Life Lessons From Sled Dogs
Wildlife photographer George McKenzie Jr. on travelling 300km through arctic wilderness, powered by sled dogs and his own positive attitude.
Wildlife photographer George McKenzie Jr. takes us back to touching down at the Arctic Circle where he travelled 300km by dogsled for Fjällräven Polar. “The adrenaline! Ah, I have chicken skin just thinking about it right now. It was so amazing.”
Raised in Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn, nothing could prepare him for landing in the white-out, desolate landscape of Lapland, Sweden. “Oodles and oodles of snow” drift waist-high on his 6’2” frame. He marvels that the little plane was able to land in such a tumultuous storm. There’s just SO.MUCH.SNOW. His instinct, as it always is, is to be grateful for the experience, and to support everyone around him with good-natured kidding around.
George’s life has been a series of ending up in places he’s never thought he’d be. And the qualities that get him into these Brooklyn-guy-out-of-water situations—the positivity, the friendliness and the gentle joshing—are the same things that helped him thrive there. In fact, that’s how the city guy began his unlikely career as a wildlife photographer. Still living in Brooklyn, he was shooting fashion and celebrity portraits and working part-time at a camera shop. One day a customer came in and started haggling with him over the cost of a cheap camera bag—while sporting a $30,000 Leica. George turned the customer-service hassle into a fun moment and making an impression of goodness and charm, so when George found out that the customer was esteemed National Geographic photographer Charlie Hamilton, Hamilton was ready to take George on as his assistant. A National Georgraphic grant for George followed and he made his name as the photographer who saw wildlife where most saw only pests—in the rats and pigeons of New York City.
In observing animals, he found his calling. “Humans are going to be human. They’re flaky. They’re moody. But animals, if you study them long enough and you understand their behavior, their patterns, if you learn it, and you understand it, it will change your life. It will change your soul.” From his pigeons, he learned about teamwork. “Pigeons are a family unit. When you see a flock together, they're together for a reason. Everybody protects everybody.”
Animals, if you study them long enough and you understand their behavior, their patterns. If you learn it, and you understand it, it will change your life. It will change your soul.
Once the exhausting daily rigors of Fjällräven Polar began, George quickly realised that the pigeon mindset was crucial to success, even survival. Because “one bad apple spoils the bunch,” George learned to protect his super-power—his indomitable positivity—with non-negotiable self-care. Spending eight to 10 hours a day on a dog sled in the cold means you eat when you wake up, whether you think you’re hungry or not. In these extreme conditions, a team can’t afford one person being miserable because they don’t have energy. “You have to bring your A-game. You’re not out here by yourself and every person’s life depends on each other.”
He also learned, as all Fjällräven Polar participants do, that the team’s success depends on the well-being of its canine members. Out here, dog care is self-care. “Before we eat, before we do anything, each of us have to take care of our six dogs.” In the dogs, George may have met his match. His observation of them could be a story about himself. “These dogs, they have the best work ethic and the best attitude I’ve ever seen from any living being.”
George’s task on his team was to dig trenches in the snow for sleeping quarters. He and his tent mate were the quickest to set up their camp, and George used the extra time to dig the trenches deeper to create a conversation pit where other team members could come to drink hot chocolate, swap stories and share support. “I always tried to get as close to the ground as possible, it makes it really comfortable, kind of a vibe, to make it very social. That’s what I found. The deeper you dig, the more you can play around.” Like the sled dogs, George has connected a sense of joy and fun to working hard, reveling in the satisfaction of covering ground, of creating space for new possibilities.
From the dogs and the frozen white-on-white landscape, George calls his time at the Arctic Circle his number-one adventure of all time, and he took away a newfound confidence. He needed it. He was starting training to spend two years in yet another alien environment, the Florida Everglades, where he’s got an assignment photographing wildlife with non-invasive camera traps for the Path of the Panther project.
“Fjällräven Polar happened right at the end of my training and I came back with conviction in myself to do hard things. Certain days [on Polar] you looked at the map and thought ‘There’s no way I can accomplish this.’ That’s why I’m not worried about going into the forest with black bears anymore. Fjällräven Polar put me in a different place mentally.”
Certain days, and you look at the map and you're like, ‘There's no way I can accomplish this
There in a Florida swamp, George is observing new animals like the alligators who he doesn’t fear and characterizes as pleasure-loving pacifists: “Seriously they are like prehistoric dogs.”
But today, while we’re talking, even the bears and the alligators, the live oaks dripping with moss, can’t keep George from drifting back to that unforgettable time, where he met himself, in the dogs and the barren fields of ice, in that forward momentum that is so like the rhythm of his own life. “Snow as far as the eye can see. Smells fresh. The sound of the sled on the ice, the dogs panting. You hear their feet, all the time, just moving. Saying “Hiya, Hiya, go faster.”
By Jasmine Pahl.
Jasmine Pahl is a writer who loves exploring wild places in British Colombia, Canada and in the Appalachians as a backpacker and mushroom forager.
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