Winterdance

A few years ago I spent a lot of time in Alaska on business; in April 2003 I did a post that included this picture, which, as I said then, was of me (second from right) with three co-workers, one a Power Line fan and two Democrats, but good friends. The picture was taken at Hatcher Pass; click to enlarge:

In March of 2002, I attended the start of the Iditarod, one of the world’s great sporting events–not the faux start in downtown Anchorage, but the real one in the Valley. It was great fun: lots of snow, natives with booths selling fur products, and fans like us stretched out a quarter of a mile or so from the starting gate. Every couple of minutes they would start a new team, and everyone would applaud. The dog team and its musher would go flying past. I noticed that each team was pulling not only a sled with the driver on it, but a second sled behind that one, piled high with stuff, it wasn’t clear what. I asked my partner, who had spent a long time in Alaska trying the Exxon Valdez case, what the trailing sleds were. He explained that they were ballast: the dogs love to run, and may go wild with excitement as they pass through hundreds of cheering spectators. The ballast sled slows them down a little so they stay under control. Once the team gets a few miles up the trail, the ballast sled is cut loose. As a parent, I could relate to that.
Shortly before Christmas, our friend Dafydd ab Hugh sent me an email recommending a book he had just read by Gary Paulsen called Winterdance. Paulsen was well known to me as one of my son’s favorite authors when he was a kid. He wrote wonderful adventure stories about boys who were stuck in the north woods under adverse conditions. Mrs. Rocket saw Dafydd’s email, and, knowing my fondness for Alaska, bought the book for me for Christmas.
I got to Winterdance last month and, like Dafydd–who is a professional writer and a good judge of talent–devoured it in a few gulps. It is a fun book; a hilariously funny book, which made me not just giggle but laugh out loud; a pretty darn great book. Winterdance begins at what was obviously a low point in Paulsen’s life. His past was checkered, to put it politely; he ran off with a carnival, and things went generally downhill from there. In his forties, he decided to become a writer and moved to the Bemidji, Minnesota area with his long-suffering wife. Somehow, he got interested in dogs, and the book takes off from there.
The book climaxes, of course, with Paulsen’s first effort at the Iditarod, probably the sternest test of men and animals anywhere in the world–a 1,100 mile race across terrain that is almost unimaginable, in temperatures that may drop to 70 degrees below zero. All I can say is, read it: it’s one of the wildest, funniest, most engrossing books I’ve come across in decades:
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This year’s Iditarod begins tomorrow. It is, in my opinion, the world’s greatest sporting event. At the end of Winterdance, Paulsen, now in his 60s, describes a health crisis which disqualifies him from dog sled racing. Thankfully, he has since made a comeback: he is running the race again this year; his website has the details.
You can buy Winterdance here. I highly recommend it. And you can follow this year’s Iditarod on the race’s official site, linked above.
UPDATE: Reader Mark Aase wrote to say that, while it’s not reflected on his website, Paulsen has now dropped out of this year’s race.
UPDATE 2: The Minneapolis Star Tribune has the extraordinary story of a blind musher, Rachael Scdoris, who will compete in this year’s race with the aid of another contestant, a Minnesotan and former professional wrestler named Paul Ellering, who will race in front of Scdoris and serve as her “visual interpreter.” It is hard to see how this is possible; it will be interesting to find out whether they finish. Ellering and Scdoris are pictured below:
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