It takes a real dog person to devote themselves to the frosty world of mushing.
There is no money in mushing, or dogsled racing, we are told emphatically by filmmaker Finn-Erik Rognan. The prizes are minimal at best. No dogsled racer is a household name. But for a select group of dedicated competitors, it’s a raging passion.
“These people are so invested in these dogs and the lifestyle that they live, that they will mortgage their houses,” he explains. “They live in very remote places. Of course, it’s people that are dog people, first and foremost. You have to be very interested in this certain kind of lifestyle because this is all they do from the minute they wake up in the morning. The last thing they think about when they go to bed at night, is dogs, dogs, dogs.”
Rognan should know – he’s the director of the new six-episode, English language documentary series Ice Cowboys, which follows a number of mushers – you’ll pick up the lingo easily enough – as they prepare to compete in the annual Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race from Anchorage to Nome, Alaska – the Tour de France of dogsledding, effectively. Hosted by Greg Heister, it’s a boots-on-the-permafrost look at mushing both as a competition and a community.
And he’s right, it does attract very distinctive personalities. In the first episode, we’re introduced to champion musher Lance Mackey and his family. A gangly, soft-spoken man, Lance has won both the Iditarod and the Yukon Quest four times, becoming a star on the dogsledding circuit in the way a champion bull rider becomes a rodeo celebrity. But addiction issues and a battle with cancer brought him low, and now he’s on the comeback trail, determined to take his place in the mushing pantheon.
And there is a pantheon – dogsledding has grown in popularity in Nordic countries, to the point where Rognan was hired to film the Iditarod and a number of other races for broadcast.
“Up here in the Nordic countries,” Oslo-based Rognan explains, talking to SBS between more filming excursions, “we are a strange group of people. We have a lot of snow and for some reason we like endurance sports. And there are few endurance sports that can top dogsledding.”
After his introduction to the mushing community, it didn’t take Rognan long to realise there was a fascinating documentary subject here, and he committed two years to immersing himself in the culture and filming what he found there, enduring temperatures as low as –40°Celsius and even the odd fraught wildlife encounter, such as the moose that menaces the crew in the first episode. Wild moose are extremely dangerous but as Rognan notes, “When you’re with a film camera, you’re so into what you’re doing, all these things, they kind of disappear.”
The series has all the drama and competition of a good reality show; dogsledding is a tough, punishing long distance sport that sees mushers drive their teams, laden with weight, over miles and miles of wilderness. Injuries and even death are not infrequent.
It’s also resource intensive; just feeding their teams is a massive undertaking and many mushers hunt for game to fill their dogs’ bellies. Add to that transport, training, tack and competition fees and it is readily apparent that this is a sport only for the fully committed.
But for all the excitement of the racing and the exotic – albeit barren – locales and their rugged beauty, what really fascinates about Ice Cowboys is this scattered but tight-knit community of people who are paradoxically both loners and fiercely loyal to each other and to their harsh but somehow primal lifestyle.
Along with Mackay and his family, we also meet more mushers, including identical twins Anna and Kristy Berington, who spend everything on their dogs, and face tragedy during the race; Alaskan Dallas Seavey, described as an enfant terrible of the mushing world; dedicated Norwegian Thomas Werner whose biggest goal is to win the Iditarod, but his passion puts strain on his relationship with his wife; and young pilots Matt and Emily, who met when they were just 13 and now live their dream in Alaska, with their dogs and four planes.
Perhaps we don’t have the grit needed to live the life of a musher, but we can ride with one for a while thanks to this engrossing series.
Six-part series Ice Cowboys premieres Sunday 6 March on both SBS VICELAND (at 7.30pm) and NITV (at 7.40pm). Episodes air weekly and will be available at SBS On Demand after they air.