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Quest for Understanding

Reading Time: 4 minutes

1,000 miles on the Iditarod Trail with Apayauq

In the fall of 2021, my friend Apayauq called me and asked about sharing her story. She had come out as transgender a year prior, and she was about to set out on the 1,000 mile-long Iditarod dog sled race. We became friends while I was producing a documentary about America’s public lands (read “Land Grab” in JHSM Issue 16), and we had remained in touch throughout her transition. She competed in the Iditarod in 2019; this was her opportunity to return to the race and compete as her correct gender in 2022.

In the current political climate, stories like this need to be told. I said yes, borrowed a snowmobile from Apayauq’s father, and followed her for more than 1,000 miles through the frozen Alaskan wilderness, documenting her journey from Anchorage to Nome. 

Our goal was to show her courage and dedication to the sport of sled dog racing. We also wanted to put on public display the hateful messages she has endured, and tell the story of how her family and community have supported her. My hope is that this film will create a deeper understanding and empathy for trans individuals and celebrate Apayauq’s groundbreaking achievement.

Zeppelin Zeerip
Los Angeles Times Op-Ed

Twenty-four-year-old Iñupiaq musher Apayauq Reitan finished the Iditarod as the last racer to cross under the burled wooden arch in Nome, Alaska, in March 2022 with seven dogs remaining on her team. Apayauq earned the Red Lantern award, which is given to the final musher who finishes the race, in order to celebrate their commitment and perseverance. She took 37th place with a time of 13 days, 8 hours, 39 minutes, and 13 seconds. 

If you haven’t seen Apayauq yet, head over to YouTube right now and give it a watch. It’s an eye-opening short documentary that conveys Apayauq’s journey artfully and compassionately, and it resonated with us as snowboarders and adventure-seekers. Jackson Hole Snowboarder Magazine was able to catch up with Zeppelin and ask him a few questions about the film.

JHSM: How did being a snowboarder help you with this project?

Zeppelin: If I weren’t a snowboarder it would have been nearly impossible for me tomake this film. It took everything I had learned about snowmobiling, winter camping, and filming in sub-zero temperatures to pull it off. The trail begins outside of Anchorage, crosses the Alaskan Range, navigates the Yukon River, and ends with a sprint down the coast of the Bering Sea where we were met with nearly 100 mph winds. It was the most rugged production I’ve ever set out on and I had to draw on everything I’ve learned from my decades of backcountry snowboarding and being in the elements.

JHSM: What were your personal goals with this piece?

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Zeppelin: I wanted to tell Apayauq’s story in a way that humanized her and created empathy and understanding for someone I consider a close friend. There is so much hate and vitriol in the media today with very few positive role models for trans people, and I wanted to create a film that wasn’t overtly political but just showed Apayauq for who she truly is: a regular person attempting to navigate the world that we live in. I hope this film will create a deeper understanding and empathy for the trans community and celebrate one person’s groundbreaking achievement.

JHSM: Tell us about being on the Iditarod Trail. What moments still stick with you?

Zeppelin: To say it was the adventure of a lifetime wouldn’t be doing it justice. To snowmobile 1,000 miles without support, sleeping on the trail every night, all while navigating COVID-19, was incredibly challenging. On top of that, I was a one-man-band film crew: shooting, dumping footage, charging batteries—all of it solo. The most harrowing moment was when we reached the Bering Sea and the town of Shaktoolik. 100 mph winds were reported, and the race director called the aid station and put a ‘stay’ order in place. For nearly 18 hours, we were forced to shelter in place and weren’t allowed out on the trail for fear of getting lost. To go out would have truly been a life-or-death situation, and in that storm, numerous teams dropped out or were disqualified.

JHSM: It’s a terrifying moment in the film, with the wind whipping and the weight of the snowstorm pressing in. In spite of those hardships, Apayauq accomplished her goal of being the first publicly-out trans woman to complete the Iditarod race. Critical reception to the film has also seemed really strong. Is the final short documentary up for any awards?

Zeppelin: Apayauq qualified for the Academy Awards after winning the Best Indigenous Short at the Bend Film Festival!

As the Red Lantern award winner, Apayauq was given the honor of extinguishing the Widow’s Lamp on the final arch in Nome, a ceremony that dates back to the time when dog sleds were still the primary mode of transportation in the depths of each Alaskan winter. Putting out the final light signals that no other mushers are out still there on the trail.

– ZZ

Zeppelin Zeerip doesn’t just make films; he makes films that matter and give your brain a workout. And he recently married his best friend @burningmanders, bravo!


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