Iditarod volunteers make a difference
It’s natural to attribute the howling success of the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race to its dogs and mushers, but the event might not happen without its volunteers.
My husband, Justin, and I worked with the Iditarod in 2022, and it was exhilarating to be the backbone of something so big, in conjunction with so many other passionate people.
Janis Young, from Washington, says she’s been volunteering for 22 years because it’s a big reunion. “The dogs, people, mushers, villagers, snow, cold, storms, lack of sleep, hard work, northern lights…I look forward to seeing my Iditarod family each year. It just feels good to help put on this race.”
Young is just one of the nearly 2,000 people who come from near and far each year to help with the challenging logistics of running the Iditarod in early March. Volunteer crews hold various responsibilities—communications, logistics, shuttle drivers, trail crew, veterinarians, dog handlers, pilots and more—with the lion’s share of work at the start and restart, and the rest scattered along the checkpoints.
Jennifer Dowling, race comms and trail coordinator, noted that volunteer numbers dipped recently, thanks in part to COVID. In 2021, there were quarantines, and in 2022, mandatory vaccinations for all humans.
On top of that, some folks might be deterred by of the sheer amount of work. There’s no sugar-coating the volunteer experience. In fact, on paper, it sounds downright crazy.
For one, there’s a huge time commitment. Justin and I volunteered at Galena’s checkpoint in 2022, so we were tied up for more than seven days.
While in Galena, we persisted through days of sleep deprivation and back-breaking work, while fully suited up with piled on gear to brave the temperatures.
We were assigned “trail crew,” meaning we helped park the incoming dog teams and brought them their resupply bags, straw, and heat. Then, when the teams left, we cleaned up the dirty straw, leftover food and, of course, dog poop. While the arctic weather can be notoriously awful, we got lucky; it only dropped to 20 below.
That said, the experience filled a bucket list item I didn’t even know I had.
Despite the fact I am not a dog person, (I might be the only Alaskan who is not) who wouldn’t fall in love with those furballs, with their piercing blue eyes, and fat tongues hanging out of their wide canine grins? Volunteering gave me a firsthand look at these lean athletes who are truly awe-inspiring four-legged beasts. On top of that, I witnessed mushers dedicated to their dogs in the roles of nutritionist, physical therapist, massage therapist, parent, and best friend. Most of the hours mushers spent at our checkpoint were in care of their pups: massaging creamy ointment into 64 paws and putting the canines before themselves.
Another enormous benefit of the volunteer experience was seeing Alaska Native villages that had otherwise been inaccessible. Galena is a pinprick of civilization on a quilt of undeveloped land. The locals are passionate and dedicated to the race, and they deliver a huge welcome to all the volunteers.
Will I ever be a dog person and learn to love the smell of wet dog? No. But I will be back to volunteer as many years as I can.
As you plan your future travel to Alaska, consider the unique experience of being an Iditarod volunteer. As a first step, sign up on the Iditarod website (iditarod.com/volunteers) to express your interest. Then the volunteer coordinator will get in touch to see how you might fit into the annual March event.
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