Over the last year and a half I have developed an awesome relationship with Jeff and KattiJo Deeter at Black Spruce Dog Sledding. When they approached me about shooting a video about their kennel to dive into their operation and put on their website (www.blacksprucedogsledding.com), it did not take any convincing to get me on board! After a lot of discussion on what the final product would look and feel like, we decided to feature daytime and nighttime activities at the kennel, and that it should remain conversational. Of course, in the winter in Fairbanks night is a predominant period of time anyway! With those ideas in mind, we spent several sessions through the winter filming. The night scenes that you will see in the final product below were targeted under the full moon, but happened to be on a night of sub 40 below temperatures. Needless to say, by the time we ended the shoot early in the morning we were ready to warm up! I found out the next day when my thumb lost a lot of feeling that I had nipped it with frost. Such is life! I was more than happy with the footage shot by the Sony A7S under the moonlight.
The final product really displays the amount of time that Jeff and KattiJo put into their dogs, their training, and their business. They are very dedicated to their sport, which shows not only in their daily lives, but in their connections to the rest of the mushing community as well. I hope this video can help you appreciate the lifestyle and dedication of these two mushers, and realize that the same dedication emanates from many other mushers throughout Alaska. Enjoy!
It seemed like a good omen that the clouded skies cleared to bluebird conditions as we pulled into the parking lot of Wickersham Dome. The unexpected blue skies cheered us on as we went about threading our ganglines, clipping on snowhooks, and packing our sleds. Eager and expectant dogs watched our progress, and when we began to hook them up their tug lines, they fed upon each others energy. Leaping, pulling, and baying they waited for me to pull my snowhook and quickrelease. When I did, the sled lurched over the hardpack of the parking lot, banked left onto the main trail, and we were on our way to Crowberry Cabin, 30 miles into White Mountains.
Sled dogs have a plethora of personalities. Jeff (friend and owner of Black Spruce Dog Sledding) let me know that Sooner, one of my dogs in lead only pulled well for “people he liked”, and I was conscious of that trait as we made our first stop. I walked up to the front of the team and gave Sooner a good pat on the head. “Keep it up, bud”, I stated. I’m not sure if my initial approaches made a difference or not, but Sooner and Stoic, the lead along with him, pulled great the entire trip with their heads down, and always with some tension on the tuglines. Behind the leads, Simon, an old veteran pulled well too. As a veteran dog he knew his roll in the team and worked hard. Sniffing the tip of Simon’s tail was Beaver and Scorch. Finally, taking “wheel”, Grizz and George were responsible for pulling hard. George can be a great worker, and out of my entire team he is my favorite. He loves to check out what’s going on, and since his position was closest to the sled, every time I opened the sled bag he craned his neck to get a look inside. Together they were my team of 7, and I was happy to be pulled by them!
Simon : a veteran knows to get some sleep at camp!
Sooner : Taking a quick break on the trail
Stoic and Sooner : Nose to the wind
Beaver : lots of character
Scorch : Those floppy ears!
Grizz : my youngest pup, and a great puller
George : a goofy and fun loving dog
Crowberry cabin sat on a facing to the west, and the peaks of the White Mountains surrounded us. The wooden cabin looked iconic for the Alaskan Wilderness. Throughout the Whites, these public use cabins serve as refuge for those who venture far. Trappers, hunters, mushers, or snow machiners make use of them. The full log construction of this cabin was wonderful, and when once we built a fire and warmed the inside, it was a truly incredible getaway. The four bunkbeds, dinner table, and camps stove, and lantern made it into a 5 star Alaskan Suite. However, admiration of the cabin was actually secondary to the task at hand. I walked along the gangline of the staked out dogs and tossed out beef snacks. We layed down straw for each of the pairs to keep them off the snow, and started heating up water for their main course – kibbles and meat. Building a fire, we enjoyed the sunset and fed the dogs their final meal.
The next morning an inch of powdery snow had fallen over the night. My team was wide awake as I stepped outside for the first time, and George gave me a happy tail wag. I dusted the snow off my sled, packed my gear, harnessed my team and hit the trail. The dogs were just as eager to set out on the trail as the day before. The intermittent, light snow shaded the hills and made our ride home far different. The sprawling vistas of the White Mountains were gone, replaced by a moody gray. The next 4 hours breezed by, and before I knew it the Wickersham Dome parking lot was back under foot, ending an incredible experience and trip!
The opportunity to experience dog sledding for an overnight trip is the fulfillment of a life-long dream. I have literally wanted to drive my own team since reading about fictional characters “Lew and Charlie” in Fur Fish Game, stories by Jack London, or books like Jim Kjelgaard’s “Snow Dog”. Those stories have fueled my imagination and desire to visit open spaces since I was twelve. I have always been drawn to the mystery, adventure, and vastness of remote areas. The White Mountains are just one of the broad wilderness areas of Alaska, and the opportunity to experience it using the low-impact “Alaskan” method was truly a gift!
Well folks, this post is officially #100 on this blog. A huge thank-you to all who have supported me and followed in my growth as a writer and photographer! It’s amazing to go back to old posts and reflect on how this site has changed. Some things have not changed much; it is still my mission and joy to bring you photography of wildlife, landscapes, and adventure, and couple some science along with it! Have a favorite moment on this blog from the last 100 posts? I would love if you left it in the comments below! Don’t worry – this site won’t be going away anytime soon 🙂
Early this afternoon I was being pulled by six eager sled dogs. Trails had been degraded and made icy by the recent 50 degree temperatures, and the sled which normally has some drag in snow, slid like it was on Teflon behind the twenty-four turning legs. The excited dogs would have fun as fast as I allowed. Of course my preservation of self made sure to reign in their energy; dumping a sled on these crystallized trails hurts more than on the snow! My sleeves were rolled back and my ungloved hands gripped onto the handle of the sled. The passing breeze did not even feel cold in the 55 degree temps. Leaning around turns and dodging spruce trees, I made my way along the fire break of Old Murphy Dome. Not a cloud was in the sky as we passed impressive vistas stretching to the north. In the distance, the snow of the White Mountains was starkly white against the tree covered hills of the lower foothills.
I passed by Jeff, who had stopped his team in front of me. He wanted me to practice passing another team, and commands of “Gee”, “Alright”, and “On-by” ensured that the leaders knew to keep moving past the other team of stopped dogs. We practiced the procedure a couple more times. Over the winter Jeff has done a great job getting me comfortable with the sled, and teams. It was important to practice passing for our upcoming trip to the White Mountains. More dog-sledding adventures will be reported I return from Crowberry Cabin!
We made several stops along the way to help cool the dogs down. The warm spring temperatures are a dramatic change to the -30 degree temperatures only three weeks ago! Each time the dogs would dive into the snow banks, and push their faces into it. Their panting faces were obviously smiling. It was a beautiful and great day to be a dog or a driver. I did my best to capture their doggy-grins and the excitement of the day. I hope you enjoy!
Dome and Sooner take a quick break under the bluebird conditions. With the warm temps, I’m sure there is an advantage to being a white dog!
The following series of George captures his antics as he cools down in the snow. He looks like one happy pooch!
George cools down and gives me the big eye while straining against his tug line.
George grins for the camera.
Maybe my favorite picture of the day! I love the faces of George and Hera in this shot. Happy Dogs!
Hard to beat the scenery when while on break!
A wider view of the surrounding area and dog team. Such a wonderful day!
Leaning back and taking a picture of the action as we head along the trail!
As I stood at the start-line of the Iditarod in Fairbanks it occurred to me that we, the crowd, were all having the same experience. Each of us attended the start-line to see 78 mushers set out to tackle the “Great Last Race”, which was beginning in Fairbanks for only the 2nd time in the race’s 43 year history. Our fingers, toes and nose were all going numb from -3 degree temps, the same orange fence separated us from the teams in “the chute”, and many of the same looking,gloved hands were getting into our shots attempting to capture the moment. Not only were we having the same physical experience, but we recorded it in similar ways. Hundreds of cameras, phones, and TV crews captured the racers from every possible angle and moment. Each image owner would go home or on air to syndicate their message to friends and family. They would all be reporting on the dogs as athletes (a very true statement), the goals of the mushers, the logistics of a changed trail, and snow conditions. So what could I do that would be unique?
I stopped staring through my camera’s viewfinder and focused on the moment I was in. I watched the cheering people, barking dogs, loaded sleds, and lined up cars. My observations of them are unique, much more so than any photo I could capture that day. There were many stories to tell as I looked around; these are my unique observations of the Iditarod start.
Mushers are a diverse group of people, and the Iditarod attracts mushers from across the world and cultures. During the morning, the only time the expectant audience got to meet the musher was as they approached the starting line. All of the mushers had their team brought through the “chute” by a group of handlers. The chute is the equivalent of a sports team dashing through a tunnel behind their mascot. As they passed through, some of the mushers wanted to incite the crowds. One of these goofballs was the “Mortician” (when not running the Iditarod he runs a funeral home) who raised his hands asking for cheers. He was certainly enjoying the moment! Others were stoic and seemed to be thinking of the race ahead as they stared at the lead dogs. However, regardless of personality, if you were lucky enough to make eye contact with the driver and grin, every musher would surly give you a smile a nod back. If they heard your cheers of “Good Luck!”, they would reply with a grateful, “thank-you”. Mushers, it seems to me, are the salt of the land and are just generally good people.
The dogs are excited to run. Very, very excited! Their bays reverberated off the surround areas in gruff, whining, or rapid tone. This year’s Iditarod had 78 mushing teams. A team is composed of 16 dogs, meaning there are 1248 dogs minimum at the race! If all of the teams made it to Nome, the dogs would have accumulated 1,216,800 miles total over the 975 mile course. The Arctic Circle is 10,975 miles in circumference meaning in “dog miles” they would run around the whole Arctic Circle 110 times – such an incredible feat! One of the greatest focuses of the race is the celebration of the dogs as athletes. Although the endurance and mental fortitude of the racers is paramount, the ability for the dogs to get through the race is what determines if a musher makes it to Nome!
Observers get a great opportunity to see the excitement of the dogs as they are brought out by 10 – 12 handlers with leads clipped to the gang-line. There were several times that the dogs were able to topple the teams of handlers with their eager bursts forward, it was in those moment I realized just how POWERFUL a full team of dogs is!! If the dogs felt they had to chance to run they took it, and a 16 dog team is like a wrecking ball that has just been released. It is pretty hard to stop, and gains momentum fast! I can only imagine the thrill of taking off from the starting gate like a drag racer under the strain of a fresh team!
On the Atmosphere
The attendees of the Iditarod do it because they want to be there. They want to see the mushers, hear the excited dogs, and watch the amazing fur hats of people. Wait, “fur hats”, you’re thinking? Yes! The large and ornate fox, raccoon, seal, and wolverine hats and garments are a staple of any mushing event. Bobbing tails and swinging claws are held above the hairline and temples of many warm heads. The designs of these lavish head warmers will make you smile! Fur has a long history in the sport, any musher knows that a wolverine “ruff” is indispensable for keeping the frost from building up around your face during a long run.
Young, old, rookie, veteran, construction worker, nurse, well dressed, sweatpants : the start of the Iditarod is a conglomerations of diverse observers. There are many who made the trek to Fairbanks because they had never been there before. And I have no doubt that some of the attendees had seen nearly every start in 43 years. Everyone was enthusiastic, and after the countdown of “5!…4… 3!!…2…1!” rang out from hundreds of voices for every musher the crowd cheered as they rocketed away. With mushers coming down the shoot at exactly two minutes apart the enthusiasm of the crowd was evident when they were still cheering to the last one!
Throughout the day I did shot some video capturing the excitement of the dogs. This short 90 second montage brings you to the front-line of the Iditarod, and highlights cheering crowds and baying dogs.
The chance to see the start of the Iditarod was truly a lifetime experience! If you ever have the opportunity to see the first hand the out pouring of community support, love the sport, excitement of the dogs, and dedication of the mushers I suggest you jump at the opportunity.
On Martin Luther King day I got to take a new ride out for a spin.This ‘ride’ was not like many you find in the lower 48! It had 16 legs and accelerated like a drag racer; when the dogs at Black Spruce Dog Sledding take off they do so with gusto! Check out the video below for an excerpt of an afternoon of mushing!
This actually wasn’t my first dog-sledding rodeo, but it was 11 years ago that I was on a on a dog sled. Some things I remembered well. For instance, I remembered the excitement! As you stand on the rear of the sled and the dogs are baying and pulling against the gangline the feeling of thrill builds! When the quick release (a rope and pin tied to a non-moving object) is pulled the team takes off like a race car. Rule #1 is to hold on! From the kennels we headed out with our tag-sled team for a 13 mile loop. The dogs settled into a rhythm of about 7 mph on the uphills and ~10 mph on the flats. That is the pace that Jeff tries for when racing his dogs for mid-distance (300 mile) and longer races (1000 mile Yukon Quest or 2000 mile Iditarod). The constant pace of the run is essential for the dogs, they perform the best by establishing that pace.
On this particular trail it’s not long before the beginner’s baptism-by-fire comes into a view. A 90 degree turn after a road crossing was looming and my senses were keen as I considered how to navigate the obstacle. Jeff coached me by telling me to lean into the turn and try to stand on one ski while peddling one foot on the outside of the turn. He deftly performed the lesson he gave to me and I deftly tipped the sled into the snow bank! “I’m Down!” was all I had to call before Jeff had put on the break and I righted myself. Rule #2 – hold on during a fall! Fortunately, it was the only time I dumped the sled on our tag-sled tour. However, that doesn’t mean other section did not feel harrowing! On steeper down hills it was critical to keep plenty of weight on the drag to slow the sled and the team down. Zipping between black spruce trees we hurtled over snow drifts, wound through tight corridors, and leaned around turns. It’s amazing to me how mentally active you have to be when riding with a dog team in those conditions! Anticipating the turn or terrain ahead was essential to placing my weight correctly in the sled. Being centered, on the left ski, or the right ski changed how well I coped with the turns and the terrain.
I think it took me about five miles to start to feel comfortable in the sled. I no longer felt that I was going to tip at each turn and I began to feel my body relax. The smile which had not left my face since take off was still glued on. The joy of running with the dogs is infectious and the beauty of the scenery was unforgettable. During the night and morning a heavy ice fog had built up scales of hoar frost on the trees. The encapsulated trees glinted in the sun that burned through the fog bank. We concluded our 13 mile tag sled run (2 sleds pulled by a larger team), and then I took my own 4 dog team out for a short, local loop. It was great to test my skills with my own (albeit smaller, but more manageable) team! By the time I left that day the sun, now low in the sky, ricocheted through the gem-encrusted limbs in an orange light ending a truly great day!
The incessant baying of sled dogs, a starlit night, and a beautiful red aurora. When I went out to Black Spruce Dog Kennels to capture the aurora I was waiting for the effects an X-flare to hit the earth. Two days before the sun had let loose one of it most powerful class of flares. Even though the flare was not directly headed to earth, the ejected plasma was expected to react with our earth’s magnetic field and cause some auroras! My goal for the night was to tie together two cultural pieces of Alaska – dog mushing and the aurora. Incredibly, the aurora started showing up on my camera at 6:00 PM on my camera along with the moonrise. On an ‘ordinary’ night the aurora will begin at 10PM – the early aurora was a good omen for what was to come!
From a technical standpoint this is one of my favorite auroras I’ve captured. The stars were pin-point sharp and as you’ll see the pan over a dog-sled adds a ton! Shooting over the activity of the dogs was a lot of fun – but I had to leave so they would kennel up. If you have ever been around a group of sled dogs they bark, bay, and howl when strangers are around!
Artistically, the reds are some of the nicest colors I’ve captured. They only appeared for about 25 minutes during the night, but it was stunning! Sitting under the aurora, I thought of the old adage “Red Sky At Night, Sailor’s Delight”, and thus the title of this post was born!
I arrived home at 5:00am and the aurora was still dancing over the Sustainable Village. I snapped a couple of captures for finally calling it a night, which you’ll see below. Overall the aurora was visible for 12 hours due to the x-flare activity!
The timelapse video here captures the reds of a beautiful aurora and a little slice of life at the Black Spruce Dog Kennels.