iditarod dogs


Ride along with an Alaskan dog team

Welcome To Hell

(Above: The team stopped for a break in the BWCAW)

It was fifteen below (Fahrenheit) this morning. Typical, even mild, by Minnesota standards but a bit colder than we’ve had in a while.

I relished it.

“How does running up to 100 miles a day across treacherous ice, through biting winds and blinding snowstorms, and in subzero temperatures sound?” Michelle Feinberg wrote last month in an anti-sled dog piece for a People For The Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) website.

Been there, done that. Sounds kind of normal, to be honest, and gives me flashbacks to the UP 200. But then, my sense of normal has always been a bit skewed and, as I love to say, my life is not normal.

Michelle goes on to add “I think it sounds like hell - cold hell.”

Now I don’t know Michelle and, although we come from very different philosophies and I’m no fan of PETA as an organization, I am a proponent of treating animals ethically, so we have common ground there. I’d be happy to introduce her to the world of sled dogs that I know, which I’m is very different than what I gather she’s read. I’m also going to bet, from her writing, that she’s never experienced true cold.

I doubt Michelle has run any miles, much less a hundred, behind a team of dogs whose response to subzero gusts of swirling snow isn’t to balk but instead charge forward with enthusiasm and glee. I doubt she has ever felt ice frosting on her eyelashes or sat with a team of sled dogs while the aurora borealis dances on one horizon and the moon rises on another, their breath fogging into a small cloud under stars so bright they seem threatening.

I doubt she knows that snow smells different depending on the temperature or that snow at zero degrees has a completely different feel and consistency than snow at freezing - so much so that it hardly counts as the same thing at all. I doubt that she’s seen snow materialize out of the air on a clear night or seen the sun circled by a rainbow refracting from ice crystals. I doubt that she has spent hours nestled in a straw nest with her dog team, massaging their legs and muscles with rosemary oil, wind chapping her bare hands since this is a task that doesn’t lend itself to gloves.

I doubt she has ever seen sled dogs first-hand, much less as they delight in running - leaping and barking at the start of a run or race, still leaping and barking a hundred miles or more later during a stop, demanding to know why we are stopped. I doubt she has stood with her foot on the drag brake of a sled for hours just to keep the team from going too fast, the spray of snow from the drag gradually coating her boots. 

Have you ever thrown boiling water into the air and watched it vaporize before it hits the ground? Have you ever watched ravens fly on the most brutal of winds, as if it were the most fun they could ever hope to have? Have you ever sung to your dogs on a day where even the sun doesn’t warm the land? Have you ever seen dogs oblivious to the cold run and play or witnessed how much more excited they are to run on a sled team when it is approaching zero? Pulling a sled, far from cruelty, comes as naturally to them as their odd howl-barks that sound more like yodeling than “normal” dog noises.

Frozen hair, clouds of breath, the hot snuff of a dog’s muzzle on your cheek, the entire world coated in crystalline cold. You may call it Hell but we call it home and it’s where we thrive.

Whenever I try to describe how a deep freeze feels, I always come up short. It’s hard to describe, but it’s hard to describe in a good way.

Growing up in the muggy Southeast, the idea of true cold was a foreign concept, one that my friends and relatives there still have difficulty grasping. Why would I purposefully move to the subarctic wilderness to live my life and why would I purposefully go out into it again and again.

Cold can be scary to those unfamiliar with it, who don’t know how to deal with it. It’s something strange and bizarre, something to be respected but it’s also inexplicably beautiful and being out in it is an incredible experience.

If you are a husky then you, like your wild wolf cousins, are physically built to not only withstand the harshest of Winter conditions but to thrive in them. You have a thick double coat - the woolly undercoat insulates and the sleek outer coat deflects wind, snow and moisture, not to mention a tail you can drape over your nose while resting.

For those of us who aren’t huskies, however, it is still possible to dress for such cold weather - Northern peoples have been doing it for centuries. Inuit and Yup’ik anoraks, mukluks and parkas are still some of the warmest clothing and even some of the more modern arctic gear is modeled off these traditional garments. 

But it’s not just about what jacket or boots you have, dressing for the cold involves learning how and where to layer and what to layer with. Terms like “wristies” and “neck gaiters”, which mean nothing to many people, become household words for essential pieces of gear that you wouldn’t dream of venturing into the cold without. Tiny things like this can completely change the cold weather experience. 

Do we still feel the cold? Yes, of course we do! Much moreso than the dogs. For us, warm is relative but it’s worth it for the experience of being out in the cold with said dogs. 

Of course it was the dogs that drew me here - the amazing, wonderful huskies that I love and which my life circles around. As I write this, two of them (Wizard and Poe, to be specific) are snuggled up next to me, fast asleep. My little cold weather-loving friends who practically embody the spirit of the cold.

Our subzero playground might sound like cold hell but, for us, it’s another day in frozen paradise.


This is a picture of Lance Mackey embarking on the 35th Iditarod Sled Dog race in 2007. The traditional starting ground (the frozen surface of Willow Lake) is covered in snow.

This year, warm temperatures and unusually low snowfall have forced the Iditarod to change course. The ceremonial start was still held in Anchorage, where dogs ran through slushy streets and light rainfall. But for the actual start yesterday, the dogs and mushers moved up to cooler Fairbanks.

Credit: JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images


Flashback to my first season working as a handler at MCK, being swarmed by a mass of happy, playful sled dog puppies (yes, that really is me under there). Had such fun playing with these guys - good times. Socialization (both with humans and with other dogs) plays a big role in the development of sled dogs - or any dogs, really.

I learned a lot that first season - and in subsequent seasons. We, of course, handled the pups from the moment they were born and then, once they could walk, we began to take them on “puppy adventures.”

Oh how I loved puppy adventures. They began just in the yard, exploring new places and new terrain. Sometimes we would put all the puppies in a basket and take them to a grassy knoll where they would toodle around and explore. Sometimes they would play and tire themselves out and more than one Summer day stands out to me where I lay under an open sky, surrounded by sleeping puppies. They learned that we were safe and that we were fun and that we sometimes carried food!

From a young age, the pups learned to sit for treats, and they learned to sit before we placed a bowl of food in front of them. They would get very excited if they saw that we carried what looked like a container of kibble treats.

Once they were a bit bigger, we would let the pups walk out of the yard with us - no more carrying required. We would go on walks together. Starting out just to our normal play places but then extending to the end of the driveway, then extending further. I remember taking Sonic and his littermates on a puppy adventure well over a mile in length - just enough time for the apple pie I’d left in the oven to cook.

The pups learned to overcome obstacles - whether it be piles of dirt, small ditches or puddles. They realized they could overcome these obstacles and became fearless, self-confident creatures. They knew that if they came back to us they would get cuddles, pets and treats and so they never tried to venture far from the trail.

Sometimes we would load up a car with a few puppies and drive them somewhere new and different - a lake where they could play in the shallows or a playground where they could run about and clamber on and off platforms if they so desired. They also learned to ride in vehicles from this experience.

Of course, as they grew larger and lankier, they also grew faster. This was when we would introduce them to a leash and collar, just as you would with most pet dogs. We made sure to make the experience fun and positive.

I took all of this into account when I adopted Wizard and Poe last year. They instantly adjusted to life on a leash and I took them absolutely everywhere with me - to work, to see events, to restaurants. They saw Lake Superior,  They slept on my bed, since they no longer had their mother and other siblings to cuddle with, which they would otherwise still be doing at that age. We explored, we bonded and, to this day, I am insanely close to those two pups. 

Being close to your dogs is so, so important if you intend for them to be working sled dogs. They need to trust you and you need to be able to read their actions and anticipate how they might react to a given situation so you can act or plan accordingly. And so much of that goes back to the experiences they have as puppies and the time you spend with them.


Watch on

LEADERS OF THE PACK from Erin Sanger on Vimeo.


Photojournalist Katie Orlinsky, whose work focuses on the everyday lives of people in extreme situations, covers Kristin Knight Pace, a hopeful in the 2016 Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race.

Directed by Erin Sanger
Produced by Gabrielle Nadig
Client: ActuallySheCan
Agency: Tribeca Digital Studios
Cinematographer: Trish Govoni
Editor: Ema Ryan Yamazaki
Score: Bryan Senti
Production Manager: Sarah Kolb
Production Sound: Alan Gordon
Post Production Facility: Oxbow Post

Photo above: Athabascan beadworker Lilly Pitka of Fort Yukon, Alaska made these dog blankets in 1926. Dogs would be decorated with fancy blankets like this during special times of year, when families would come in from traplines in wilderness areas of the state to gather together in celebration.

ALL ABOUT THE DOGS – Dog sledding, or dog mushing, has a long tradition in Alaska. It was used by early residents as a means of transportation. Today, rural residents still rely on dog teams to hunt and travel in remote areas, as do hobbyists who enjoy exploring the backcountry with their highly-trained athletes.  

Alaska also hosts a variety of big-name races. Thousands of fans follow along as mushers spend days competing in long distance wilderness events like the Iditarod and the Yukon Quest. There are also sprint mushing races that are run through the streets of the state’s largest cities.

In the earliest days of tourism in Alaska, visitors found depictions of men and their dogs to be extremely compelling. They sought to bring home reminders of these people and their trusted companions of the trail. Many of these items were created by Alaska Native artists as souvenirs.

Luke Saganna carved this hunter and dog team (below) sometime around 1984 in Barrow. It is carved from caribou antler and has sinew tow lines and harnesses.

The museum’s history & ethnology collection features thousands of items that depict the Native cultures of Alaska. Many of them feature dog-related carvings or depictions. Jotham Seppilu is a Yupik artist from Savoonga, St. Lawrence Island. He carved this piece from walrus ivory.

This year in Alaska, the famous Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race had to move its restart location from Willow, near Anchorage, to Fairbanks in the Interior due to a lack of snowfall. That’s more than 500 miles away from the ceremonial start location in the state’s largest city. And it means an extra day for mushers to scramble to get ready for the race. Fairbanks officials expect hundreds, if not thousands, of race-related visitors for the event.

Some of them might be in search of something to commemorate the experience, such as souvenirs or artwork like this piece of mineralized walrus ivory carved by Greg Stradiotto in 1984.

Even though this has been a relatively mild winter temperature-wise, many mushers and visitors will be sporting head gear like this marten fur “trapper-style” hat used extensively in Alaska. The flaps can be worn down or up, depending on the weather.

This depiction of a dog team and driver was commercially produced and marketed to tourists.


1,000 Miles on Alaska’s Iditarod Trail with photographer @katieorlinsky

To see more of Katie Orlinsky’s sled dog photos and videos from the Iditarod Trail, follow @katieorlinsky on Instagram.

Until a year ago, sled dog racing in Alaska was not on the bucket list of stories to photograph for Katie Orlinsky (@katieorlinsky). Then the freelance photographer got an unexpected assignment that exposed her to the extreme world of mushing, as sled dog racing is called, and she hasn’t looked back.

This week, Katie is following the teams racing on the famous Iditarod Trail and documenting their 1,000 mile trek across Alaska’s tundra. More than winning, survival is the primary goal. “Out on the trail in between checkpoints, which can be over 100 miles, the mushers and dog team have to be completely self-sufficient—they carry supplies for camping, cooking, frozen food for the dogs and human,” explains Katie. “They need to know how to pace themselves, when to camp, when to rest, and for the competitive teams how to also be fast and win.”

The Iditarod is still going on, but already has its champion, Dallas Seavey! These pups could have been in it, except they thought being a sled dog meant they’d get to sit in a sled and ride around in it while someone else pulled them. Not quite…


Mushing on With Over 1,000 Dogs: @katieorlinsky Captures the Magic of Iditarod

To see more of Katie’s images and videos from the event, follow @katieorlinsky on Instagram. To feel like you’re in Alaska watching the race, check out #Iditarod2016.

In the state of Alaska, dog mushing is the official sport, and for many Alaskans, the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race is the year’s most anticipated event. Race action happens 24 hours a day, according to freelance photographer Katie Orlinsky (@katieorlinsky) who’s on the scene photographing the entirety of the race — some 1,000 miles (1,600 kilometers) in just over two weeks. “There is no other human or animal that can do what they do. They are the world’s most impressive endurance athletes,” Katie says. “The race is so exciting and interesting. The dogs are the best thing ever, and the beauty along the trail is breathtaking.”