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Capturing the Yukon Quest in -50°, Sourtoe Cocktail in Hand

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Musher Brent Sass crosses American Summit into the Eagle, Alaska checkpoint. Sass was the leader throughout the majority of the race and finished first after being briefly surpassed by defending Yukon Quest winner, Allen Moore.

Drop longtime conflict photographer Katie Orlinsky in the middle of any “big bad capital city” and she says she’ll be just fine. But working in “middle of nowhere, Alaska,” presents a different set of challenges. Last year she photographed the Yukon Quest Sled Dog Race for the first time and experienced the coldest weather of her life, making her wonder how she could continue working.

Orlinsky returned to cover the race again this year for National Geographic News, and was more confident working in extreme weather conditions—but this year the temperatures dropped to minus 50°F—30 degrees colder than last year.

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Photographer Katie Orlinsky rides on the back of Yukon videographer Mike Code’s snowmobile over Eagle Summit near Fairbanks, Alaska. Photograph by Patrick Kane

Orlinsky shared some of her most memorable experiences from this year’s race with us: Riding in a charter plane with 16 sled dogs, drinking the infamous sourtoe cocktail, and learning the true meaning of going with the flow.

MALLORY BENEDICT: Not many people can say they’ve been on a plane with 16 sled dogs. What was that like?

KATIE ORLINSKY: I ended up sharing a charter plane [sitting in front with the pilot] with two of the scratched dog teams. It was pretty surreal. I was in heaven, since I have dreams of being surrounded by dozens of dogs in a warm, cozy space. But the decision to fly the dogs out of a race is practical, and oftentimes quite sad, since it usually means someone on the team, dog or human, has gotten hurt or worn down, or that an entire team has scratched from the race. It’s amazing—we fit three people, 16 dogs, two sleds, and all our stuff into this one small plane.

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Dogs that have been dropped from their teams, either as a result of injury or as part of a musher’s strategy, wait to fly out of Eagle, Alaska. The bags keep the dogs calm in flight.

MALLORY: Many of the checkpoints along the route have their own quirks and surprises. Can you tell us about one of your weirdest experiences at a checkpoint?

KATIE: [The bartender who calls himself] Captain Dick Stevenson, AKA Captain River Rat, sits at the Downtown Hotel Bar in Dawson City in Yukon, Canada, every night at a booth where he serves the “sourtoe cocktail.” It’s a ten-dollar drink with an actual frostbitten, petrified, human toe in it. There are strict rules for drinking it: your lips have to touch the toe, and you have to finish the whole drink. If you swallow the toe you have to pay a fine of $2,500.

There’s a lot of mystery and myth around how the toe cocktail started, but it’s definitely a big part of the tradition in Dawson City. Last year, I bought one for someone so I could take a picture of it. This year I knew I had to have one myself. It was exactly as gross as you’d expect.

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Left: The bartender who calls himself Captain Dick Stevenson is known for serving the famous sourtoe cocktail with a frostbitten toe in Dawson City, Yukon. Right: The frostbitten and petrified toe used in the cocktail. Per the rules, the toe must touch the lips of the drinker to complete the challenge.

MALLORY: How are the relationships between the mushers? Are they competitors or comrades?

KATIE: There’s a little bit of both. Top mushers are definitely competitive—Brent Sass and Allen Moore race to win—but as people they are still friendly and collegial with each other. Some mushers are actually very close friends; they race with each other’s dogs on their teams and train each other’s puppies. There are a number of married musher couples too, where one spouse races the Yukon Quest and the other the Iditarod. Mushers also sometimes rescue and save each other’s lives out on the trail or they team up and race close together when conditions are really rough in order to keep an eye out for one another.

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Rookie musher Ryne Olson and team leave the Mile 101 checkpoint for Two Rivers in Alaska. Olson got her start working for a married mushing couple.

This year, Lance Mackey, one of the most accomplished mushers of all time, was running a team of puppies, which kept him near the back of the pack, and he ended up spending most of his time alongside a rookie musher who was doing her first ever long dogsled race, Kristen Knight Pace. He later said it was the most fun he’s ever had in a race.

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Nicolas Vanier, French film director and rookie musher to the Yukon Quest, arrives into Dawson checkpoint in Yukon, Canada. Vanier finished ninth.

MALLORY: What do you love most about photographing the dog sledding culture and the extreme races that go along with it?

KATIE: The races are just one part of the story, but the larger narrative of sled dog racing and dog mushing culture in general is what I am most interested in and inspired by photographically.

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Dogs rest in the Braeburn checkpoint dog yard in Canada. Some mushers prefer to camp alone on the trail rather than staying at busy checkpoints, but with temperatures at -40 F, many took advantage of hot meals.

This project is completely different than anything I have ever done before, and it’s a lot of fun. Yet it’s also a lot more challenging than I expected. It’s a whole different kind of skill set for working in this region, especially alone. I like challenges though.

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Musher Torsten Kohnert massages his dog team in the Eagle dog yard. Mushers must massage each dog’s muscles to work out the stiffness the cold brings, putting them at risk for frostbite with exposed hands.

MALLORY: What do you do to prepare for covering this type of story? Any physical or mental preparations?

KATIE: You can prepare as much as humanly possible and then the weather doesn’t cooperate or a machine breaks or the car stops or the story completely changes because the musher you were following drops out —then none of it really matters. It is all so unpredictable. So mentally speaking, just being prepared that anything can happen is your best bet, and trying to keep a positive attitude when things don’t go as planned.

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The view of the Pelly Crossing checkpoint in Yukon, Canada. Pelly Crossing is the third checkpoint in the race, 180 miles past the start.

Katie Orlinsky is a photographer based in New York City. See more of her photos of sled dog culture on Proof and read the story of this year’s grueling Yukon Quest race on National Geographic News.

Follow Katie on Instagram and Twitter.

Follow Mallory Benedict on Instagram and Twitter.

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