“I’m from New York City. I had never even heard of the word “mushing” before I covered the Yukon Quest,” photographer Katie Orlinsky admits. “But as soon as I watched the first dog team come into a checkpoint with their legs pounding on the sparkling snow and their paws covered in those funny neon-colored booties, I was hooked.”
Orlinsky first observed the world of mushing, which she soon learned referred to sled dog teams and the men and women who run them, when she was commissioned to photograph the Yukon Quest, a 1,000-mile dog sled race from Whitehorse, Yukon to Fairbanks, Alaska. The route follows the historic “Klondike Highway,” which sled dogs used to travel to deliver mail during the Gold Rush. The time she spent documenting the race left an impression on her. “They say race as a whole is a test of the spirit, strength, and ability of the athletes, both human and canine, and it’s completely true. I found myself really invested in a sporting event and capable of understanding why people care so much about sports for the first time in my life,” she says.
And while she was wooed by the event itself, Orlinsky found that she wanted to return to see what life was like for these dogs and their trainers during the Alaskan summer. “As much as I loved the race, I knew the story was bigger,” she says. So when Brent Sass, a Quest veteran and the owner of Wild and Free Kennel, asked her to photograph the four litters of puppies that were born there this summer, she felt it was her chance to explore the true heart of the story: “the bond between the musher and their dogs.”
Through spending time at Wild and Free as well as visiting Blue Kennels, Husky Homestead, Comeback Kennel, and a few other kennels, Orlinsky found that dog mushing extends beyond sport or hobby—it’s a way of life. Maintaining a kennel is a year-round responsibility, so even in the off-season the daily tasks are numerous. In addition to that maintenance, she says summer, “is the best time for competitive dog mushers to breed and raise new puppies and begin training their youngest dogs. Once the snow falls they need to focus on the dogs in their current racing team.”
“Every dog is different and the best mushers really get to know each and every one individually in order to build a relationship based on trust and loyalty,” Orlinsky says.
And like the dogs, the people who dedicate their lives to raising and training sled dogs vary in personality. However Orlinsky explains that most, “tend to be tough people who love the outdoors and know how to survive in the Alaskan wilderness.” She also notes that the really competitive racers tend to be obsessive. “They dedicate their life to dog mushing and caring for their dogs, day in and day out. The mushers love their dogs like their own children.”
Orlinsky has respect for those who enter the field knowing full well that few make it big in sledding. “It isn’t a lucrative professional sport by any means. Only a handful of dog mushers win the races or have sponsors,” she explains. That dedication despite slim prospects of fame or fortune accompanies a special individual. “A woman or man who chooses to travel a thousand miles in the blistering cold completely alone with their dogs—that’s an interesting person,” she says. And, of course, her respect extends to the dogs. “I’m a huge dog-lover in general, and these were like the super-hero version of regular dogs,” Orlinsky says.
She had the opportunity to experience the harsh intensity of mushing life first hand when she visited Blue Kennels, which is located on the Herbert Glacier and run by Yukon Quest winner Sebastian Shnuelle. The kennel is a destination for summer tourists who want to see the dog camp and go on dog sled rides with recreational mushers. The camp is only accessible by Coastal Helicopter from Juneau, so when harsh weather conditions invariably set in, travel to and from the glacier is suspended. “We got hit by some of the worst weather they’d seen all season, and there wasn’t a flight out for six days,” Orlinsky says. And though the dogs love spending their summer in the snow, the terrain is less hospitable for humans. She admits, “It’s breathtakingly beautiful, but I went a little nuts. Sebastian got a real kick out of it all. He said it was good that I got a tiny taste of what it’s like for mushers out on the trail.”