The Learning Trail
Lifelong educator Juli Westrich gets an opportunity she’d only ever dreamed of with the famed Iditarod race.
by Caite Hamilton
The story of how Juli Westrich, M.A.T. ’98, became the Iditarod’s 2023 Teacher on the Trail starts at a Build-A-Bear. Her middle daughter, Claire, at 2 1/2 had picked a stuffed husky to take home during a trip to the store for a cousin’s birthday. She named him Ruffy, and he quickly became a member of the family.
Soon Westrich was hosting dog-sledding-themed birthday parties, baking husky-shaped cakes and, by the time Claire had turned 8, the whole family was crowding around the television each March to watch the live-streamed start of the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race, a highly competitive 938-mile trek across the state of Alaska powered entirely by malamute or husky dogs like Ruffy (only real). They couldn’t have known that, more than 15 years after the obsession began, they would be watching the race in person.
Westrich had never heard of the Iditarod before her daughter became so curious about it, but she was accustomed to diving into diverse subjects. While an undergrad at American University studying history and literature, she landed an internship at the National Archives and began spending her days researching in the stacks.
It turned out that what she’d assumed would be her “dream job” wasn’t for her. She loved learning, but as a self-proclaimed people person, she couldn’t see spending her career in a room by herself, day in, day out.
She went across the street to intern at the United States Navy Memorial Museum and had her lightbulb moment.
“Oh, this is what I'm meant to do,” Westrich recalled realizing. “I’m supposed to take the information and help disseminate it, not just find it.”
She graduated from American and applied to GW’s Graduate School of Education and Human Development for her master’s in museum education, a one-year program that eventually led to teaching pre-K kids through the Smithsonian Early Enrichment Center, followed by a position at Discovery Creek Children’s Museum in Washington, D.C. She did everything from holding a 6-foot-long boa constrictor in an evening gown (“I was in the evening gown, not the snake” is her go-to joke) to leaping down the National Mall like a Degas dancer—all in the name of education.
By her 40th birthday, Westrich was back in her home state of New York, now with a young family and studying to become a librarian. The new career path combined all the things she’d loved about her previous positions—working with kids, object-based learning and the bandwidth to dream up new ways to engage and educate students.
“My ability as a librarian is greatly enhanced by my master’s in museum education,” she said. “I'm a very different librarian than a lot of my peers because I have that kind of inquiry and object-based learning background.”
Her new position also gave her an opportunity to continue teaching something she’d been sharing with preschoolers since her time at the Smithsonian: the Iditarod.
Westrich’s love of the “Last Great Race” came to its peak in 2020 when she applied to become a Teacher on the Trail. She’d been aware of the Iditarod’s education program for years, but being selected for the job felt like an unrealistic goal. The volunteer position requires weekly lesson planning, evening and weekend availability for Zoom calls with teachers, and finally, a visit to Alaska in March to be at various checkpoints with the mushers. It was a big commitment. But with two of her daughters already off to college, she decided to go for it.
By February 2022, Westrich was boarding a plane to Alaska to meet the other two finalists and present at the organization’s annual educators’ conference. She got the call last spring: She’d earned the position.
Westrich had some idea of what to expect when she finally made it out on the trail—the race and all of its intricacies had loomed large in her academic and personal life for more than a decade by that point. (And on a purely practical level, the organization had warned her by sending a bundle of cold-weather gear, including boots with three-inch soles to withstand the snow, before her visit.)
She knew that the race—during which athletes travel across Alaska, from Anchorage to Nome, led entirely by a team of sled dogs—was conceived in 1964, after a chairman of the Wasilla-Knik Centennial, Dorothy Page, became intrigued that the trail could only be traversed by dogs and not automobiles. Page proposed a race over the Iditarod Trail—the same trail used by Alaskan settlers following a gold strike in the 1920s—and, in 1967, the Iditarod commenced.
Juli Westrich strikes a pose at the finish line of the 2023 Iditarod race in Nome, Alaska.
Westrich’s daughter Claire made the journey to Alaska with her in February 2022 and again in 2023 for the culmination of the yearlong Teacher on the Trail commitment—a dream come true for both mother and daughter.
“The incredible abilities of those canine athletes was jaw-dropping,” Claire said, recalling the opportunity to be a dog-handler volunteer. “To be able to get up close with the dogs and to help a musher start his arduous journey to Nome was the realization of all my childhood dreams.” For Westrich, it’s a little harder to pin down the best part. Ask her to do so, and she simply can’t.
She’ll name the food she ate (moose, caribou, musk ox, and herring eggs on sea kelp) and the pinch-me moments (sleeping in an elementary school library, playing golf on the frozen Bering Sea, meeting 39-time Iditarod finisher Martin Buser). She’ll also recall the ways in which she was able to participate rather than just observe: training to handle the dogs, riding a snow machine 32 miles across a foggy Knik Lake to meet junior mushers at their first checkpoint and presenting the Red Lantern Award to the last finisher.
You get the sense that, for a polymath like Westrich, each of those things finds an equally important spot in her consciousness. It’s all a lesson. Anything is cool and interesting if you can share it in the right way, she says.
For Westrich (and a lot of other educators), the Iditarod serves as a kind of learning theme. It creates an entry point across subjects, such as using Alaska’s Northern Lights in a science lesson, or studying how the last frontier was formed for a social studies unit on the United States.
As Teacher on the Trail, Westrich acted as the Iditarod’s educational ambassador, developing lesson plans and connecting with schools across the country. She began each month with a social emotional learning post (one of the last ones emphasized the importance of multigenerational learning, for instance). Around the 10th, she’d post a more general lesson plan, with materials and reading suggestions, and toward the end of the month, finish with lessons built around diversity, inclusion and identity.
“It's not teaching the Iditarod necessarily as a unit of study,” she said. “It's 'How can we use the Iditarod to help teach the rest of the curriculum?'”
It’s a frame of mind that’s rubbed off on Claire, who’s currently in her second year at Mount Holyoke College.
“The Teacher on the Trail journals have continuously proven that the Iditarod can be viewed, experienced and understood through a number of different lenses,” Claire said. “Dog mushing really is a sport for everyone, and the race is so culturally rich that it’d be difficult to not have it influence my own education.”
Courtesy of Juli Westrich