WASILLA/ANCHORAGE - Mushers prepare their dog teams all year to run the Iditarod. Getting the race ready itself is also a year-long endeavor.
Before dozens of dog teams can hit the starting line on March 2, volunteers must first learn how to handle them.
With three weeks to go before the Last Great Race, 50 people turned out for the handling class at the Iditarod Headquarters in Wasilla to practice with veteran Iditarod musher Wayne Curtis and his dogs.
“They walk their dog and they think it's easy. They get out here and they slip in the snow and realize it's harder than they thought. But they're excited, and that's what it's about. Getting them involved, volunteers, the hands-on, if they can be, it's awesome,” said Curtis.
To make sure they’re set for the start, each volunteer is assigned to a dog so the team doesn’t get tangled.
“I think the dogs know more about what they're doing than I do, so knowing when to go, when to stop,” said volunteer Mary Maddux.
Volunteer Erin Quinn is visiting Alaska from her home in Oklahoma. She decided to get in on the Iditarod spirit as well. “I was nervous leading up to it because of the discussion about how technical it would be. But getting to walk up to the dogs and have a moment of interaction then get going and looking back on the musher's hand signals was really cool,” said Quinn.
While practice makes perfect, there’s no way to fully prepare them for the frenzy of the Ceremonial Start in Anchorage.
“The dogs are used to racing but they're not used to being on Fourth Avenue. There's a lot of teams there and everything needs to be controlled chaos,” said Anchorage Start Coordinator Karl Heidelbach.
Controlled chaos is also a good way to describe getting food ready to fly out for the race.
“McGrath gets 22 packs of cheese!” shouted volunteer Jude Johnson over the noise at the Air Land Transport warehouse.
Dozens of people split up more than $20,000 worth of groceries needed to feed volunteers at checkpoints along the way.
“We have to make sure they get in the right place,” explained Johnson. “Shaktoolik gets certain things and Shageluk gets certain things, you can't mix them up. Skwentna, Yentna. Rohn, Nome. All the pallets are set up according to the trail rather than alphabetized. It's easier to do the trail out here.”
“This is fun,” laughed Debbie Smykalski as she packed up a box of food. “People ask me when I'm going to quit, I say when I’m dead.”
Smykalski, known as Debski to her Iditarod friends, has been volunteering for almost 20 years and now cooks at McGrath and Nome during the race. She’s getting a sneak peak at what she’ll have to work with this year.
“Everyone on the trail really likes soups. They want something warm when they come in. So I always try to have a pot of soup on,” said Smykalski.
At times it can get a little crazy in the kitchen when cooks have to prepare meals for up to 70 volunteers. “With all the people coming in it gets a little nerve-wracking but you just keep cooking until everyone is fed,” said Smykalski.
She’s one of about 2,000 volunteers it takes to make sure everything goes smoothly from start to finish. Everyone has a reason for helping out.
“The people, the volunteers, because they're so appreciative and happy to have someone with something warm for them to eat when they're done with their shift,” said Debski.
“The dogs, the dogs, and then more dogs. I just love them,” laughed Johnson “I've gotten to know mushers, I've learned how to mush and I just really like the whole environment. The whole situation is fun, bringing a lot of people together who wouldn't normally come together.”
Together they get preparations wrapped up to ensure everything is ready for race day.
To view all of KTVA's 2013 Iditarod coverage, click here.