“They’re going to let a guy from Ohio come up here and do this?”
Mark Greene couldn’t believe his luck. It was his first year as an Iditarod volunteer and he got the chance to go out on the trail. They stationed him in Finger Lake, and to say Mark loved every minute would be an understatement. After the last musher departed and they closed down the checkpoint, he was sent back to Anchorage where he made himself indispensable. “I work dropped dogs, I shuttle people to the airport, I do any job they need done. I’m just so thrilled to be here I want to come back bad.” That was in 2012. Since then, Mark’s work ethic has expanded his leadership role as a volunteer. Iditarod is now an indispensable part of his Mark’s life, and without dedicated volunteers like Mark there wouldn’t be a race.
Problem-solving is a skill Mark developed back in the army and continues to cultivate in his management role at a foundry back in Ohio. It’s one of his favorite parts about volunteering. One year in Finger Lake, the lake was glare ice and the race judge realized there was no way the mushers would be able to set a snow hook. Mark quickly formulated a plan. He grabbed an ice auger and bore shallow holes into the ice at the checkpoint and at parking. In each hole he placed a light to make them visible in the dark. He remembers Jessie Royer pulling in that year and marveling as she set her snow hook. “How cool is this?” she said to him. He beamed.
Mark’s passion for this sport is contagious, and he marvels at the gratitude the mushers have shown him for his efforts. “They are so down to earth. When I look at all the other sports figures in the world they don’t compare.” Mark recalls talking with Lance Mackey his first year. “It’s 6:30 in the morning. He’s coming out of the restaurant down here with a cup of coffee. I walk up and introduce myself and we’re talking a couple minutes and a camera crew comes up and he says, ‘Excuse me, I’m talking with my friend, I’ll get back to you in a few minutes.’” They talked for another ten minutes. “If that had been any other sports figure they’d have dropped me like a hot potato and they’d have been in the camera. That’s what I appreciate about the mushers is the mutual respect for the volunteers.”
In Kaltag this year, Mark’s favorite village, local kids buzzed around him helping out with checkpoint duties. For Mark, Iditarod is about laughing with people and earning their respect. Everyone who volunteers for Iditarod is focused on the success of the race and brings together an array of skills to make it happen. “You have people that are very passionate about what they do, working together, in the same direction, with the same passion.” From locals to far-flung travelers, this volunteer spirit is what makes Iditarod possible.
He’d always hoped to share the trail with his mom, but although she dreamed of visiting Alaska she was unwilling to tap into her retirement money to make the trip. She never made it. After she died in 2015, he wanted to do something special for Iditarod on her behalf because the race meant something in her life, as well. He decided to make a gift in her name, and used some of his inheritance to purchase eight cots for the mushers to sleep on. A friend embroidered them with phrase “Donated to the Kaltag checkpoint by Jane Greene,” as well as both the Alaska and Ohio state flags. “She’s watching over the mushers in Kaltag and there’s nobody better to watch over you.”
When the race ends, Mark’s volunteerism isn’t finished. Back in Ohio he’ll talk to schools, churches, Boy Scout troupes and anyone else who will listen and teach them about the race. He hopes to reach the introverts like he used to be and help them see that you don’t have to be the kid that spikes the football to be successful in life. In his presentations, he highlights mushers from the state, like Matt Failor and Laura Neese, and hopes these kids will see that they, too, can be part of something larger than themselves and accomplish big dreams.
Mark keeps his talks interactive with things like “bootying” speed races and math challenges to figure out how many booties are needed in a race and how much money that will cost a musher. He even recently built a sled to bring a new hands on element to the groups. “Anything you can do to educate a kid in my mind is a great thing.” He loves asking children a simple question: “when do you quit learning?” They’ll supply all different answers, to which Mark replies, “How about this: I’m 66, and in order to build this dog sled I had to learn a lot––and it was fun. You don’t like math? I used a lot of math when I was doing this.” Teachers have a tough job, Mark acknowledges. He hopes that by making math relevant to the kids, he can help them out a little. “Our job here is to do good in the world,” he says humbly.
Mark hopes to continue volunteering with Iditarod as long as his body permits, and to pass on what he’s learned to the next generation of volunteers. In the meantime, with retirement on the horizon, Mark plans to dedicate his next phase of life to come to Alaska as a dog handler. Clearly, for volunteers like Mark, this is more than an eight-day sled dog race across Alaska; it’s a part of their identity.
Volunteers are the backbone of this event. These unsung heroes take time from their work and families to travel across Alaska and make this whirlwind event possible. If you’re interested in volunteering, follow this link to learn more.
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