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Dinosaurs? Pork chops? Volunteers help fairgoers find the way

Zaz Hollander
Sabrena Combs, right, briefs fellow volunteer Sara Jansen for her shift at the Ask Me About the Fair! station along the Red Trail at the Alaska State Fair on Friday, Aug. 22, 2014, in Palmer. Combs coordinates volunteers for two stations staffed to serve fairgoers looking for booths, events and shows. Erik Hill / Alaska Dispatch News

PALMER -- The dinosaur questions hit Sabrena Combs as soon as she donned her bright orange apron and stood in front of the beige “Ask Me About the Fair!” sign on Friday.

Combs coordinates a team of 24 fellow volunteers who answer questions about the Alaska State Fair and help the hordes navigate what turns into a city of 300,000 over a two-week period.

Top questions last year involved the location of the diaper-changing station for the first half of the fair and the “pork chop on a stick” booth the second, according to Dean Phipps, the fair’s marketing and communications director. 

Early indications this year show the new “Age of the Dinosaurs” exhibit is shaping up to be a contender.

“I’ve had six people ask me about dinosaurs, so that’s gonna be a good one,” said Combs, a gregarious Palmer native who grew up going to the fair and now works for Matanuska Electric Association.

Volunteers stand in front of those signs at the fair’s two souvenir shops from 1 p.m. until 7 p.m. Friday through Sunday. They answer questions and hand out daily schedules and maps. In return, volunteers get two entry tickets and a parking pass through the program, which started in 2011.

Don’t bother trying to stump them with big kohlrabi questions. Volunteers don’t necessarily have to know a ton of fair trivia, Combs said. “We’re more directional.”

People asked for lots of directions at the information station at Pioneer Plaza on Friday afternoon as crowds started swelling toward a busy weekend night. Where’s the ATM? Do you know where the Aces booth is? How do I get to those pork chops, cheese curds, Reuben sandwiches?

Wasilla residents Leo and Cherry Robichaud, both wearing black cowboy hats, approached Combs and volunteer Cassi Campbell with a technical request.

“I understand you can have a download for the fair events,” Leo Robichaud said, referring to the application that this year added GPS coordinates of all booth locations.

Yup, the volunteers said. Do you have a smartphone?

“Do I have a smartphone? It’s smarter than me,” he quipped.

His wife watched while the volunteers took over the Android phone and found the app.

“He wouldn’t let me do it,” she said.

Campbell is in her third year volunteering for the program. Asked about the strangest request she’s heard, she said it probably was the person who apparently wanted a share of the winning giant cabbage from that internationally famous weigh-off competition.

But then she remembered the fairgoers who walk up and maybe take the exclamation point on the sign too literally.

“You know what’s funny?” Campbell asked. “People are always like, ‘What do you want me to ask you about the fair?’”

It really doesn’t take that much to qualify as a volunteer, Combs said. There’s no test. The program just requires a decent understanding of the fair and a desire to share it with the public. Her corps of volunteers this year runs in age from 17 to 70-something. She recruits at local high schools and on Facebook.

Volunteer Sara Jansen, starting her first-ever shift Friday at the other stand near the Irwin Exhibits Building, is arguably overqualified. Jansen spent a 20-year career at the fair, graduating from grounds crew to general manager before serving on the Mat-Su Borough Assembly and as a planner for the City of Palmer and now the borough.

She’s also the proud owner of a complete set of Alaska State Fair belt buckles.

On Friday, she deftly handled yet another question: Setting aside the new exhibits about dinosaurs and other nifty attractions that change from year to year, what’s the biggest steady draw at the fair?

“I think everybody pretty much has to go see the giant vegetables,” Jansen said. Then she praised all the different kinds of people with different interests -- 4-H, martial arts, diaper derbies -- who come together every year and manage to get along.

“It’s pretty harmonious when you consider it’s the size of a pretty big city in Alaska,” she said.

Contact Zaz Hollander at zhollander@adn.com.