Thursday, March 7, 2013

Action-Photography 101: Sleddog Sprints

Just south of Fairbanks is the town of North Pole, this year's home for the International Federation of Sleddog Sports World Championship. Dogsledding is real out here, not just a local color thing. They're still used in the Alaskan interior as the only truly reliable transportation across long sub-Arctic distances. The world's biggest sleddog race, the Iditarod, a thousand mile race from Anchorage to Nome, began just three days ago, attracting thousands of people from around the world. Being the world championship of sleddog racing, Chris and I were expecting large crowds and a ticket turnstile. What we found was less than a hundred people huddled by a makeshift starting line and a small PA pumping the local country music station.

We made our way through the lot of pick-ups with dog kennels fixed to the backs, dogs of all shapes and breeds pacing anxious circles around the wheels. Chris was blown away that we had our run of the place to set up wherever we wanted. “This is like showing up at the Superbowl with no credentials, and walking right down to the sideline,” he said. The Superbowl it was not, but I gathered his point. Having this kind of access to any pro sporting event is rare. It was like being a cameraman for ABC's Wide World of Sports sometime in the '70s, shooting some obscure sport like jai-alai or curling from some funny sounding town like...well, North Pole, AK. I kept expecting to see Howard Cosell in his yellow jacket delivering play-by-play with one of those old microphones.

Antsy as ever to capture the moment, Chris started rattling off quick-speak instructions. “This is the F-stop, here's the ISO, these control the amount of light, this lens is a whole stop higher...” I had thought it would be enough to find the “on” switch and know which end to point. Just as he started to sound like Charlie Brown's teacher he paused, took a long look at my face, put the settings where he wanted them, pointed to the click and told me to “go nuts.”

I scurried off to the first turn and buried myself down in the snow. As each neoprene-spandexed driver kicked his leg around the first curve we were so close we captured the spit as it whipped out of the yipping dogs' teeth. After all the teams passed we hustled over to the last curve to catch them on the home stretch. I put my coat down in the snow at the very edge of the track, laid down atop it on my stomach so I'd be almost under the dogs as they ran by, and rapid-fired still shots like a machine-gunner in a foxhole. It was surreal being belly-down on the snowpack, so intimate with the dogs as they dug for home, documenting a nearly ancient sport in this strange and frozen corner of the world.

Team flags were flown from Sweden, Finland, Norway, Canada, France, USA, and just about everywhere else that gets cold. After the races we hung around and Chris got interviews with competitors from teams USA and Norway. The American girl took home gold. In a first-off attempt to capture local culture at sprint speeds with a camera assistant who couldn't set a shutter speed to catch a three-legged tortoise, I'd say we grabbed gold as well.

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