Wild and Free

by | Sep 1, 2023 | 0 comments

  • Mountain letting his retired sled dogs run free.

If you follow reality television, particularly the extreme survivalist style that has flourished since Survivor came out in the 90s, there’s a chance that you’ve heard of Quince Mountain. When he starred in an episode of Naked and Afraid (a show where he and a stranger were driven into the wilderness of the Hondoran mountains and asked to take off their clothes and walk barefoot through the jungle to meet each other for the first time) he was the first openly trans person to do so. As the episode opens, a montage of Quince’s history, featuring him in the military and on farms, where he describes being the victim of extreme bullying while growing up, continues for a few minutes until finally, he comes out as a trans man.

As he is taking off his clothes, the viewers see the scars from his top surgery, and get what is likely (for most) their first glimpse at the body of a trans man from the waist up (groins are blurred for television, after all). He later told the New York Times, “When I told friends I was going on Naked and Afraid, they worried I’d be rendered a caricature. Isn’t reality television all about confining formulas? I told them it’s here, stripped down for this naked TV show, that I can be real. That my experience growing up as a trans person was the fictional performance.”

Life as Mushers 

After surviving his jungle ordeal and coming out to the world in 2019, Quince went on to be the first openly trans competitor in the famous Iditarod race, a grueling thousand mile dog sled race through the rugged interior of Alaska that ends at the coastal town of Nome. Happily for him, he was able to be fully clothed for this competition, and while he was not able to finish, he helped pave the way for other trans competitors to come after him, most famously Apayauq Reitan, an Inupiaq trans woman who competed (and finished) in 2022.

When asked why he competes in such extreme, grueling contests, the answer is always the same: he was attracted to competing in these competitions because they are not segregated by gender, and because the wilderness does not care about gender at all. What matters is toughness, resolve, and, as Quince would later find out, community.

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Now he lives in the bucolic northwoods town of Mountain, Wisconsin with his wife, writer and fellow dog musher Blair Braverman. They both split their time between Wisconsin and Alaska, spending most of their time training for dog races and writing books. Quince and Blair met while they were both in graduate school in Iowa, both working on an MFA in creative writing and in 2021, they co-wrote Dogs on the Trail: A Year in the Life, a charming book that mixes prose and candid photographs to tell the story of their life as mushers. Blair has also written and published two other books, one a memoir chronicling her decision to leave home and move to Norway to learn how to work with sled dogs, and, more recently, Small Game, a fictional look at what it’s like to compete in an extreme outdoors reality show.

Choosing Openness 

In between his long stays in Alaska, I was finally able to make my own way up to Mountain to meet Quince Mountain. The town, a tiny spec on the map about an hour northwest of Green Bay, has been a place where Quince could finally find peace and community. He went as a teenager from where he grew up in Illinois, and has never fully left since. When Quince and I met up at The Schoolhouse Bar, a bar in town that has Taco Thursdays and a pretty comprehensive beer selection, I wasn’t sure what to expect. The rhetoric around trans people and trans identity being so toxic and raucous, a small town in rural northern Wisconsin felt to me like a perilous place to interview a trans person. I was relieved to be wrong.

When we found a hightop table and settled in with our beers, numerous people came over to chat with him. Since he splits his time between Wisconsin and Alaska, his neighbors don’t get to see him often and seemed to relish a chance to catch up. One octogenarian came up and started to tell us about her new love interest, and another about retiring and selling their fish business. What was refreshing to me was just another day to him, and he explained how he’s never really had an issue around here. People worry all the time about acceptance, but what matters most is being an active member of the community and letting people get to know you as an individual. “While it is easy to hate someone from afar, it’s very hard to hate someone who is integral to the functioning of the community,” he explained. Quince has been rewarded, he says, “by being open with friendships in places I might not have expected, which have changed me.” But being open and trusting was something Quince had to learn and work at. His childhood and early adulthood being what it was, it would have been very easy to remain closed and bitter.

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Quince grew up in a toxic, evangelical environment, in suburban Illinois. Because he was assigned female at birth, he spent a fair amount of time trying to conform to the gender roles dictated by religion. But he always knew he was different. As he became a teenager, he started coming to the realization that he was queer, but, he says laughing, “things got a little easier at church because it didn’t matter what sex you wanted to have, it was all sin. Bible camp was a safe space for me.” His home and school life, however, were described by him as torture. He chronicled his experiences with extreme bullying in his work with Outside magazine and the New York Times, and without going into too much detail, he was targeted in a malicious, dangerous way.

He left home, joined and left the military, transitioned, and returned to the evangelical community to write about the Exodus ministry, one that tried to force queer people to conform to their assigned gender and into heterosexual, cis presenting members of the church. Here he found something unexpected: acceptance as a fully male person. He was not out about being trans, but conformed to all of the ideals that the program put onto men. He was called by them a “true man of god,” and felt like the church owed him that honor after all he’d been through growing up. Now he’s up in Mountain and has left much of that behind.

Not So Bogged Down 

I climb into his truck, which he has loaded with three of his retired sled dogs (his racing team is still in Alaska), and we head into the woods. He’s excited to show me a bog, and to let the dogs run around. Despite going to this particular bog pretty frequently, he misses the turn off, and we have a somewhat long truck ride, where he tells me about some of his other exploits before settling down in the woods.

We chat about dumb and risque things we did when we were younger, and Quince, who was understandably a little tense during his recounting of his childhood, seems to relax and soften. We finally find the turnoff, and start down a bumpy, overgrown trail barely large enough to fit his truck. When we finally stop and get out, he lets the dogs free, and leads me into a lovely cranberry bog. This is clearly his happy place.

I’m admittedly a little star struck when I meet the dogs he’s brought along. Blair, his wife and fellow musher, went viral in 2018 with an adorable twitter (now X) thread about her dumb but charming dog Grinch, who is super strong and easily confused. This was actually how I first learned of her, and Quince. As Grinch came barreling towards me, I was able to confirm that everything in the thread checked out. Quince, the three dogs he’s brought along (Grinch included), and I walk along the spongy, mat-like sphagnum moss perimeter, and I get to watch him interact with his retired pups as the sun starts to set.

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The pups are sure footed, even as the moss waves and bounces with each step, but I am not, and I end up wet up to my knees as I fall into a hidden hole in the moss. Quince, who is here often and is more familiar with this landscape, is unphased by the unsteadiness, and pulls out a whipped cream canister to give the dogs some treats. They crowd around, and he rolls around on the bog mat with a big smile on his face. This man, who has been through a hellacious childhood, a confusing time as a youth and young adult, the prejudice that is unfortunately a common trans experience, and the extreme trials of two very public battles with nature, is now finally home—and not afraid.


Melanie Jones is a photographer and writer living on the northside of Madison with her spouse, three dogs, and three cats and working out of her Atwood Avenue studio. While she enjoys photographing people, her passion project for the past two years has been her photography work with dogs under her Dulcy Dog Photography brand.

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