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Unsung Heroes: American Birkebeiner Volunteers

By Lou Dzierzak

Every year since 1973, come mid-February, a small, highly trained and motivated citizen army begins to stir. They come from the small communities of Cable and Hayward, Wisconsin; and across the states of Wisconsin, Minnesota and the entire Midwest to take their positions.

This talented army includes more than 2,000 volunteers who provide the manpower, ingenuity, expertise and human resources that power the American Birkebeiner.

Called the largest cross country ski race in North America, the Birkebeiner registered more than 6,000 skiers for events in 2008. Add another 15,000 spectators and it quickly becomes clear the race would not exist without the enthusiastic and tireless support of these volunteers.

Many are veterans who have served for decades; others are new recruits anxiously waiting to see if they can perform up to the standards set by those who have come before.

Volunteers touch every aspect of a Birkebeiner skier’s experience. They make the race work by providing, for example, an efficient registration process, smooth traffic flows at the start and finish lines, well-stocked trailside food stations, and more than 300 medical personnel that line the course ready to assist at a moment’s notice.

Joan McGaver, a long-time volunteer, talks with pride about these contributions, “Most of the skiers have no clue how many people it takes to put that race on.”

There’s certainly enough work to keep the volunteers busy. Shellie Milford, the Birkebeiner’s race operations director, reports the task of running the weekend events fall on the shoulders of 45 race chiefs. Each chief oversees a different area of race operations, such as food stations, registration, security, parking, busing and the start and finish lines.

Most skiers start their Birkebeiner experience with the registration process. Carrie Hartman travels several hundred miles to take her place at the registration table. Volunteering for over 20 years, Hamilton never hesitates when deciding whether to come back for the next year’s race.

“The energy and the excitement; it all comes back to you,” she explains. “It’s all brand new. The people are so appreciative of the work the volunteers do. That’s what makes it so rewarding. You just want to come back.”

With her experience, Hamilton handles special situations, unexpected problems and last minute entrants.

“It’s a stressful time for skiers,” she says. “Some people get a little cranky but you do what you can to help them out. If they need a safety pin, we get them a safety pin. No matter what it is, we try to help them out. You can’t move people up a few waves, but you do whatever you can. It’s rewarding to help someone else make the event wonderful for them.”

John Moreland is the food station operations chief. He’s in charge of logistics for 11 food stations that are spread across the course and finish line. In an easygoing manner, Moreland describes a three-week preparation process that involves trucking tables and equipment from storage facilities to staging areas and then trailside.

Moreland grew into his role by working side by side with Joe Struska who managed the food stations for 33 years. Calling Streska the best man he’s ever worked for, he recalls a day when the pair found themselves locked out of their truck at a remote food station.

“We had to walk five miles through the snow to get to the highway because we locked our radios in the truck with the keys,” Moreland says. “That’s something we talked about for years.”

Moreland, who skied the Birkebeiner from the 11th to 25th years of the event, manages the last food station before the finish line.

“We operate from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. in two shifts,” he explains. “The food stations at the start are done by 11 a.m. but they have the masses of skiers to deal with at the start of the race.”

By the end of the race, Moreland and the 30-40 volunteers who man each food station will have handed out 5,000 bananas, 2,000 oranges, 5,000 cups of hot chocolate, 5,000 gallons of water, 1,500 gallons of sport drink, 600 gallons of soup, 16,000 cookies and 5,000 doughnut holes. And then they clean up the 98,000 cups tossed on the side of the trail by cold but ever-so-grateful skiers.

Milford says, “The majority of the people working on race day are working at food stations. They come back year after year. They know what they are doing, they are good at and they love it.”

“It’s something I enjoy doing,” Moreland adds. “I can help the Birkie out a lot more as a volunteer than a skier.”

Paul Eckerline, the Birkebiener’s baggage co-chief, and his team of 25 volunteers make sure one of the race’s final official responsibilities leaves an enduring positive experience for cold, tired skiers. “Everyone gets a bag to put their dry clothes in when they start the race,” he explains. “We pick up the bags at the start, haul them to the finish, sort them numerically and give them back to the skiers as they cross the finish line.”

With a well-designed and practiced system in place, the baggage handlers divide the bags to match the 10 waves at the start. He says, “We have 10 trucks full of bags. Once on the ground it’s a sea of bags, but by the end of the day, every one of them is gone. That’s 5,000 bags. Our claim to fame is we’ve never lost a bag. Misplaced a few but always get them to the people.”

Involved in the process for 25 years, Eckerline isn’t happy with just moving bags from one place to the next. The skier’s comfort is a far greater motivation. “We hand the bag back to the skier rather than having the skiers forage around through storage areas. We give skiers at the back of the pack the same sense of importance as the elite skiers in the first wave. The last skier is just as important as the first skier,” he says.

The skiers are thrilled to get their warm dry clothes at the end of the race. He adds, “It’s the memory skiers take away from the race. If everything is going well and they have warm clothes at the end, that’s great. I’m sure there are other volunteer positions that are rewarding but the skiers can’t thank you enough at that point. It’s a rewarding experience for the volunteers.”

The Birkebeiner’s 2,000 volunteers work hard, often starting long before dawn’s first light and manning posts outside in frigid temperatures. Ready to serve at their assigned stations, financial compensation is far from their minds. If the volunteers were paid employees being paid a realistic $10 per hour, the Birkebeiner would have a race weekend payroll of at least $160,000.

Instead, volunteers receive a commemorative Birkebeiner hat and pin. Race chiefs receive a jacket every two years from Rossignol, one of the event’s sponsors. Eckerline notes that skiers recognize the embroidered American Birkebeiner jacket throughout the rest of the year. “Anyone who sees the jacket will thank you,” he says.

Milford says the Birkebeiner hosts a party at the end of race weekend to thank the volunteers. Although the majority have headed home, 400-500 stick around to trade stories and celebrate. She says, “We try to give people a lot of recognition for what they do. We could not do this without them.”

When another Birkebeiner comes to a close, Hamilton offers a final word about the citizen army that supports the race. “With all the racers and spectators, you could not put on this race without the volunteers. It’s amazing how it all comes together.