Frozen faces, aching bones, exhaustion, high speed chases and the challenge of working with high-tech equipment in an Arctic environment: the Iron Dog 2000 Snowmobile Race has it all. And that's just the film crew.
For most people, spending several days stuffed into the back of a tiny airplane -- sans heater -- might seem like a circle of hell reserved for especially wicked bush pilots. For Soldotna filmmaker Paul Gray, it's just part of the job.
Gray recently finished work on a documentary of the 2002 Iron Dog race, a 2000 mile race where pairs of riders race from Wasilla to Nome to Fairbanks over the course of a week. Winning teams usually finish in less than 40 total hours, and machines often travel at speeds over 100 miles per hour.
The video will be shown Saturday night at 6 p.m. at the Kenai Visitor's and Cultural Center in Kenai; and at the Caribou Hills Cabin Hoppers season kick-off in Kasilof at 7 p.m. Additionally, Gray hopes to show the film on his television program, "Exploring Alaska," sometime in the near future.
Funding for the documentary was secured through sponsorship by Tesoro, ACS and Spenard Builder's Supply.
Gray filmed the race from the back seat of Kasilof pilot Ronnie Davis' PA-12, a small two-seater with little room to maneuver. The pair followed the race from the air, while Kenai racer Jackie McGahan wore a helmet-cam to document the action on the ground.
Gray said one of the problems with trying to capture such a fast-paced race from a small airplane was that the plane often had a hard time keeping up.
"The plane goes 90 to 100 miles an hour, so on the Yukon (River) the machines are going 100 miles an hour or more, and it's really hard to keep up with them. Unfortunately, snowmobiles have advanced more than airplanes in the last 50 years," Gray said Tuesday. "Once they hit those straightaways, it's really hard."
However, between Gray's aerial footage and McGahan's helmet-cam, enough film was compiled to piece together the first-ever start to finish documentary of the race.
Beginning with the pre-race rider preparations in Anchorage and Wasilla, the documentary captures everything about the race, from weary riders resting at remote Alaska ghost towns to full-throttle sprints across the ice-covered Bering Sea.
Gray lines up a shot at the race's start in Wasilla
Photo by Doug Ogden/Autographs Photography 2002
The race has been called the toughest snowmobile races in the world, and watching the video, it's easy to see why.
Riders tape their faces with duct tape to stave off the icy chill, and 2000 miles of high-speed riding takes a relentless toll on the racers' bodies.
"Muscles are sore, bones are creaking -- it's hard to get going that second day," McGahan said in his voice-over role on the film.
Gray said the actual filming process was equally daunting.
"I probably lost 10 pounds," he said. "You try to walk with the camera, and all those clothes, through the snow, and by the end of the day you're just wiped out."
One of the problems he encountered early on was that he couldn't film through the plane's window. That problem was remedied by cutting a hole in the canvas side of Davis' plane. At first, Gray worried the hole would further chill the plane's interior. However, since the heater wasn't doing anything anyway, the hole didn't make much difference.
"It was just as cold with the window covered," Gray said.
Another challenge presented by the frozen environment was the toll the cold took on Gray's equipment.
He said he countered that by using a $3,000 tripod that wouldn't freeze and only filming in small increments of time.
"You're constantly dinking around. I took an extra camera, but I didn't have to end up using it," he said.
However, filming the race wasn't all work. Gray and Davis landed at checkpoints along the way, often native villages far removed from civilization. Gray said the enthusiasm shown by villagers along the way was one of the special aspects of the trip.
"The villagers are big supporters of the Iron Dog because that's their product," he said.
"They tell me it's more of a people's race than the Iditarod. It's the kind of thing that connects Alaska's urban and rural areas. It unifies Alaska."
Gray said filming the race gave him an even greater appreciation for the effort required from the riders to finish the event.
"These guys go 150 percent the whole way," he said.
Gray took that 150 percent, multiplied by 100 miles an hour, divided by 50 below zero and got a 30 minute documentary on the world's most chilling endurance race.
"It's really kind of a fun way to spend your winter vacation," Gray said. "As long as you're dressed for it."
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