Heartbeat Song

Volunteers are truly the heartbeat of the Iditarod.  It takes about 2,000 volunteers to make the Iditarod happen.  Without these generous hearts, the race would be impossible. 

Photo from Anchorage Daily News

Volunteers start making the magic happen behind the scenes well before the Iditarod even starts.  People at headquarters are busy working on last-minute preparations, running around in a crazy state to make sure things get finished in time.  Iditarod Airforce pilots are busy delivering drop bags.  Dog handlers, trail workers, communications volunteers, and many other volunteers are going through the required trainings.

Photo from dxhound.com

There are many different jobs that volunteers can do.  Some of these jobs are right in the mix of things, while others are behind the scenes ticking away into the wee hours of the morning, getting little or no sleep.  Two of the volunteer positions I got trained in this week were dog handling and communications.  What exactly do these volunteers do?

Dog Handlers
Dog handlers work directly with the mushers.  They go through training and help hold back dogs, as they are itching to cross the start line.

Sign outside the Communications tent at the Finger Lake Checkpoint. Iditarod 2016 Alaska. March 07, 2016. Photo by Jeff Schultz (C) 2016 ALL RIGHTS RESERVED

People who volunteer doing communications (Comms) work behind the scenes.  As mushers come into checkpoints, a volunteer records the musher’s bib number, time in, time out, and number of dogs.  This volunteer calls or emails headquarters volunteers in Anchorage to relay this information.  Once it makes it to Anchorage, the information is input and updated on the website.  They tell the world what’s happening with the Iditarod.

I could go on and on about other volunteer positions that are an absolutely necessity to make sure the Iditarod happens year after year.  Other volunteer positions include pilots, veterinarians and vet techs, trail volunteers, trail breakers, race judges, return dog teams, logistics, and Teacher on the Trail™.

Over the course of my incredible week, I have had the opportunity to interact and chat with a variety of volunteers.  They all have two things in common:  passion for the Iditarod race and a willingness to lend a helping hand.

Photo by Erin Montgomery

One volunteer, Gail Somerville, has spent most of the week with teachers at Winter Conference.  Gail is a lovely lady, with the most generous heart and a spirit that is contagious.  Gail was born and raised in Los Angeles, California.  She was a teacher, who didn’t want to take the easy route.  She asked to be challenged and ended up in inner-city Los Angeles schools.  Although she loved her time in California, she ended up moving to Alaska and began teaching at Denali School in Anchorage for “a long time”. 

From 1979 until 2018, Gail was in somewhat of a teacher role as an Iditarod volunteer.  She worked from Headquarters, and each day she would send out three questions for kids.  Students would then call the hotline to get three answers to bring back to school the next day or sometimes after Spring Break.  Examples of questions might be: How many women mushers are running?  How many men?  How many rookies?  How many dogs do they take?  What happens if a dog gets tired?

Back before the advancement of technology and the internet, they used to get hundreds of kids calling each day to get the answers to their questions.  Gail always had a handful of middle school kids come in to answer the phones and give kids the answers to their questions.  They would receive calls from all over the United States and sometimes from around the world.  Now, they don’t get many calls because of the internet, but they do still run the program and receive some calls.

Now that Gail is a retired teacher, she works in the phone room answering these questions sent out to kids.  She is a true lover of The Last Great Race, and she loves to spend her time volunteering.

Mariah running with the team during her dog handler training.

While Gail is a longtime volunteer, I also met a first year volunteer at dog handler training.  After class, I chatted with Mariah to hear her story.  She is originally from Arizona but moved to Alaska a couple of years ago to work for the Alaska Native Medical Center, which provides medical care to Alaska Natives or American Indians.  Volunteering for the Iditarod was something Mariah always wanted to do.  When she moved to Alaska, she attended the Iditarod Start for the first time in 2018.  This inspired her to just go for it and sign up to become a volunteer.  Dog handling sounded fun, so she attended her training at Headquarters.  She is excited about being a dog handler, and I expect that Mariah will become a regular volunteer from here on out.

As you’re watching The Last Great Race or tracking those little numbers as they make their way down the trail, don’t forget about every helping hand along the way who makes this race possible. 

Think about this problem:  If there are 2,000 volunteers and each volunteer has 2 helping hands, how many total helping hands are there?