Alaska’s Mat-Su Valley is a major dog-mushing hub, even in the snow-free offseason. Several Iditarod mushers live and train their teams in the Mat-Su town of Willow, which experiences near round-the-clock daylight during the summer. This bonus time creates more opportunities for National Geographic photographer and photojournalist Katie Orlinsky to capture incredible images of “The Last Frontier” state and its iconic, official sport.
“About six years ago, I got this assignment to head out to Alaska, and I just knew that this whole new chapter of my life had begun,” says Orlinsky, whose work focuses on stories about people living their lives in extreme situations. “I fell in love with the landscape, the people, and the animals, especially the [sled] dogs. It’s a lot more than a sport. There’s a whole culture around it.”
To create visual stories of off-season sled dog life, Orlinsky enlists the help of Justin Savidis, co-owner of Snowhook Adventure Guides of Alaska. His all-season tour company is located just south of Willow Lake, site of the Iditarod Restart held a day after the legendary race’s ceremonial kickoff in Anchorage. This historic connection makes the Snowhook kennel a natural starting point for Orlinsky; Jorden DeGaetano, a Seattle-based Samsung #TeamGalaxy Creator; and Molly McCormick, a Colorado nature photographer and Grand Prize winner in the “Beyond the Frame” photo contest hosted on the @NatGeoYourShot Instagram account earlier in 2020, to experience a sled dog training run.
Savidis mushes his team from a six-person, all-terrain vehicle (ATV), ensuring all of the photographers can snap sharp, crisp, action shots along the way. As the ATV winds through the wilderness, the versatile Samsung Galaxy S20 Ultra 5G makes it possible for the photo team to quickly adapt to the ever-changing conditions and views.
When Savidis stops briefly in a green meadow, the photographers hop off the ATV to take action shots of the dogs running by.
“What I really want to capture is this large meadow here, showing the perspective of them [the dogs] coming along,” says McCormick, who uses the Galaxy S20 Ultra 5G Single Take AI (artificial intelligence) feature to capture the best images, that is, ones that aren’t blurry or where the dogs have moved out of the frame she composed. With Single Take AI, McCormick can take 14 stills in 10 seconds with only one shot, making it easy for her to capture absolutely stunning moments, no matter how fleeting.
The photo team climbs back onboard and Savidis resumes the run, mushing his sled dogs through the woods. Sunlight filters down through trees and leaves, creating an opportunity for the photographers to capture the pattern of light and shadow on the dogs and forest floor. Clearings along the wooded trail reveal big-as-Alaska views, including breathtaking glimpses of North America's tallest peak, 20,310'-foot Denali, centerpiece of Denali National Park and Preserve.
Working sled dogs are high-energy athletes whose natural motors stay revved up a notch even when the run is over. The on-the-fly adaptability of the Galaxy S20 Ultra 5G allows the photographers to play around with composition, lighting, and angles to capture candid, documentary-style stills as the dogs enthusiastically jump, bark, and tug while waiting for Savidis to remove their harnesses.
To frame and pull out the best still shot of a barking sled dog, DeGaetano uses the Galaxy S20 Ultra 5G 8K Video Snap. After recording several seconds of 8K video, he scrubs the timeline of the video, finds the right moment, and snaps the frame.
Orlinsky focuses on Savidis as he unleashes and affectionately pets his dogs, thanking them for another successful training run.
“Something that I think is so interesting about photographing these dogs is the connection between the musher and the dogs,” says Orlinsky as she shares the photos with McCormick and DeGaetano. “It’s such an important part of it all, and it’s such a beautiful story.”