This Is the Ultimate Outdoor Adventure for Dog Lovers
And you can be a part of it.
Unless you live along the roughly 1,000-mile route it’s hard to imagine how one would go about watching the Iditarod in person. Stretching from Anchorage (symbolically) and Willow (actually) to Nome, Alaska, in two routes that alternate each year, the race can last weeks. The record for fastest winning time, set in 2017 (on a third Fairbanks route, reserved for when there’s not enough snow at the beginning of the race) stands at eight days, three hours, 40 minutes and 13 seconds; the slowest winning time, in 1974, was nearly 21 days. Logistically, it just isn’t a spectator sport. But for those of you yearning for the center of that sweet Venn diagram of outdoors, snowy winter, and enthusiastic sled dogs, the Iditarod offers something infinitely more hands-on and exciting than waving passively from the sidelines: volunteering.
Volunteering is a beloved and time-honored tradition at dog-sled races, be they prestigious or tiny, long-distance or short. To get to the Iditarod rookie mushers must compete in three approved qualifying races, two stretching 300 miles or more, and one 150 mile or more. You’ll find them all here, and they’re all ripe for those who want to help out.
But at the Iditarod AKA The Last Great Race on Earth—the pinnacle of the sport, and far and away the most acclaimed and well-known race in popular culture—volunteering is another, ahem, animal. Around 1,500 to 2,000 volunteers pour in from all over the world, and many return year after year. It’s pretty amazing: skill levels span from beginners to the very skilled members of the Iditarod Air Force, who donate their planes and time to transport dogs and supplies. These thousands of volunteers are how the race actually, well, runs. And it creates a tight bond.
“If you’re a new volunteer, you just become one of us,” says Alaska-based photographer and veteran Iditarod volunteer Toni Reitter. “It’s not like we’re cliquish, ‘Oh, we’ve been here for a million years and you don’t know anything.’ The sport is just one where, if you’ve glomped on to us, we’re gonna glomp on to you, because it’s such a small community that we’re excited when anybody new comes. A little too excited.”
If you've ever wondered what it's like to experience the Iditarod from the very long sidelines, here's what to expect. Even better, here's how to actually volunteer and experience it firsthand.
What do the volunteers do?
The Iditarod takes place in early March, and race organizers generally open up volunteer registration around November. It closes whenever they’ve filled all the positions they need to fill, which is usually sometime in February. Not that you need to be 18 or older to volunteer.
One of the most popular jobs from year to year is dog handler, where you help mushers set up their teams at the starting line. You’ll need to take a dog-handling class and get the requisite certification and you’ll need to be somewhat physically fit, so if you want to get in on next year's crew, best get studying/into shape now. According to the volunteer site, you must “easily and safely run four city blocks in powdery snow while holding on to a dog in the team. You must be able to keep pace with an energetic and excited dog team. This job is not easy. It’s not a job for everyone!”
If that’s more investment than you’re willing to make (or if those spots are already full) but you still want something active and hands-on, you’ll probably like a job as a Trail Guard — you’ll be posted at various crossings and ensure that the trail stays pedestrian-free and that the mushers are going the right way.
With the exception of dog handler, most jobs don’t require you to be super physically fit, and some don’t even require you to be outside; you can help with event planning, or volunteer at the registration desk or the call center. “That one used to be a big deal before the internet,” Reitter says. “Now the call center does a lot of what they call mushergrams, where fans can call in and give a shoutout to their musher and then they relay those to the checkpoints that the musher is heading into and try to get the mushergrams to their musher.”
The more hands-on jobs do fill up first, so try to “just be willing to be plugged in wherever,” Reitter says. “If you’re more flexible with your time and abilities, it’s easier to get you in somewhere, even if it’s not your first pick. You’re still part of the race.”
That’s cool, but how do I get the job I really want?
Preference is given each year to volunteers who have volunteered before, so as a returnee your odds of scoring one of the more coveted jobs go up significantly. If you’re a first-timer, heed the advice about being flexible and you might get a “better” job next time. “Once you get a well-oiled team working and running, they try to entice you to come back,” Reitter says.
The other thing you can do to ensure your application is at the top of the pile, so to speak, is join the Iditarod Trail Committee. Anyone can become a member, and some jobs, like Trail Guard and checking mushers in and out of trail checkpoints, are only available to people who are ITC members and veteran volunteers. “Those are the very important roles,” Reitter says. “If you’re bad with numbers, I don’t think they let you play with them.”
Members also get discounts on merchandise and so forth, which vary depending on how much you want to pay in yearly dues (starting at $10 for kids and going all the way up to $1,500 for a lifetime membership). Plus, you get insurance.
“Because sometimes these freak things do happen,” Reitter says. “My volunteering has been pretty mundane, but every year I watch somebody get run over by a sled or whatever. So, y’know, just in case the EMTs have to be called.”
Which city should you choose?
You can register as a volunteer for the race’s symbolic start (Anchorage), the race's actual start (Willow), and the finish (Nome). The majority go to Anchorage, where volunteers begin descending in late February. The Lakefront Anchorage hotel is the race headquarters and official hotel host of the Iditarod, and if you are headed to Anchorage that is the place to stay.
As the champions bear down on the finish line, operations shift by necessity, but few who volunteer in Anchorage for the start make the journey to Nome for the end. Most Nome volunteers are local. Reitter, who’s volunteered in both Anchorage and Nome, says they’re still often asking for volunteers right up to the end of the race. Nome, then, is pretty much a slam-dunk in terms of being able to find an open volunteer post even when everything in Anchorage is full. What you gain in volunteering options you sacrifice in hotel options.
“If you are wanting to volunteer in Nome, just make sure to get all of your ducks in a row before you really commit to it,” Reitter says. “Otherwise you’re gonna be sleeping outside the bars or something, and it’s cold.”
If you’re headed to Nome, aim to lock down your lodging situation as far as a year in advance. Your best and also only hotel options are probably the Dredge No. 7 Inn and the Aurora Inn. (The Nome Nugget Inn, usually the official Iditarod hotel on the finishing side, is currently undergoing repairs due to fire damage.)
The Nome Visitors Center (tagline: There’s No Place like Nome) also maintains a list of residents who open up their homes for volunteers, renting out anything from the entire house to floor space. Reitter says some of the churches may offer floor space to volunteers, too.
What’s it like when the race is about to start?
The ceremonial start this year is March 4. It’s always the first Saturday in March, and it’s sort of like the opening ceremony for the Olympics—it’s a show, rather than part of the actual competition. The real start of the race is called the Restart and takes place in the afternoon the following day in Willow, which gives enough time for the dogs to rest up.
This means mushers generally have more time to mingle and relax during the ceremonial start, and it’s not considered rude to approach them and make conversation. Just use your best judgment; you can pick up on whether or not someone has time to talk. Reitter recommends looking for the rookies, who are generally aiming to just finish the race rather than win, and are also usually more excited and approachable than the champions.
“The Anchorage ceremonial start, you don’t wanna miss it,” Reitter says. “If you’re volunteering that day, just make sure that they understand that you want to be [at the ceremonial start]—especially if you’re coming up from outside and this is maybe the only time you’re doing the Iditarod. You don’t wanna miss the party.” So if you’ve committed to, say, a Trail Guard post down the road, you can probably hang out with the teams downtown for a bit and still head back to your post before any dogs come through—just plan it out ahead of time.
The city’s 4th Avenue is the place to be, if you don’t mind crowds. The night before the ceremonial start, 4th Avenue will be closed off, banners raised, and snow trucked in. “We spend all year shoveling snow out of the area, and then they truck snow in to put it back on the road, because it all starts right there on 4th Avenue, on a main street,” Reitter says. “[It’s] kind of the lifeblood of downtown Anchorage. Everybody’s downtown for the ceremonial start. It’ll be a zoo.”
“All of us are so grateful for the volunteers,” 2019 Iditarod rookie Blair Braverman told Thrillist when we spoke with her about dog sledding in Alaska. “You really become part of the event, you’re behind the scenes with all the dogs. It’s pretty physically active. If you’re up for an adventure, this is, like, truly an adventure.”
Mushers will start hooking up their dogs at dawn. At 10 am, the mushing teams head out and “race” 11 miles through Anchorage before loading up at the Campbell Airstrip to fly to Willow, where they’ll line up on Sunday for the Restart.
After the mushers clear out, Iditarod-related events are celebrated around Anchorage the whole weekend in a festival they've dubbed Fur Rondy. Around 4 pm on March 4, look for the Running of the Reindeer—sort of like the Running of the Bulls, but with reindeer, and no one dies. The reindeer aren’t chasing you, exactly, but they are running very quickly down 4th Avenue while you run with them.
“It’s chaos,” Reitter says. “Apparently a lot of people drink before they do it, so if you’re a drinker and you’re wanting an Alaskan experience, that’s definitely one way to do it.”