A Magazine by the Society of Professional Journalists

Q&A: Sara Blask, Outside magazine intern

By Quill

Q: You are a former dog-sledding guide. How long ago was it and how did you get involved in that?

A: Last winter I guided dog-sledding expeditions in New Hampshire’s White Mountains and Maine’s Mahoosic Mountains. I lived with two veteran mushers and Outward Bound instructors who own Winter Journeys, a Maine-based kennel with 33 husky/malamute mixes. My job title was “dog handler,” which I affectionately refer to as “canine au pair.” In addition to guiding, I was also responsible for training the dogs and feeding them (yes, raw meat) at 5:30 a.m.

Q: What was the most extreme trip you took on a dogsled? What were most of the trips like?

A: In the mushing world, poor snow and ice conditions can mean the difference between an upright or a tipped sled. Tipped sleds are bad. There is no way to control the sled because the runners, which allow the sled to glide over the snow or ice, are facing sideways. The cardinal mushing rule is “don’t let go, never let go, don’t let go.” If you lose your sled, and a team of, say, eight dogs, it could be hours before you find them again, if ever. I managed to tip the sled just once and have never let go of a sled, but it can happen to even veteran mushers.

The length of the trips depended upon the client; some were daylong, others a half-day. By the end of the day, most clients felt comfortable enough with the dogs to stand on the back of the sled and help drive the team.

Some day I hope to get to Greenland or perhaps the Yukon to drive a team of dogs. They use a different kind of formation in the northern lands, a fan formation where the dogs are fanned out rather than in a straight line. The fan formations allows dogs to use their collective strength to pull a sled or one of their own out of a crevasse or a hole in the ice should one of them fall through.

Q: You seem to have an interest in frigid activities. Did you grow up in these conditions? What’s the fascination with the bitter cold?

A: I grew up in Texas until I was 14 and then went to boarding school in Santa Barbara, Calif., until I was 18. I was a creature of heat and sunshine. I found myself at Colby College in Maine for my undergraduate degree. It was in Maine that I grew to love the cold, and it was there that I was first introduced to such miserable and extreme cold that sometimes my eyelashes would freeze shut. I soon found myself spending more time outside in the cold than outside in the heat. There is something so stark and so clean about cold weather – and it keeps the tourists and the chairlift lines down. Last winter, I traveled to Iceland in December to write a travel article; I seek this twisted stuff out for myself. My mom just rolls her eyes.

Q: You are an instructor for Outward Bound, a national nonprofit educational organization that often uses the outdoors to teach their message. Why did you decided to join this group?

A: I believe in Outward Bound’s vision that, essentially, there’s more in you than you think, and that inner strength and self-confidence is gained by overcoming personal challenge. As a former sailing instructor and logistics coordinator for Hurricane Island Outward Bound, I have personally seen students transform. Sounds a little odd, but often it is the series of cold, wet and often-windless days off of the foggy Maine coast that trigger the kind of personal growth that is sometimes grossly over described in the brochure. Though it may seem counterintuitive, students more often than not return from an Outward Bound course irrevocably changed. That change is not quantifiable; it is seen and heard and felt. They hold their heads higher, they speak with more confidence, they want to teach others their newly found knowledge. They simply become more comfortable in their own skin.

Q: Do you have any other adventure-type stories on the horizon?

A: For financial reasons I decided to cancel a trip to Greenland this March to write about shark angling on the Arctic Sea ice. I have several other stories brewing but must keep them under lock and key until the pitches are accepted. Let’s just say the stories would take me to Russia, China, Tuva and Greenland.

Q: At what point in your life did you know you wanted to get into extreme journalism?

A: I have aspired to be a travel/adventure writer since I first read a column written by Pico Iyer in Outside magazine in October 1998. Titled “Enlighten My Load,” the article chronicles one of his trips to Tibet and has traveled with me over the years from desk to desk, journal to journal. The text, now yellowed and tattered, reminds me that my passions for writing, travel and the outdoors are equally strong and that, really, none need trump the other. My ideal career blends them all; through writing I aspire to inspire – to, as Edward Abbey writes, “get out there…run the rivers, contemplate the precious stillness, that lovely, mysterious and awesome space.”

Q: What advice would you give to young people interested in adventure journalism?

A: Get out there – and bring a pen to write with while you’re there.

Q: Do you have plans to marry and settle down with a family?

A: Not anytime soon. This nomadic writer’s life of mine doesn’t make it easy to plant myself anywhere for any extended period of time.

Q: What has been your proudest journalistic moment?

A: I was pretty excited to see my name in print for the first time. My first byline was in The Burlington (Vt.) Free Press in July 2001. I’m pretty sure the story was about a woman who had bunion surgery – not too much color there.

Q: Money is sometimes hard to come by for a student. How do you fund your adventures?

A: Ah yes, touchy subject. I have personally funded most of my adventures so far. I rarely make enough money selling the piece to cover my expenses and often lose money overall. But I’ve seen some pretty unbelievable parts of the world, and I’ve been willing to come out of pocket because of it. This was, of course, before graduate school began. Now that I have substantial loans to begin to pay off, it’s now a must that I make enough money to cover my expenses. I think this will get more and more realistic as I acquire bylines in bigger publications and more experience overall as a writer. This will all take time, though.