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For the week of Nov. 17, 1999 through Nov. 23, 1999

Heroic madness

Ketchum cinematographer Bob Poole shoots Iditarod for PBS show

Express Staff Writer

The temperature is 48 below and you’re hanging out of a helicopter traveling 140 miles-an-hour. You’re wearing every piece of clothing you can find but you’re still numb from the cold. If any of your skin is exposed, you know it will get frost bite instantly. And, you’ve been tasked to capture on film the mushers and dogs on their annual charge through Alaska’s frozen terrain below.

That was all in a day’s work for Ketchum cinematographer and filmmaker Bob Poole last March during the "impossible race," Alaska’s Iditarod sled dog race.

Despite the conditions, Poole shot the race, the coldest one on record, from beginning to end and his film rolls on PBS’s Nature episode, "Sled Dogs: An Alaskan Epic," Sunday night at 8 p.m.

Beginning on Alaska’s southern coast in Anchorage, the teams head north into the interior, climb the Alaskan range past Mount McKinley, turn west along the Yukon River and then cross a portion of the Bering Sea before reaching the finish in Nome. It’s an 1,100-mile trip that could only be accomplished with sled dogs.

"I’ve done a lot of expeditions with my camera around the world, but the Iditarod, given the extreme conditions, was one of the most extraordinary adventures," Poole said in an interview.

But it wasn’t just another outdoor adventure that Poole caught on film. Against the backdrop of the 25-year-old race, the show explores the extraordinary relationship between human and canine that evolves under grueling race conditions.

Poole followed several mushers and dog teams during the race. One of the absorbing stories, he said, is of musher Linda Plettner and her lead dog, Argy.

"She loves the dog so much," Poole said. "You see her complete love, compassion and devotion for all her dogs."

The mutually dependent relationship between musher and dog in the Iditarod is necessary not only for success in the competition but for safety and survival.

"There is nothing you can put in front of these dogs to discourage them from going on," Plettner says in the film. "You’re their pack leader. They pull you through. We pull them through."

That interview and others were only possible, Poole said, during moments when the mushers and dogs were forced to rest because of exhaustion. Otherwise, the race continues night and day.

"It was the only time in my career that I’ve drawn tears into my eye piece," Poole said. "It was such an emotional thing to see Plettner’s attachment to her dog and to see them so tired, cold and out of energy."

Argy becomes a kind of star in the show. "This old dog is an amazing character," Poole said.

What distinguishes Alaskan huskies like Argy is an unwavering determination, love of hard work and a willingness to join a team, traits that are bred into the dogs.

The dogs, Poole said, are better cared for than the mushers during the race, in part because veterinarians examine them at 27 checkpoints along the race course.

"You can’t make the dogs do this race," Poole said. "They have to want to do it, because it’s so incredibly grueling and difficult."

Like the dogs, Poole and his crew had to want to make the trek from Nome to Anchorage. They ate frozen food and lived in a mobile camp and Indian villages during the month of racing.

"No one was prepared for the cold," Poole said. "If you’d touch a piece of metal on any of the equipment, you’re hands would want to stick to it. It was paralyzing for us and for the equipment."

When asked why he thought people subject themselves to the harshness of the Iditarod, Poole didn’t hesitate.

"There’s nothing like moving along at a good clip in the dead quiet of the Alaskan wilderness, hearing the distant howl of wolves," he said.

Even so, he added, "I do think it’s amazing that there are still people willing to do it."


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Copyright 1999 Express Publishing Inc. All Rights reserved. Reproduction in whole or in part in any form or medium without express written permission of Express Publishing Inc. is prohibited.