Miscellany 12: Alaska!

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Time Out for Alaska
the Indy 500 with dogs edition

3/4-15/2016. You have no idea how many times all these entries are going to be rewritten, so I might just as well get the basics down and get started.

One of those wierd coincidences defined much of my first weekend in Alaska. Julie Higgs and Laura Higgs Kappel are the daughters of Dr. Robert Jackson (Jack) Higgs, the late soul of the ETSU English department. Everybody called him "Jack." Except Amy and me. We always called him "Dr. Higgs" and we always will. Can't help it. We named our dog after him (we tried to call him "Dr. Higgs" too, but it just didn't work out; the dog quickly became "Jack"). Dr. Higgs was the only person on both our guest lists for our wedding 18 years ago.

Julie lives in Florida, Laura in Tennessee. So of course they each had a thing for the Iditarod dog sled race. Don't ask. I did, and no explanation was forthcoming. Just a sort of bemused "Does that seem strange?" kind of thing. Yes. Yes, it does.

Julie and Laura bid on and won seats as "Iditariders" for the ceremonial start of the 2016 race in downtown Anchorage. Mushers collect sponsorship money by auctioning rides in their sleds on Day Zero of the race, a "parade lap" through downtown Anchorage. (How does anyone in Florida or Tennessee even know about that? Try not to dwell on it.) Julie was riding with Scott Jansenn, "The Mushing Mortician," a crowd favorite, and Laura with rookie Kim Franklin.

As it happens, the 2016 Iditarod started on my first weekend in Alaska. Wow, I said, I'll do my best to get some good photos for you. Julie and Laura asked if I would like to use the "VIP Passes" provided for family and friends of Iditariders. "We get two apiece and we don't know anyone up here, and who knows, maybe they'll be useful." Yes, I would. And yes, they were!

The Ceremonial Start

It's a thing. 350,000 people live in Anchorage and a decent fraction turn out to see the mushers start off for Nome. The weather was warm(ish) and snow had to be shipped in from Fairbanks. Even then, the first day's run was shortened from 11 miles to 3. What the Indy 500 is to Indy, the Daytona 500 to Daytona, Florida vs the Vols to Knoxville, the Iditarod is to Anchorage. And I had a purple pass hanging around my neck that got me in everywhere. (Maybe it wasn't supposed to, but I applied the first rule of photojournalism: act like you belong there. Exactly once, all day, did a policeman suggest I needed a press pass to be between the orange barriers while I walked the course, sharing space with official photographers, sleds, dog teams, mushers and riders. My chutzpah must have slipped. "No problem," I said and stepped out. I walked one block on, then made sure my pass was prominently displayed, and stepped back in.)

First things first: how would I ever find Laura and Julie in all this? I wandered west from the official starting line at 4th and D taking in the sights back in the pits, in the staging areas. Around 4th and G, I stopped to photograph what appeared to be a model playing with some sled dogs.

kim 2

kim 3


Killer cute, great light, charmed I was. Sometimes you really can't make a bad picture. When that happens, just keep pushing the button, 'cause God knows it isn't always like that. Eventually, I noticed the subtle embroidery on her cap. "Team Kim Franklin." Not a model. Definitely a dog handler. Possibly a relative of the musher herself. And with lightning-like induction, I realized that Laura might not be far away.

I looked over my shoulder, and saw, not 40 feet from me...




Laura and Julie, as I live and breathe.

The mushers draw bib numbers out of a hat; bib numbers determine their starting positions. Scott Jansenn had drawn bib #2 (out of about 80), which is, effectively, pole position. Last year's junior mushing champion gets bib #1 for the ceremonial start. Scott had the first competitor's bib. That meant there would be a lot of pomp and circumstance surrounding his (and Julie's) start. The Governor said something. So did a senator. But it also meant I would have zero practice shooting a moving dog sled before trying to do photos that mattered. I decided I would make the most of my backstage access with Scott and Julie, and then try for Kim's and Laura's sled in motion out on the course. Kim had drawn bib #34. Since sleds start two minutes apart, I'd have at least an hour's practice by the time they came by.



Julie, Laura, and musher Kim Franklin



Julie and sled tractor



Scott Jansenn and granddaughter. Come see what Grand-dad does. I must have 20 versions of this. Delighted that Scott used this picture for his "farewell to friends and fans, I'll see you in Nome" message on Facebook.







Scott, daughter, and granddaughter.






Batteries to power, turbines to speed. Ready to launch.



Musher Monica Zappa, on course. Click to enlarge. I found this spot where
the teams ran into a patch of sunlight slanting between Anchorage's version of high rises.
It may be getting on toward noon, but it's 61° north, and it's March.
I shot a five frame panorama, saving the last frame for when a team hit the sunlight.


Listen, there are a LOT of photos from this event, and not 1 in 20 is going to fit on this page. So I'll put together a perusable album in a bit.


After Julie and Scott disappeared in a shower of snow, under a sonic cloud of puppy joy, I started walking the course, looking for favorable vantages and practicing as sleds slid by. The route turned hard right off 4th onto Cordova and ran downhill a good ways. Crowds thinned; the ambiance became less urban. I staked out a snowy mound adjacent the track and messed with autofocus settings until time for Laura and Kim to pass.



Kim Franklin and Laura on Cordova Avenue


After the start, that afternoon, Jess, Logan, Don Kostelec, and I drove up to Talkeetna to see The Mountain and maybe the aurora and to be in position to drive back to Willow for the "restart" the next day. More about Talkeetna soon. Today, I'm sticking to the race.


The Official Start

It's called the "restart" but it's actually the official start, the first time the sled teams are under the clock. After the ceremonial start, mushers pack up their sleds and their dogs and ferry them to Willow Lake where they repack and set off for real. When they leave Willow Lake, the game is on for the next ten to fifteen days across a thousand miles of serious terrain and sea ice to Nome.



Down to business.
Musher Scott Jansenn enters the woods on the shore of Willow Lake.


Musher Aily Zirkle, one minute into the 2016 Iditarod.
A thousand miles on, she finished third, 7 hours behind winner Dallas Seavey.



Musher Sigrid Ekran whooshing off the line at Willow Lake.



Musher Kim Franklin, all ahead slow, staging at Willow Lake.


To keep the narrative simple, I've omitted our trip to Talkeetna and a morning and an evening in the light of Denali. That will not do. Here's the sheer south face of Denali looming over Willow Lake, a hundred miles away. Next up: Talkeetna.



Off in the distance, the mountain was a bright white cloud rooted in the horizon. I borrowed some techniques from astrophotography to sharpen the view (process the luminance channel for contrast and detail, then re-apply color data). Denali didn't look like this to the eye from Willow Lake. But it's just a hint of what it looked like from Talkeetna.


Previous page from Alaska

Next page from Alaska


Except where noted, deep-sky photos are made with an SBIG ST2000XM CCD behind a 10-inch Astro-Tech Ritchey-Chretien carried on an Astro-Physics Mach1GTO. The CCD is equipped with Baader wide- and narrow-band filters. The internal guide chip of the CCD most often keeps the OTA pointed in the right direction (I'll let you know when an OAG or guidescope takes its place). Camera control and guiding are handled by Maxim DL 5.12. The stock focuser on the AT10RC has been augmented with Robofocus 3.0.9 using adapters turned on the lathe downstairs. A Canon 6D and a modded 50D find themselves mounted on an Orion 10" F4 Newtonian or carrying widefield glass on an iOptron Skytracker. Beginning in May 2013, PixInsight has taken over more and more of the heavy lifting -- alignment, stacking, gradient removal, noise-reduction, transfer function modification, color calibration, and deconvolution. Photoshop CS4 et seq and the Focus Magic plugin get their licks in, too.


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                   © 2016, David Cortner