During Saturday's Tustumena 200 Sled Dog Race volunteer orientation meeting at the Tustumena Lodge in Kasilof, Jon Little, from left, Paul Foris, Rea Slick and Kevin Fulton utilize a map of the T-200 race trail to discuss some of the ice hazards mushers may face this coming weekend.
Photo by Joseph Robertia
It's been said that planning for the Tustumena 200 Sled Dog Race begins the day after the previous year's race because of the amount of work involved.
On race day, mushers and their dog teams will reap the benefits of this work as they pull away from the starting line to the fanfare of the crowd.
However, what many spectators don't realize is just how much behind-the-scenes effort is contributed from volunteers.
"The volunteers are a crucial component of the race. Without them we couldn't get the first team out of the starting chute," said Kimberly King, T-200 race association president.
Upward of 100 people volunteer every year, carrying out diverse tasks to make sure the race runs smoothly.
King said some enjoy the rush of adrenaline that comes with serving as a dog handler.
"These volunteers like being up close to the dogs and mushers at the starting line," she said.
Their job is to bring dogs up to the starting line but, more often than not, they end up holding back the high-energy huskies. Not minding getting dragged through the snow a bit is a prerequisite for this position.
Other volunteers tackle such tasks as snow removal in numerous areas, designating parking spaces for the mushers at the ceremonial and restart locations, setting up the sound system at the race and banquets and keeping dog teams safe by directing traffic where the trail crosses the Sterling Highway.
Veterinarians also volunteer their time to perform prerace examinations, as well as work at checkpoints to ensure dogs are in good condition and mushers are providing proper care.
Volunteers come with varying degrees of experience, and Kevin Fulton of Kasilof is among the more proficient. This is a result of volunteering for the last six years and competing in the T-200, as well.
"I like taking part still, but I'm kind of an outside guy, so I like to be out on the trail," he said.
Fulton's duty is marking the trail with close to 2,000 wooden stakes, with the help of a small band of other dedicated volunteers.
"Most stakes are 100 feet apart, but some are even closer. I tried to put them in really tight in the high country. Up there, when a mushers is at one stake, their leads dogs should be at the next one," he said.
Knowledge that the high country is a likely locale for storms with scouring winds and blowing snow that can disorient a fatigued musher may escape many folks, but not those who have run the race.
"He thinks like a musher. That's why it's good to have someone like him," said Kasilof musher Jon Little in regard to Fulton.
Unlike Fulton, who already knows the ins and outs of dog racing, Wendy Hausen of Soldotna is new to the race.
"This will be the first race I've ever seen and my first experience around sled dogs," she said.
"I moved up a few years ago and right away was taken away with the idea and the beauty of traveling by dog sled, and this seemed like a way to get close to it and to learn about it," she added.
Hausen has volunteered to serve as the official timekeeper at the starting line.
"I'm a little nervous because it's a lot of pressure, but I think I can handle it," she said.
Some organized groups also volunteer their time in support of the race.
"It's fun to go out and do," said Ed Back, a member of the Moose Horn Amateur Radio Club. The group volunteers to work the checkpoints and use their radio equipment to provide the most up-to-date information on dog team arrivals and departures during the race.
"It gives us a chance to be helpful, and we like being at the beautiful locations along the trail and meeting interesting new people," Back said.
"It's also a good practice of our emergency communication readiness. It puts the equipment into operation and makes sure it all still works," said another radio club member, Victor Hett.
Many area businesses volunteer by providing financial support for the race and sponsorship to individual mushers.
"It's amazing how many different organizations and people will all just come together, take care of all the details, work through the night into the wee hours of the morning, but get everything done to make the race happen," King said.
She said she feels fortunate that for the last few years, race organizers have had enough volunteers to allow the race to succeed, and she said she believes it's a trend that will continue in the future.
"I think almost all the volunteers have a good time and a good experience. Those folks then go out and tell folks about it family, friends and co-workers and then the next year even more people show up asking, 'Where do you need me' and, 'What can I do to help?'" King said.
This year's T-200 gets under way Saturday with the ceremonial start at 10 a.m. at the Kenai Chrysler Center on the Kenai Spur Highway. The race restart is at 2 p.m. at the Tustumena Lodge in Kasilof, Mile 111 of the Sterling Highway.
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