Going Mental

How do we know where we are and how is knowing our environment an advantage?

Geography, Arts, Language

In 2013 Joar won the coveted Iditarod Rookie of the Year Award. A Rookie is a person racing that has never finished the race before. No Rookie have ever won the race (but in the very first iditarod 42 years ago ); and rarely do they make the top-ten or even top-twenty finisher list, which added to why it was such a big deal that Joar finished on a 7th place. It is a huge advantage for Iditarod mushers to have experienced the trail and what is ahead of them both in the actual maneuvering of their team down the trail, but maybe even more so in the strategizing on the trail; experienced mushers draw heavily on their mental maps. When it comes to knowing where we are in the world, we all create and depend on mental maps. These are the maps we think with. Mental maps are important geographic and cultural tools because they help us store and recover information and connect with places, events, environments and people. In traditional cultures, mental was and largely still is the most important tool in navigation.

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1) There are 69 mushers at the start line in the 2014 iditarod race, each of them running a team of 16 dogs. We can follow the teams live on the GPS tracker at Iditarod.com; this is the screen shot images that are posted in the updates by team member Mille Porsild.

Go to the tracker map at Iditarod.com ( or check out the screenshots of the tracker in the updates here at RacingBeringia.com ). Discuss as a class what is this? What is a map? Where do maps come from?

2) Share with students that the first map of Alaska was made by the Danish Captain Vitus Bering as he lead an expedition through the Bering Strait for the Russians. Bering was not the first to discover this region, but he was the first to map it. The first explorers here came more than 10000 years earlier — they are the ancestors of the native people of this region today: the Yupik, the Inupiaq Eskimo in Alaska and the Chukchi people in Chukotka.

These people found their way around without having the place mapped first. Talk about how they did that? How did earlier peoples know where they were going without maps, or Google Earth!?

3) Open up the map of the Iditarod route. Share that many of the checkpoints along the route are native communities: Athabascan Native American, Yupik and Inupia Eskimo communities. Native peoples do not traditionally use maps—they follow the easy routes on the land that are passed on from generation to generation, following markers on the land. This is also called mental mapping.

Ask students, how do they know where they are, and where they are going most of the time every day? What they are using are their mental maps–such maps are models in our mind, the images and memories of places and events that we carry in our heads — Ask students to identify their mental maps ?

4) Create a class list — such as their rooms, the local store, your town, places they have visited, even places they have never been but that they know information about.

5) Talk about the importance of these maps!? Mental maps are important geographic and cultural tools because they are how we make sense of the world. they help us store and recover information and connect with places, events, environments and people. These are the maps we think with.

6) Talk about how mental maps help us navigate as individuals, but also are shared between people to communicate the location of something: “It’s directly across the street from the general store.” This (relational) system works great as long as the landmark descriptions are distinct and sufficient for a listeners to navigate. What is a landmark?

Have students give examples.. such as mountain or river, a stop sign or a building of particular color. Landmarks can also be places of historical or cultural importance.

7) Students make their own mental maps; provide guidelines as you see fit to your group: the map can be of the route within their home or school to get to their room, places they usually go places where friends and family live, favorite places, places they have traveled to. Hang up the maps to share and discuss:

– As a class create a list of the landmarks that students used.

– How all the maps are alike — such as areas and features shown, detail, spatial arrangement.

– How are the maps alike?

– What might a map tell you about the person that drew it?

Conclude the comparison by discussing how the maps are formed from experience; how they contain information about the person and the place (geographic and cultural information) and that our mental maps need not be standardized to be valuable.

8) Ask students to consider the importance of mental mapping in a race like the Iditarod? If they were racing for a distance, say 1 mile — do they think it would be an advantage to them if they had seen the route before? Why, why not?

Share with students that some mushers have traveled the trail +20, even 30 times. Others have never done it before. The mushers that have never finished the race are called Rookies. In 2013, Joar was Rookie of the Year: talk about what this means!?

In a way Joar is still a Rookie — the Iditarod trail alternates route every two years, running a southern and a northern route. Last year Joar ran the southern route; this year he is on the norther route. The race is the same for about 2/3 of the way but changes and will be new to Joar from Ophir to Kaltag.

Individually or as a class, look at the Iditarod route map and determine which communities will be new to Joar and the dogs!? Do students think being a Rookie to a trail makes the musher change or plan his or her race strategy different than a veteran of the trail? Why, why not?

Share with students that a large number of the team of Joar’s dogs ran on his team last year too. Is this an advantage — why, why not? Share that musher have no doubt that the dogs actually remember the trail from year to year!

9) Can students think of a way new mushers to the Iditarod race can try to learn more about the route before they run their first race? Every year in the last many years, the Iditarod race have released an Iditarod movie. Share with students that Joar has watched every one of those movies many many times–why do they think he does that? It is an advantage for him — why, why not?

10) On the Iditarod site there is a detailed description of the Iditarod route. Each student select a section to read; and from the description draws a map. Share this map online at RacingBeringia.com — maybe Joar will share how accurate he thinks the maps are!

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