As a dogsledder, I can forget the fact that my sport, my world, is visually striking. Anyone whose camera battery lasts long enough in the cold can capture the blue light of deep winter, the halo of breath rising before a headlamp, the manic power of a dog team churning snow. There are those photographers who project their own associations onto wilderness, whiteness, chained dogs looking either adorable or powerful or miserable; old stuff in new frames. Then there are those photographers, mushing groupies, who stay up all night at every dogsled race, crouched beside the trail for hours to capture a dog’s-eye view of passing teams, as much a part of the community as the mushers and handlers and veterinarians who, their faces covered, know one another by their trucks and parkas. Outsiders telling stories for outsiders, insiders telling stories for insiders, about a sport that is equal parts proud and defensive of its position on the outskirts of culture.
Photographer Katie Orlinsky is neither of these; she seems gloriously incapable of noticing the obvious from any perspective. “My intro to mushing came from a place of wonder and total ignorance,” Orlinsky told me. In Alaska, while photographing indigenous hunting in the face of climate change, she found that hanging out with sled dogs was a reinvigorating break from documenting environmental devastation (“These are X-Men dogs. Superhero dogs!”). And on some level, she related to the mushers she met: “I’ve photographed victims of trafficking in Nepal, and post-conflict Mali. These are people facing life or death against their will, but you guys are choosing it. Why? That question is really what this project is all about.” As someone who constantly took on difficult projects, it was something she wondered about herself, too.
Orlinsky’s photos capture the long toes curling through the chain link of an isolation pen for females in heat, the mushers’ own scarred fingers curling from torn jacket cuffs, the texture of live skin that has repeatedly frozen and thawed. She sees how the harshest interactions glow in the northern light, so that even violence seems, at first glance, pure. She tracks the physical loneliness of an insulated body in deep cold. She does not confuse working dogs with wild dogs, doesn’t align pulling huskies with either house pets or wolves but allows for them a third category all their own, beyond the poverty of forced comparison. What’s half-wild, here, are not the dogs but the people.
For all the ways that sled dogs have been bred to tolerate cold, to want to run above all else, to metabolize huge amounts of food into heat, to grow tough foot pads—all the ways that they have been consciously built for their task on Earth—their drivers themselves are wrestling against evolution. They are, in essence, humans who have chosen not to live like humans, their body language, instincts, and voices shaped through thousands of hours of intense communication with animals rather than people. They care for their dogs before themselves; when they’re broke, or more broke than usual, they feed their dogs wild salmon and eat gas-station ramen. They bed their teams to sleep after ten hours on the trail and then sit up all night melting snow for a breakfast of hot, soaked kibble. They are, in even the most stressful situations, almost eerily calm, so as not to rile up their huskies.
It is popular to discuss races like the Iditarod, that most commercial of dogsledding events, as a matter of survival, a spectacle of man and beast against the elements. And it’s true that death, blood, meat can all feel closer to the surface outside of the societal systems that streamline them. But mushing, and the Iditarod itself, is less a tackling of the elements than a prolonged endurance of discomfort. For all that fans and mushers may romanticize it, the physical experience of a day spent dogsledding is less about staying alive and more about the constant pre-frostbite throb of toes, the labor of basic movement under thirty pounds of clothing, the intense inconvenience of replacing headlamp batteries with numb fingers while steering a sled down an icy road. The kinship between mushers—who live, almost by definition, far from civilization, neighbors, and even one another—is founded on an obsession with dogs, sure, but crystalized through a shared understanding of pain, exhaustion, and transcendence.
As far as sports go, mushing doesn’t follow most of the rules we’re used to. Men and women compete against one another. A race might be stalled while its competitors stop to gut a moose. And drama plays out in the middle of the wilderness, almost entirely out of the public eye. Fans cheer at the starting chute; if they’re particularly devoted, they might build a bonfire a hundred miles up the trail to watch teams glide out of the darkness and then disappear back into it. Then, hours or days later, a diminished team trots steadily under the finisher’s arch—dogs wagging their tails for fish snacks, musher’s face aged ten years. What happens during training and competition is private for each team.
Some dog lovers bring dogs into their homes, teach them commands, give them clean cotton bedding, feed them bites of pancake and casserole, walk them on leashes down the sidewalk. We know what it looks like when a dog adjusts to life in a human pack: We see it, we ask it of them, every day. What happens when those roles are reversed?
— Blair Braverman