The Last Great Race: Teaching the Iditarod

Iditarod ceremonial start in Anchorage, Alaska. Photo courtesy of Travis S., subject to a Creative Commons license

Known as the “Last Great Race,” the Iditarod is a race across the beautiful yet rough terrain of Alaska. Covering more than 1,150 miles, mushers and their dogs cross frozen rivers, dense forest, rocky mountains, desolate tundra, and windswept coast in anywhere from 10 to 17 days. Running the Iditarod means enduring subzero temperatures, snow storms, wildlife encounters, and other unexpected difficulties.

The Iditarod begins with a ceremonial start in downtown Anchorage, Alaska. Mushers and their teams race to Eagle River, Alaska. The next day, the race restarts in the rural town of Willow. Before 2002, the restart was held in the Matanuska Valley at Wasilla, but warmer winters, less snow, and tremendous development in the area have led race officials to make the change each year. In 2008, officials announced that the Willow restart would become a permanent change in the face of global warming and continuous development. Also changed is the first leg – traditionally spanning 18 miles from Anchorage to Eagle River. From 2008 onward, the first day of the race will cover only 11 miles.The Iditarod web site has an interactive map that shows the route and also marks the positions of the mushers throughout the race.

The Iditarod alternates between two routes. This year, as in all even years, will follow the northern route through the villages of Cripple, Ruby, and Galena. Odd-numbered years follow the southern route through Shageluk, Anvik, and the ghost-town of Iditarod. Alternating routes decreases the impact of the large numbers of press and volunteers needed for the race and allows additional villages to participate.

Robert Sorlie. Photo courtesy of ra64, subject to a Creative Commons license.

History of the Iditarod

The Iditarod trail was historically used as a mail, supply, and gold route from coastal towns such as Seward and Knick to the interior mining camps of Flat, Ophir, and Ruby. The trail continued to the west coast communities of Unalakleet, Elim, Golovin, White Mountain, and Nome.

The Iditarod trail became famous in 1925, when a diphtheria epidemic threatened the community of Nome. A dog sled relay transported life-saving serum from Anchorage to Nome.

The Iditarod race has been run yearly since 1973. Always an important event to Alaskans, it has gained international popularity through competitors from Canada and Scandinavian countries, extensive press coverage, and the inclusion in classrooms around the world.

Why Teach about the Iditarod?

Even if you aren’t in Alaska, the Iditarod makes a great addition to your teaching practice! Teaching about the race is an opportunity to incorporate geography lessons, map skills, science concepts, and literacy skills into a real-world context. And there’s no denying the appeal of hundreds of hard-working, lovable dogs to children and adults!

Sled dog. Photo courtesy of Flauto, subject to a Creative Commons license.

Additionally, the common practice of having each student follow a musher through the race provides invaluable practice in reading expository texts (newspaper accounts) and using the real-time data available online.

Incorporating the Iditarod race can meet standards in a variety of content areas. We’ve highlighted some of the science, English language arts, geography, and social studies standards that you might fulfill while teaching about the race.

National Science Education Standards

Life Science Content Standard: Organisms and Environments (K-4) ; Populations and ecosystems (5-8)

Science in Personal and Social Perspectives Content Standard: Changes in environments (K-4); Populations, resources, and environments (5-8) (Read the entire National Science Education Standards online for free or register to download the free PDF. The content standards are found in Chapter 6.)

National Council of Teachers of English/International Reading Association Standards

Standard 1: Read a wide range of print and nonprint text to acquire new information.
Standard 3: Apply a wide range of strategies to comprehend, interpret, evaluate, and appreciate text.
Standard 4: Communicate effectively with a variety of audiences and for different purposes.
Standard 5: Write and use different process elements.
Standard 6: Create, critique, and discuss print and nonprint texts.
Standard 7: Conduct, research and gather, evaluate and synthesize data.
Standard 8: Use a variety of technological and informational resources.
Standard 12: Use spoken, written, and visual language to accomplish their own purposes.

National Geography Standards

Standard 1: How to use maps and other geographic representations, tools, and technologies to acquire, process, and report information.
Standard 4: The physical and human characteristics of places.
Standard 12: The process, patterns, and functions of human settlement.

National Social Studies Standards

People, Places, and Environments Strand: Social studies programs should include experiences that provide for the study of people, places, and environments.

Photo courtesy of EDubya; subject to a Creative Commons license.

Teaching the Concepts

The official Iditarod web site offers many resources for educators, including lesson plans and activities. We’ve highlighted some of these, plus others from Scholastic’s Iditarod web page. Education World also devotes an entire page to integrating the Iditarod across the curriculum. The Bering Strait School District has created a wiki page with a long list of educational resources.

Geography and Map Skills

Following the race lends itself well to teaching map skills such as the compass rose, cardinal and intermediate directions, and map scale. A lesson plan from the Iditarod site, Which Way to Nome? , focuses on these types of skills. Additionally, Scholastic has interactive maps of the trails used in even– and odd-numbered years. Simply posting a large map of Alaska and the Iditarod trail in the classroom can provide a context for teaching and practicing geography and maps.


The changing conditions along the trail can provide the basis for inquiry-based activities about weather. The Iditarod Teacher Resources web page provides links to StormReady, curriculum materials for teaching about severe weather and safety. Another lesson plan, How’s the Weather?, combines math and science as students graph temperatures along the trail.

The Alaskan Environment (Integrated geography and science)

The Iditarod trail travels through a variety of environments: mountains, forests, rivers, tundra, and coastline. As the mushers encounter these new environments, students can learn about the plants and animals that live there, and the unique challenges posed by each.

Young Mushers

The Junior Iditarod is an annual 140-mile race that attracts 14- to 17-year-old mushers. It is held in Alaska a week before the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race. Students can read about this race and young mushers at or from the Jr. Iditarod site.

Sled Dogs

Learning about the training and care of the sled dogs is a high interest topic for many students. Scholastic features an interview on the subject with mushers Martin Buser, Mitch Seavey, and Gary Paulsen as well as articles on sled dog nutrition, training a champion sled dog, and animal rights activists’ objections to sled dog racing. All articles are appropriate for use with upper-elementary students. Making an Idita-rockis a craft suitable for all elementary students.

Global Warming

In the past six years, warmer winters and a lack of snow have consistently challenged race officials. Snow has been trucked into Anchorage to create suitable conditions for the ceremonial start, and the restart has been moved from the town of Wasilla to Willow. These two changes are concrete examples for students of how Alaska’s climate is changing, and can serve as the basis for inquiry into why this change is occurring.

Technology Resources

The Iditarod web site also includes many technological features that are appropriate for use with students. Zuma’s Paw Prints is a student-friendly blog written from the perspective of four sled dogs: Zuma, Gypsy, Sanka, and Libby. Another feature, the Iditarod Insider, requires a subscription and features videos, trail fly-bys, and updated race content. Scholastic’s Iditarod web site includes many articles and interactive features. Most are suitable for use with students.

Literacy Connection

The Iditarod provides a wide variety of opportunities for literacy instruction and integration. We’ve highlighted a few ideas here, but don’t let these limit your creativity!

Many teachers have students adopt individual mushers and track their progress through news articles and online resources. This ongoing assignment integrates reading comprehension (reading the newspaper with adult assistance) and visual literacy skills (using tables, charts, and maps). The lesson plan Timeline involves creating a timeline to track the progress of an individual musher.

Students may also create a “musher scrapbook.” This scrapbook could include student-produced work such as a short biography of the musher and hand-drawn illustrations or media objects such as articles clipped from a newspaper or found online, and pictures.

Teachers of younger students may want to select one musher to follow as a class. Students can track progress on a large map displayed in the classroom. Students (or the class as a whole) could write and illustrate a story detailing the musher’s adventures along the path to Nome.

Some teachers and schools use the Iditarod as a reading challenge. Often dubbed the IditaRead, the challenge involves students taking the place of mushers. Students read a prescribed number of pages or minutes per day to advance to the next checkpoint along the Iditarod trail. An IditaRead can be designed as a contest or just a fun way to encourage students to read consistently. Many ideas for an IditaRead, such as this interactive version, are available online.

Writing assignments can also be part of an Iditarod unit. Scholastic includes an online tutorial to help upper-elementary students write persuasive essays on how sled dogs are treated. The Iditarod Teacher Resources page includes a lesson plan and hints for teachers who want their students to write letters to mushers.

Suggested Reading

Booklists are available from both the Iditarod and Scholastic web sites. Rather than duplicate their work, we will simply direct you to their comprehensive and categorized lists! As always, your media specialist may be able to suggest additional titles for use in your classroom, or you may already have your own favorites.

Professional Development Opportunities

The Iditarod also presents several opportunities for professional development. Most prestigious, of course, is to be selected as the Teacher on the Trail. This teacher spends about 3 ½ weeks during race time in Alaska as a member of Iditarod’s educational team. He or she visits schools, presents programs, and flies from checkpoint to checkpoint during the race, reporting to classrooms all over the world via the Internet.

If you’re not the next Teacher on the Trail – don’t worry! Iditarod’s Education Department presents two yearly conferences – one the week before race time and one during the summer. Field trips, authors, Iditarod speakers and mushers provide opportunities to learn about raising and training sled dogs, running the Iditarod, and materials to incorporate these topics into your classroom. University credit is available.

This article was written by Jessica Fries-Gaither. For more information, see the Beyond Penguins and Polar Bears Contributors page. Email Jessica at

Copyright August 2011 – The Ohio State University. This material is based upon work supported by the National Science Foundation under Grant No. 0733024. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation. This work is licensed under an Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported Creative Commons license.