At a grueling subarctic race, a photographer finds calm

While covering sled dog teams running in the Yukon Quest, Katie Orlinsky experiences warmth in the kindness of strangers.

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.

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