In the winter of 2010, I had the pleasure of spending a few days out at a base camp on a sheet of aufeis on the North Fork of the Koyukuk River in Gates of the Arctic National Park & Preserve with Park Ranger Zak Richter and his dog team. To get there, I drove to Fairbanks, caught a small plane (Cessna 185) flight out to the town of Bettles, and then another ride on that same plane (once the winds died down) out to the camp site.
One evening, we took a trail we had broke earlier in the day upriver to further explore the area near the Gates of the Arctic: Mount Boreal and Frigid Crags. Once we reached a nice view point for the Gates, we stopped and gave the dogs an extended rest. I spent a few minutes capturing images of the scene, including Zak and his team, and we continued back down the river back to camp.
Riding in the sled of a dog team is quite an experience. The position is rather compromising; you only have a canvas sled and some wooden runners between you and ice, snow, tree roots, rocks, and whatever else may come along. I found myself rattled on more than one occasion, and once in a while slightly freaked out by the sound of cracking ice beneath us as we moved along. The smells are also quite interesting; you are essentially downwind from nine dog butts. I’ll let your imagination fill in the spaces on that one. But the view is incredible, leading to a whole new appreciation of how to travel across the backcountry in winter.
Along the way, I was thinking how cool it was to be so close to the ground and to see all that ice and snow go speeding by beside me. Then Zak said something about how cool of a shot it would be. My camera was already on my lap, cradled close to me for safety and warmth, so I held it up and framed what I thought would be an interesting view. But the composition was only part of the equation. I wanted to capture the wide scene and the sense of speed. I fortunately had my 12-24mm lens already on my camera (a Nikon D300), so that gave me the wide view I wanted. But, in order to get the speed, I set the aperture to f/22 and the ISO to 100 to ensure a slow shutter speed.
This image was selected as a finalist in the “People in Nature” category in the 2010 Windland Smith Rice International Awards (but not selected as a winning image). My greatest praise for this image came from none other than Jeff Schultz, the official photographer of the Iditarod for over twenty years. At the annual Alaska Stock meeting that year, during the photographers’ New Images slide show, this image came up and Jeff (who owns the company) said almost immediately “Do we have this one yet?” When someone who has been photographing dog mushing as long as he has been gets excited by a dog mushing photo, you know you have accomplished something.