Mat-Su readies for Arctic Winter Games with volunteers in short supply

Jan. 20—PALMER — The logistics center for the 2024 Arctic Winter Games in Mat-Su is a red 5,000-square-foot warehouse in downtown Palmer that's becoming increasingly busy with the mid-March approach of the Olympic-style event.

Garlands of blue, purple and green streamers to add dazzle to opening and closing ceremonies hang from the rafters above stacks of 60 mattress-sized speed skating crash pads and a pile of rolled gray biathlon mats.

Boxes of branded merchandise sit waiting for sale in a corner, while upstairs in a small loft, a collection of papier-mâché decorations await some finishing creative touches.

The gear necessary to host a major sporting event is steadily piling up with less than two months to go before the March 10-16 event. Venues for the events in Palmer, Wasilla and Hatcher Pass — as well as a few in Anchorage such as Kincaid Park — are getting ready for athletes. Participants will sleep in schools empty over the break.

But now organizers are facing a time crunch to register and process the 2,000 volunteers they say they need to run the week-long event.

With just days left before their volunteer sign-up deadline early next week, games committee officials say they still need to double their list of workers willing to put in 12-hour shifts in tasks ranging from kitchen duty to security patrol.

Organizers say they can get by with as few as 1,500 volunteers, but that number leaves little wiggle room for the inevitable schedule conflicts or no-shows. If not enough volunteers sign up, staff will instead look to those who have already registered to work more than 12 hours over the week of events, said volunteer coordinator Mandy Mitchell.

"Ideally, we're sitting okay. But we're not sitting where I would like to be," Mitchell said. "I would like to have that buffer. I would like to not have to have volunteers working 20 hours."

The games feature about 20 indoor and outdoor sports of the circumpolar north, including skiing, hockey, Dene Games and speedskating. They'll draw about 2,000 athletes, coaches and support staff to Mat-Su from across Alaska and about a dozen northern regions, including Greenland and throughout Canada. Alaska last hosted the games in 2014, when they were held in Fairbanks.

Most of the sports and events, including the opening and closing ceremonies and a carnival, will be held in the Mat-Su, with biathlon at Kincaid Park and speedskating and figure skating at the Harry J. McDonald Memorial Center in Eagle River. Charter buses will shuttle athletes and staff between the schools and the venues, organizers said.

Part of the challenge with volunteer sign-up is its complexity. To participate, each adult volunteer is required to complete a background check and attend one of the orientations held throughout the region, which include a 15-minute "safe sport" child abuse prevention training. And those who will have direct contact with students, such as medical or security volunteers, must also complete a full 90-minute abuse prevention training at home.

[From 2023: Alaska athletes thrive and surprise at Arctic Winter Games in Canada]

Mitchell wants to have all volunteer background checks complete and ID photos uploaded by late this month, with an initial registration deadline on Tuesday. So far only about 750 volunteers have completed those steps, she said, with another 850 who still need to finish the process.

Volunteers who work at least 12 hours receive an Arctic games parka jacket, shirt and hat, she said.

About 30 local staff and board members are hustling to make final preparations.

At the logistics center this week, warehouse and logistics manager Tre-c Demais was bracing for hundreds of boxes of sports and support supplies to come flowing in, ready to be distributed to the various venues.

Organizing, directing and distributing the materials is not unlike getting ready for a major backcountry trip, said Demais, who regularly leads long backcountry trips as a guide for the National Outdoor Leadership School or NOLS.

"I sat down and I was like, 'Oh yeah, I've got this because I know what it's like to lead expeditions,'" she said. "I understand the nuances."

And after the games conclude, her job will shift to offloading all of that used gear through a combination of donations and reselling items to the community or future games locations, she said.

Logistics isn't the only moving target for the event, which carries a $7 million price tag paid for through a combination of grants, donations and government funding. Multiple sports venues required upgrades to handle games requirements, including a new parking lot at Government Peak Recreation Area and extended downhill ski runs at Skeetawk in Hatcher Pass. Both projects were completed late last year.

For locals, the games will also mix a unique chance to attend a bevy of events as well as some challenges brought by a swell of visitors at what is typically a slow time of year for the area's tourism industry, said Casey Ressler, an Arctic Winter Games board member who also heads the Mat-Su Convention and Visitors Bureau.

That means residents should be prepared with extra patience as Mat-Su schools, ice rinks, ski areas, roads and restaurants are crowded with out-of-season visitors, Ressler said.

"There's just going to be a lot of people here at a time when we don't normally have them ... Restaurants are going to be packed, there's going to be a lot of cars on the road, buses, motor coaches," he said. "But you know, it's one week. This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to literally welcome the world to our community. To me, there is no negative in that."

A schedule of events is available on the Arctic Winter Games website. Most events are free, with tickets required for opening and closing ceremonies, some medal rounds and cultural events.