This story appears in the March 2020 issue of National Geographic magazine.
Several years ago, I was offered a last-minute assignment to photograph the Yukon Quest, a thousand-mile sled dog race through the subarctic wilderness of Alaska and Canada. The race takes place in the dead of winter along a route that was used by sled dog teams during the gold rush to deliver mail and supplies. The Yukon Quest is considered one of the toughest sporting events on the planet: Temperatures frequently reach minus 50°F, winds can blow over 40 miles an hour, and the days are so short that most of the race happens in the dark.
I did not know any of this before the assignment. I’d never heard of the Yukon Quest or its more famous counterpart in the United States, the Iditarod. When I thought of the Arctic—if I thought about it at all—I pictured exotic endangered animals and a distant, cold place out of reach to me as a photographer. It was a realm of rugged men with salt-and-pepper beards who owned bright orange camping gear and were raised by even more rugged fathers who taught their sons life lessons while hunting and fishing. My father was a theater producer from New York City. I learned life lessons backstage, not in the backcountry.
Even so, it’s surprising that the Arctic intimidated me. I spent most of my 20s documenting conflict and social issues in the Middle East, Africa, and Latin America, focusing especially on Mexico and the drug war. I was committed to telling stories no matter the risk. Then in 2011 I became part of a story—a tragedy—in which the victims were my colleagues and I was a survivor. In the aftermath I had a hard time finding the inspiration I needed to love photography as I once did. I kept working—I needed the money—but often I was just going through the motions.
And so I took the assignment to photograph the 2014 Yukon Quest with no idea what to expect. A few days later I was on a plane to Canada. We landed in Whitehorse around midnight, the tarmac covered in snow. When I touched my airplane window, I could already feel the freezing cold air. I’d made it north; my luggage had not. In it was everything I thought I was going to need, including borrowed snow pants that were too big for me, long underwear I hadn’t worn since a high school ski trip, and a brand-new, expensive puffy parka (I’d left the tag on so I could return it once I got home). I was supposed to fly from Whitehorse to Dawson City to photograph the race first thing in the morning, and all I had was a gray hoodie and a backpack full of camera equipment.
Inside the airport I explained my plight to the two women behind the Air Canada desk. One of them disappeared into the back office. She returned with a navy blue Air Canada wool cardigan. The other woman asked her husband to bring boots and a jacket. She gave me her own gray down jacket, the furry boots off her feet, and a pair of red fleece gloves.
It was still dark as I boarded the plane for Dawson City later that morning. When the sun finally began to rise, sweeping mountain ranges came into view. They went on and on—jagged peaks of hot pink and beige, mounds of gray and black, rolling hills of endless white. I had never dreamed of a landscape this magical and took pictures through the window until a dense fog settled in.
As I got off the plane, the snow crunching beneath my feet sparkled as if a million little children had sprinkled it with all the glitter in the world. I spent the ride to the hotel in silent awe as we drove by lavender-tinted mountain ranges and frozen rivers coated with a mosaic of blue and white ice. The entire boreal forest was layered in what looked to me like shimmering snow. I later learned that it’s called hoarfrost—the most beautiful thing I had ever seen. It felt like another planet, a fairy tale. Some days I wish I could go back in time just to experience my first few hours in Dawson City again.
Meanwhile the cold was as brutal as the land was beautiful. When I stepped outside, the air was so dry I could barely breathe. But at that moment borrowed clothes and the kindness of strangers were all I needed for warmth. A feeling came over me that I hadn’t experienced in a long time: As long as I had my camera, everything would be OK. I wanted to take pictures again.
I have been covering the Arctic, among other places, ever since. The following year I returned to the north to follow the Yukon Quest yet again, this time on assignment for National Geographic. I remember it was more than halfway through the race when I flew to a checkpoint in Eagle, Alaska. A pickup truck was waiting to take me and my fellow passengers, mostly from Alaska media or race volunteers, to our temporary sleeping quarters—the floor of the local school library.
Before we drove away, I noticed a pair of race veterinarians, identifiable by the medical patch on their giant red parkas, loading what looked like heavy potato sacks onto a small plane. Then I saw furry heads with pointy ears sticking out of the sacks. Immediately I asked the driver if he could wait, and I rushed to photograph the scene. The vets told me that these dogs had been dropped from their team. The bags would keep them safe and calm while flying home.
Sled dogs, considered by some to be the world’s greatest endurance athletes, are bred to thrive in the cold, snowy wilderness. Most mushers have trained their dogs since they were puppies. Even so, during such a long race, dropping dogs is a common occurrence. Sometimes a dog is tired or it’s injured or it seems to have simply lost interest in running. (One year a dog got sick from eating the neon booties that protected its feet.)
When a dog team hits its stride, it is a beautiful sight to behold—paws tapping the snow like a soft chorus, legs swinging in quiet rhythm, hot breath leaving trails of billowing smoke that cluster like clouds in the cold air. It makes it easy to forget that every dog is different. Seeing the dropped dogs separated individually—into sacks, no less—was a stark reminder of this.
I spent the next few days focusing far more on the dogs that were leaving the race than those that might win it. The local media and race officials probably thought I was nuts. I thought my fascination with dogs in sacks flying in airplanes was pretty self-explanatory. Looking back, perhaps I also felt connected to the dropped dogs. I could relate to the idea of having a goal you’d worked toward your whole life, only to have something happen that changes your course.
Bad weather hit Eagle, and for days there were no commercial flights. I was close to missing the finish in Fairbanks on my first big National Geographic assignment. Fortunately I was able to join a late-night charter flight—in a tiny plane loaded with dropped dogs.
We took off, and I remember smiling as I looked out the window at the night sky opening up over a pitch-black Alaska wilderness. Buckled up in that plane, wearing the fancy parka I never ended up returning, surrounded by 16 dogs in sacks, I too felt safe and calm.
Photographer Katie Orlinsky, based in New York City, has covered the Arctic for more than five years. Her latest feature, “Arctic permafrost is thawing fast. That affects us all,” focused on permafrost thaw.