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 years 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
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 others race strategy, especially as the race nears its
conclusion. Lees experiences on Eagle Summit are at the heart of the books
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, Ricks 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.
While he concentrates on telling others
stories, Balzars own experiences and views are threaded through the book, giving a
sense of authority to the narrators 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.
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. Balzars skill in painting
word pictures is a key to the books success, its ability to transport readers onto
the Quest trail and into the hearts and minds of the books 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].
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 Balzars own team; Aliy Zirkles Prince; Thomas
Tetzs Nigel; and Bruce Lees Clovis, among others. We wish we might have gotten
to know some of Andre Nadeaus Siberian Huskies, a team of tough, remarkable
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
todays 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,
Member, Dog Writers Association of America