Never Volunteer

Wax Crew applies Klister. If you know what klister is, you know why they deserve  applause.

Wax Crew applies Klister. If you know what klister is, you know why they deserve applause.

I just skied my 12th Birkie. About 20 miles into it, I stopped at an aid station. They had fires going, a first aid tent, and they  handed out warm water and energy drink. They even had stacks of ski poles arranged by length in case you’ve broken one of your own along the trail. I went up to one of the ladies and said, “Thanks for helping.” Trying to show my appreciation for the volunteers there at the aid station. I felt coherent.

But, I know what the lady in her 50’s saw. I’ve seen it myself when I’ve been on the other side of this scene. A pudgy, middle-aged guy, steaming from sweat in the 10F temperatures stumbles up. He has snot running down his face and snotsicle remnants on the front of his jacket. He grabs the cup of water with his two club-like hands, still attached to ski poles and says, “Dankfuhhepping” with his face all frozen and unable to form normal words.

That lady deserves a medal for what she had to see. (Me.) Running a Birkie aid station is like controlled chaos. And they’re not getting rich doing it. They’re volunteers.


For some reason I’ve been seeing them everywhere this year. I did a trail run last summer and people were charitable and donated $3600 dollars to the Wounded Warrior Project for my efforts. It opened my eyes to see volunteers everywhere. People are giving money to the Lester-Amity Chalet. Loll donated thousands of dollars of benches to that facility. My daughter’s a crossing guard. Various donations go to rewarding the kids with a day at the movies.

Our son is in his second year skiing cross country for Duluth East. It’s a great program. Inclusive. Supportive. Encouraging. There are over a hundred kids in the program. Skiing is a gear-intensive, expensive, technique driven sport. And you do it outside in frigid temps in northern Minnesota. If Bonnie Fuller-Kask and Dave Kask weren’t such great coaches with positive attitudes, they’d have a roster of about five kids. The team’s success is a tribute to their leadership.

But I feel like I’m trying to hop onto a moving train as a parent who’s only in our second year in the program. Parents set up ski courses. They cook meals for the team dinners. They organize race bibs. They help at the start line. It’s like a high-energy aerobic-athlete amoeba that just keeps moving forward at fifty miles per hour. I offer to help and expect an owner’s manual and some classroom lessons on what to do. I’ve learned you just have to jump in and start applying elbow grease. On the job volunteer training.

“Never volunteer. Never.” This is what I learned in the service. The guy at the front of the room says, “I need three volunteers. It’s a good deal.” No, it’s not. It’s a lie. Some horrible bathroom mopping or grass-mowing will take place or some other useless task that takes you away from actual meaningful work. Me and my service buddies would remain perfectly still. Even close our eyes. (They can only see motion. If I can’t see them, they can’t see me.) Uncle Sam taught me that nothing good comes from volunteering. My Duluth service buddy, Tiki, had a great term for what actually happens. You avoid and avoid and avoid the BS and finally a boss catches up with you.

“Hey, Tiki. You didn’t volunteer for (insert heinous task) did you?”

“No, Shmo. I got voluntold to do it.” Good deals for all my friends.

So, for me to start joining society and being charitable requires removing decades of hiding practice.


I’ve got great teachers. About 10 grownups swarmed over the team skis after the skate race at Snowflake. It’s a pursuit format, so there is a classic race that starts in the order that you finished the skate race. Then it’s an all-out race to the finish line and the first one there wins. Classic racing requires sticky wax under your feet. It can be tricky. Right around freezing it can be very tricky. It sometimes requires klister as the kick wax. Klister is a wax that comes in a tube like toothpaste. Except the contents are far more evil than toothpaste. It’s like Satan’s chewing gum. If you open a tube of klister, there will be klister on everything you’ve touched for the next ten years. Okay, I’m kidding. It’s 20 years.

Well, at this Snowflake invitational, between races, the coaches had to apply klister (not too thick, not too thin, with torches) to the skis. And there was barely enough time to pull it off. I can only imagine that everybody had their fingers glued together like webbing for the next week. And the kids skied great on skis that gripped the way they were supposed to. A time-compressed miracle. Thanks to our parents and coaches.

That wasn’t enough work, so Dave Kask took that same wax trailer (that he built) and dragged it down to the IPC Nordic World Championships in Cable, Wisconsin the next day. His son Jason is involved in the IPC movement helping coach paralympic athletes with disabilities (missing limbs, vision impairment, etc.) to skiing victory. After waxing skis for hundreds of kids, the van went to work for the US team. And about ten kids, who just raced the day prior, went down to be forerunners for the competition. They ski the course right before the athletes to make sure that fresh snow doesn’t hamper the first athletes and that there isn’t anything wrong (a tree across the trail) before the race starts. I made a heavy sigh before I drove my son down to help, but when I got there, I couldn’t be more proud of him and the other kids. My old habits die hard.

Forerunners for IPC Nordic World Championships.

Forerunners for IPC Nordic World Championships.

But at least the kids will grow up and pay us back with their lucrative professional cross country skiing contracts in the professional cross country skiing league. Oh wait…this sport is for love, not money.

I’ve written about volunteering before. But for some reason this winter, I see it everywhere. I’m grateful to be around people that donate their time and efforts.

So, lately, when I see a mom wiping down a table after a team meal or a coach picking the klister out of their fingernails (in June), I appreciate them more somehow. I can’t explain it.

Now, pitch in. Before I voluntell you to.




About Eric Chandler

Husband. Father. Pilot. Cross Country Skier. Writer. Author of Outside Duluth and Down In It.
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5 Responses to Never Volunteer

  1. So glad I have been directed to your blog, Eric — I have fond memories from the last 4 years of high school Nordic skiing, and the friendships formed by just jumping in and helping out (even when my experience with the sport was shuffling along on my waxless skis!) — and the kids in this sport are amazing, and it is wonderful to see them continue this lifelong activity as they move past Bonnie and Dave’s great program. They are sincere when they say at that first parents’ meeting that if all a kid wants to do is learn how to ski, they have a place for them. All are welcome, and the benefits last forever.

  2. Shmo — you….you have a gift. 🙂

  3. Pingback: Shmo’s 2016 Writing Review | SHMOTOWN

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