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Long Haired and White Knuckled On the Back Of a Speeding Dogsled


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...

Driving tag sled during ceremonial start of 2007 Iditarod.

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:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Iditarod_Trail_Sled_Dog_Race