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February 10, 2103

Volunteering

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Since it started a few years ago, I’ve spent many summer Sundays at the Seeley Lake Farmer’s Market.  One of the stands there is operated by a former musher and her husband.  I remember talking to her shortly after I started battling with Iditarod over their withdrawing me without any warning for going to slow----something they did to other mushers the following year with Craig Medred watching. 

Her comment was that, with her experience, she got both sides, both the musher who had worked hard to prepare for a race and then was forced out as well as volunteers waiting for the last musher to come in.  As I listened, I thought back to various accounts of her racing career I had heard and looked up online.   To the best of my knowledge, though she started a bunch, she never completed even a 100 mile continuous race.  Moreover, her accounts of these were often misleading.  She had said that she had to pull out of the Beargrease, but she neglected to say that it wasn’t the full marathon but rather the shortened race, affectionately known as the Baby Beargrease.

By that time, I was accustomed to her misrepresenting her accomplishments, so that wasn’t the statement that phased me.  “Volunteers waiting for the last musher to come in” was what had taken me aback. 

I had heard that attitude before, that a volunteer shouldn’t have to wait too long, for the first time when I visited Alaska and tried to run the Klondike 300.  I should add that by and large, the people working that race didn’t have that attitude and even encouraged me to limp forward with my 80 year old’s gait from a hip that featured one cm bone spurs (I did scratch).  Even in my worst encounter in that race, and there was one, the person involved was trying to be fair.  Still, during the musher’s meeting, one of the race officials essentially said, “Don’t take too long---it’s a strain on the volunteers.” 

After the Klondike 300, it was clear that I needed to have my hip replaced before I did anything with the magnitude of Iditarod.  Before leaving Alaska, I withdrew my name from the Iditarod musher list.  I then drove home.  When I arrived, I did two things:  I started looking into getting the surgery done and I volunteered to work at the Seeley Lake Checkpoint for Race to the Sky.  Even with my limp, I could do this.

Since that time, I’ve been the local contact and de-facto head checker for the Seeley Lake checkpoint for both the Race to the Sky and the Lincoln-Seeley 200.  And for four RTTS’s and one 200, I’ve worked hard as a checker to make sure mushers could get the best out of their teams during those races. 

In this regard, I think the fact that another musher was among the folks first regarding the teams as they came in, that I’d get what was going on, reassured racers.  I remember my first year, Bino came in with two pups in his sledbag.  His comment to me was they were young and the distance and difficulty of the race had thrown them mentally, but they were basically okay.  I looked at them, and they looked like a couple of pups who were a bit disoriented, but healthy---they were still bright eyed.  I let him comfortably park his sled and team and told the vets about the bagged pups and that it looked like he had correctly described what happened.  And when the vet examined the pups, she found that they were fine.

As I write this, I’m getting ready for my fifth stint helping with the Seeley Lake checkpoint.  Teams will be arriving starting at about 3:00 Monday morning.  There’s typically a break sometime Monday evening after the last team has left for Owl Creek and before the first returns from there, but that break is only a few hours.  Other than that, the checkpoint runs continuously from 3:00 Monday morning until the last team leaves, typically early Wednesday morning.  I’ll leave a couple of times both to take care of my dogs and, hopefully, get a couple of hours of sleep.  I’d guess my sleep total for the 48 hours is maybe four---better than mushers do, but still a bit below what I’m used to.

My ritual the last couple of years has been to bullshit a little with one of the Race Marshals, Randy Camper of RC snowhook fame, for about an hour after the last musher leaves.  At this point, we figure nobody is coming back and we close the checkpoint.  It takes me five minutes to drive home.  After undressing, laying down, and throwing my blankets over me, sleep comes easily.  And I’m usually pretty happy as well.

During these years, I have never considered that waiting for or helping a last musher was hard.  Arguably, this is where I get the most gratification.  As long as a musher can safely move ahead, safely for both himself and his dogs, and he has a reasonable chance of meeting any benchmarks or time limits in the rules, most races have these, I’ll encourage them to continue.  Regardless of their circumstances, I am there to help them. 

To me, that’s what it means to volunteer.  If I even vaguely entertained a notion that anybody as exhausted as mushers on these races get should hurry it up, I have a life to get back to, I’d be a spectator, not a volunteer.  What the woman with the booth had said told me exactly this, that at that time she was just a spectator.

Though I know I should be doing more, I am proud of the volunteering I do---everything from helping rescues to helping races to the much of the work I do for Taekwon-Do.  And here’s the kicker----I suspect that while the woman who whined about waiting for the last musher to come in might say she’s proud of the “volunteer work” she does, that that pride is at least muted compared to mine.  In her heart of hearts, she knows better.

   
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