Friday, November 2, 2018

Coming to Iditarod and want to Volunteer?

Volunteering can be one of the most fun and rewarding ways of watching and participating in the Last Great Race. Volunteers are the lifeblood of the Iditarod. Sure, a race doesn't happen without the dog teams and mushers, but to be truly successful the race must have bodies supporting the teams and logistics. Since the earliest days of the race, volunteers have played a pivotal role in insuring the safety and smooth sailing of the Iditarod.

Signing up to volunteer is relatively simple. It's deciding what to sign up for that can be a challenge. Many times volunteers are eager to try anything and everything without thinking of the time and energy each one may or may not take. In this blog we'll look at each option and explain how one becomes a member of that team and if one should apply.

Volunteering is something I have done with the Iditarod since 2004. My grandparents volunteered every year from the time they moved to Anchorage in the mid to late seventies. My grandmother helped check teams into the checkpoint of McGrath one year and was hooked. For well over 30 Iditarods my Grandma and Grandpa over saw a large section of the Anchorage trail for the Ceremonial Start. In the early days this meant they were crowd control, traffic control, and trail upkeep. In 2008 I took over for them and currently head up the crew in the same area my grandparents always have. I've also worked at the Anchorage HQ during the race when they allowed volunteers to man the merchandise tables.

It's hard for me to believe that anyone can be a one and done volunteer. The friendships made are priceless and I love a lot of fellow Idita-Volunteers dearly. Memories made while supporting the Iditarod Sled Dog Race are well worth the price of admission!

All volunteers must be 18 years or older, good with communication, and have a positive attitude. Some volunteer opportunities require physical fitness in order to lift, run, walk, control dogs, etc. Some require computer skills. Still others require lots of work with very little sleep. And of course most of them require standing out in the cold for long periods of time.


There are several places once can volunteer. Anchorage is the easiest location to get to and get around. Most volunteers who are new start in Anchorage and "work their way up" to the harder to reach areas. Anchorage Volunteers are needed several weeks before race start through to the end of Iditarod and a little beyond. Volunteers for Willow are needed on race day only with shifts starting very early in the morning and going through early evening. The most remote locations are, of course, in the checkpoints along the trail. This is also one of the most demanding/challenging of all of the volunteer positions and there are quite a few hoops to jump through to snag one of these coveted positions. Nome is the last major spot one can volunteer during the race. Nome works much like Anchorage in that it has several areas that need people, but the main ones focus on the finish chute.

Anchorage Opportunities

Volunteer opportunities begin in late January with helping with packing and shipping the hundreds of supplies needed to pull a race of this magnitude off. It begins with filling bottles with ointment. This is used by mushers, vets, etc to take care of the dogs' feet. It keeps the pads from cracking in the dry air, as well as deals with any blisters that might form (just like when we hike or run, foot care for dogs are essential). Through out February there are several opportunities in the warehouses to pack up drop bags, straw, and other essentials needing to be shipped out ahead of the race to the checkpoints along the trail.

Everything moves into the Lakefront Hotel around Feb 21 and continues through mid-March.

Volunteer Registration begins Feb 21, and runs through March 8. This is where Volunteers will pick up their credentials. Volunteers are given a hat, badge, and any other identifying paraphernalia for the task they've been assigned. Depending on the day and time this can be a very hectic job. It's located in a small room that is bustling with activity, so much talking, sometimes it can be overwhelming even for those just coming to sign in. This is not a physically taxing job, but it can be exhausting. Keeping a cool head, and a positive attitude is key.

Call Center Volunteers are what the old Comms volunteers were. They answer calls from all over the world to help with all sorts of questions from issues with Insider and the Iditarod website, to questions about the race, the mushers, the sport, etc. If you grew up following the race, these are the people we used to have to call to get updates about our favorite musher back before the lovely invention of the Internet and the GPS trackers. Some of my FAVORITE volunteers work in this area. This is another job that does not require physicality, and shifts run about 4 hours long (though I believe you can extend for longer should you choose). Some days can be fairly slow (especially after the champion comes into Nome), but the week leading up to and the week of the race is sure to be exciting. Most of the race runs in the evening/late night hours so if you're wanting to watch the action unfold in real time via comms, take the late shifts. Training takes place well before the official start of this campaign so that volunteers are confident in their abilities.

Race Communications is the magic behind those lovely musher stat boards we constantly refresh waiting for official check in and check out times throughout the race. Volunteers must have a good grasp of computer programs such as Microsoft Office, especially outlook and word. Race communications are needed both in Anchorage and out on the trail. Anchorage volunteers communicate with the checkpoints to get information in a timely manner to prepare for press releases and other official publications. Training happens a week before the race as well as setting up computers and other equipment. While not a physically demanding job, shifts are 6 hours long and run 24 hours a day and can be stressful when bad connections out on the trail make for getting information difficult. Must be motivated and a team player. Action on the trail typically happens late at night and early morning so keep that in mind if you want to be busy.

Musher's Banquet there are limited volunteer opportunities available, but this might be a good way to attend the banquet without the price tag. Registration shows "hostesses" as the position, and I honestly am unsure of what that job entails, though my assumption is getting guests to their seats and explaining how the silent auction and outcry auction will go. In years past they had volunteers work a merchandise table, but I do not believe that is an option these days. These volunteer positions are most likely one long shift where you will be mostly on your feet, so keep that in mind.

Musher Parking is an early morning gig where you help get teams set up and ready in the staging area in downtown Anchorage. Teams start showing up at 5:00am (no, thank you). You will help check teams in and direct them where they should park. Shift ends at 9am - one hour before go time. This can actually be a lot of fun, but know that you are dealing with mushers and at early morning hours and there's stress so sometimes they can be a little less than stellar. We're all human, just be patient and have a positive attitude and you should be fine. Mushers love their volunteers, but sometimes forget their manners (probably why they all prefer dogs to people?). It will be dark, cold, probably slippery. You will be moving around a lot. While not the most physically demanding job you could have on Saturday Morning, you definitely want to be able to move and work hard... and stay warm!

Ceremonial Start Security takes place downtown near the chute and musher set up. This is a one day gig, on the first Saturday of March. The role is pretty self explanatory, you keep people that don't belong out of the staging area and chute. You must be able to stand cold temps and annoying people for the majority of the day until the last team has left the staging area/chute. Safety of the mushers and the dogs are the top priority of all volunteers, and this is an important one. Downtown can get VERY cold, especially on windy mornings. Feet especially get cold standing on the snow and ice. We'll talk more about how to dress in an upcoming blog post. There is also need for security at the end of the trail at the BLM.

VIP Liaisons and Iditarider Volunteers are the babysitters. Dignitaries, special people, and Iditariders all need people to move them around and get them where they need to be. This takes place mainly at the Staging Area/Chute... but also at the BLM (for Iditariders).

Dog-Handlers may sound like an odd one considering most mushers have handlers/teams and so why would Iditarod be providing more? The simple fact is 14-16 charged up dogs is a lot for ANYONE to handle. Add the commotion of all of the other teams, the crowds, and cameras, and you're looking at potential chaos. Dog handlers are folks physically fit enough to hold onto the team and direct it through the staging area up to the chute. Using ropes clipped on to the gangline of the team, handlers are placed along the team on either side and walk-run along the team while the musher rides on the back of the sled holding down the brake. You may also want to practice your running on snow and ice skills, I've seen many handlers take a tumble over the years. Handlers MUST ATTEND A DOG HANDLER CLASS and get their Dog Handler card. If you do not get that credential you CANNOT be a dog handler. You MUST BE PHYSICALLY FIT. This is not something that everyone can or should do. Not only is your safety a concern, but the dogs' safety.

Trail Guard is my favorite job (and the one I know bestest!) From 4th Avenue to the BLM, Iditarod posts volunteers along the trail to make sure teams and pedestrians/viewers do not tangle. You're also on animal duty, not just moose but dogs and other animals that could cause problems. Depending on where you are stationed you could be in with a group of people, or be the only one there. Some of the busier parts of the trail have established groups who come back year after year. The Trail Guard coordinator does is best to get you in the area you want. Because the Ceremonial Start is a little more laid back, volunteers are allowed to take photos and high five mushers along with the crowd - so long as the crowd control is, in fact, under control. Trail Guards begin about 9:00am at the latest and are done when the last team is through their section of trail. Teams leave the chute in two minute intervals, so you can do math to get a good idea of when your turn should be over. This is not an overly demanding job, and in some parts of the trail you can bring a chair and sit. There is an optional training for all new volunteers, but really they do not go over what you need to do with this. Not to worry as the coordinator does a very good job of communicating many times leading up to race day, and he sweeps the trail ahead of the start to check in with all of his people. Keep people, pets, and kids off the trail when a team goes by and really the job is a breeze.

Willow Opportunities

Many of the same jobs for the ceremonial start are available for the ReStart in Willow. A few of the jobs are a little different, though. So let's go through them quickly. Volunteers have jobs to do and are discouraged from playing "fan" or "photographer". Asking for autographs or photos while on duty is a major no-no.

Set Up begins VERY early, and takes place on Willow Lake. Unloading the trucks, setting up the fencing, etc. There are opportunities both late on Saturday and early Sunday morning. Probably should be fit enough to lift and carry and walk distances.

Security works the same as in Anchorage, don't let unauthorized people in the staging area. This can be very difficult because a lot of people mingle around the area and there are only plastic fencing in place where as there's wooden fencing in Anchorage. There's also a lot of folks trying to slip in as in year's past it wasn't as big a security issue.

Musher Parking/Staging Area just like Anchorage mushers and teams need help finding where to go and park. Stress is even higher because this is the real deal, but teams show up way before the 2pm start. They also don't start showing in earnest until about 10am, so they aren't having to be functional around people quite so early. Some DO show before 8am, but for the most part they are all well coffee-d up by the time you deal with them. (Most mushers are still happy go lucky and don't get into race mode until about 40 minutes before they have to be in the chute.

The chute also needs volunteers, but that is typically given to volunteers with a lot of experience and are hand picked by the coordinator. Considering all that happens in the chute and it's the official start of the race, it makes sense that they only want to deal with experience, not newbies.

Dog Handlers are once again needed to help teams get through the staging area and into the chute. If you think they're charged up for the Anchorage Start... it's like they KNOW that this is the REAL DEAL and they're even more charged in Willow.

Trail Guards line portions of the chute as well as out on every road crossing. Unlike trail guards in Anchorage, they are all business. No photography, video, or fan stuff while on duty. No high fives. You can cheer on the teams (all of them) but do not get in the way and don't let anyone else get in the way, either.

Traffic Control/Parking is further out, and you may get shifted to when the race is happening, but this is another important cog. There's only one highway in and out of Willow and it passes through where Iditarod has its parking. Parking is across the high way from the "entrance" of the race chute. Stopping both foot and vehicle traffic is key. Lots of standing. Lots of awareness. It can be cold.

Tear Down happens after the last team is out of the chute on their way to Nome. Take down starts immediately. The fencing comes down and is rolled up, the trucks are packed up. You might as well help because the drive back to Anchorage is a long one. Traffic gets backed up quickly and it's slow going most of the way back.

On the Trail Opportunities

This is the most "complicated" of volunteers. There are far more requirements for volunteers out on the trail. First and foremost you MUST BE A MEMBER OF THE ITC TO APPLY. Anyone can join the ITC, there are several tiers with more and more perks. You only need to be a member at some level. You must be 18 or older. You must be in good enough physical condition to withstand extreme cold, long hours, lifting drop bags, handling dogs, etc.

Checkpoint volunteers do a little bit of everything, they check teams in and out. They assist where needed. Most checkpoints have sparse living conditions and amenities. You have to have a lot of time to volunteer as some checkpoints are open up to 16 days. Volunteers are flown into the checkpoint with the Iditarod Airforce, which means small bush planes. This is definitely an adventure. You will be "roughing it". Most volunteers are from the local areas, and others are return volunteers. It's not likely that a rookie volunteer will find themselves out on the trail, but you never know. There's no harm in applying and getting you name in the running for future races, too.

Trail Comms is the other half of the Comms in Anchorage. These are the people who contact comms with any changes in the checkpoint. From teams coming in and going out, to teams scratching, to dogs having to return home. Long hours, cramped spaces. Not as cushy as in Anchorage, but a lot of fun.

Veterinarian Assistants are chosen by the lead vet, however you can always apply. You MUST be trained to apply for this position. To get your name on the list, you choose "Returned Dogs" as your choice of area to volunteer. You should also contact the Iditarod directly for all information on how to be part of the Vet team.

Nome Opportunities

Nome works a lot like Anchorage, and some of the activity does transfer from the Lakefront to Nome as the race makes its way up the coast. Lodging is in high demand for Nome, so if you are planning to volunteer in Nome SECURE LODGING FIRST! Iditarod does NOT have the ability to offer housing to volunteers.

Office Help is a round the clock gig. You're part receptionist, part comms, part musher babysitter as teams come off the trail, part go-fer. You do a little bit of everything, but you get to stay in a nice warm building where all the action is.

Dog Lot Security is just outside of where the office help hang out. A little colder, security is top priority. Keeping people out and dogs in is key. It's pretty easy, but you are outside in the cold. Another round the clock job shifts are key, and are dependent on how many volunteers sign up for the duty.

Chute Set Up, if you're planning to be in Nome the weekend before the finish you can possibly sign up to lend a hand in setting up the chute. Until teams come through the chute is available for people to walk up to the burled arch with no problem, but setting the snow up on front street and then putting up fencing takes time.

Chute and Street Security as teams come in - especially the Champion - crowd control is key. Like the ReStart, this is an all business position and the fan stuff has to be put away while on duty.

Musher Banquet happens the weekend after the Champion comes in - and typically when most of the teams are already in. Set up volunteers are much needed as are those that work the banquet. This is where the musher awards are given and all finishers are celebrated. It's a great party and the food always looks lovely. It is a big deal in Nome, and it always "sells out".

End of Race Tear Down happens a day or two after the last team comes in (or after the Banquet depending on which happens last). If you're still around, lend a hand. It's a lot like after Christmas when the tree has to come down. Kinda sad, but so thankful for the memories.


All volunteers get credential with lanyard. Depending on what type of volunteer position you hold, you also get an arm band or other essential markers to show that you are "official". All volunteers also get a hat with "volunteer" embroidered on the back. The hat has the year's logo on the front. It's the same one that fans can purchase, but they do not say "volunteer".

If you become an ITC member, you also get a pin or patch (your choice) a race guide, and depending on which level of membership you have you may get other items such as a race DVD and subscription to Iditarod Insider.

Important Links

You can read up more on the volunteering by going to the Iditarod's page detailing the requirements.
To apply for the Anchorage/Willow and Trail opportunities, click here.
And if you're wanting to sign up for stuff in Nome, click here.
Don't forget to become an ITC member if you want to go out on the trail.