Why am I captivated by this photo of an Iditarod dog musher on the Yukon River by photojournalist Bob Hallinen of the Alaska Dispatch News? When I saw Hallinen’s photo in his March 9 tweet during coverage of the 2017 Iditarod Race, I found myself returning to look at it over and over. There are thousands of dog mushing and Iditarod images out there, but this one stayed with me. Even now, after the last musher into Nome, Cindy Abbott, has received the Red Lantern, I return to study the musher and dog team in this landscape. Why?
It’s not just the dog mushing. I think I love the image of solitary pursuit of a goal. A quest. But not conquering nature, a concept and goal that I despise. I think it’s “adaptation”, although that doesn’t quite ring true either. The vision is that the musher and dog team fit into my concept of what the landscape tells me, and what I know. I’ve been alone and abandoned on the Windy Fork of the Kuskokwim River in -20 F winter, wondering if my conversation the night before about how mean moose get in the winter might be about to stomp me, considering how best to get back to a warm building if a damaged aircraft doesn’t send someone to pick me up. So is it loneliness? I don’t think so
The Iditarod Race is a strange beast. Racing across 1000 miles of frozen Alaska landscapes takes the fortitude and dedication, and especially the obsession required to be a dog sled racer… and of course to be a sled dog. It requires substantial money and financial sponsors to maintain and train a dog team capable of competing. There’s no question that the Iditarod symbolizes one of the great unions of animals and humans, requires its own brand of toughness, and fits the imagination of Alaskans and the people outside Alaska who dream of the Alaska mystique.
But dog sledding isn’t just the Iditarod. For some Alaskans, dog sledding still serves the same purposes it did before the Iditarod: a mode of transportation adapted to the winter landscape of the far north, a way to travel cross-country both for recreation and to live daily life, although much of the utilitarian function has been taken over by snowmobiles.
Like horses in rural America, sled dogs can travel and work in terrain and weather conditions that stymie mechanical contraptions. I’ll admit here and now that I know virtually nothing firsthand about either horses or sled dogs. Okay, I’ve ridden a horse, and had a tourist ride on a dog sled. Does that count? No, not really… Not at all. And yet I still sense the partnership that horseback riders and mushers share with their horses and dogs, the personal relationship between living, working creatures. No matter how much personality we attach to our pickups and snow mobiles, it’s not remotely the same as the mutual relationship with horses and dogs.
But I started with the question: What is it about the photo of the musher and dogs on the Yukon River with the mountains in the background that grabbed me by the uh… heart, and say this is GENUINE?
What if the musher had been riding a snowmobile? Would I have felt the same? Well… yes. Partly. Snowmobiles have replaced sled dogs in most ways for most people in Alaska. They are essential to life for many places. So I would still feel that I was witnessing a genuine image of everyday life in an iconic landscape.
But sled dogs represent something more. Perhaps it’s my tendency toward nostalgia, my admiration for life before modern machines. Or maybe it is my admiration for living within the confines of the local landscape. I think this is closer to the truth. Dogs require food, it’s true. As far as the Iditarod goes, this is anything but reliance on local landscapes. Food is formulated for the race. Mushers seek out every possible source of meat and fish that would otherwise go to waste during the year.
But dogs can live just fine on salmon and other fish caught by local people. Horses can live by grazing on local plants. As long as the plants and animals within a landscape are sufficiently productive and abundant, horses and dogs offer work partners relatively free of the outside world. Yes, I realize that today we provide many products and services to our animals that come from far away, but it’s this inherent ability to live within the landscape that I think is at the core of my reaction to the photo of the dog team and musher in a vast beautiful landscape without other visible humans or animals.
The partnership between the dogs and the musher, like the partnership between cowboys and cowgirls and their horses is the other reason why I find this scene so compelling. It’s a relationship, not just putting fuel in the gas tank and maintaining the machine, a relationship built on trust, understanding of limitations, navigating personality differences and emotions, and dependence on one another. Okay—I cuss out my truck once in a while.
The black specks of the musher and dogs on the sweeping band of the river, the forever far away hills, brings together my sense that humans have a place within this landscape, a communion between the world and our place within it.