This is one of those quintessential Iditarod photos that I’ve strived to create many times over my 40 years of photographing the race. A Dog Musher with a fireball sunset. I’ve managed to do this a number of times in the past, like these….
…but nothing to this degree!
And THIS subject matter, being many people’s favorite Iditarod Musher Aliy Zirkle, just makes this photo that much more special.
Creating this sunset image wasn’t as simple as it looks and it’s actually one of those great memories I now have. The backstory beings in the 2017 Iditarod in the village of Koyuk. A beautiful and small 300 person village tucked into the corner of the north end of Norton Sound.
It was a blue-bird day and it remained clear as evening was approaching. It was the 2017 race and as I looked at the Iditarod musher tracker I noticed that there was a dog team about 12 miles away and the sun was getting lower and lower. In my head, I did a calculation based on my sunset app on my phone for when the sun would set AND based on how many miles an hour the dog team was going when they would get to Koyuk.
Unfortunately, the timing was very likely not gonna work out where the sun would still be up when the musher got to the village. Hmmm, so what does a photographer do who really wants to get that type of a shot?
He gets a dose of ingenuity. Over my 40 years, I have only overnighted in Koyuk a handful of times. I didn’t know a lot of people who live there like I do in many of the other villages. But I knew I wanted this shot.
So I asked around to see if there was anyone local willing to —not loan or rent me a snowmachine —but actually take me out on the ice. I’ve learned my lesson more than once that if I’m going out on unfamiliar territory on a snowmachine it’s best to have a local person with me.
Especially someone who knows how to fix the snowmachine when it breaks or at least has some security with me.
And that’s just what I did. I found a very nice older gentleman who, for $100, was willing to take me out onto the ice to meet the Musher —-Aliy. It was a subzero evening and it was only gonna get colder the further out we went and as the sun dipped down. So I bundled up with everything I had including my seal skin hat.
I bungee-corded my camera bag and tripod onto the rack on the back of the snowmachine and had my two cameras around my neck.
The ride out had a lot of smoothness but there are also a number of locations where the sea ice had formed pressure ridges which is ice sticking up in the air like a major speedbump.
So there were times when we could only do one or 2 miles an hour inching our way through and over the ice pack. During which I’m thinking… “are we gonna make it in time going this slow?”. When we got onto the flat ground we could really make some time up. Which we did.
In the distance, I could see the speck of the Musher getting closer and closer. BUT… the sun was in a near-perfect position right now. Would she get to us in time?? My snowmachine driver asked me how far we wanted to go out. With the sun in that perfect place, I didn’t want to miss it. I asked him to go as fast as he safely could toward her.
And so we did for a mile or so and then stopped the snowmachine about 300 yards before the team would reach us. As I got off the snowmachine I was instantly preparing the settings on my cameras to be ready to shoot two scenes as she came by. On one body I had a 100 to 400mm telephoto lens and on the other a 24-105mm lens.
Knowing that this would likely be the only time I could get a straight-on shot, I knelt down next to the trail and shot this telephoto image as Aliy approached me ……
…. and then got to my feet and walked off the trail a ways. Though the dogs wanted to come to see me, Aliy commanded them with a “Haw, Haw, On-by” back to the trail. I made these images as she passed by me the first time.
Having an appropriate exposure and such that I knew would work, I ran back to the machine and excitedly asked my driver to fire it up and pass her but drive the snowmachine far off the trail so it’s not to confuse the dogs. Just as soon as we got past her the sun was in what I thought was a perfect position and I patted the snowmachine driver on the shoulder and said to stop here, but keep the engine running. I just sprang off the machine and with the 24-105mm lens fired away at 12 frames per second. And got this type of shot.
Never being satisfied with my last photo, I climbed back on the machine and excitedly said “Go, Go, Go”… and we continued to leapfrog Aliy but this time I asked the driver to get even further off to the side. The snow was blowing on the ground making it a bit difficult for the driver to see any obstacles, but he did a great job getting us down the trail.
The last shot with the 104 mm just didn’t create the scene I wanted. I wanted to use a more telephoto lens to compress the background and make the sun bigger. Sure enough, he got a longer ways off the trail and this time I was able to use the 100 to 400 mm lens to get what is ultimately I think the better shot at 148mm.
I wanted to stay ahead of Aliy because I knew once we got to those pressure ridges the dog team would make a lot better time than we could with the snowmachine. So we ran ahead of her but we actually didn’t stay on the trail she was on but had to make our own trail or else we would slow her down.
And this trail we made was just going wherever it seems a bit more smooth. And it was a WHOLE lot slower. Aliy was well ahead of us by the time we got across the pressure ridges.
And by this time to the sun had dipped below the horizon….. but now, off to our right or the east, we could see where the alpenglow was just tremendous. I asked my snowmachine driver to now get on the opposite side of Aliy (the west side of the trail) and move us into position here where I ended up getting a number of really good shots I think. lIke this…
And then Aliy arrived in the village to a warm welcome from many kids and villagers.
I was glad to be able to have had such a memorable experience out on the ice at sunset with a fantastic dog musher and a wonderful snowmachine driver.
Was the photo worth it? — an hour or two and $100? I think very much so.
I hope you enjoyed reading about it.
All the best —