Trail Mix: At an Iditarod checkpoint, the snowbank is the studio

Trail Mix is Alaska Public Media’s trail reporters inside look at covering the Iditarod sled dog race.

Emily Schwing knows a lot more than I do about reporting on thousand-mile sled-dog races. Like, vastly more. At all kinds of levels. So I’m trying my best to heed her recommendation that the best place to voice the audio for a radio story is outside. In the quiet cold. Preferably behind a snow bank, to absorbs all those extra sounds.

Bush planes parked Wednesday on the river near the Takotna checkpoint. (Photo by Zachariah Hughes, Alaska Public Media)
Bush planes parked Wednesday on the river near the Takotna checkpoint. (Photo by Zachariah Hughes, Alaska Public Media)

I didn’t know before I started working in radio newsrooms that to get that natural, informal sound from the field (think, “I’m standing in a tropical rainforest, as macaws bellow boisterously across the lush canopy overhead” Cawwww, cawwww). In fact, we say all those words in the silent safety of studio booths, way after the fact. It might be a little contrived, but it really helps you feel like you’re there in the jungle. Or, in this case, bustling checkpoints along the Iditarod trail. Begging the question: at 3am, in a inn/school library/camp filled with snoring sled-dog fans, where do you go for some proper quiet?

Outside. I watched Schwing set her laptop on a snowmachine seat, jostle her gear into position, and voice her story for the next morning like a real pro. It was about 9 degrees.

When I tried, I was cold and hungry, eager to give in for the night. The chill air dried my throat out, made my flesh and muscle feel all constricted and small. Listening back the audio track, I felt like I could hear bits of those sensation trickling in through the headphones, chief among them: hurried frailty. And I love it when you can hear sensation in the wobble and warble of a sentence–but not when it’s a shivering rush for a story about 24 hour rests along the trail. The style and content there just plain don’t match.

Today, for a separate story, I walked a few hundred yards past the school in Takotna into the woods. I thought I’d find a good snow bank back there. And possibly be shielded from the yapping strings of dogs and cutting whine of small planes overhead. Which I sort of achieved, but only by post-holing through snow up to my thighs, filling both boots with fine, icy snow. I stood behind what I believe was a birch tree, laptop balanced on the crook of my elbow, snow up to my inseam, microphone clutched up to my mouth.

And it sounded ok. But I’m still not convinced Schwing’s methods are superior to the tried-and-true “getting under your sleeping bag” model. She says it sounds muffled. I think it comes across as cozy. Definitely less snow in the boot. Luckily there are seven days left to find a solid method.

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Zachariah Hughes reports on city & state politics, arts & culture, drugs, and military affairs in Anchorage and South Central Alaska. @ZachHughesAK About Zachariah