Loving the Last Great Race on Earth

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Photographers love the golden hour. That time of day when the sun light filters through low-lying topography and tree branches to create the opposite of shadows and triangle definitions on things normally too flat to stand out.

Today the golden hour fell as I was cruising along the Yentna River on a Polaris snow machine at 40 miles an hour and my camera was snugly bungee corded behind me.

The mushers in the 40th Iditarod moved up the river like ghosts amidst the pools of golden-hued light and into tree shadow and campfire smoke.

I shot them from a wide bend that found the cold side of the sunset far too early in the evening, and I coaxed every last bit of golden hour out of my position in the middle of the big, frozen river.

But I remembered something I wanted to try this year. I stopped and watched the mushers move in and out of the light, their fairy-tale creatures padding along in pink booties, the faint shush of the sleds along the deeply rutted snow.

Sometimes you have to experience something to understand it. Journalists sometimes rely on simply recording with a device and not with their minds. A card full of photos is a wonderful way to share an experience with friends, but not at the cost of never truly seeing the event with your own eyes.

This was my second year watching the race from the Yentna River.

Somewhere out the in great everythingness that is Alaska outside of Anchorage, we miraculously ran into a group of people that our ride leader knew. They were gathering firewood for the river fire that characterizes this particular spectator sport.

He asked if we could join them, and we might as well have witnessed the signing of adoption papers for the hospitality and friendship we were afforded. We wanted for nothing. 

Hemingway had his bullfighting. I’m not sure I can take sled dog racing to that level, but I understand why he loved it. There is something both beautiful and terrifying in the Iditarod for me.

The beauty is in the symmetry of man and beast working together to overcome obstacles along what once was a thousand mile race course.

The terror is in the isolation of traveling with magical companions that I’m not convinced can talk in a meaningful way, something I require to get through even a single day.

The beauty is in the race course, perhaps the most beautiful tract of earth covered in perhaps the most peaceful way a human can travel other than with the use of their own two feet.

The terror is in the beautiful tract of earth so deadly and unpredictable that only a certain mindset can even fathom it. The rest of us fly in or ride snow machines to the borders.

Iditarod is a magical time of year. It’s a winter race that tends to portend the spring. Today the Yentna River was lit up in brilliant sunlight under baby blue skies.

They, the mushers, may find themselves in a blizzard by the next day, but today they traveled under a beautiful blue omen.

Last year I witnessed the first and last day of the last great race on earth. This year I’ll tag along at a few other famous stops along the way. McGrath, Ruby, Unalakleet and the finish in Nome.

I’ll document each day here on Tumblr if you’d like to tag along.

Here’s a photo gallery from the first day to hold you over until I can catch you up again.

T

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