view from the hill

A look at the elements and events that come into view from where I'm standing...
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... the stuff that matters in this life. Some flicker and are gone in a matter of hours
only to live in memory, others become life long travelling companions, never far from reach.

Tuesday, August 09, 2005

Winterdance: The Fine Madness of Alaskan Dog-Racing

winterdanceThe cover of this book looked up at me with those wolf eyes as if pleading to come home with me. Or was it threatening? It's hard to tell sometimes what's in a dog's eyes. But this book definitely tugged on the love I found this last winter when Tiff and I went dog sledding in northern Sweden. It's a magical sensation being pulled along by half-wild animals through an arctic forest. I discovered an unexpected love for these animals then, and Gary Paulsen, author of Winterdance, describes a similar epiphany.

Paulsen recounts how his love for dogs and running teams grew over time. He fell into dog sledding while he and his wife were living in northern Minnesota. He would string traps deep in the woods, and in the winter a sled and a team of dogs was the best way to travel. It was on those long days out that he began to see his team not as mere transportation, but as fellow beings on this Earth with personalities and moods. There's a wonderful shift he describes when he stops thinking in terms of "my dogs", and starts thinking in terms of "we". He starts thinking more like a dog, becoming one of them.

As his love grows he sets his eyes on Alaska and the famed Iditarod race held each March. The Iditarod is an epic race that starts in downtown Anchorage and zigzags north east for the next 1,180 miles to Nome. In between there's a sleep-deprived hallucinogenic slog through 95 miles of brush and fallen trees known as the Burn, a three day battle up the frozen Yukon river in -60º weather, and a trek across the wind swept sea ice of Norton Sound where entire teams have been know to break through and sink like a stone, never to be seen again. It's dazzling, brutal, hair-raising, and hilarious, and I raced through this book like I was trying to finish before my stamina ran out.

There's some laugh-out-loud passages early on when Paulsen is training with his new dogs in the forests of Minnesota. He can't wait for the first snow of the season, so he rigs up various wheeled contraptions that the dogs succeed in completely trashing within minutes of leaving the yard. Paulson is battered and bruised, bitten, thrashed and humiliated. He finally realizes the dogs are strong enough to pull him in a beat up old Ford with the engine missing (but with workable brakes).

"… It wasn't just that they wanted to run – there simply wasn't anything else for them. Everything they were, all the ages since their time began, the instincts of countless eons of wolves coursing after herds of bison and caribou were still there, caught in genetic strands, and they came to the fore and the dogs went berserk with it." He sets off on the fire roads through the woods in his new jalopy for more dog bonding and hard-won life lessons.

Then when the time comes, he's off to The North.

I just had no idea at the sheer scale of the Iditarod. You realize early on that it's not a race of man (and woman) against the elements, it's definitely a dog's race. There are mandatory drug test for the dogs before the race begins. Vets and health checks at each of the 18 check points along the way. The mushers are required to carry a varied diet and extra food for each animal. They need spare booties, foot ointment, new harnesses, and regular required rest and water breaks. All for the dogs. There are no such regulations regarding the humans. The dogs are cared for way better than the mushers ever are. The people are just along for the ride.

The Iditarod is a vast race through a vast landscape. Paulsen describes sleep deprivation, near death experiences, and incredible beauty. He somehow manages to stay more or less on the right path, occasionally encountering other teams, but for the most part it's a solitary adventure. Many of his fellow racers describe mystical experiences out there in the wild.

At one check point…

"Here, just sign…" She held the clipboard out again, guided my hand with the pen, and I signed.
"Thank you," I said.
"Do you like the race so far?"
I looked at her, trying to find sarcasm, but she was serious; she really wanted to know. And I thought of how to answer her. I had gotten lost, been run over by a moose, watched a dog get killed, seen a man cry, dragged over a third of the teams off on the wrong trail, and been absolutely hammered by beauty while all this was happening. (It was, I would find out later, essentially a normal Iditarod day – perhaps a bit calmer than most.) I opened my mouth.
"I…"
Nothing came. She patted my arm and nodded. "I understand. It's so early in the race. There'll be more later to talk about…"
And she left me before I could tell her that I thought my whole life had changed, that my basic understanding of values had changed, that I wasn't sure if I would ever recover, that I had seen god and he was a dog-man and that nothing, ever, would be the same for me again, and it was only the first true checkpoint of the race.
I had come just one hundred miles.

Paulsen's grip of his former life slips away the further into Alaska he gets with his team. Any sort of "normal" life becomes alien to him. I felt a miniscule piece of this on our two days sledding in Sweden, and I can't wait to get out there again and feel the pull. I'm not ready to sell the farm just yet, so in the meantime, Winterdance is a wonderful foray back into the contagious addiction of running with wolves.

Check it out here at Amazon.

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