This weekend marks the start of the 50th running of the Iditarod, an annual long-distance sled dog race and a beloved Alaskan tradition. Known as “The Last Great Race,” the event featuring the four-legged ultramarathoners and their mushers (the drivers of the dogsleds) kicks off in Anchorage. Since it’s followed closely by Alaskans, it’s covered closely by journalists there.
Bob Hallinen, a former photojournalist for the Anchorage Daily News, plans to cover the race’s ceremonial start tomorrow. He spent 33 years at the newspaper before retiring in 2018. And in those three decades, Hallinen covered about a dozen Iditarod races. It’s a grueling assignment that spans more than a week and involves monitoring the progress of the sled dogs from a small plane and sleeping in people’s homes or on the floors of schools in remote villages. All in near-freezing temperatures. All for the perfect photo.
We chatted with Hallinen about what it’s like to cover the Iditarod, his photojournalism career, and chasing what he describes as “magic light” in his work.
This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.
As a former staff photojournalist for the Anchorage Daily News, what does this race mean to Alaskans?
The Iditarod is the biggest sporting event in Alaska. Sled dog racing is pretty much the sport. There’s no college football here. There’s college hockey and basketball, but there are no pro teams in Alaska. Most people follow the Iditarod either through the Daily News or the News Miner, which is a newspaper in Fairbanks. It’s a big deal here.
Your bio says you have covered more than 10 Iditarods. Have you lost count?
[Laughs] I lost count. It’s probably around 12, if I had to guess now.
What was your experience in covering the Iditarod?
There’s two different eras of the race: one is in film days, and one is in digital days. Let me talk about the race itself. The course and where it’s run is around 1000 miles long. It depends on the year. There’s a southern route and a northern route, so it varies a little bit. Nowadays they have a ceremonial start in Anchorage. They truck snow in, put snow on the streets and then they go to bike trails. Lately they’ve been restarting in Willow, which is a little farther north of Anchorage, on the road system. Once they leave there, basically there’s no road access to any of the trails. It’s 900 miles of wilderness. The only way to get to any of the race at that point is by snow machine or a small airplane.
Where would photojournalists like yourself be?
We would have most of the photographers at the paper shooting the start. On Sunday is the restart, and one of the photographers would go up there and shoot that. We rotated. I photographed the race more than any other photographers at the paper. We would charter a small plane, usually a Cessna 185. It has wheel skis, so it can land on wheels or skis. There would be a pilot, photographer and a writer. We would fly checkpoint to checkpoint.
So would you try to get the eagle-eye view?
Yeah. You shoot aerials of the teams as they’re going along. Having a good pilot is paramount. You not only need him to be able to fly from point to point but also be able to know the weather, because sometimes there’s bad storms, low visibility. Sometimes you can’t fly.
But also you’re flying along and you find the musher. At this point they are spread out, so it’s very rare that you see two mushers at one time. Sometimes you do, but the vast majority of the time you’ll find one musher on the trail and you’ll shoot “small musher, big scene.” You shoot a variety of aerial pictures.
But sometimes the musher will be there and, up ahead, there will be something. Maybe a small creek crossing or some feature that, “OK, if the musher was there, that would make a better picture.” In my vague sort of way, I would tell the pilot “This spot right up here, I want to make a picture there.” The pilot would do several circles, waiting for the musher to get there. His job is to come along and pass that point at the same time the musher is passing that point.
Wow, that’s a lot of coordination.
A good pilot is invaluable on the race. He’s going much faster than the dog team. And usually we get a plane that you can open a window on, so you don’t have to be shooting through the window.
One year we were landing on the river ice at Rohn Road House, a checkpoint with just a single cabin, and as we were landing a ski broke off! The ski had a safety cable on it and it swung up and broke the pilot’s side window out. Once the ski was gone it left a strut sliding along the ice. At that point, the plane should have flipped. But, luckily, it did not, and at the end it just spun around and came to a stop. Of course we were then stuck without a plane to carry on. Luck struck again. There was a pilot there who flew in some tourists to watch the race. He flew his people back to McGrath and came back and picked us up and flew us along the rest of the race. We used him for years after that. He was a great pilot.
Another year we hired a guy with a snow machine to bring me from White Mountain to Nome, the finish line, to follow the leaders. After photographing the leader along the trail and getting close to Nome we had to race to Nome to get the film on an Alaska Airlines jet back to Anchorage. We flew over a snowdrift, becoming airborne. I was sitting behind the driver and flew off the machine and came down behind the machine and the freight sled we were pulling slammed into my side. I was sore but seemed to be OK. We carried on to the airport and then to the finish line to photograph. When I got back to Anchorage the doctor said I had two broken ribs.
You mentioned there were two eras of covering the Iditarod — film and digital. Can you tell me how the experience differed?
With film, you had to get the film back to Anchorage. There was no regular scheduled air service to some of the checkpoints, so you couldn’t go down to the service and say, “Send this film back to Anchorage.” In the first few checkpoints out of Anchorage, you would shoot something early in the day and then, by early afternoon, you would start looking for pilots that were going to fly back to Anchorage that evening. You would just go talking to pilots. There were also people who would be following the race with their own planes. You’d find somebody to give a package of film to and they would fly back to Anchorage and then you would contact the paper, and they would meet the pilot and grab the film and process it. Film was kind of complicated.
With digital, how did it change?
When we first started digital, the problem was finding someplace to transmit from, because at first there wasn’t great connectivity in the villages. Most villages have schools and they have, without exception, really good Wi-Fi. So if you could get access to their Wi-Fi system, you could do it (the job) pretty well.
By transmitting photos, the advantage there was that you could shoot longer in the day. You could shoot well into the afternoon and early evening.
In the days leading up to the Iditarod, what do you do to prepare?
We’ve got the photo gear we need because we’re used to shooting in the cold here in Anchorage. One difference between now and back then is that batteries back in the day weren’t as robust as they are now. Your batteries would die. And when it was really cool — as you know, it gets down 20 below, 40 below out there — but these days, batteries are pretty good. If you’ve got your batteries fully charged up for the day, they’ll last all day. I always carry spare batteries in my inside pockets where they’re against my body, to keep them warm.
You’re in a small plane, so you’re limited on how much you can fit and how much weight you can carry. You’ve got camera gear, but then you also need your clothes and cold weather gear. And you have to bring a sleeping bag because sometimes out there you have a bed, sometimes you’re sleeping on the floor.
On the floor of the plane?
Wherever you’re staying. There’s not very many villages where there’s actually hotels. You’re either staying in somebody’s home where there’s actually a bed for you. These days we often stay at a school. They rent floor space, basically, and some open up the kitchen and cook meals.
What’s the most difficult part of covering the race?
Back in film days, it was getting film back to Anchorage. You’re out there for 10 days and you’re sleeping in strange places. Most of the time, you’re moving every day … so you’re not getting great sleep, and then you’re out in the cold all the time. Sometimes it warms up and it’s a sunny day and it’s beautiful. You can shoot without gloves on and no hat. Other times it’s 20 below and you gotta be able to make a picture. The physical wear on you over that time is really the hardest part.
And what’s the most rewarding?
I like dogs. The mushers are mostly pretty nice people. One of the things I like about it is that, OK, for 10 days, I’m shooting the same thing, but it’s in different places. I don’t have to photograph anything else. These are cool places. They’re small native villages, so there’s nice people. You just concentrate on this assignment and you don’t have to worry about shooting anything else. It’s fun to be out there. I really like shooting the Iditarod.
What’s your advice for aspiring photojournalists who want to make this their life’s work?
I don’t have a photojournalism degree. Back in the day when I started, you could do that. I pretty much started out of college. So I assume that you have a photojournalism degree, but if you’re still in school, take as many varied other-than-journalism classes as you can. The more you know about the world, the better off you will be, I think.
Shoot as many varied assignments and situations as you can. I’m a photographer and photojournalism is how I practice photography. I really love it. With the state of newspapers these days, I think it’s a tough thing to do just because of the number of jobs that have been lost. But they’re still out there. There’s just not as many. In smaller papers, the pay isn’t very good. You have to really be invested in it, really love doing it.
How has retirement from the news business treated you thus far?
It’s been fairly good. Financially, we’re in pretty decent shape. We know how to live frugally because I worked for a newspaper, and not a large newspaper. Like I said, I’m a photographer, so I shoot a lot of stuff for myself, a lot of nature, wildlife pictures. Sometimes I’ll send some feature pictures to the paper, just because. I’ll do the occasional assignment for the paper and some other freelance stuff. Not a lot.
I read somewhere that you always search for the magic light in your photography. Can you describe what that is?
If you like magic light, Alaska is the place to be for that. In the morning and especially the evening, the sunlight is often a warmer color. If you got midday light, the sun is right above you. In the evening especially, the light is coming in at a low angle and it’s warm because it’s going through dust in the air. I was talking about this to my wife one time — talking about how, “You know, the sun sets and the warm light … that’s dust in the air.” She was like, “Thanks for ruining sunsets for me.” It’s that warm, low-angle light. It’s a beautiful light.
Does the work feel different to you now that you’re not a full-time staffer anymore?
When I was at the paper, I liked working on more extensive stories — especially ones that were out remote from Anchorage. The difference is that, these days when I shoot something for the paper, it’s an event sort of thing. That’s probably the thing I miss most about the paper: I don’t get to do those more in-depth stories that have a little more meat on the bone.
These days, it’s common for journalists to stay at an outlet for only a few years. So many factors play into that. Sometimes it’s the pay, sometimes it’s burnout or the desire for something different. What kept you at the Anchorage Daily News for 33 years?
Well, it’s several things probably. One is the people there. My bosses, Richard Murphy and Anne Raup, were great to work with. And the other photographers. The pay was adequate. It’s a midsize paper. With newspapers you know the bigger the paper, the bigger the money. And Alaska — the size and the grandeur and the stories of here that you don’t find everywhere. It’s especially interesting to go out to the native villages and there are so many good stories here.
My final question: What keeps you holding onto your camera?
I’m probably shooting almost as much these days as I was when I was actually getting paid for it. As I said before, I’m a photographer. That’s who I am. That defines me. I love shooting and there’s enough cool stuff in Anchorage and around here to keep my interest. Some people, they get done with the job and it’s a job. They retire and say, “I’m never going to do that again.” But I just love doing photography. I’m fine with being retired. I miss some stuff with the paper, but not all the stuff.
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