Let me set the scene : 21 year old Chris stands on the runners of a dogsled during the ceremonial start of the 2008 Iditarod in Anchorage Alaska. His hair was long (shoulder length), his teeth were clenched and his knuckles were white as he drove all his weight down onto the sled's claw brake...doing everything he could to maintain reasonable speeds around thousands of spectators and camera crews. After weeks of travel in a dog box from Montana to Alaska, the 16 K9 athletes leading the charge had one goal...run - and run hard...
Yep - thats me in the back.
Lets rewind. I grew up in Amish Country PA. Rolling hills, farm land and the perpetual stink of livestock. Don't get me wrong it is a lovely place, but as a kid that grew up reading Jack London and watching movies like Iron Will - lets just say the mountains were calling...
I first experienced the west first hand as a 12 year old. A family trip that took us through Jackson Hole, Yellowstone and Glacier left quite a lasting impression on me. At one point I stood in Tom Mangelsen's 'Images of Nature' gallery in Jackson Hole and pretty much had a life changing moment of clarity. There, standing beneath the Tetons, I came to the realization that one could make a living taking pictures AND be in the mountains. From that moment on my direction was set. I was heading west and the camera was going to take me there...
At 19 I finally got my jet set ducks in a row...I tossed my 'Jonathan Taylor Thomas Esque' hair into a bandana, condensed my belongings into 3 bags and flew to Montana to begin my undergrad as a Photojournalism/Media major.
My education was admittedly really fun. School now instructed me to go find cool stories to document. I met a guy that ran a wolf sanctuary, interviewed a family that made a living carving totem poles and featured a small business that created guitars out of old cigar boxes. The final project my sophomore year was to include still photos AND audio...whoa. This was a big deal back then. I was now on the hunt for a story worthy of such depth and complexity... I was wrapping up lunch in the University of Montana student center and perusing the job posting board. And there it was. The catalyst - a hand written 3x5 card that read 'Musher assistant needed. Must have 4x4 vehicle and not be scared of dogs.' I dropped my afternoon classes, hopped in my ragtop jeep and drove 1.5 hours northeast to Seeley Lake, MT to meet Kirk.
Kirk was a professional dog musher and I instantly liked him. He was a straight forward mountain man. He didn't like bullshit and let you know his opinions in a genuine and refreshing way. He was also training and preparing to run his first Iditarod : an 1,100 mile dog sled race across Alaska. This would be the perfect story for my final multimedia project - That is if Kirk would be interested in having a goofball like me follow him around taking pictures.
After an afternoon spent walking the property, learning about mushing and meeting the dogs (all 60 of them) I broached the subject of being featured for my final project. His response was that of 'sure whatever' then he offered me a job helping maintain the kennel and train sled dogs - Truth is I had forgotten about the job posting. I was just so pumped to meet Kirk, see his dogs and lock down this bad ass story! Sophomore year at UM I was a full time student and Kirk's place was a decent drive and I had friends and obligations yadda yadda - thats why it took half a nanosecond before I answered 'hell yes.'
I spent the next 6 months diving into the world of sled dogs...
Now this was the age before smart phones, reverse cameras and selfies. The only photos I have of this time in my life was when I decided to stop DOING and pick up my DSLR and shoot. The multimedia project ended up turning out fine...honestly it took a backseat to the job.
One of my favorite photos I have EVER taken right here :
We were running the team up Skalkaho pass in MT at midnight under a full moon (the moon energized the dogs). I was riding in the basket and did a long exposure lighting the team with my headlamp...It's not the cleanest photo but it was one of those 'this is so freakin awesome' moments.
Anyway, that semester we worked the team and packed gear getting Kirk ready for his first Iditarod. He would be leaving in February and I wouldn't be able to come since I had school. I turned in my final multimedia project and flew back to Pennsylvania for Christmas break to see family.
Around new years, about a day or 2 after registering for spring semester classes Kirk calls me...'I know you have school but I could really use your help in Alaska...'This time it took about 2 nanoseconds for me to decide...'I'm in.' I withdrew from classes and went full time into the world of sleddogs.
As race time approached we trained, prepped gear then loaded up the team and began the 2,500 mile drive north. To make a long drive short...the Alcan Highway in winter is an adventure to say the least. I experienced -60 temps, northern lights, midnight training runs and about the gnarliest motels between Montana and AK. There was about 6 days where I didn't take my insulated coveralls off. Had to let dogs out to stretch and relieve themselves every 4 hours round the clock so what was the point? Once we finally made it to Alaska it was then a series of vet checks, banquets, media and to summarize Kirk: a bunch of non mushing nonsense.
When I interviewed Kirk for my media project I asked him why he wanted to do Iditarod and his answer was awesomely simple. 'The main driving force for me?...well...it takes me a full winter to get my dog team dialed and Iditarod is the best thing going in March.' All he cared about was his dogs and spending time alone in the woods with them. He didn't chase sponsors, he didn't glad hand media he just wanted to work dogs. He was a purist for the sport and I respected that.
Ok sorry long rewind...lets get back to the race...
The Iditarod is a commemorative 1100 mile race across Alaska and it has a really neat history - if youare the type that likes to sidebar to learn more:
Part of the race's tradition has become an 11 mile ceremonial start through downtown Anchorage. Thousands of people and camera crews line the streets to cheer the teams as they parade through downtown. Funny thing about the start is that after that 11 mile stretch - mushers and their dogs pack everything up for the night before starting the OFFICIAL race the next day (location is determined on weather conditions).
Now, lets look at this from a dog's perspective: They have been training to run 80+ miles a day, in the woods. They have also been traveling to get to Alaska so they have been cooped up more then they are used to. An 11 mile urban run around thousands of people/dogs/Sarah Palin is WAY outside the norm. Add to this a warm winter with snow needing to be trucked into downtown Anchorage so we can run sleds and, more importantly brake, is a an interesting combination. A lesser known fact - most of these dogs don't run because you say 'mush.' They run because that is what they love to do. When you team them up you have to have the sled anchored to a tree or a vehicle to keep them from taking off. You train them on 'gee' and 'haw' for right and left (i'll call these requests not actual commands as the team often has a mind of its own..) and if you want to stop you hope for an uphill stretch with a tree or deep snow to anchor to - especially if the team isn't tired and you need to stop.
During the ceremonial start there are actually 2 sleds per team. The main sled driven by musher with a rider in the basket and about 10 feet back, a tag sled and musher for additional braking power. By this time in my mushing career I had spent a decent amount of time on a sled running dogs. Admittedly, I had wiped out, hit trees and taken my licks. What is nice about eating it in the woods is that there is no one to see you look like a jackass...I was, by no means a seasoned pro...yet there I was, on the tag sled getting ready for the go ahead to take off during the most televised dog sledding event in the world, thinking of the following:
Ok, so we have:
- AMPED DOGS THAT HAVE BEEN COOPED UP AND ARE READY TO RUN
- ABOUT 2-3 INCHES OF TRUCKED IN SNOW ON TOP OF SLICK PAVEMENT
- THOUSANDS OF SPECTATORS AND OTHER DOGS
- oh, and the tag sled scenario - of which Kirk and I NEVER TRAINED FOR.
Before I could ruminate on these terrifying aspects for too long the helpers released the team and we were off...
...and we were flying. Straight stretches were ok but on every turn the tag sled was whipped like a tuber behind a motorboat. At one point I remember a 90 degree turn - there were a bunch of little kids waving American flags and I had to lean the sled into the turn and power slide - spraying them harmlessly with snow (which they thought was awesome). They probably thought I was a hot dog musher that had everything under control...SO far from the truth. This was all controlled chaos and I was perpetually in a state of almost wiping out.
At one point there was a steep drop and a 90 degree turn on the edge of a drop down to a creek. The trail officials had politely placed a wall of hay bails on the edge of the trail to keep sleds from toppling down the ravine. Kirk looked over his shoulder at me and shouted 'look out!.' I saw the drop and turn and also saw hay bales strewn all over the place from previous teams that had clearly taken them out. As Kirk navigated his sled around the turn the whip effect kicked in on my sled and I laid it down and dropped to a knee (think of a motorcyclist taking a sharp turn)...SOMEHOW the sled took the turn and popped up with me safely on the other side. Kirk looked back and gave a thumbs up. I, on the other hand, finally needed to change my insulated coveralls...
Near the end of the route the trail went through a culvert tunnel that took us safely beneath a major roadway. Well the dogs didn't see this as a safe passage and immediately started up the bank towards the road. Luckily the bank was steep and we were able to slow the team down long enough for me to run ahead and intercept the lead dogs before they hit the road. I slowly guided them down the bank and through the tunnel (the team had never encountered a tunnel in the backcountry of MT...imagine that...). Once through, they took off and I leapt back onto my sled as it went sailing by.
This 11 mile roller coaster crossed busy roads, went through neighborhoods and encountered urban (non snow stretches) all lined with cheering spectators before ending relatively smoothly at an airfield. I remember I had to pretty much pry my hands off the bar of the sled since I had been gripping so hard for so long. Once my freed hands regained blood flow I promptly dropped down and kissed the ground.
The next day Kirk went on to start his 1100 mile journey alone.
I stayed in Wasilla taking care of the alternate dogs we brought as well as team member dogs as they were dropped from the race and flown back. The team fared wonderfully - only 1 broken leg that I had to deal with. Turns out that particular dog, Kelso, ran 10 miles after post holing in a moose track and breaking his leg...he was incredibly strong and incredibly sweet. Don't worry, Kelso made a full and speedy recovery ;) (he also slept in my bed in the hotel with me for the next few weeks unbeknownst to Kirk).
Kirk ended up finishing the race that rookie year -a feat in itself. He took 67th place out of 78 racers that crossed the finish line in Nome (not including the 18 Mushers that scratched the race that year). He set out to challenge himself and his dogs and he pulled it off.
After the long trip home I cut my hair which was good because I looked like I had been trapped in a well for 5 months. I later met up with one of my Journalism professors who asked me if I would be willing to publish a public photo gallery about my trip. I had a few images from moments here and there but the truth is I had nothing to show that would do the adventure justice...so I never did the gallery. Sometimes I regret not having more images from that time but it also makes sense...
The camera for me has always been a passport to adventure and although I love story telling with media, I find myself setting the camera down as much as I pick it up to shoot. The past decade has been full of stories told and moments experienced. From a mushing multimedia piece for college and a white knuckle dog sled roller coaster ride through downtown anchorage to spending years working on a show about Mountain Men to my wife and I building our own off grid yurt homestead: I tend to enjoy the 50/50 split.
That time spent mushing also allowed me to save $ for a puppy I would get that first summer post Iditarod. His name was Schuck Handsome and that dog would go on to catalyze my obsession with dog training, be my right hand man for many backcountry adventures throughout my 20s, become the logo for my business and, most recently, become the most painful loss I have ever endured.
It has been 10 years since my long haired mushing days...In a couple months I am heading back to Alaska. I am going to be teaching a search and rescue k9 tracking seminar...I'm also going to be filming some K9 work for promotional material. See? 50/50.
On this particular trip I am excited to bring my family. We will be celebrating my wife and my daughter's birthdays (Ember will turn 1 while we are there!!!!). Excited to show them Alaska and relive the Iditarod adventure a bit...Already signed us up for a dog sled tour in Seward...
...this time, rest assured, I will be taking lots of photos :)