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Review of a Dog Sports Book

Yukon Alone
by John Balzar |
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Yukon Alone is much more than the story of the famous Yukon Quest sled dog race that runs between Fairbanks and Whitehorse. This new book by a roving reporter for the Los Angeles Times is an absorbing mix of exciting sports reporting, vivid character portrayal, and a fascinating exploration of the Far North at the end of the 20th century. Click for the full review.

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    Review of a Dog Sports Book, continued

Yukon Alone
by John Balzar

Whether you are interested in long-distance sled dog racing or simply enjoy a tension-filled adventure story with more than its share of thrills and spills, you will enjoy this narrative. The book is filled with rugged individuals, tough dogs and the extraordinary frigid landscape on the route from Whitehorse, Yukon Territory, to Fairbanks, Alaska. Along the way are brief excursions into issues of animal rights and sled dog racing, insiders and outsiders in the North, and much more. But award-winning writer John Balzar never strays far from the meat of the book, the demanding days on the Yukon Quest trail during the 1998 race.

The Mushers, the Characters

Looming large in the book are the mushers, seen not only through their Quest trail experiences but also through pithy portraits of their personal lives and thoughts, at least for those who were willing to talk with John. Some did, some did not. Now in the year 2000, we can enjoy these portrayals from a fresh perspective after the running of this year’s Quest.

Aliy Zirkle, the tough yet sensitve woman musher. From our vantage point today, we know that competitive Aliy has indeed become the first woman to win the Yukon Quest, demonstrating that women can win this very tough race as well as the Iditarod. Her difficult experiences and decisions as a Quest 1998 rookie reveal her grit and strength of personality, critical to her win in 2000.

Andre Nadeau, the outsider from Quebec, running different dogs with a very different race strategy. Nadeau runs large, enduring Siberian Huskies, allowing them to trot long distances with shorter rests. In contrast, the many mushers driving Alaskan Huskies run their dogs at a faster pace, but give them longer rest periods. How well does the Quebec musher do in the Quest, called the toughest sled dog race in the world?

Bruce Lee, a seasoned musher with an estimated 9,000 miles in his long- distance racing career, aiming for his first Quest win. He and Nadeau play cat and mouse with their teams, trying to keep the other worrying about the other’s race strategy, especially as the race nears its conclusion. Lee’s experiences on Eagle Summit are at the heart of the book’s adventures. Can he win?

Many more mushers fill the book, from Frank Turner who has run every Quest, placed 3rd in the 2000 race and won in 1995 with the fastest time ever recorded; Rick Mackey, a winner of both the Iditarod and the Yukon Quest, son of champion musher Dick Mackey; Brenda Mackey, Rick’s daughter; and numerous others. A total of 38 teams enter the race, but 12 scratch, leaving 26 to finish the demanding 1,000-mile trek across often fearsome terrain.

The Narrator

While he concentrates on telling others’ stories, Balzar’s own experiences and views are threaded through the book, giving a sense of authority to the narrator’s voice. He runs a segment of a trail with a team of working huskies, discovering what life on the trail in the dangerously cold weather is all about. And for the 1998 Quest he is the press liaison, trying to handle both the North American press and reporters from Germany, there because Fulda, a German tire manufacturer, is a sponsor. His role as a Quest volunteer gives him access to mushers and dogs that another reporter would never have had. Another thread in the story.

The Northland

In many ways, the wilderness North is a character unto itself in the book, vibrant and powerful both in its beauty and its endless ability to humble humans who would lives and travel there. Balzar’s skill in painting word pictures is a key to the book’s success, its ability to transport readers onto the Quest trail and into the hearts and minds of the book’s characters. This is "a porcelain world, white and hard. It is winter in the subarctic, season of ice, storm, and darkness, a shadowland where most of the day is night, where vast arcs of the aurora borealis flame green and pink overhead, where the snow underfoot is so cyrstalline hard it rubs like sandpaper...." [Yukon Alone, page 4].

The Dogs

And of course the dogs. Their personalities, their needs and care, their bonds with the mushers, their psychological responses to the demands of the race are central to the tale. We glimpse the dogs’ experiences through Paleface, a leader on John Balzar’s own team; Aliy Zirkle’s Prince; Thomas Tetz’s Nigel; and Bruce Lee’s Clovis, among others. We wish we might have gotten to know some of Andre Nadeau’s Siberian Huskies, a team of tough, remarkable competitors.

Final Thoughts

Published by Henry Holt and Company in late 1999, Yukon Alone takes readers to a land few will ever see in person. And, in a sense, back in time as well. Distance sled dog racing is a sport created from the patterns of work accomplished by men and dogs a century and more ago. No matter the improvements in today’s sledding and wilderness camping equipment, the Quest mushers and dogs work at a pace of another era. That reality is central to the book.

Yukon Alone is not a book for the prissy. Authentic language and description give the book a sharp realism that will not appeal to everyone. The book is not for the faint of heart either. Episodes both on the trail and in the air, traveling by Super Cub airplane, are enough to make your heart stop. But if you love dogs, competitive sports and the great outdoors, Yukon Alone is must reading.

Review by Barbara B. Petura, Webmaster
Member, Dog Writers Association of America

AUTHOR: John Balzar is today a roving reporter for the Los Angeles Times, living in the Pacific Northwest. He has spent more than 10 years in the Far North, experiencing life as a whaler with Eskimos, a boatman for a wilderness guide and as a veterinary assistant and press aide for the Yukon Quest.  He won the Scripps- Howard Foundation Prize for human interest writing and portrayal of adventure.

PUBLISHER: Henry Holt and Company, New York, 1999.

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