiles of a dog team out of tagboard and label them with their names. Each student can place his/her own team on the wall map and reposition their team as the race progresses.


Nothing is a better hook to get students interested in the Iditarod than an up-close-and-personal look at the sled dogs. I highly recommend the AKC Alaskan Malamute page as a noteworthy authority on the breed.

This study can be a nice extension to an animal science unit if you time it to coincide with the March race.

You might also opt to locate a malamute or husky in your area and invite the owner to visit your class with his/her dog so your students can appreciate the breed first hand.


Both aforementioned Iditarod sites offer an avalanche of wonderful online resources, mostly free of charge. None of those resources is more valuable than the actual updates posted during the race. With your wall map and miniature dog teams in place, your students committed to following individual mushers, and a well developed background on the dogs, you're ready to receive updates at least twice a day (and more often if you are interested) online. Those postings list every musher, the last checkpoint reached, the next checkpoint they will arrive at, and the times of their entrances and exits at each stop along the way.

With every update you post next to the wall map, students can indicate the progress of their mushers by moving their teams along the map. This provides a nice visual representation of what's occurring in real time in the race.

This is also the opportune time to examine musher strategies. Each musher must take at least one extended layover at a checkpoint of his/her choosing and two shorter layovers to rest the dogs and make sure they are properly cared for. The question becomes, When does each team make their stop, and how does this decision affect the outcome of the race? Conventional wisdom has been to take the longest stops early and then make a mad dash for Nome. But Doug Swingley has recently demonstrated that a strong early push with the longest layover during the final leg of the race can also be a victorious strategy. Children love problem solving while considering the variables of time and distance to determine which mushers make the best use of their required stops without losing ground to the competition.


Want to take the thrill of the chase to a new level in your reading program? Have a replica trail map in your room with each student's name on a small image of a sled dog. Start them off in Anchorage and have them read, read, READ their way to Nome! Each page read can equal a mile on the trail (or if you use the Accelerated Reader program, each point earned can equal 5 miles on the trail). Move the students' dogs along as they read through the month of March. As students accumulate 1,000 miles, recognize them for completing the race.

Imagine the strategies students can employ when it comes to making book selections and devoting time to reading in their efforts to complete this activity!


The opportunities for math applications while students follow the Iditarod are many and varied. Anyone teaching the upper elementary grades knows the challenge of teaching elapsed time to children in traditional ways. Consider the possibilities of having motivated Iditarod fans crunching numbers on the times in and out of checkpoints and the distances between checkpoints, calculating elapsed times for specific distances, or figuring cumulative totals. The longer the race lasts, the more raw data students will have to work with!

Another angle that ties into strategy is the number of dogs each musher uses at each stage of the race. Mushers use 16 or more dogs to pull the sled from Anchorage to the base of the Denali Mountains (in the shadow of Mount McKinley). But as the teams spread out across the Klondike, mushers whittle numbers down to an average of six dogs in order to increase speed on the open, fast tundra. The ratio of dogs to speed in elapsed time is a fairly accurate indicator of the success each musher is having on the trail.

What of those dogs removed from the team at a checkpoint in the middle of nowhere? you ask. A group of local amateur pilots known lovingly as the "Iditarod Air Force" flies to checkpoints to drop off mail and supplies and to pick up dogs left there.


The Iditarod presents many excellent opportunities for integrating language arts.

Language Arts Ideas
Explore many ideas in the official teachers' area of the Iditarod site.

Iditarod in the Classroom: Language Arts Activities
Many ideas for extending the Iditarod learning experience.

No discussion of language arts and the Iditarod would be complete without mention of author Gary Paulsen and his wonderfully written books about dogsledding. Paulsen's dogsledding books include Dogteam, Dogsong, and Woodsong.

You might check out a fabulous integrated unit for teaching Woodsong.


In the end, what is most striking about the Iditarod is that it isn't a race that emphasizes winning at all. The Iditarod is about surviving. Every team that makes it to Nome successfully is a winner in its own right. In fact, the race isn't officially over until the Red Lantern -- the very last team -- makes it to Nome. This is important because even though there's an element of competition that motivates children to some degree, the lesson in the end goes beyond the integrated subject areas we choose to teach. Students see first hand the pride and dignity that comes with seeing a job through to its completion, every musher on their own terms with the frozen trail.

The Iditarod shares its time slot with Women's History Month. Be sure to visit the Women of the Iditarod ThinkQuest site.

Article by Walter McKenzie
Education World®
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Last updated 03/09/2015