Friday, February 3, 2012

Alaska on my mind.

It's no secret that I've invested a substantial chunk of my time on this planet into traveling backcountry Alaska via the Iditarod Trail. It follows that I have invested a far, far more substantial amount of time into obsessing over past and future trips to do the same.

Starting in '97 each successive trip was a test of myself, meant to determine which of the previous years' lessons had stuck and which I had failed to internalize. Every year I got faster, which was some small validation that I was learning and growing. But that was never the point. Stated simply, I was teaching myself to be a more savvy backcountry traveler, to be able to go deeper and longer, more efficiently and with less risk. I intended to spend as many of my allotted heartbeats out away from the influence of cities and civilization, deep in the heart of something bigger. For better than a decade, all of the training and prep leading to the last Sunday in February, year after year, was a means to this end.

Naturally, at some point came diminishing returns. I couldn't ignore that the allure of training had gone, and with it went the fitness needed to be competitive. And I was sort of surprised to discover that that was fine--letting go of racing made me realize that it was always a sideline, that my heart and head were there for the trail, for the experience and satisfaction of losing myself deep down the rabbit hole in a wild place.

Eventually I embarked on my self supported Iditarod Trail project, and immersed myself in the delicious ridiculousness of that endeavor for better than 5 years. The visuals that I shared from that journey got me thinking that maybe I oughta have a crack at telling the stories of others from along the trail.

So last winter I spent beyond my meager means to acquire a small arsenal of camera gear: lenses, batteries, memory cards, tripods and heads, a second camera body, filters and remotes, even an HD vid cam. I rationalized that I'd pay for the gear by selling photos and video of racers, to racers. I immersed myself into the process of learning again, poring over manuals and familiarizing myself with the nuances, making modifications to be able to use each lens, extend the legs on the tripod, often barehanded, when temps were unfriendly to handling bare metal. It felt a lot like the previous 15 years of prep for travel on the Iditarod: A clear end goal with many possible routes to achieve it.

Then near the end of February I followed my traditional migration route to join friends and 'family' at Knik, and to shadow them, cameras rolling, north and west on a slow procession across the state. All of us intended to reach McGrath, a few (raises hand, meekly) had the audacity to dream of Nome.

I had nothing scripted, nothing directing me to gather certain shots or scenes at specific times of day. If I've learned nothing else from the school of the trail, I know that to move forward with eyes and ears turned outward is enough: all manner of fascinating things will present themselves if only you're open to seeing them. I've been smitten with this route and this event for what seems like my whole life. My goal with the cameras was to bring back a fraction of the allure, a mere hint of something that might alert likeminded others to how special the route, the place, and the event really are.

The fly in the ointment was a bug of some sort, flu maybe, that got up inside of me and wreaked havoc starting on race morning. I woke feverish and nauseous, unable to eat or drink, and it would be better than a month until I felt any better. I tried, desperately tried to ignore it while following the racers up the trail. But the wheels came off for good at Rainy Pass Lake, and only thanks to the efforts of empathetic friends did I make it off the trail and home to convalesce.

Thus my hopes of sharing some of the allure ended. Plans to head back and try again this winter have been derailed--too much other life happening.

Which leaves us with this all-too-brief collection of moments from the '11 ITI.

I'm indebted to the racers along the trail for tolerating my presence when I was awake and pointing cameras their way, and for lending a hand to help when things went bad. Piera, Mark, Billy, Bill, Terry, and the other Bill--words cannot express how thankful I am that you helped in the ways you did, when you could have easily and understandably done anything but.

All the best,