This week has been tough. I'm half way through life with a peg leg--in another three weeks, if all has gone well with my tendon, I'll be allowed to once again bend my knee (just a bit to start). I'm getting a bit of cabin fever. I'm reading, putting together puzzles and doing a lot of work (much of it from a recliner! I wish I was more mobile as this weekend is the Savannah Book Festival. I'm going to have to skip most of the events although I will go with friends this evening to hear Erik Larson (author of Deadwake) this evening. Here is another book review:
Gary Paulsen, Winterdance: The Fine Madness of Running the Iditarod (San Diego: Harvest Books, 1994), 256 pages plus 8 pages of color photographs.
The Iditarod is a 1000 mile long dog sled race across the heart of Alaska, from Anchorage to Nome. The men and women and dogs that run the race must endure incredible hardships: mountains, incredibly cold weather, wild animals, dog fights, lack of sleep, and a run across frozen salt water in Norton Sound. As one of his relatives told him, “Read people don’t do those kind of things.”(54)
In Winterdance, a book filled with humor, Paulsen takes us along with him and fifteen dogs to prove otherwise. The book is fast paced, a little unbelievable at times, and often funny. The scene of Paulsen trying to run dogs during training, without snow, by riding behind on a bicycle pulled by a dozen wild dogs, left me wondering how survived to arrive alive in Alaska. Paulsen later tied to the dogs to a car body, from where he sat as they pulled him across the barren ground. The dogs love to pull and in time, Paulsen found himself essentially living with the dogs as his life centered on carrying for the dogs. In training and in running the race, one primarily focuses on the dogs need. Food, feet care, medical needs and rest for the animals all come before the musher’s needs.
Paulsen openly makes fun of his amateur status as a dog musher. When he decided to run the Iditarod, the longest run he’d done with dogs was 150 miles running a trap line in Minnesota. When the race started in downtown Anchorage, he and his dogs took a wrong turn and ran through the crowds. This, however, was the “show start” as the dogs only run a few blocks before being trucked to the real start of the race (outside of the freeways that circle the city). The race involves stopping at a number of checkpoints, where food is cached and the dogs are checked. If anything, the focus is all on the dogs. With the exception of a few occasions, such as being caught in a storm and having to wait it out, you wonder if Paulsen ever slept during the race. At the checkpoints, he’d have to check each dog’s paws as well as cook dog food which was placed in a cooler on the sleds for the next run.
Two of Paulsen’s dogs stand out: Cookie and Devil. Cookie is the fun loving led dog, whose instinct saves the team on Norton Sound where the ice is breaking up. Devil, lives up to his name, as he is always trying to eat other dogs and even attacks Paulsen (they eventually reach an uneasy truce). But Devil can pull and that’s why Paulsen keeps him as a part of the team. (I wondered if dogs live up to their names…) Paulsen also speaks of the dogs of other mushers. Getting teams of dogs together in tight places can be a problem as there is always the possibility of a dog fight. And then there are the problems with the bitches going into heat, and the mushers who attempt to mask the dog’s scent by spreading Vicks vapor rub on her. The trick works until the male dogs learn to associate Vicks with sex, at which time the musher is in danger by opening the jar. The dogs appear to get into the excitement of the race and I come away with a sense that they enjoyed the challenge.
A race such as this brings out the best and the worst of people, sometimes from the same person. Paulsen tells of a musher who brought donuts to share with other mushers, but then in rage at his team, he kicked and killed a dog. This was a serious violation and as Paulsen and another musher witnessed and reported it, the man was banned for ever racing again.
Paulsen finished the race, even though at times he hallucinated from the lack of sleep. He vows to come back and win it. He did run the race twice, but heart problems kept him returning again and he never did win the race.