When the author went to photograph the Iron Dog snowmobile race in Big Lake, Alaska, he got a frighteningly intimate look at the effects of hypothermia.
The title of this piece only touches on the overall story, a tale of the mixing of motorsports, photography, and Alaska that almost lead to devastating results for me on a cold February day. The event in question was the Iron Dog snowmobile race, a grueling 2031-mile journey from Big Lake, Alaska to Nome.
I love photography and I love almost any motorsport that isn’t NASCAR (sorry everyone, I just hate NASCAR). Previous to the Iron Dog, I had experience shooting photos of other snowmobile events—mainly snowcross and freestyle events. The winter weather in Alaska was something I thought I had always accommodated given my gear loadout and trip planning. Not the case this time. I made a series of mistakes that almost ended very badly. Because I got overconfident in myself and underestimated the effect the wind and cold temperatures would have on me, I nearly suffered an icy fate.
I remember when I left that morning it was in the mid ’20s outside, with clear blue skies. I briefly thought about taking extra clothes and water. My clothing loadout that day was a classic rookie mistake: I wore a generic Carhartt-imitation jacket, Sorel Caribou boots with plain white cotton socks underneath, Carhartt blue jeans, no hat, gloves, layers, or long sleeves, just a simple cotton t-shirt to cover my core. I know my mother would have disapproved; you never go out in the winter without a hat and gloves on.
The start of the Iron Dog race is held on a frozen lake, aptly named Big Lake. Growing up in suburban Cleveland, Ohio, I never once ice fished or spent time on a frozen lake. Even after spending 20 years in Alaska, I still believe ice is for drinks and for hockey. Since this was the case, I had zero idea what standing in the middle of a frozen ice rink of almost 2,500 acres would do to my body in short order. Honestly, I never even calculated it into my thought process.
I arrived well before the scheduled start time so I could go through the pit areas in the hopes of snapping some behind-the-scenes pictures and maybe get a few words from the drivers so I could get some freelance photography credit. The first hour of walking around, I didn’t think it was too bad. I kept ducking between trailers and tents, using them as a windbreak. But by the second hour, even stopping in the warming tents wasn’t helping much.
Once the starting order of the racers had been picked and the teams lined up, I went to work—looking for angles, checking the settings on my Nikon D200, and trying to process the scenes mentally while shooting them. In my drive to capture a picture that would allow me to get published for the first time ever, I mentally checked out when it came to my own wellbeing. This is one of the many mistakes I made that day. I can’t tell you exactly when it happened, but I began to notice I couldn’t figure out what I was doing with my camera, and the letters on the LCD screen were suddenly looking odd.
I thought it had to be a mechanical issue. But when I looked up from my camera, everything looked out of focus. The guy next to me asked, “Hey, have you been drinking any water today?” I said aloud, “Oh, I might have fucked up.” He laughed and handed me a bottle of water, suggesting that maybe I should head over to the warming tent and get something warmer to drink.
I spent a few minutes in the warming tent and noticed on the walk over that my feet didn’t seem to be cooperating with the rest of my body. I’m sure to the people I passed, I looked like I was a staggering town drunk. The farther I got down this path of hypothermia, the more aware I was that I was in danger, but pride and stupidity kept my mouth shut.
In hindsight, any number of items we have reviewed would have helped me greatly that day and on other days shooting pictures in the snow and cold. Something as simple as the GatorSkins or Massif System gear would have helped maintain my core temperature. The Sealskinz gloves or the Outdoor Research Stormsensors would have allowed me to operate my Nikon and still stay warm.
I’m not sure how long I spent in the warming tent, but I can promise you it wasn’t long enough. Pride and stupidity reared it’s ugly head again as I began the long walk to my Jeep. The race began in the middle of this 2500-acre lake, which would have been ideal if I weren’t trying to walk out of it in a near-panic.
If I had a manual transmission in my Jeep, I know there would have been no way I would have gotten home safely from the Iron Dog. I wouldn’t have had the dexterity to operate both the clutch and the gas. When I arrived back at my Jeep, I remembered I had two Hot Hands in my glove box. I quickly opened them, got them active, and stuck them under my arms. The thinking was try to warm my core—not the best plan, but I was pretty scared, to be honest. The drive home was not the smartest thing I’ve done, either, but I stopped at the first gas station I saw for a bottle of Powerade and a large coffee.
Thirty miles can be a harrowing drive some days, and on this day, it was. I remember shivering the whole drive home, even after stopping for a second cup of coffee, and with the heater of the Jeep on full blast. Luckily, I made it home in one piece, and when I began to relay the story to my wife, she was furious. Hours after the event, it hit me how lucky I was.
Remember, no matter how smart, brave, or experienced you are, Mother Nature doesn’t care. She will kill you just like she will the novice explorer. Plan and prepare like your life depends on it, because someday, it might.
(Note: Not all pictures are from the 2013 Iron Dog, but they are all taken by the author.)