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New book features Iditarod athletes -- and their less hairy owners

Helen Hegener
Sneak peeks of photos from Albert Lewis' upcoming book Born to Run / Athletes of the Iditarod.
Courtesy Albert Lewis
Sneak peeks of photos from Albert Lewis' upcoming book Born to Run / Athletes of the Iditarod.
Courtesy Albert Lewis
Sneak peeks of photos from Albert Lewis' upcoming book Born to Run / Athletes of the Iditarod.
Courtesy Albert Lewis
Sneak peeks of photos from Albert Lewis' upcoming book Born to Run / Athletes of the Iditarod.
Courtesy Albert Lewis
Sneak peeks of photos from Albert Lewis' upcoming book Born to Run / Athletes of the Iditarod.
Courtesy Albert Lewis
Sneak peeks of photos from Albert Lewis' upcoming book Born to Run / Athletes of the Iditarod.
Courtesy Albert Lewis
Sneak peeks of photos from Albert Lewis' upcoming book Born to Run / Athletes of the Iditarod.
Courtesy Albert Lewis

When Albert Lewis moved to Alaska from Lake Tahoe, California, a couple of years ago, he brought with him the usual misperceptions and misunderstandings about sled dog racing. He was an avid fan of dogs, but like most opponents of the sport of racing sled dogs, he had no experience with the real deal. Then he went to the 2012 Ceremonial Start on Fourth Avenue -- and it literally rocked his world.

Now, Lewis hopes to release a book of photography, "Born to Run/Athletes of the Iditarod," dedicated to the four-legged Iditarod ultramarathoners that changed his point of view.

Albert Lewis became a believer, and like most converts, he immersed himself in the sport and began searching for a way to become involved on a meaningful level. His background was in fashion photography, with over 20 years experience in varius roles, including photographer, art director, creative director and designer for the likes of Neiman Marcus, Nordstrom, Target, and many other fashion houses.

He’d been the creative director for the sports equipment giant The North Face, and his studios, La Vie Imagery and Mulberry Photography, specialized in shooting family portraits and events, vacations, anniversary parties, and destination shoots and weddings worldwide. His Mulberry Albums, specializing in fashion inspired wedding and portrait photography, won some very prestigious industry awards.

It didn’t take Albert long to determine how his considerable skills might contribute to the sport of sled dog racing. A book on the athletes of the Iditarod, the dogs who run 1,000 miles, would be his entry ticket. In an interview for Robert Forto’s Mushing Radio, aired over KVRF from Palmer, Albert explained his concept:

I started investigating what books were out there, other ways these dogs are promoted, and I wasn’t seeing anything that fit the niche of what my doctrine is, or how I shoot. I shoot with a real clean palette, I try to put the focus on the subject itself, not the environment that it lives within or participates within, but the subject by themselves, and therefore the clean backdrops, the real attention to detail and the focus on the face of the subject, in this case the dogs, and it just fit my photography really well. And I said I don’t see this out there, perhaps it’s out there, perhaps it was done quite a bit in the past, but I said I would like to bring a freshness to this and give something back to the people that they probably haven’t seen recently.

Albert made plans to visit the kennels and photograph the Iditarod athletes, and his first visit was to Kelly Griffin’s Silverbelle Kennels, in Wasilla. Kelley, who became the first woman to finish both the Yukon Quest and the Iditarod in the same year in 2008, has been a competitive mid and distance musher since 1998. She was featured in the international award winning film "Dog Gone Addiction," about three women mushers of the Yukon Quest.

Albert, who had never visited a sled dog kennel before, admits to being nervous and “in shock” the first time he saw a yard full of sled dogs. In Robert Forto’s radio interview he states, “I didn’t know how they kept the dogs, I’d read it in a few books but I didn’t want to believe it until I got there -- like, ‘are there really 60 dogs outside in all their doghouses?' ... I was awestruck in looking at all these dogs, and then noticing how happy they were, how they laid down on top of their houses, how they did their circles when they saw a human was doing something or when a dog was chosen to come into the photo set, the other ones all get excited, then they would lay back down, then they would get excited again...I have a smile on my face all the time when I’m around these dogs, it’s incredible!”

Lewis traveled from Anchorage to Fairbanks, to Glennallen and down onto the Kenai Peninsula to visit kennels and photograph the dogs and some of their well-known mushers. 

Among the kennels Albert has visited already are Lance Mackey’s Comeback Kennel, Martin Buser’s Happy Trails, Aliy Zirkle and Allen Moore’s SP Kennel, Jodi Bailey and Dan Kaduce’s Dew Claw Kennel, Zack and Anjanette Steer’s Sheep Mountain Kennel, the Seaveys’ Ididaride Racing Kennel, Sven Haltmann’s Himalaya Racing Kennel, Mike Santos’ Wolf’s Den Kennel, Jake Berkowitz’s Apex Racing Kennel, Brent Sass’ Wild and Free Mushing, Jeff King’s Husky Homestead, Justin Savidis’ Snowhook Kennel, and others.

Retired musher Theresa Daily, whose widely-respected Go Mush website tracks race news and statistics, wrote, “When I saw Albert’s work, all I could say is WOW! He is not only collecting great photos but documenting our mushing history.”

That's an important aspect of Albert’s project: the record and the legacy he’ll leave of these intrepid athletes, at this time in the history of sled dog racing. As I was studying Albert’s photos, I found myself wishing more than once that dynamic photographs such as these had been taken of some of the great dogs of the past, from Leonhard Seppala’s Togo and Fritz, to Susan Butcher’s Granite and Rick Swenson’s Andy.

Mushing is a sport in constant evolution, and documenting today’s dogs for the reference and appreciation of tomorrow’s mushers, fans and historians is perhaps an unexpected longterm benefit of this endeavor.

Albert Lewis is posting “sneak peeks” of each kennel visit at the Facebook page for Born to Run/Athletes of the Iditarod. Sign in and ‘like’ the page, and help support Albert’s efforts to bring awareness to the sport and the athletes who race 1,000 miles every March.

Helen Hegener is an author and a documentary filmmaker specializing in distance sled dog races and the men, women and dogs who run them. This post originally appeared on her website, Northern Light Media. It has been republished with permission.