Where the wild things race

March 20, 2014

Nome, Alaska

By Nathaniel Wilder

The Iditarod is a nearly 1,000-mile-long sled-dog race that pits mushers against each other and the elements as they cross much of Alaska to become the first team to Nome, on the shores of the Bering Sea.

It’s Alaska’s biggest sporting event and brings thousands of spectators, volunteers, handlers, media and mushers – as dog sled racers are known – to downtown Anchorage for the “ceremonial start” of the race.

The following day they gather again at the official restart in the town of Willow – the point from which teams set out for the north in earnest. I’ve photographed these two starts for Reuters four times, but this year was the first time that I travelled to Nome for the finish.

Since I arrived early in Nome, I spent time searching for images that showed the character of the town. I got what I was looking for when I met a guy out on the sea ice, flying a blue tarp like a kite. “I’m in my own little world out here,” he told me.

I also hunted for images that showed the town’s remoteness. I got lucky when I walked past the last house on the coastal side of the main street and realized it would be a great place to photograph the frozen coast and capture the trail that mushers would take as they approached the finish line.

I knocked on the door and a kind lady led me through her home, past polar-bear-hide wall hangings and whale vertebrae carvings to the back deck, where I could see down the coast. I was even able to frame my image with a weather vane pointing north to illustrate the winds that would later blow mushers off course as they tried to battle through to the finish line in the middle of the night.

I periodically checked back at race HQ to see the mushers’ locations, which were tracked by GPS. By the time the first ones were closing in on the finish, it was almost 4 a.m. and people had been waiting around all night.

What made this year different from others (so I hear) were the nightmarish conditions the mushers faced along sections of the coast within the last 75 miles before Nome.

Strong winds blew their dog teams sideways along sea ice towards open water and created whiteout conditions, which obscured some mushers’ views of their lead dogs. The race leader dropped out with less than 25 miles remaining due to the tough conditions.

At the finish line I began to worry that my camera batteries might freeze as we stood around in subzero temperatures with a brisk north wind that brought it down to -15 Fahrenheit or so with windchill (I kept spare batteries warm in my pocket, just in case).

I took my mittens off and was ready to shoot pictures in my glove liners so that I would have better dexterity to manually focus in the mixed lighting. As we stood waiting for the teams, I wondered about my chosen position in the media pen, which lined the area where the mushers would come to a halt.

Once the two lead mushers got close, nobody knew until the winning team hit the lights on Front Street exactly who was in the lead.

It turned out to be a young man named Dallas Seavey but Aliy Zirkle, the second place finisher, was only 2 minutes and 20 seconds behind him, the second closest winning finish in the race’s history. Had she got there first, she would have been the first female winner since 1990.

Both contenders were noticeably exhausted when they arrived. Seavey collapsed on his sled after running alongside his team to the finish. Zirkle kept rubbing her eyes as she was interviewed.

The biggest challenge, aside from dealing with the changing lighting as television cameras moved around the scene, was all the other media who had special permits to be in the finish chute.

The officials and volunteers swooped in on the mushers as they arrived and made it very difficult to document the exhaustion on the two racers’ faces.

It was tough. But then again, considering that the mushers had just completed an eight-and-a-half-day journey across Alaska with minimal sleep, their challenge was greater than mine!

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