For those of you following my Facebook page, you will by now know I made it home from Alaska in one piece, no frostbite or hypothermia evident… But what a blast! Literally!
I arrived in Alaska after a week on the snow in the mountains of Colorado to acclimatize. And yet I was still instantly amazed! Although I was incredibly lucky on this trip with fantastic weather (I don’t think it dropped below minus 40 degrees Celsius, which is saying something), this place still blows my mind. Alaska in the icy throes of winter really has to be seen to be believed.
With a horizon line blanketed in ice and snow, the remarkable people we met along the way who call this place home, and the incredible adventure of traversing roughly 1200 kilometres on a snow machine, this adventure was everything I had hoped it would be and more.
The journey started in Galena, home to our guide Jon and his wife Tanya and their three children. Situated on the Yukon River, Galena is a small town isolated from the rest of the world, with access via small plane only or barge down the river during summer months.
After a few days shooting with Jon and his wonderful team of dogs, it was time to set out on our snow machines and make a beeline for Kaltag where we intercepted the teams already on the course of the famous Iditarod dog sled race.
The journey across Alaska’s frozen wilderness was simply stunning. The highlight definitely being the amazing show of Northern Lights I was fortunate enough to photograph just out of Galena. For the shot I had planned I set up a small tent with a lantern for light, with a sled and dog team resting alongside, all to the backdrop of the spectacular Northern Lights. Knowing I wanted this shot, we ran the dogs for close to 100 miles that day to ensure they wouldn’t be restless and would be happy to stay in one place whilst I shot a series of slow shutter and time lapse images (these dogs are not known for sitting still, they just love to run!).
Along the trail, our accommodation consisted of a tee-pee tent and the occasional shelter hut – the camera equipment, food and supplies were carried with us on fully laden sleds behind our snow machines, our only water was that which we thawed on our portable wood stove each night, and our only connection with the rest of the world an occasional visit to Eskimo villages along the way.
Shaktoolik in particular was quite amazing, by the simple fact that it was nestled far out on the edge of the frozen Bering Sea, totally unsheltered and at the mercy of the elements. Not a tree or a hill – or any form of protection from the harsh environment – for miles around.
We witnessed the trials and tribulations of the Iditarod competitors along the way. Race favourite Lance Mackie had an unfortunate run with sick dogs and after four consecutive wins, he finished well down the field this year. Newton Marshall, the Jamaican dog sledder who I photographed last year and who was being mentored by Lance, also had problems with unwell dogs and was forced to scratch. Our first ever New Zealand entry into the race encountered difficulties in the first mountain passes and also had to pull out early in the event.
But after 1100 miles of racing there was incredible excitement at the finish line with the race won by a local Native Alaskan, for the first time in 35 years. We joined in on the huge celebrations several days later at the Nome Iditarod basketball tournament where the winner John Baker received a standing ovation and was literally mobbed by the crowd.
And with a sense of achievement I finished my own journey at Nome, ready to head back to Anchorage and the “real” world knowing I had attained my goal. A stunning journey across Alaska in the wake of the famous Iditarod dog sled race, capturing not only some amazing imagery, but even more importantly, some lasting memories along the way.
Thanks for coming along for the ride.
I am very pleased to say that all of my equipment served me well in this extremely unforgiving environment. My special thanks to my industry partners and sponsors on this project:
HP, LowePro, Hahnel, Lexar, RAB and Canon – they were all “there” with me!
All images copyright Chris McLennan.