WHITE PASS, U.S.-CANADIAN BORDER - Out of dense fog and driving rain on desolate Klondike Highway 2, twinkling strands of Christmas lights emerged like an oasis in the night early Saturday.
A bastion of hospitality in an inhospitable environment, more than two dozen volunteers waited patiently as solitary runners from stage two of the Klondike "Trail of '98" International Road Relay trickled in over several hours, tagging their teammates to continue on the third leg.
"We're extreme volunteers," said Carol Arntzen of Whitehorse, Yukon Territory, who checked in runners at the White Pass station at midnight Alaska time as cold rain and fog swirled about a circle of RVs linked by tarps.
"This is the toughest station to be at - a lot of us take pride in that," said Ernie Bourassa, who traded in his duties as mayor of Whitehorse to head up the checkpoint for the night. Nearly all the 25 volunteers there were Whitehorse city employees.
"It's not a sissy station like those toward Whitehorse," he added, poking fun at fellow volunteers at stations further north that enjoyed much better weather.
While the race needs hardy teams of runners to compete - 129 teams entered this year for the 20th anniversary running of the 10-stage, 110-mile race between Skagway, Alaska, and Whitehorse - the Klondike relay could not happen were it not for the time and effort of dozens of volunteers willing to stay up all night in all kinds of conditions.
"To get this station going, we had to set up at 3 in the morning," said Art Christensen of Whitehorse, who parked himself a kilometer outside of the Annie Lake checkpoint to give other volunteers a heads-up for approaching runners.
"I tell (racers) it's another kilometer to go, keep going, good luck, good morning - and what is your bib number, that's the most important," Christensen said. By radioing that number ahead, the volunteers give notice to teams so their next runner can get warmed up.
Christensen has been volunteering on race day for 15 years, and his level of experience is not unusual among volunteers at the start, finish and nine stations along the route. With those years comes a well-tuned routine of preparation.
"You dress for February, then put your rain gear over it," said Pam Lattin of Whitehorse, stationed at the White Pass checkpoint. She reported that on race nights past the pass has seen snow and fog so thick she could not see across the two-lane road.
In the past, some station crews created themes for their checkpoints. The volunteers at the Canadian customs station said they hauled out a hot tub one year for a "Midnight at the Oasis" theme, and another year dressed as angels to create "Pearly Gates."
"We spent weeks making those costumes," said Judy Beaumont of Annie Lake, north of Carcross. Time and weather have diminished the elaborate set-ups, though the spirit remains.
Bourassa, the mayor of Whitehorse, reported that racers typically "don't say a heck of a lot," when they reach his post; the second leg is the shortest but steepest leg of the race. But the runners expressed plenty of appreciation for the volunteers after they had recovered from their leg.
"They're wonderful," said Lisa Kirsch of Juneau, who ran leg 6 for the Lady GuDivas team. Kirsch said the station workers not only do a great job of alerting teams when their runner is approaching, but "they have the nice little touches - like candles in the port-a-pots."
"They're just awesome," said Juneau's Kim Rivera, running with the Vestigial Appendages. "They're so patient, and the fact they are out there so long - it's fantastic."
It may be cold, and tiring, and lonely to man a stretch of road all by himself, scanning the distance for approaching racers - but Christensen said he'll keep coming back.
"I'm glad to do it," he said. "I couldn't sit at home and listen to it on the radio. I wouldn't have it any other way."
Race director Trevor Twardochleb said volunteers like Christensen are vital to the success of the relay, which raises between $10,000 and $15,000 for Sport Yukon. The organization sponsors athletics in the territory.
"They are so important to this race," he said of the 300 volunteers who turn out each year. "There is a vast amount of expertise on the road. Without them, the race doesn't happen."
Andrew Krueger can be reached at email@example.com.
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