At the starting line of the 2020 Yukon Quest in Fairbanks on Saturday morning, all eyes were on the mushers and their teams of dogs. But to keep the Yukon Quest running smoothly, there is a veritable horde of volunteers running around behind the scenes.
According to Marti Steury, the Alaska executive director of the Yukon Quest, it’s more than triple figures.
“It’s roughly 1,000 volunteers,” she said. “It takes 1,000 people to go 1,000 miles. And that’s both countries — from trailbreakers, to coffee makers, to hospitality managers, to checkpoint volunteers.”
Steury is one of just three full-time staffers on the Alaska side of the race; there are two on the Yukon side. With the exception of the roughly half a dozen contractors for the event itself — people like the race marshal — the rest are all volunteers.
Steury noted that when Summit Logistics hosts the food drop and the veterinary check in the weeks leading up to the race, all of the company's staff shows up.
“Think about the food drop and the vet check. All of those people are volunteers. There were like 50 people at the vet check,” Steury said. “The race would not exist if it were not for the volunteers.”
Colleen and Leo Zeek know it well.
“Oh, it’s an army,” said Colleen, who, along with her husband, Leo, was working the front desk at the Morris Thompson Cultural and Visitors Center as race day unfolded outside.
The Zeeks have been volunteering for the Quest since 2011. They arrived in Fairbanks in 1994. While they’ve left a couple of times thinking they would spend their retirement traveling, they always ended up coming back to Fairbanks.
“Now, I don’t think we’re ever going to leave,” Colleen said. “It’s just the people. They’re amazing here. They’re so warm and welcoming.”
The Zeeks do more than turn up on race day. In the run up to the start of the Yukon Quest, there are a slew of fundraising events and preparations into which the Zeeks throw themselves.
“Besides doing this event, there’s also an auction around Thanksgiving every year,” Colleen said. “They collect donations from different businesses — like gift baskets, artworks, whatever people want to donate. And my husband and I do the same thing — we are the ‘Hello, how are you’ people. We sit at a table right outside and we greet everyone, we take their tickets, we answer their questions.”
Throughout the morning Saturday the Zeeks fielded questions from hundreds of spectators, many from out of state, some from across the world. Both affably answered every question: When will the first team arrive at Two Rivers? How much is the prize money? Which checkpoints are most accessible?
Despite the fountain of information the couple dispensed, Colleen insists that they don’t know everything about the Quest. In fact, volunteering is a way for them to learn more.
“We’re not dog mushers. But this allows us to meet with a different group of people that we wouldn’t usually. It’s nice to meet people outside your own social circles,” she said.
Colleen works at Cold Spot Feeds, a pet supply store that specializes in mushing equipment. She said she’s learned a lot about mushers through her work as well.
“They (the mushers) are fascinating, because they live a lifestyle that I don’t want to live, but it’s nice to be involved and it’s nice to support them — because this is our hometown race,” she said.
This, it became clear, is the impetus for them in their volunteering efforts: community.
“I like to say it’s like sitting down and having a home-cooked meal. It’s the difference between us and other races. We’re small and you get to know people. We’ve done this for so long that now, the mushers, the board of directors — they all know us. They see us and they come and say ‘We’re so glad you’re back doing this’,” Colleen said. “It’s such a small thing, it’s just a few hours of our time, but it’s so much fun.”
The Zeeks don’t just help out with the Yukon Quest. The couple also volunteers at Pioneer Park every Tuesday evening during the summer, and they’ve been serving as Golden Heart Greeters at the Morris Thompson Cultural and Visitors Center for well over a decade.
The Quest appears to be a highlight for them, though. Despite Leo's joke that he doesn’t volunteer, he’s “voluntold,” the smile never left his face as he went about assisting the public.
“People who volunteer want to be part of it, but they don’t necessarily have the time to dedicate to dog mushing. I’m a city girl, I like my city comforts,” Colleen said. “This is our way of giving back to the race and supporting them and supporting our community — that’s what it’s all about.”
Contact staff writer Alistair Gardiner at 459-7575. Follow him on Twitter: @FDNMoutdoors.