Iditapod Season 4, Special Episode

Iditapod Interview with Quince Mountain

Kasey Grove: Welcome to another bonus edition of the Iditapod. I’m your host, Kasey Grove. Happy Monday, y’all! That’s right, it’s Monday as I’m recording this. We had the official start of the Iditarod Trail sled dog race yesterday. In the meantime, the stock market is doing some weird stuff. People are still freaking out about coronavirus and did I mention it’s Monday?

Well, it’s time to forget about all that because we have an extended interview with friend of the pod, Quince Mountain who’s out there on the Iditarod trail as we speak. Quince came in for a rather lengthy interview last week. We talked about his past and present, including Quince’s experiences being transgender. Which, if you didn’t know, now you know. And as far as we know, he’s the first openly trans person in the Iditarod. We talked about that, how an event that sees all genders competing against each other and not separated into categories, it doesn’t mean that much to the race itself, but then as Quince says, it means a lot to some people in terms of inspiration.

We also talked about the origin of the Ugly Dogs. That is a Twitter hashtag and kind of a group of fans who follow Quince and his wife, Blair Braverman. She finished the Iditarod last year.

We talked a little about Quince’s expectations for his race this year and about how Quince was on the reality t.v. show ‘Naked and Afraid’ this last season. Speaking of his experience on that show, just a quick warning: there’s a reference to the idea or concerns anyway about the possibility of sexual assault. It’s pretty far into the interview that it comes up and I figure I’d mention it now. There’s also a bleeped-out curse word in there somewhere before that.

Anyway, here’s Iditarod rookie Quince Mountain of Mountain, Wisconsin in an interview here at the Alaska Public Media studios in Anchorage. We talked first about how Quince got into dog mushing.

Quince Mountain: I think there’s this weird thing when you grow up transgender and you grow up with a sense of yourself, um, like I had a sense of myself as male, a sense of myself as a boy. Meanwhile, everybody was telling me that that’s wrong, that I’m a girl. And you learn… you’re punished for being who you are and you learn to lie in order to reflect other peoples’ expectations of you. And… and that can make you a good actor. It can make you a… sort of versatile person. I mean, I learned to… become what people expected of me or asked of me and it’s gotten me into some wonderful adventures in this life. I tend to say “yes”, I tend to try things, and, uh, when I first started dating my wife, Blair, first we went horseback riding for six months. She came with me; I was always into horses and then… after a while, it was time to enjoy her hobby with her, which was dog mushing and, um, once I set foot on the runners, I just kinda never looked back.

KG: Maybe I should back up: how did Blair get into dog mushing?

QM: I think her mother, Janna Kaye, filled Blair’s life with a lot of propaganda around mushing. A lot of… mushing books and Jack London and Iditarod stuff and so she grew up with a sense of it and… and, you know, then they moved to Norway when Blair was 10 or something and so she, you know, she was back there in high schools and exchange student and lived in Norway some after that, so did a lot of mushing there. Went to folk school in Norway.

KG: And, um… I guess tell folks where… you live and how do you support yourself?

QM: I say, I say we live in northern Wisconsin. Blair and I live in the north woods of Wisconsin. I used to split my time between Brooklyn and northern Wisconsin, you know, being a writer and, uh… have my… country home, but we’d go back to the city to keep up on events and people and just be around. Be there; show up, you know? You’re not kind of in the mix if you don’t show up. But, uh, at some point, we got sled dogs and now I split my time mostly between Alaska and Wisconsin. I think the last four years, I’ve been in Alaska more than not.

KG: You guys ever going to move up here? I think I asked you that before… it’s like-

QM: I don’t know. I don’t know yet. It’s hard to… imagine, um… I’ve thought about it. It’s, uh, it’s expensive, um, so that’s a consideration. But right now, we’re lucky enough to have a lot of support for our team and be able to do this. I mean, you know. We’re able to take care of our dogs, but, but without support, um, mainly from a very dedicated group of fans called Ugly Dogs who, who support us, you know, they kind of came to us through Twitter and said “What could we do?” and they just seemed to, you know… I just look at the horizon, I mean they seem to keep… keep wanting us to do more of this wild, uh, stuff and share our stories and so it’s a deep privilege and, and they support us on Patreon… um, which is a site where people can… can “subscribe” kind of to our feed and, you know for they can kick in a dollar a month or ten dollars a month, we’ll send them “trail mail”. There are different rewards and so that, that helps us fund these big adventures that we get to do.

KG: One thing I feel like we didn’t even explain very well last year when you were helping us out with some recording along the trail was, like, what the Ugly Dogs are and how that started. I mean, what was the genesis of that?

QM: Well, um… Look. Stories happen to the people who can tell them and my wife is an incredible storyteller and, um, I’m… I mean, I’m an essayist, too. I’m a writer, but we’re very different. I can have a lot, um, happen in a day, you know. I could probably, you know, nearly get hit by a train and be in a car wreck and, uhh… go to the movies and meet the Queen of England and, and then I’ll come home and you’ll say “How was your day?” and I’ll be like “Oh, great, you know. Unremarkable.” I mean, I just forget. Um, so I have big stuff happen and I… forget to make it into a story. Um, I just sort of absorb it. And then I might, I might think about it later. It’s like a thought… um. I live in my, in my mind, analytically. But Blair has a rich life, full of memories and imagination and very sensory and so, Blair has found a way to bring that to… readers online, um, and to the page and people love it, so… You know, she kind of developed a group of fans. We both did. And… and separately, Blair said something that was taken as, um, dismissive of Taylor Swift. It was not intended to be dismissive of Taylor Swift. I don’t remember what it was, but she accidentally said something, like, slightly less than perfect about Taylor Swift online. And if you ever do that, you will be soon the target of “Swifties”, you know, these sort of Taylor Swift stans,

KG: Really? [laughing]

QM: So… You know, [unintelligible] and this was before Blair had a big following, you know, there were… um… you know, she had, you know, maybe a few thousand people or something followed her on twitter, but, you know, hundreds and hundreds of these Swifties are writing to Blair just these cruel comments and one of them said “Go back to your ugly dogs, Karen!” ‘Cause they saw her pictures of dogs [laughing] and of course Blair, because she’s got a great sense of humor and, and can… can be self-aware and step outside herself and she loves to look at things and she’s counterphobic and will move towards things that are uncomfortable, she said “Oh, I love that sentence! ‘Go back to your ugly dogs, Karen!’ [laughing] What a sentence!” You know, and at the time, maybe she wasn’t aware, there weren’t a lot of people calling each other Karens and Chads and all these other first names that we’ve somehow decided mean something about people.

KG: Yeah…

QM: Which are sad. I’m sorry; I have a friend named Chad and I’m always a little sorry for him. But he’s not a Chad. But he is. He’s the best Chad. So, she then just… like, retweeted that and talked about that and she ended up doing an interview, I think, I think for Rolling Stone or something, of this person who said that and, and getting to know all these Taylor Swift stans and then… um… Or maybe she just did it for fun, I don’t know. But, but then the fans of the team started calling themselves the Ugly- they said “Well, we’re the ug- we must be the ugly dogs, because the dogs aren’t ugly, so we must be the ugly dogs and Blair’s coming back to us; great!” So, the Ugly Dogs, um, that’s why. That’s how it all came about.

KG: You know, this even came up at the Iditarod media briefing and they said something along the lines of “We’ve got to refresh our brand; just look what Blair Braverman and Quince Mountain have done… and-

QM: Ohhh… huh.

KG: And so, I wonder, you know, I mean… it seems like as far as like musher Twitter goes, you guys are… you know at least among the most successful, if not the most successful mushers as far as attracting a Twitter following. What do you think that’s all about? I mean, why, why do people want to follow you guys in particular?

QM: It’s not because we have the fastest, winningest dog team in the world, you know what I mean? I mean, that, that… then they follow my friend Chad and, and Erin and Martha at Otter Run Kennel. They have an incredibly succe- in fact, I’m always happy when they do, because I’m like “Oh! You’ll be able to track somebody who will win a race.” You know? And, and I just-

KG: Share the love.

QM: [unintelligible] I just had a recent third, third place finish and that was wonderful, um, in the Goosebay 150, but it, you know, mostly I’ve been further toward the back of the pack and so has Blair because every time we sort of get good enough at one level, we move up the next level and then… you know, there’s an adjustment period. But I think over time, our team will get, um… more competitive and, um, you know, as, as we learn more and, and kind of keep leveling- or, you know, we’re done leveling up at some point and, and then just, just… work with what we have. Um, but I think people are mainly following us just for the, for the stories. And then of course, you know, the way algorithms work, whatever. When you… when you start having a… [long pause] when you’re “popular” [laughs], you’re going to get more popular. Or something! I don’t know what it is. But I also think, um, in all seriousness, it’s such an incredible group of people and it goes far beyond Blair or me… It’s become an online and offline community and it’s… and, and, you know. People are helping each other out. They’re getting to know one another. I know that when the chips are down and I feel bad about something, I always think “I can come back. I know I can hop online and talk to Ugly Dogs and, and have either some sympathy or understanding or people who will call me out on my bull****”. But, I mean, truly I’ve made friends through this and I, um… So, you have to… you have to put a lot into it and you get a lot out of it. And, I guess, you know, there’s some mushers who might look at us and think “Ohhhh! Well… you just hop online and then… suddenly you have a lot of fans and you… you… can get sponsorship for your team and this and that”. But it’s really not- I mean, you really have to… um… you know, ask not what your people can do for you [laughing], I guess. But just share. Share your stories. Because people love dogs! People love Alaska. People love the wilderness, um… People love endurance racing. People love, uh, you know, I mean, we have a f- lot of followers, I mean, just from all different walks of life, you know? I’m transgender, so we have a lot of LGBTQ followers. Um, we have a, a blind dog named Hari who, who led Blair at a very important part in a race and, and is an important part of our team and, um, and, you know, so then we started getting some blind followers. But then they said “Well… you know, you could make it- you could add more visual descriptions for your pictures and, um, it’s hard to take part in this”. And so Blair started changi- you know, adding those visual descriptions so that that made it easier for people to, um, participate. And so, you know, we try to be responsive and be accessible and, and it gives us back so much. I mean, it’s just, it’s just a culture of abundance, not scarcity. You know, when I look at other teams like, um, you know “Iditarob” [laughing], Robert Redington or, uh, or Otter Run Kennel or ATAO Kennel up in Two Rivers, um, or, you know, some of the people in Norway or upstate New York, I mean, um or Alice White in Ely, Minnesota, I mean they’re doing such cool stuff online and on Twitter, too; it’s not just us. But the- but all those kennels who, who give a lot, put a lot into it, people notice. People notice.

KG: Yeah, it’s like… this combination of good storytelling, dogs, like you said: everybody loves dogs, and this wider audience there when you kind of bring people in, right?

QM: Well, and you know, originally that’s what really put the race on, uh… uh… on the radar nationally and internationally. It was when women started winning. You know, when Libby Riddles first won the Iditarod and when Susan Butcher won four times, um, [laughing] you know, there was a, there was a saying. You can still get a t-shirt, still, that says “Alaska: where men are men and women win the Iditarod”. Um… because it’s one of very few sports where, at an elite level, men and women are competing, um, head to head. And I think it’s complicated. Is there misogyny in it? There’s misogyny everywhere, so of course there’s misogyny in it, but there’s also, I think, there has to be on some level, uh, a fundamental respect that a lot of the… male mushers have for women because they’re being beat by them sometimes or they’re seeing them out on the trail and seeing how tough, tough all the mushers out there are. So, um, it’s really neat to be a part of it and it’s neat for me as a trans person because I don’t have to worry about, you know, um, what category I might be placed in order to take part in this sport; it’s just not a thing. I don’t even think until recently I was on, uh, a Discovery show, “Naked and Afraid”. I think before that, I don’t think a lot of people even necessarily knew I was trans in the mushing community. Maybe they did? Um, it’s always something I’ve been open about. I’m a writer. I’ve always been sort of publicly trans. Sometimes I wish I weren’t, but I always have been. Um, and so, you know, it’s just nice. I don’t have to deal with all the… all the questions about which category I belong in and that’s really nice. And also, beyond, um, which category would I enter, there’s also, like, the dogs [laughing], like, the dogs are my teammates and they don’t care. They just don’t care, you know? It’s not like we’re in a locker room and there’s some weird dynamic. I mean, we’re just, um, all mushin’ down the trial.

KG: Yeah, that is one really cool thing about the Iditarod. Like you say, I mean it’s not like a running race or something and you’ve gotta pick which category. It’s like the men and then the women and whoever wants to enter can all race against each other. It’s a really unique thing about dog mushing.

QM: Well, and if you look at the dog bloodlines, that relates, too, right? Like… just as the gender of the musher doesn’t really matter, I mean this is an event that’s focused on the dogs and the gender of the dogs also doesn’t really matter. Um… the bloodlines of the dogs, they’re not bred for some looks standard. It doesn’t matter what color they are unless you’re Jim Lanier and you just prefer to run white dogs ‘cause it looks cool. It doesn’t matter if they’re male or female. It doesn’t matter what their background is. They’re bred for performance. They need to… eat well on the trail over the course of a thousand-mile race. They need to have tough, um, you know, a good positive mental attitude; um, be very forward oriented and driven; have tough feet; have good coats, a good arctic coat that can withstand the, the conditions and can thrive in the conditions they face out on the trail. So, that’s what the dogs are bred for, not, um, you know, who’s going to be in the Westminster show next week.

KG: Right. Um, so, I mean, having said, like, gender isn’t really that important to the race, itself, maybe this is a weird question, but do you see yourself in this race as an openly trans person as being historic in any way? Do you think about that at all?

QM: It’s so weird, Kasey, like, I… [laughs]… I… used to not think about it? And then at some point, you know, as people began asking me about it or commenting on it, I mean, I do sorta think about it. Um, so I go back and forth. Sometimes I think, “ehh, it doesn’t really mean anything. It’s not really relevant to my race”. Um, and I don’t want to assume that I’m the first trans person, but, as you say, the first, maybe the first openly trans person. I think that there’s something important there in that, um, I’m not that different. I’m not, you know, history right now, where we are right now, is allowing me to be the first openly trans person. If I had mushed in Iditarod in 1982, I wouldn’t be. I would have kept my gender inclinations to myself, probably, because I wouldn’t have been allowed to get there. Most likely, most likely. So, so I have to respect that and understand the people who likely came before me and, and also… you know, then I get messages about the people coming after me, coming behind me and it’s so exciting. I mean, I was, I was, you know, I really wasn’t able to take part in sports as a kid growing up and team sports. I know some trans people were, but I wasn’t. I had a hard time. It wasn’t my experience. I wasn’t really allowed on the teams and so I found ways to do my own thing: ride horses, now dogs. But I never competed with horses in any way. Now, now with the dogs, I, I get to be out there, challenging myself on this course. But, um, I do think it does matter to a lot of people, because I get messages from young people and I get messages from parents and just, just today, I met somebody, I hung out with somebody a little bit who’s, who’s also a trans man and, you know, also had an, um… evangelical background that wasn’t accepting of it when he was a kid. Um, and so, you know, I, I think being able to just be out, doing my thing, you know, using my platform, I guess, if that- when, when parents say to me, um- which, I mean, I keep saying this, but it happens a lot! I get a lot of notes that are like, like “my kid came out to me as trans and, you know, I’ve been accepting of them, but it was hard to imagine their future and now seeing you helps me imagine that they can live their dreams, you know? And that gives me chill- I mean, that makes me excited about what all those people are doing and it probably won’t be musing the Iditarod, but that doesn’t matter, you know. Whatever it is, the fact that we don’t have to be limited in the ways that we have been is pretty fantastic.

KG: Another thing that’s pretty wild is this show, “Naked and Afraid”, which I had seen in the past and, you know, I thought this is this thing where these people go out with no clothes on and no shoes (maybe more importantly to these places). You were on the show and how did that go?

QM: Oh, man! How cool! I couldn’t turn that down. Uh, 2018, we’re on the way back from the Kobuk 440 and Blair was contacted somehow: would you two be interested, we’re, we’re trying- we’re thinking about doing a couples version of the show and we invite you to apply. Now. This is a show I watch and I don’t have television, but somehow, every time I’m in a hotel room, I end up wa- you know, “Naked and Afraid”’s on or I’m on a plane and I’m just, like, engrossed in this, you know, it’s so Edenic, these two strangers are meeting for the first time ever and they can, they have nothing, they make it 21 days and, um… and, and, and you don’t make money on it, incidentally. There’s no prize, like, and maybe I should’ve picked a show with like a million-dollar prize [laughing] or something in my life, my, uh… I wouldn’t have college debt.

KG: [laughing] That’s the answer to college debt.

QM: Right. [laughing] But, I didn’t. I picked, uh, uh, I picked a show where, you know, at least… I don’t know. People want to say it’s um… If people want to tell me that, that, that show is fake. I can’t speak for all reality t.v. I can’t speak for other peoples’ “Naked and Afraid” challenges, but, by golly, I was out there, uh, for as long as I was out there and, um…. Yeah, there’s no secret, uh, featherbed and hand warmers and, you know, whatever. I mean, I was just out there with the few things that I had and, and, yes, there’s a film crew and they’re there from about 10am to about 4pm and then… you’re by yourself. And it’s not like some big crew, you know? Um… so… I, I loved it. I loved it. And I had the chance to do it- the reason I wanted to do was because, you know, when- I’m not independently wealthy. When am I gonna get a chance to do an adventure like that? To see if I can make it with nothing? But also have medical support where I’m, I’m taking on that challenge, but there’s a literal MD. There are two MDs. They’re each on twelve hour shifts and they’re, you know, a mile or so away or wherever they’re staged. I don’t- I never actually saw their tent. Um, but, you know, there is some safety mechanism there if I get bitten by a, um… uh… a brown recluse as Blair did or… a… what’s that snake? We killed one of them…

KG: Fer-de-lance…?

QM: A fer-de-lance snake! We killed it, but not on film, which, well, we were outside of the [unintelligible], but it came into the camp. Anyhow, um…

KG: Where… where did they send you actually, though?

QM: Honduras. So, uh, yeah… In, um, Pico Bonito National Park, I think? A beautiful mountain rain forest area and it just rained and rained… It’s a lot of rain…

KG: But they were going send you somewhere else, right? Didn’t you do a bunch of research…?

QM: Ohhh… they were going to send me Mozambique and so I did some tanning, Kasey? I joined a tanning… club or got a card or whatever

KG: It’s a club. [laughing]

QM: I went to the tanning place to get ready for Mozambique. I contacted friends in Florida who know things about, like crocodiles and alligators and how to subdue them with your hands and a piece of rope that you… [laughs] braid, you know. I practiced all these things. I…

KG: That sounds like fun.

QM: Um, was gonna, you know, build certain traps and I was gonna be on this big lake called Koharabasa. You know, they tell you a few weeks beforehand what general region you’ll be in so you could study up on it. And I did and I, I got, I started studying the literature of Mozambique [laughing] and reading… Mozambiquan novels, watching shows, anything I could get my hands on because also as a trans person, you know, and this is something I have to say, I want to say a couple things about my experience on that show and I haven’t gotten to- I don’t think I’ve gotten to talk about this elsewhere. Number one: when they asked us to try out for that show, I don’t even think they knew I was trans and… and when I talked about it a little, the producers said to me, “you know this doesn’t have to be something that you talk about or not”. So, it was never like a contingency for me to be part of this show as far as I knew. I got to be on it for other reasons and I chose to talk about it because it, it was very organic. If I’m meeting somebody for the first time and I’m naked and I have surgery scars and I look different, I’m going to disclose that part of my history. That’s something I would do whether I’m on television or not. So, it just was, was naturally what I’d do. Um, but they did ask me if I wanted to or, you know, what I would be doing and they were very supportive but one day, you know, the day before I went out or two days before I went out, the field producer and I, there were two of them. We were sitting there and they said “well, you know, it doesn’t really make a difference that you’re trans” and I said “well, yeah, it does”. And they said “well, we have a very professional film crew. They’re not even thinking about your body” and this and I, you know. I have no doubt that way, I had- it was absolutely an incredible crew that I had. Um, but… I said, “well, what happens when I get hurt and I’m medevacked to the hospital and I’m in a place where, you know, in a little bubble of, of… [laughs] you know, camera folks and a shooter/producer from LA and all these people. It’s fine, but now I go to the hospital and I’m relying on, you know, a nurse or a doctor to treat me in a place where they think… you know, the way to fix your gender incongruency is corrective rape. Or whatever. I mean, it’s… it’s all fine until it’s not. And so that’s the privilege, you know, that people can have when they haven’t had that experience. And to the credit of the producers, um, who were out in the field with me, I mean, they, they very much, uh, listened, and I don’t know what they, what they did, but I really trust that they kind of thought about that [laughs] and did something with it. But I was, you know, I go through and I read all these books and just in case, like, I’m medevacked somewhere and now I have to get the ambulance person on my side so that they don’t think I’m in- and now I will use the “c” word- crazy. So, they don’t, you know, dismiss me as somebody not really worthy of the best care. Um, so, you know, pop culture, books, t.v. shows, maybe I can learn a few phrases. These small things might get me some, somebody on my side. So, even while I’m preparing to be naked and, and potentially alone or with a partner I’ve never met in the jungle, I’m also preparing for, like, what could go wrong, um, maybe at a different level from other contestants, I don’t know. But, you know, ironically a few days beforehand I ended up going to Honduras, not Mozambique.

KG: Switcheroo. [laughing]

QM: So, but, if you want to know about the novels of Mia Couto… [laughing]

KG: [laughing]

QM: … we can talk.

KG: I don’t know if we should spoil it for people that maybe haven’t see it-

QM: No! We can’t spoil it.

KG: We can’t spoil it. You had a good time and a bad time at some times, but… uh, you survived. Or… or did you die?

QM: So far, we’ve all survived as far as what they’ve aired.

KG: I want to ask: what do you expect out of this year’s race as a rookie and sort of what are you hoping to accomplish, I guess?

QM: I would love to do as well as I can with our dogs having a happy, healthy team and make it to Nome. I really see, I’m not- I’m in a beautifully privileged position of not having to think about my competitors or anything else. Those aren’t- that’s not what I’m racing against. I’m trying to complete the course and so I think of it as having these dogs and having the right gear and the right attitude and the right training to get us up over the Alaska range, which itself is… um… itself is an incredible goal. But then through the rarely traveled interior and then, you know… along a river for [laughing] a couple hundred miles? And then up the coast a couple hundred miles and come into Nome by dog team. That’s what I’d like to do. Hopefully in time for the banquet.

KG: Quince, tell me about your team. Is it similar to the team that Blair ran last year or is it… a different, uh, make up or what?

QM: Well… um… Blair had a really great team last year. I have a really great team this year. A lot of the dogs I’m running this year have been in the Iditarod before, have been to Nome. Um, I get to run dogs belonging to, uh, a friend of ours, Raymie Redington, so there’s an incredible history to that team and I’ve learned a lot working with him. And a lot that I’m going to bring back home at some point to some of those younger dogs we have coming up in training. Uh, you know, that go back to our leader, Pepé, as well as going back to his dogs, so, you know the dogs, a lot of the dogs are related to our dogs in Wisconsin, but, uh, I just want a little bit of an older, more experienced team and, uh… uh, a little bit of an older, more experienced coach.

KG: That was Iditarod rookie Quince Mountain, friend of the pod. Thanks to him for being willing to talk about all of that and thanks to you for listening to the Iditapod. Stay tuned for another full episode. I’m Kasey Grove. Until next time, happy trails.