Paws Along the Trail with Wonderful Volunteers

Volunteer trail breakers are featured in a mural in Joe Redington Jr. Sr. High School. Notice the trail markers used to help guide the teams along the trail.

People have asked me, “What was your biggest surprise on the Iditarod Trail?” My answer is the volunteers.  I had no idea the extent of what goes on “behind the scenes” to pull off such a race! 

Volunteers come from everywhere! Some are local adults and school children from the villages along the trail, others come from all over the US, Canada, and around the world!  They give up vacation time to make this race happen. 

Norwegian volunteers park a team in Takotna.

The volunteers only get slightly more shut-eye than the mushers, as many are on call 24 hours as mushers trickle into the checkpoints. They are hardworking and a FUN group!  Many laughs were had in the checkpoints, as sleep deprivation added hilarity to everything and made   being snowed in and waiting to get flown out of a checkpoint more bearable. These adventurers have volunteered multiple years and developed friendships.  Friendships forged with the mushers last from year to year. “It’s addictive,” said one veteran volunteer.   Estimates range from 1,500-1,800 volunteers for each Iditarod.

Dog Handlers:  Volunteers are trained in how to hold back the powerful, excited dog teams at the start of the race until that “GO!” signal.

Trail volunteers: They help park teams in checkpoints, clean up after teams leave, check in mushers, give wake-up calls to sleepy mushers when requested, and do anything else required.  They get only a little more sleep than the mushers.

Veterinarians and Vet Techs:  These people use their medical skills to examine the dogs at every checkpoint to make sure all is well with the canine athletes.  

Dropped Dog Team: They care for the dogs and keep records of any dogs dropped at checkpoints until they are flown home.

Pilots:  These men and women use their own bush planes to fly volunteers, race judges (I got bumped from a plane once.  I figured the race judge was more important to be transported), Teacher on the Trail™, supplies, and dropped dogs.  Article on Dropped Dogs

Race Judges: Each checkpoint must have a race judge present.  In order to be a race judge, you must have completed an Iditarod race as a musher. They make sure rules are followed and make decisions.

Volunteers laughing together in Unalakleet.

Communications:  “Comms” volunteers enter all the data your students get each day to track their mushers.  Their sleep is often short as they must be awake as mushers arrive at all times of day and night.  

Logistics:  These organized people get supplies and people in and out.  They arrange flights and work closely with the “comms” people.  They were tireless in getting me to more checkpoints, despite rough weather.

Trailbreakers:  they make sure the trail markers are placed and the trail is kept open with snowmobiles (or in Alaskan, snowmachines.)

Teacher on the Trail™:  We are passionate educators who see the value of using the Iditarod to illustrate academic concepts.  The one teacher chosen yearly goes on the race, flying between checkpoints, and reports to teachers and students daily with a journal and lesson plan ideas.  

Beyond these are wonderful volunteers who work at the hub airports loading planes and driving volunteers to and from, unloading and transporting supplies, amazing cooks who keep the masses of volunteers fed at hubs like Unalakleet, those who mix foot ointment for the dogs, plan food shipments for volunteers, and so much more. 

Homemade pies are baked by the volunteers of Takotna for the mushers each year!

How can this information be used with students?  Students can read the descriptions of the volunteer positions on the Iditarod website. When the volunteer registration form comes out in the fall, students can fill out the form as a real life reading comprehension skills. They could even fill it out for you, their teacher, imagining what volunteer position you might enjoy. Comparing/contrasting the positions would be another good comprehension activity.  Creating tables with skills/abilities needed for the various positions could help students understand those pesky graphics on our standardized tests.  

Finally, perhaps you as an Iditarod teacher would love to join the ranks as an volunteer!

Volunteering for the Iditarod Info

Following the race, a volunteer potluck is held to celebrate their contributions to the race.