Bedtime Stories: Gary Paulsen

An occasional series in which we wish our readers a happy good night, courtesy of hunting literature. Sweet dreams!

IT never hurts to look for wisdom in other disciplines, and it’s in that spirit that I picked up a copy of a book about sled-dogs. I’ve never had any particular interest in sled-dog racing, but I guess the reason I reached for this book was because of our recent post that featured a great video of their summer training as well as a nice description by New York Times writer Verlyn Klinkenborg.

Whatever the reason, I picked up a copy of Winterdance: The Fine Madness of Running the Iditarod. Whether or not you care about the Iditarod, this book is a real find. It’s the story of how the author tried to build an Iditarod-caliber dog team out of a pretty random selection of dogs he scrounged from pretty much everywhere–and with shockingly little knowledge or experience of his own.

Along the way, he learns a hell of a lot about dogs and gets some magical glimpses of wildlife. On one long-distance run, his team “adopts” a coyote. Later, a chickadee rode along on the edge of his parka and would take food from his hand as they zipped along on the sled.

Winterdance is funny, painful, and insightful about dogs and how they work, both as a team and with people. It dishes out some food for thought that seems to apply pretty handily to working hounds, too. In short, it ‘s one of the best dog books I’ve read. And now I’ll hand the page over to author Gary Paulsen for one of the more misguided and hilarious episodes:

“Napoleon once said good morale among troops is as four is to one, and something similar happens to sled dogs. As they gain strength from training, and knowledge and confidence, as they understand that you will give them beef when they run and fat when they run and love when they run and your soul when they run, as they learn to feel that, understand that, know that, they become something completely different. They are no longer just sled dogs or pets–they become distance dogs, dogs that cannot, will not be stopped.

“When it first happens it is frightening–like watching Dr. Jekyll turn into Mr. Hyde. Their shoulders grow, they gain weight in both fat and, more important, muscle, and their coats sleek up with the added meat and fat (as much as they can eat when the training is going full bore). And they get strong–god, how strong. …

“On a light rig, ten or twelve sprint dogs could be run easily. So I was told and so I did. But with distance dogs in good shape on the same rig you should never use four or five–not if you expect to live. And the magic number–seven–should never be exceeded on anything less than a full car body (which I later used) with the engine gone. Something happens between the seventh and eighth dog that is truly phenomenal. A power curve is passed and with eight and up you’re in a zone that defies control without special gear.

“I knew none of this. Once I had the light rig I started getting dogs, adding them to the overall team as I found them. … I ran them the way I thought I was supposed to run them, putting new sections of gangline on as each new dog or set of dogs arrived and just adding them to the team.

“But a kind of infection of will had occurred that I hadn’t understood. I had the trapline team, the original seven. They had been nice dogs, happy dogs, peaceful dogs. I had worked them all winter and never had a problem with them, especially Cookie. I frequently brought her in the house and let her run loose. That original team was easy to control, though already very strong, and I thought it would help me to gain and maintain a control over the new dogs.

“It went the other way. The trapline team became a distance team and the problem came about because they were already in shape from running all year. The other dogs, the new dogs, the wild dogs, the Canadian dogs, the native dogs swept the old trapline team up in their wonderful madness and I … I was just part of the rig.

“It was insane.

“When I started to run eight dogs, then nine and ten–with the first three Canadian dogs–I realized something was different. something was hard to control. But when I added three more, running eleven on a light rig, and then two more after that, I entered a world that felt positively surreal. …

“My first run with a large team was the classic one, and should have warned me about the rest of them. I had decided to run them a little long. … So I thought I would try thirty miles. It isn’t much–not even a third of the hundred or more miles first runs should be–but it seemed like a long way and I thought I should carry some gear with me. I loaded the rig down with a backpack tied in place and a box of dog food, a tent, a rolled-up tarp, a winter coat–just in case it cooled off–pots and pans for cooking, a small ax, a bow saw, a lantern, a gallon of fuel for the lantern, and a full-size, two-burner Coleman stove.

“I looked, and sounded, like a hardware store leaving the yard. But leaving the yard was as far as most of the stuff got. …

“The dogs were fired up and I hooked Cookie in first, let her hold the gangline out, then went for each dog and hooked them into position. Each new dog affected the other dogs until, by the time I had eleven and twelve in place and only one left–Devil–I was going back and forth from the kennel to the rig in a dead run, trying to hurry and let them run. …

“I don’t think the rig hit the ground more than twice all the way across the yard. My god, I thought, they’ve learned to fly. With me hanging out the back like a tattered flag we came to the end of the driveway, where we would have to turn, must turn onto the road.

“The dogs made the turn fine.

“The rig started to as well, but I had forgotten to lean into the turn and it rolled and once it rolled it kept rolling–it felt like two or three hundred times. I had time for one quick look back–it seemed like a dry goods store had blown up across the road and in the ditch–and grabbed at something to hold.

“In some fashion I don’t understand I hug on–I think because I’d lost them [before] and was determined not to lose them again–and we set off down the road with the rig upside down, all the gear gone, and me dragging on the gravel on my face.

“It took me four miles to get the rig up on its wheels, by which time the pipe-handlebar I had welded into position had broken off and I had nothing to hang on to but the steering ropes. I was also nearly completely denuded, my clothes having been torn to shreds during the dragging.

“We did thirty miles in just under tow and a half hours, and never once was I in anything like even partial control of the situation. …

“In subsequent runs I left the yard on my face, my ass, my belly. I dragged for a mile, two miles, three miles. I lost the team eight, ten times; walked twelve, seventeen, once forty-some miles looking for them. The rig broke every time we ran, torn to pieces, and I finally borrowed a welder and rebuilt the thing every night. Every farmer within forty miles of us knew about me, knew me as ‘that crazy bastard who can’t hold his team.’ I once left the yard with wooden matches in my pocket and had them ignite as I was being dragged past the door of the house, giving me the semblance of a meteorite, screaming something about my balls being on fire at Ruth, who was laughing so hard she couldn’t stand.'”

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