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Indomitable Snowman

Keeping Up With the Iditarod

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Dan Morris stood in his basement and took inventory: he had the big Betacam, the Hi-8 camera, the DV camera, the still camera, and the Domke vest with camera pockets. Duct tape, gaffer's tape, four cases of Beta. Three backpacks, three pairs of pants, three T-shirts. And eight pairs of socks--at least as essential as tape for his second trip to Alaska to film the Iditarod. A lot of stuff for one man to carry to the airport, but he'd done it before. He'd be packed and ready to go by the following day, no problem. Except there was a problem.

"Cash is an issue," he said to himself as much as to Charlie the mutt, who hovered as he packed. "I need to come up with five grand by Friday." Meaning tomorrow. He was splitting the cost of renting a snowmobile and a small plane with a couple of mushers and their families, but the estimate they'd worked out for fuel costs had come up way too low. He wasn't too worried about it yet--he'd cover the extra expense with his Visa for now.

When Morris used to talk to his colleagues at the Orbis Broadcast Group (a Chicago production house) about his Iditarod project, some had suggested not so gently he might be one husky short of a team. Why else would a respected cameraman with 12 years of experience quit his job--turn down a raise, even--to make a feature film about a dog race? Morris had a wife and two kids and Charlie and a mortgage on a bungalow in Portage Park. He wouldn't be the first person to risk everything chasing a dream--but he wouldn't be the first person to make a film about the Iditarod either. Still, he swore he'd prove the doubters wrong. "I think enough people laughed at me," he said. "It was time for me to leave."

So on February 22, 2002, he quit. Two days after his last day at work, he was on a plane to Anchorage. Two days after that he broke his arm.

Morris had been driving the snowmobile and mugging for a camera held by his older brother Jeff, a film editor and bartender, whom he'd convinced to join him on the project. "I thought he wanted to get some hot shots of me driving around," says Morris. He got one all right. In a corner of the frame, Morris can be seen straddling the snowmobile, his boots caught in the footholds, the rest of his body flipping backward. He can be heard screaming. Then the snowmobile moves on without him.

"I knew I broke it instantly, but we got to the hospital and they said it was sprained," he says. "So that gave me the energy to continue." He only found out he'd been right when he got an MRI in Chicago three months later. His arm had been fractured in two places. He still has problems with the wrist.

Morris initially thought his film would be about him and his brother--two neophytes from the lower 48 on a steep learning curve, riding alongside what promoters call the Last Great Race on Earth. The Iditarod began in 1967 as a 50-some-mile commemorative race, celebrating the delivery of a serum for diphtheria from Anchorage to Nome in 1925, but by 1973 it had grown into the race it is today--the Kentucky Derby of mushing. The standard course is a little over 1,100 miles long, crossing two mountain ranges and running along the frozen Yukon River for about 150 miles. It's named for the historic Iditarod freight route, established between Seward and Nome in the early 20th century.

Morris didn't grow up watching the race--he has a dim memory of seeing it on Wide World of Sports as a kid in New Jersey--but he wanted out of South Jersey, and from an early age he'd told himself, "I wasn't going to be one of those coulda-woulda-shoulda people." In 1994 he saw an ad for a job with KTVA, the CBS affiliate in Anchorage, and visited for a weekend. "Once I saw the mountains and the snow, it was a done deal," he says.

He covered the Iditarod as a cameraman for KTVA in '95 and for the local NBC affiliate in '96. "That's where I got the desire to go back and do it again," he says. Though the race always got prominent play on the local news, he started to believe the real story wasn't in the made-for-TV moments at the finish line or the free seven-course meal awarded to the leader at Ruby. It only seemed to reveal itself when he put down the camera. "We didn't capture the meat behind the race," he says.

Morris's second son was born in 1995. Expenses in Alaska were high and salaries were low, and after the '96 race he reluctantly moved to Chicago, where he'd gotten an offer he couldn't refuse at Orbis. But every March he'd sit at the computer at work, checking out the Iditarod results: "My head would be in Alaska and the boss would say, 'Please get off my computer--you don't live there anymore.'"

Morris was an outsider now, a city slicker. He still had connections in Anchorage but couldn't get freelance work as a cameraman--if his old friends hired him to film the race for local TV, he says, "everybody would be really pissed off." But he worked out his own deal with KTVA. He'd relight their studio, and in return they'd give him a half hour of airtime--though he'd have to sell his own commercial slots for it.

Even after he fell off the snowmobile, Morris planned to keep working on the show and the film. It was the left, or "tripod," arm that he'd injured, and he told the nurse at the hospital that if they were going to put him in a plaster cast, they should leave his fingers free to adjust the lens. It may even have been a boon: When he tried to sleep at one of the village community centers that doubled as checkpoints during the race, the pain was stronger than his exhaustion. "I decided, If I'm going to be in pain lying here I might as well go out and shoot," he says. "We got some incredible nighttime shots."

After a week of shooting around the clock, the story became clear to him--and it wasn't about him or his brother any more than it was about who won the race. Morris had shot seven minutes of footage with a musher named G.B. Jones--a big guy, maybe six foot seven, with a big cut on his face--who introduced himself and then all his dogs. Morris hated the piece. "It was bad camerawork, and that's what I was watching. The shot didn't look pleasing." But everybody else who saw it loved it. They loved Jones and his dogs. The brothers had something of an epiphany: "This is not about us, this is about what's going on here," says Morris. "And that's where we came up with 'Stories From the Trail.'" That became both the subtitle of the TV special, Iditarod Odyssey, and the working title for the movie.

After the race, while he and his brother were editing their footage for the show, Morris sold two spots to Anchorage Chrysler Dodge. The show won a Telly award (which Morris downplays because it wasn't an Emmy). By April, Morris knew he'd be returning to Alaska in 2003.

By February the feature still had no backers, but at least Morris wouldn't be the only person selling ads for the TV special this time--a couple of Alaskan friends had agreed to help out. Anchorage Chrysler Dodge had already written a check. Despite the unexpected $5,000 overage, he expected to cover expenses. He was going to every checkpoint. His arm felt good. On the other hand, he'd be gone for a month and his wife, Leanne, was seven months pregnant.

Another slight problem: there wasn't enough snow in Alaska. The temperature in Anchorage on February 20 was an unseasonable 43 degrees. The starting point of the race had been moved to Fairbanks, some 300 miles north, and the course had been redrawn--usually it runs north by northwest, but this year it was mostly just west, with a loop in it to keep it long. Details, Morris thought.

The day after he got back to Chicago, March 19, Morris took another inventory. One broken tripod, ditched at Eagle Island. Big blue tarp lost outside Elim. One pair of mittens lost en route to Elim. He still had most of a box of Nature Valley granola bars. No broken bones--despite about half a dozen snowmobile rollovers, including one outside Unalakleet in which the vehicle landed on his leg. All the cameras came back, but the big Beta--the one that had cost $60,000 and wasn't quite paid off yet--had taken quite a beating.

In the past Morris had used the camera in temperatures reaching 65 below zero and the tape had still moved, though "not too fast." Still, this was the first time that both he and his camera had stayed in tents along the trail overnight. One night both man and machine were particularly cold, so he walked the camera to a checkpoint building and left it under a bench to warm while he went to the outhouse. When he returned, a tourist was using it for a footstool.

"My mouth was open. I had to go between her legs to get my camera, and she said, 'Well, that wasn't sitting here when I sat down.'" Morris showed her a $300 piece that held the microphone, now on the floor next to the camera. "She was like, 'Well, I didn't do that. That camera was not there!'" Morris reattached the piece with duct tape.

He was plagued by migraines early in the trip, and when his medication tired him out he moped in his tent. After Anchorage, where the race organizers had shipped in 11 miles of snow, four to five inches deep, to fill in Fourth Avenue for the traditional start, and after the eight-hour drive north to Fairbanks for the restart, he began to worry about what kind of footage he was going to get. Between 600 and 700 miles of the race this year would be run on the Yukon River--a great white, empty, monotonous straightaway.

There were people with stories on that barren trail, among them musher DeeDee Jonrowe, who'd been diagnosed with breast cancer in 2002 and had finished a course of chemotherapy shortly before the start of the race. There was the Gallea family, which had two contestants in the race--Cindy, 51, and her son Jim, 22. Cindy's ex-husband, Bill, who was writing about their progress for a Web site, was one of the passengers on the eight-seat plane the Morrises used for the duration of the trip. While one brother rode along the trail by snowmobile, the other was in the plane, which was so crowded with people and gear "it was like a clown car," Morris says. Also on board were Donna King, a wildlife artist whose husband, Jeff, is a three-time Iditarod champion; the Kings' photographer and an anesthesiologist along for the ride with them; and two men named Paul--Pilot Paul and Radio Paul, so called because he worked for KNOM, Radio Nome. Radio Nome plays a wide range of music, Morris discovered: "They could start with Led Zeppelin and end with 'Danke Schoen.'"

Morris interviewed a guy who jogged along the trail with a sled attached to his back, a woman who flew over the whole trail in an ultralight (basically a hang glider with a tiny motor), a preacher who'd been in Elim for six months looking for souls to save, and a local who offered to show the preacher the way out of town. "Her quote was 'He's had his Elim experience,'" says Morris.

The brothers also interviewed most of the mushers, including the eventual winner, Robert Sorlie of Norway--the first European to win the Iditarod--and their old pal G.B. Jones, who scratched. But Morris didn't turn the camera on Jim Gallea after one of his dogs died. He was the only musher to lose one this year. "I saw him coming in," Morris said, "but it wasn't something I really wanted to ask him then."

Dogs don't die in the Iditarod every year, but it's close. In the past three decades more than 100 have (early on no one kept count, so the exact number can't be determined). But because of the deaths, groups like PETA and the Sled Dog Action Coalition have persuaded many corporations to stop sponsoring the race.

Iditarod organizers require dogs to pass physicals before the race, and the race's Web site notes that "Iditarod dogs have some of the most intensive health checkups in the animal athletic world." The goal is to have each dog examined by a vet at every checkpoint--though this is still only a goal.

Morris is aware of the debate--he remembers a campaign by the Humane Society that started around the time he moved to Alaska in 1994. Still, he's come to believe that the "dogs are cared for better than humans. These dogs were bred to run, these are dogs from Alaskan bloodlines that were made to pull," he says. "That's what they do." He's seen the dogs perk up noticeably out on the trail. "These dogs are happy pulling. They train all year for a couple of races."

Morris came home from this year's Iditarod with about 40 hours of tape. "We got a lot of good stuff," he says. Next year, though, "we're going to shoot high definition...and once we go hi-def, we're staying hi-def." High definition is more flexible than tape, and the big Betacam will stay home, out of harm's way. His TV special aired on KTVA on Saturday, April 5, and Monday, April 7, but Morris wasn't watching. He was at home, hustling up freelance work and looking for financing. After all, there are only 11 months until the next Iditarod.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/David Kamba.

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