Episode 5: Deep inside the first wilderness

On assignment in the canyons of the Gila Wilderness, Nat Geo photographer Katie Orlinsky talks about how she went from covering workers’ rights in Mexico to the world’s most grueling dogsled race in Alaska.

The Gila Wilderness in New Mexico, USA
Photograph by Katie Orlinsky

On assignment in the canyons of the Gila Wilderness, Nat Geo photographer Katie Orlinsky has a fireside chat with Overheard host Peter Gwin about telling stories through pictures. She chronicles how she found her way—from growing up in New York City to covering workers rights in rural Mexico and the world’s most grueling dogsled race in Alaska. 


(Crunching and walking noises)

BRIAN GUTIERREZ (PRODUCER): What are you doing, Katie?

KATIE ORLINSKY (PHOTOGRAPHER): Oh, I’m just heading over to this other rock to get the clearest shot of this amazing landscape.

PETER GWIN (HOST): So this other rock that’s like on an edge of a cliff. ”Just,” she says. Just another rock that has about a 955-foot drop to the river, in the middle of nowhere.

GWIN: It’s November 2020, and I’m in a remote part of New Mexico called the Gila Wilderness. And I’m standing on a cliff with producer Brian Gutierrez and National Geographic photographer Katie Orlinsky, who’s on assignment for an upcoming magazine story. We rode horses for a few hours this morning, winding through forests of enormous ponderosa pine trees to reach this spot. It’s a place our guide calls the Grand Canyon of the Gila. And that’s just what it looks like: majestic red, yellow, and white bands of rock towering over a broad, flat valley. We’re the only people here. In fact, we haven’t seen any other human beings for a week. The only sound is a light wind rustling the pine needles. We watch a hawk gliding in the void below us, its shadow moving across the valley floor.

GWIN: It’s really a spectacular view. You’re going to have to buy the magazine to see this.           

GUTIERREZ: Or come to New Mexico?            

GWIN: Or come to New Mexico. Actually, that’s even better.

(Sound of horses)

JOE SAENZ (OUTFITTER): It’s a little too tight here. We’re gonna start looking for a place to camp.

GWIN: A local guide named Joe Saenz brought us up here to this vantage point called the Eagle’s Nest. And Katie, being the dedicated photographer that she is, is climbing out onto a far ledge that offers the best view, scaring the heck out of me and Brian.

GUTIERREZ: It’s like we’re on the edge of the Grand Canyon, and it’s like Katie just stepped over the abyss to get a better spot to take a picture.

GWIN: Yeah. The only difference here in the Gila Wilderness: there’s no railing that says, “Tourist, danger, do not cross this line.”

ORLINSKY: Which is why we love it.

GWIN: Which is why we love it, exactly.

The Gila is a federally protected wilderness area, where human activity is extremely restricted.

(Horseback riding sounds)

GWIN: So, when I was a kid, I dreamed of exploring a place like this, a landscape that changes with every bend in the trail, every crest of a hill, a place that constantly surprises you. We’d ride the horses out of dense thickets of willows, up a steep, winding set of switchbacks dotted with alligator junipers and pinyons, which would then give way to a view of mountain ranges stretching all the way to the horizon.

(Sound of horses crossing water)

And then we’d descend into a new labyrinth of dark, narrow canyons. We’d criss- cross rivers and discover hidden pools and waterfalls. And in the rock faces we’d see faces and animals, and Joe would point out ancient cliff dwellings.

ORLINSKY: People talk about the spires, Joe. Do they mean this area, or are there lots of different areas that look like spires?

GWIN: All this beautiful, rugged terrain is great for a writer. But it can make it challenging for Katie to do her job—especially while riding horses. On the first day we set out, her best camera broke.

ORLINSKY: Remember when my bag fell? The back of my camera now looks like this.


ORLINSKY: Doesn't mean it's not taking pictures, but I need to make sure.

GWIN: Watching her taking photos on horseback is like watching an acrobat.

Sometimes she’s leaning, sometimes she’s standing in the stirrups.

ORLINSKY: When the trail makes these sharp curves is when it’s good to take pictures because I can get a good shot of Joe and the horses in a line.

GWIN: She’s trying everything possible to get all kinds of different angles. And then she jumps off of the horse to try to get ahead of us, or lags behind and has to catch up. She’s getting a total workout.

I'm Peter Gwin, editor at large at National Geographic, and you're listening to Overheard, a show where we eavesdrop on the wild conversations we have here at Nat Geo and follow them to the edges of our big, weird, beautiful world.

(Sound of wolves)

This week, we’re joining a National Geographic photographer on assignment in the deep wilderness. So how did Katie Orlinsky, a born and bred New Yorker, end up as a hard-core, backcountry photographer?

More after this.

GWIN: Check, check, check, one, two, three.

GWIN: We’ve been in the Gila for nine days—so, almost the end of our trip. It’s dark. Katie and I are in a stand of ponderosas. The horses have grazed and are tied up for the night. It’s a little overcast, and there's a huge moon that casts deep shadows around the trees. Katie is hoping to capture elk watering at a little pond nearby at dawn. But now it’s freezing—the forecast calls for snow—so we’re bundled up in our down jackets and huddled around the campfire.

GWIN: All right, so we've been doing these in the studio, but this is our first in the field. This is the campfire tapes. You're the inaugural....

ORLINSKY: I'm honored.

GWIN: Well, I was kind of thinking, though, in terms of—as a photographer, trying to take pictures while sitting on the back of a horse probably isn't the best or easiest thing.

ORLINSKY: It is not, I mean...

GWIN: I'm guessing, after watching you for nine days.

ORLINSKY: No, it's not. I mean, it's interesting because on the one hand, you have, you know, you've got all your gear. And I've been on trips where, you know, like 10-day, 12-day, 20-day trips, where you're backpacking and you're carrying all your stuff. It's also incredibly difficult to be photographing when you've got 60 pounds on your back. So it's very hard on a horse in some respects, especially just because you can't stop and sort of run ahead and you can't really control where you are. You kind of have to be quick, so...

GWIN: Well, OK, so you mentioned these other trips, and that's kind of where I first heard about you, the legend of Katie Orlinsky, this crazy woman out in the wilds of Alaska. I mean, seriously, that's the first story. I mean, actually, it was a story—we were talking about this earlier—that we did a story about the...

ORLINSKY: The Yukon Quest.

GWIN: The Yukon Quest dog race. And you were the photographer and I had not even heard of this. Tell me about Alaska. So how did you end up in Alaska?

ORLINSKY: Sure. In 2014, I had this random assignment from a magazine. The last story I had done for them had been a story about Ciudad Juárez. And then they gave me this assignment to go to the Yukon of Canada to photograph a thousand-mile dog sled race.

GWIN: But wait a minute, Ciudad Juárez—in my limited understanding of geography—is warm.


GWIN: And Alaska dog races happen in the bitter cold.

ORLINSKY: Oh yeah. I had never been anywhere so cold. Now I'm like winter clothes expert. But back then I had no idea. But I knew it got cold. So I was like, you know, I had, like, everybody's borrowed ski clothes and this giant parka. Yeah. And still, it was, you know, wasn't enough.

GWIN: OK, so what's the Yukon Quest? I mean, people, I think, have heard of the Iditarod.


GWIN: You know, and I have a general idea of that. But Yukon Quest is different.

ORLINSKY: It's different. I mean, it's similar to the Iditarod; it's another thousand-mile sled dog race, but this one follows this old gold rush trail.

GWIN: You just said that, like, oh, that's another thousand-mile dog race.

ORLINSKY: But yeah, no so...

GWIN: It’s like it's a 10k.

ORLINSKY: But it's in February, so that means it's dark most of the day and it's freezing cold.

GWIN: Yeah.

ORLINSKY: But yeah. So they're really, really tough people, and they have this incredible bond with their dogs. The whole thing was just like—I was—I had no idea. I didn't even know what the Iditarod was when I got the assignment. So I was just like, what is this world? I thought it was so incredible. And so the place was beautiful. The sport was beautiful. It was the first sport I ever cared about. I mean, I like the Knicks, but other than that, you know, it's not fun to be a Knicks fan.

I went back that summer and continued photographing it. And it sort of was like this entrée to the Arctic for me but also to starting to cover the environment and climate change. Because while you're on these races, part of it is that it makes them really dangerous now because rivers will melt that are supposed to be frozen. And then on that race we were supposed to drive across this ice road, and then we get halfway across—like this isn't a road anymore. You know, and we could have fallen through. So there's just—even in the context of like this one thousand-mile race, you'll see so many instances of climate change firsthand. And I had never seen that before, you know, doing most of my work in kind of like in the southern part of the world and growing up in New York City. So that was really powerful, and it just made me more interested in learning more about those stories.

GWIN: So how do you even photograph this? I mean, you said it's dark most of the time.

ORLINSKY: Yeah, it's hard, it's a challenge, but it's also—when there is light, the light’s spectacular. So that's something that's, you know, anybody that lives up north and works up north knows, is just like you really cherish those moments of sunlight because it's so special. You're so, you know, you're so high up that it just sort of—It's like the golden hour all day long when it is light out there. And then it's just, you know, it's fun. It was such an adventure to try to get to the right spot, find a bridge to stand on to get the right perspective, finagle somebody to fly you in their plane somewhere, or to take you on their snow machine. So, and at that point, it wasn't dangerous in the same way that sort of, you know, covering the kind of stories that I had been doing before was. You know, it gave you a bit of a rush, but I wasn't— you weren't really dealing with sort of like this life-or-death situations. So it was a bit of a break, to be honest, from covering a lot heavier stories. And it was really refreshing.

GWIN: Like emotionally, I guess.

ORLINSKY: Yeah. And, you know, if you're asking somebody for a favor, you're not putting them in harm's way. Like the story I'd done right before that was—was another story in Juárez. And it's about the people that work for El Diario.

GWIN: So this is a newspaper, right?

ORLINSKY:  It's a newspaper, you know, and there, you know, and it was called like the “bravest journalists” or something.

GWIN: So this is Juárez, Mexico.

ORLINSKY: Juárez, Mexico. And I'm just, you know, and I'm working with these journalists who have lost so many colleagues. And we're kind of, you know, chasing crime scenes. And it's a lot—it's a lot to take in. And I think it's— they're really, really important stories. But I think I hadn't really had anything—I hadn't been photographing anything that was a bit lighter up until that point. So when I got out to the Yukon, it was just like it just felt like exactly what I needed. 

GWIN: Well, I think that's kind of a good place to say, well, how did you get into photography originally?

ORLINSKY: I never really thought I'd become a photographer, and I didn't study it. I studied Latin American studies and political science in college, and so I was mostly self-taught. And then I moved to Mexico and worked at a nonprofit organization. And then I got a job at the local newspaper there, which was El Noticias de Oaxaca. And I think I made like a hundred dollars a month or something. But I could—but it worked because I was, you know, I was young and that was all I needed to live out there. And I guess I didn't really think I'd become a professional photographer. I thought I'd end up like going to grad school and like working at the UN. But I was really interested in politics and what was going on in the world. And I was an activist, and I would take pictures at protests. And I just realized I wasn't—I wasn't very good at the organizing part. But I really liked taking the pictures. And I felt sort of like, you know, I can choose stories and be an activist in that way.

GWIN: Do you remember the first photograph you took where you were kinda like, Wow, that's really cool. I like that. That really...

ORLINSKY: Maybe I can do this. Well, yeah. So I was in Oaxaca and then a conflict there broke out in 2006.

GWIN: So this is Mexico?

ORLINSKY: This is in Mexico. I still didn't think I was any good. But yeah, this big conflict broke out, and all of a sudden, you know, international news media was there. All the best photographers in Mexico were there. And I was taking pictures for the local paper. And it was—it was a big deal. And there were street fights and there were kind of fires. And then the protesters took over the city. They essentially kind of kicked the governor out for a while. So there was a standoff there for six months. It was a really kind of exciting moment to photograph. But I also could see what I wasn't doing, you know, because the next day I'd look at La Jornada, which is sort of like— like The New York Times of Mexico. And then there was even a New York Times correspondent there once. And I'd see what they were shooting and be like, Oh, OK. Like, I'm not as good as them. But I'm always in the same place as them. Like, I can always get myself to where the photo that needs to be taken gets taken. But I just didn't know—I didn't have the right equipment yet, you know. But I feel like that was a moment when I was like, I think I have a knack for this.

GWIN: Yeah, but do you remember that, like, the image that you got, it was like, is there sort of like a…?

ORLINSKY: Yeah, it's— it's like this line of federal police and there's like this—it's backlit and they're sort of like the sun is coming out over them. Yeah. And I knew it was a good photo.

GWIN: Yeah. I remember one time somebody—they were talking about a young person. Somebody asked, you know, Are they any good? And they said, They're not good yet, but they know what good looks like. I think that's kind of what you're describing, is that like you get to the point where it's like you can spot what a good photograph is or a good—a well-written story.

ORLINSKY: Yeah. And you're good enough to know that you're not good yet.

GWIN: Yeah.

ORLINSKY: Yeah. Yeah. If you see a big story, if there's any—a big story happening anywhere in the world, there was this period of time where I felt like I had to be there. And I'm grateful that there's people out there, you know, doing really great work covering those big news stories. But it did—it started to feel like, OK, you know, where am I needed or where can I bring something to the table? But in the beginning, it was just like I just wanted to be there.

GWIN: Well, I think that's what a lot of young journalists—there's a lot of romanticism, a lot of false romanticism, I think, that's attached to, you know, jumping in the middle of conflict and covering it. And, you know, but it's, you know, it is how we learn about these things.

ORLINSKY: I mean, I think, you know, definitely most of the things that I've—you know, have happened in my career—the help that I've gotten—have all come from other photographers. You know, it's a really wonderful community in those situations. You know, you really rely on local journalists. And I like can't express enough how much respect and how brave all the journalists—the local journalists—in Mexico are. And they're the ones that are getting killed. And, you know, anytime there's a foreign reporter, you know, they'll just take you in and they'll show you around and you get to leave. Yeah. And they have to stay. And I think, you know, that's the case all over the world, but it's definitely the local journalists who kind of—we rely on them so much.

GWIN: Right, right, right. So I, you know, I get this question a lot, and I'm sure you do too. And I'm just I'd love to hear you answer it. Young people that say, Hey, you know, how do I start?


GWIN: You know, and I remember asking that question, and now it's funny. Like, I don't know, like, what do you tell people?

ORLINSKY: Well, first I'm just, you know, you got to be curious and you can't be afraid to talk to people. And then you just have to go out and do it. So, you know, if you want to be a photographer, start taking pictures. You know, find the story that you think is interesting and meet the people and take the pictures. And even if they're not good, you know, you're going to meet somebody and you're going to build a relationship with the person. And that ends up being the most important thing about this job is, is like the “subjects”—the people you spend time with. And if you like that, then you know that this is the career for you. And then you can learn how to be a better photographer. That can come later. But, you know, if you're that curious about people and you think that telling stories is important, then you should just go do it.

GWIN: OK, so tomorrow, what's your strategy for getting...?

ORLINSKY: My ten miles on the horse?

GWIN: It’s our last day. We have to go ten miles to get back to civilization, or out of the wilderness, I guess, is the right—what’s your—do you have a game plan?

ORLINSKY: Well, after this...

GWIN: What's the picture you want if you get one more picture on this trip, Katie? What's the picture?

ORLINSKY: What's the picture? Oh, there's a few.

GWIN: A bear eating an elk.

ORLINSKY: Apart from that, apart from wildlife, which—it would be nice to see some animals. But...

GWIN: Come on, we saw a tassel-eared squirrel today.


GWIN: We got a picture of it.

ORLINSKY: It's like a combination bunny rabbit-squirrel. We saw it.

GWIN: Totally. They really exist.

ORLINSKY: Way up high the tree. It's, I'm sure.

GWIN: The bunny rabbit-squirrel. That's a perfect description.

ORLINSKY: If I can make a picture that has something special to it that makes you kind of look deeper and think harder.

GWIN: Yeah.

ORLINSKY: You know, that's all I want to do.

GWIN: More after this.

GWIN: People think being a National Geographic photographer is all exotic travel and gilded sunsets, but what people don’t see is the times when it all goes wrong.

Katie took incredible photos on our trip, but she also did it with a broken camera.

GUTIERREZ: Katie, I'm recording. Yeah, what's going on here?

ORLINSKY: Well, we've had a series of disasters, one of which is my main camera broke before we even left. It fell off the horse and broke. And my main lens is kind of mostly broken. And then I lent Brian—then I lent you my tripod and it was returned to me. And then somehow over the course of the day, the crucial piece of the tripod went missing.

GUTIERREZ: I take credit for breaking the tripod, I'm sorry.

ORLINSKY: You know, doing—I’m doing my best.

GUTIERREZ: Well, it's a beautiful sunset anyway.

ORLINSKY: But OK, so but we're in this amazing, beautiful place looking at this pink and blue overlook and it's gorgeous. And I'm cursing at my camera. So I'm really enjoying the moment, really, really staying present.

GUTIERREZ: So you're photographing the sunset with a broken lens.

ORLINSKY: With a broken lens, and a broken body.

GUTIERREZ: On a broken—

ORLINSKY: On a broken tripod. And now everyone knows. [camera shutter] But hey, look at that beautiful picture I just took.

GWIN: A few of the pictures that Katie took during this trip can be seen on the National Geographic website and @natgeo on Instagram. It’s a sneak peak of an upcoming magazine story and podcast episode about what we were doing in the wilderness in the first place.

But in the meantime, if you’re interested in seeing some of Katie’s other photographs, we’ve included a few links in our show notes to some of her previous stories.

In her work on the Yukon Quest dog sled race, you can see what it looks like to cross 1,000 miles of Alaska on dog power.

On Katie’s personal website, you can see more images, including from her time in Juárez.

And magazine subscribers can see Katie’s photos in our recent story about thawing permafrost. Sometimes that thaw creates pockets of methane under frozen lakes that scientists test by setting on fire. Yeah, it makes a totally crazy picture.

That’s all in the show notes, right there in your podcast app.  


Overheard at National Geographic is produced by Brian Gutierrez, Jacob Pinter, Laura Sim, Carla Wills, and Ilana Strauss.

Our senior editor is Eli Chen.

Our executive producer of audio is Davar Ardalan.

Our fact-checkers are Michelle Harris, Robin Palmer, and Julie Beer.

Our copy editor is Amy Kolczak.

Hansdale Hsu sound-designed this episode and composed our theme music.

This podcast is a production of National Geographic Partners.

Whitney Johnson is the director of visuals and immersive experiences.

Susan Goldberg is National Geographic’s editorial director.

And I’m your host, Peter Gwin. Thanks for listening, and see y’all next time.


Want more?

Some of Katie's picture from this assignment can be seen on National Geographic's Instagram page.

In her work on the Yukon Quest dog sled race, you can see what it looks like to cross 1,000 miles of Alaska on dog power.

On Katie’s personal website, you can see more images, including from her time in Juárez.

Also explore:

And magazine subscribers can see Katie’s photos in our recent story about thawing permafrost. Sometimes that thaw creates pockets of methane under frozen lakes that scientists test by setting on fire. That story was also featured in our podcast episode about how beavers are changing the Arctic.