Pros: A fine adventure to liven up a warm afternoon, or anytime, for that matter.
Cons: Be sure your health insurance is paid up.
This is an entry for Pogomom's ReWrite-Off in honor of KcFoxy's Second Anniversary. I originally wrote a review of Winterdance on December 30, 2000. Hopefully, this will be a better attempt at sharing one of my favorite reads with Epinioners. My main purpose in writing this, in addition to honoring KcFoxy, is to encourage as many people as possible to read this wonderful book, in the hope that it will bring a smile to your lips in these troubled times.
I was sitting on the porch, here at The Home. My friend, Gary Paulson's book Winterdance was in my lap. It seems like only yesterday that he and I first ran that freezing cold race together.
The day he first approached me about it was such a pleasant day. Lunch was over (tuna salad on wheat and that lovely gelatin salad they always feed us on Tuesdays). The afternoon "sleepies" were coming upon me and I was fighting to keep from dozing. Well! Imagine my surprise when Gary Paulson showed up on the porch, and invited me to join him on a little adventure. He promised it would only take a few months; things were pretty slow at The Home, so I thought, "Why not?"
Gary knew, well before he invited me along, that he would eventually run the Iditarod, even while he denied it adamantly. The trip he took with his early team, when he bonded with the dogs, as well as a coyote which followed him for three days, sealed his fate.
Dogs From Hell
Once he decided to go "all the way," he needed to reinforce his original team with serious, long- distance sled dogs. That's why he went up to Canada to acquire Ortho, Devil and Murphy. Now these were dogs who could really live up to the rigors of this grueling race: 1180 miles, "100 miles per day through mountains taller than the Rockies."
Luckily, I wasn't with him and his lovely wife, Ruth, when he picked them up. Ruth (she really is a dear!) Told me the whole story over tea. Let me tell you, I howled with laughter as she described how he had to keep his body between the three dogs for three hours, to keep them from tearing each other limb from limb! Devil, I believe it was, actually ate his kennel! Well, Gary had a lot of trouble with that dog. But Ruth claims he was just a big teddy bear and I certainly never had any problems with him throughout that entire Iditarod. I think Gary was being just a teensy bit sensitive. Of course, when you read about his initial mistakes (gotta give Gary credit, he doesn't hold back; when he makes a mistake, he bares all, and he made a lot of mistakes) you'll understand why he and Devil weren't too fond of each other. One of my many favorite stories, shared with me by Ruth, was the time he hitched up his bicycle to his full team. They took off and . . . well, I don't want to spoil it for you.
Gary himself told me the story about his initial run-in with the skunks - all six of them - the night he took the team out, hooked up to an entire automobile. I guess he learned his lesson from the bicycle incident. Anyway, by the time he got home to Ruth, he had been sprayed full in the face by at least five of them. Ruth (very sensibly, if you ask me) suggested he sleep out in the kennel with the dogs until the smell wore off. Well, can you blame her?
Anyway, Gary told me it was the turning point in his running the dogs. From there on, the line between himself and his dogs began to blur. He no longer tried to think like a dog. I think he actually began to "be" a dog. I really do.
Becoming a Dog
Only Gary could interpret sleeping in a kennel with 13 dogs, all reeking of eau de skunk, as "the best possible twist of all possible fates concerning the dogs and the Iditarod." But then, that's our boy. He has always been an optimist.
Ruth tried to temper Gary's enthusiasm with a bit of common sense. She really did try. But Gary would have none of it. No matter how preposterous his schemes seem in retrospect, his exuberance could not be contained.
When Gary and his dogs got to take the sled out after the first snowfall, it was an episode of sheer power (and terror, too). Gary learned the difference between training the dogs by using a car body, and towing a sled on slippery snow. There's a big difference, believe you me.
Getting to Alaska was almost the end of the Iditarod for Gary. Lucky he had me along to help. My fingers were so sore from sewing extra booties for the dogs (Dear Gary underestimated how many he would need by half!), but luckily we had eight days and nights of driving, while Gary and the owner of the truck drove and I sewed. Poor Gary was running out of money fast. But his friend and I both chipped in a little. The truck owner gave Gary some of his savings. I had a few dollars salted away for a "rainy day" - little did I know it would be spent on snow-and-ice-covered days. Being invited to go along with Gary on the race, I wanted to do something to help out, besides just keeping Gary company and helping with the dogs. So, in spite of blown tires - of which there were many, and other unexpected expenses, we made it all the way to Alaska.
There, Gary picked the brains of every sledder and non-sledder who would talk to him. He was a fast learner and in spite of a few bad tips from people who knew nothing about sled dogs, he learned a lot in a short while. Sadly, most of what he learned was that 1) He was not prepared for the race; 2) The race was impossible, even in the best of circumstances; 3) These were definitely not the best circumstances. Never-the-less we proceeded to run those dogs.
I'll never forget the time he had to pass an oncoming team - he went up to his lead dog (her name was Cookie, what a sweetie!) and began to move the team. The oncoming lead dog took a bite out of Gary that would have made a nice roast! When the team's owner tried to separate his dog from her intended lunch (that would be Gary) she commenced to biting her owner with a vengeance as he tried to hold her behind himself. Gary told me later, "It was like a meat grinder back there, shredding his clothing, spitting out bits of insulation and butt and ripping anew." I guess some of the best sled dogs are also some of the most cantankerous.
Here's another incident Gary witnessed (I missed this somehow - must have been "powdering my nose" at the time): "I sat at a checkpoint and watched a man feeding his dogs. He could not get close to them without injury. They were half-wild, yellow-eyed beasts, some with hair that hung to the ground. And they hated. Not just men, not just all men - including the man who rode their sled but all things. Other dogs, trees, the world - they simply hated. While feeding, the musher had to place the food in a bowl, then use a stick to push the bowl to where the picked dog could reach it. In a later checkpoint these same dogs would catch a dog from another team, kill it in seconds, and start eating it before they could be dragged off. (In a similar story that I have not been able to verify but everybody swears is true, it is said that a woman running a team in Canada climbed into the middle of a team fight and went down and was killed and partially eaten by her dogs.) When I asked the sled driver how he harnessed them he quipped, "I had a cousin help me but he quit before the race. . .'"
Which brings us to:
THE RACE - Eagle River
It's hard to believe we ever got through the days preceding the race. There was just so much to do, and time sped up, the closer we got to the start. It was murder. But, before you know it, we were hitching the dogs up and then, without time to think what we were doing, we started.
The beginning was not auspicious, but we did eventually find our way back to the course (four and a half hours later).
I don't like to talk about this leg of the race. We witnessed a moose kill a fellow racer's lead dog. I still get all weepy when I think about it.
We had definitely dropped back into the rookie group by now. A strange change came over Gary here, and it was hard to tell the difference between him and the dogs. I am proud to say I maintained some semblance of humanity and, whenever possible, kept myself clean and dainty, as befits an old grandmother. Gary, on the other hand, began to look (and smell) like an animated garbage pile. Well, by golly, if you had eaten food from the dog's pot - it's called "slumps" and it's an unholy mess of coarsely ground unborn calf - you'd look and smell like garbage, too. I swear, I actually saw an eyeball floating around in that mess. Ugh! The tuna salad and gelatin salad were starting to look wonderful.
This is another part of the race you will have to learn about from Gary. The sled, dogs, mushers and all, we plummeted off a cliff for about 500 feet and I'm still shaken up.
Dalzell Gorge and The Burn
Happily, I stayed tucked into my sleeping bag, fixed onto the sled and upright the length of Dalzell Gorge, while Gary, I am sorry to say, was dragged on his face the entire way. At the Rohn River checkpoint I was able to prevent Gary from scratching from the race. It was getting too hard for him and he really was just a hair's breadth away from quitting then and there. Luckily, between me and Cookie, we convinced him that, since he'd come this far he might as well continue.
The Burn is indescribable, but after being warned not to start it at night, guess when we started? And I think it's fair to say that Gary temporarily lost his mind at The Burn. Well, what would you call it? Seeing a naked blonde on the sled (I assure you I was completely clothed the entire time) and a man in a brown corduroy suit who offered him assistance; but the best hallucination of all was Gary watching his friends and loved ones surfing on what looked like Malibu Beach. Yup, completely bonkers.
McGrath, was a flawless run. Gary seemed to gather his wits again and seemed more normal.
The longest run was between Ophir and Iditarod. I wished Gary wouldn't keep saying things like, "This isn't so bad." He was just begging for trouble, if you ask me. Anyway, sure enough, the wind came up suddenly and Gary wasn't prepared. What seemed like a gust, knocking dogs and sled off balance, just continued and grew worse! Cookie tried to keep the team on course, but those bad boys decided to go with the wind instead of fighting it, taking us away from our correct course. Try as he might, Gary just couldn't bring those dogs under control. After what seemed like half an hour, I finally called to Cookie in my most stern voice and she halted the team. I swear, if I hadn't done something, we'd be out there still!
Under such horrendous conditions, there was nothing for us to do but "hunker down" in our sleeping bags and wait for the wind to subside.
We awoke to find dogs, sled and ourselves covered with snow. Gary had to urinate, so I averted my eyes, only to find eleven other teams surrounding us! All buried in the snow - almost 200 dogs and ten men were around and about us. One of the men not twenty feet from us claimed to have fired six rounds from his .44 magnum, which we certainly didn't hear. (I must get my hearing checked one of these days!)
Golly, I've barely gotten into the really exciting parts (not to mention the musher who actually kicked one of his dogs to death!), but, due to time and space constraints, I'll have to stop here. You'll just have to join Gary on the race yourself. Run right out and pick up a copy of Winterdance, The Fine Madness of Running the Iditarod by Gary Paulson, published by Harcourt Brace. Opening the book, you'll see a map of the Iditarod route right near the front, just past the Table of Contents. Take a good look at this map. You're going to want to refer to it often. Imagine running a sled and dogs along this route, in ice and snow, sub-zero temperatures, sleep deprivation, running night and day, and you just might get an idea how terribly difficult the race is. It has been said by some who actually finished the Iditarod, that it is impossible. Well, that may be, but Gary and I did it, and we didn't even come in last. Why, for goodness sakes, some of the racers dropped out before they even got out of Anchorage! But you have to understand, I'm a tough old bird, and Gary's no slouch, either.
The book is only 256 pages and such a compelling story, you'll finish it in the shake of fifteen dogs' tails. As for me, my sled dog racing days are over. I'm content to sit and rock on The Home's porch, drink my hot tea, and reread Gary's book.
This review is part of the KcFoxy Second Anniversary Re-Write-Off. The following members took part in the celebration:
* kcfoxy * viper1963 * curtisedmonds * mrsfitts * drlolipop * beecharmer * cornelia * lernerj * suzer * blackelve * quasar * awoolcott * mshawpyle * lynnzop * LorinSilver * sparkospunky * psychovant * ifif1938 * kristinafh * NolleQueen * dchefsours * nwinston * TheUnknown285 * Barefooter * isinga * lunadisarm
* Bonies7 * marytara * Workingmomof2 * auldbawl1
* repulsemonkey * howard_creech * e_burrell * Donnie013 & sunkah * gransurfer1 * joubert * MagnumForce * i_culookn * begood_ca * GinaHill * coldsteel7 * pogomom
For links to all the reviews in the write-off, please visit:
The Eroyalties and Income Share earned from this Re-Write-Off review will be donated to Mark, Hard_To_Please, to help lighten the load brought on by his cancer treatment. He's been here for so many people, now it's our turn to be there for him. Anyone wishing to make a contribution may do so at http://www.paypal.com. Mark's account is the same as his email address: email@example.com
For snail-mail donations, cards and letters, his address is:
P.O. Box 852
O'Fallon, MO 63366
Hope you're feelin' better, Mark. We miss you here!
Happy Anniversary, KC! Thanks pogomom, for letting me crash the party.