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Your book, Yukon Alone, is filled with
the remarkable characters who populate the race scene, including the mushers, the
reporters, the pilots and people along the way. Aliy Zirkle, one of the most vivid
characters, has now won the Yukon Quest, demolishing the notion that women can win the
Iditarod but not the Quest. Your thoughts about Aliy and her accomplishment?
John Balzar: Characters with
character - beyond the grand landscape, that's what makes the Yukon Quest such an engaging
endeavor. Aliy Zirkle is tops in all regards. You can tell from my account, I was a big
fan. Not only is she terrific with dogs, but she has that shining spirit that draws people
near her. She is one of those rare champions who, by the force of her personality and her
genuine goodness, lifts her sport in everyone's eyes. Mushing is lucky to have Aliy. She
chose a different life than most young women. Her success is an inspiration to all young
people, particularly women, who wonder if there isn't more to life than accumulating
things and tending to the bank account.
Barbara: Bruce Lee, winner of the 1998 Quest, certainly
emerged as the hero of Yukon Alone. How were you able to get his remarkable story of
overcoming the challenges of Eagle Summit?
John: Spread over hundreds of miles,
long intervals of the Quest occur out of sight of anyone. Both during and after the race,
Quest mushers were generous with their time in helping me assemble the account of what was
happening at 10 different places at once. Race officials, veterinarians and some of my
press colleagues assisted as well. And, of course, I was on the trail myself. Lee, with
his amazing, computer-like mind, was particularly helpful. And since this mountain was the
most harrowing challenge in his long career, he could re-live it down to the second.
Barbara: Can you share a few thoughts about Frank Turner, the
musher who has Run every Quest and set a trail record?
John: Frank is a busybody. Usually, this is
not a term of flattery. But in Frank's case it is. After more than 17,000 race miles, he
has assumed the respected status as Dean of the Quest. It's a position he takes seriously.
He watches carefully to make sure that everyone lives up to the best of the Quest's
traditions. He will butt in if he thinks someone might let down their dogs, themselves or
the race. Frank has earned a large following, and he makes time for everyone. Besides, he
is the most photogenic musher in the race - you see a picture of Frank and you see a real
Barbara: Would you share more of your impressions of the sled
dogs themselves, including the dogs on different teams? Did you have a favorite dog among
John: Well, I had a favorite dog. But he wasn't
racing. Brown Nose was a trapline dog on the team I borrowed to run some of the Quest
trail. Yes, he had a brown nose. But his name came from that old 3rd-grade cliché - he
was a brown-noser. When other dogs made clear that they knew I was a helpless rookie,
Brown Nose went out of his way to tell me, that's okay.
Among the race teams, Mike King of
Salcha, Alaska, had some of the most colorful dogs in the race - big, shaggy brutes from
New England, including one that had the mane of a lion. Bruce Lee's dogs were as limber
and graceful as any team I ever saw.
Perhaps my favorite dog was Aliy
Zirkle's Rubia - a liver-colored, short-haired, completely undistinguished dog by
appearance - but a dog with great heart and trail sense. Flood was another of her dogs -
named because she rescued him from a native village during a spring flood. He has a goofy
look to him. Every team should have a comic, right?
Andre Nadeau's Siberians were eye
catching - not just because of their great size, but because of their spirit. I remember
him arriving at the mid-way point of Dawson City. They had just run 500 miles. And they
were still lunging in harness.
Barbara: Andre Nadeau appears to have kept his own
counsel throughout the race, giving you less of an opportunity to tell his story as you
did many of the others. Looking back, is there more that you could share about Andre that
didn't make the book?
John: I kept thinking of one of those Clint
Eastwood spaghetti westerns. The rough-cut stranger arrives out of nowhere, inscrutable,
private, moody - but cut from a champion's cloth. Who is this guy? Everyone was asking.
And Andre wasn't answering. I'm still not sure whether this reflected his personality or
was a tactic. But he showed us all that there is more than one way to run a long-distance
Barbara: Were you aware that Nadeau was using the race
strategy that mushers driving Siberian sled dogs in the famous All Alaska Sweepstakes
used, in contrast to the "run faster, rest longer" strategy that the mushers
with "outside dogs" [dogs with hound and bird dog in them] used back then?
John: Yes, and Andre was not the first to try
this approach on the Quest. But everyone else had failed at it when the distances
stretched out more than 1,000 miles. What Andre did was two things: He divided the race
into two, back-to-back 500 milers. This mid-distance was his specialty. He knew that the
36-hour mandatory rest in Dawson was all his dogs needed to start the second race fresh.
He also proved that the dog was not
the weak-link in this strategy, but the musher. Since mushers get far less rest on the
trail than the dogs do, it's a rare human that can display the endurance of Nadeau. When
he cut rest times for dogs, he eliminated any chance of resting himself. Amazing.
Barbara: Do you have any recollections of how Bruce Lee's dogs and
Andre Nadeau's dogs looked at the end of the race? Given the big differences in Race
strategy, did you see differences in the dogs' condition after they crossed the finish
John: I remember both teams vividly. Except for
the size, color and configuration, they arrived in Fairbanks almost the same: A little
bewildered by the crowds and lights, but tails high. Happy dogs. Bruce and Andre's wives
were on hand, and that cheered the dogs too. This was a finish to make every fan proud.
Dogs did not drop in the snow or sag.
Barbara: Based on your many conversations with the mushers,
what did you learn about sled dog training and race strategy that you think other mushers
would find interesting?
John: My reply is based less on conversations than observations: I was surprised at
how mushers, in devoting themselves to their teams, shorted themselves on rest and food.
That slowed them down. And that, in turn, slowed the whole outfit down. Again and again, I
saw mushers depart from their strategies or fumble because they were punch-drunk. You
cannot really train for fatigue (or, at least, I don't think you can very effectively) but
are techniques that help you compensate. Bruce Lee, for instance, gave up coffee even
though he desperately wanted a cup because the ups and downs of caffeine would interfere
with the rhythms of his trail plan. He was careful to eat, disciplined at sleep. In
return, his dogs were rewarded with a clear-thinking musher.
A second thing: I think the strongest mushers
did not listen their hearts when they evaluated their teams while underway. A soft-hearted
musher might think that a reluctant dog will rebound and regain its spirits. Or, that a
young dog might get into the swing of things before long. Sometimes this happens. But
often, a dispirited dog brings down the whole team. Again, Bruce is the example. When his
primary leader seemed to lose zeal for the trail, Bruce dropped him without hesitation.
With some of the roughest trail yet to come, no decision could be more difficult. But
Bruce stuck with his plan. He wouldn't risk the fragile esprit of the team even for his
Barbara: What was your assessment of the mushers' care of
John: One or two mushers pushed too hard in the
opening days of the race. I recount the story of one of them in some detail. It was
painful to see dogs carried from the harness to veterinary triage. I do not think this was
intention, but more a matter of mushers pushing themselves too hard.
These were isolated exceptions. I
was moved to tears more than once by the sight of a musher, like big lumbering Jerry
Louden, working through his team at a rest stop at 30-below, massaging each of four feet
on 14 dogs, whispering to them, rubbing bellies, breathing each other's stale trail
breath. It wasn't Jerry that made me weep, but the look in the eyes of his dogs. They
wanted him there. They wanted to be with him. A warm cabin waited nearby with hot food.
But there was Jerry on his hands and knees, crawling dog-by-dog through his team, sitting
with each animal, and far longer than an ordinary human could endure with the smell of
woodsmoke and hot chili in the air. There was no other world but 90-feet of gangline, 14
dogs and one musher.
I also remember
rookie Brenda Mackey. She arrived at a checkpoint exhausted and trail-worn. Her dogs would
not eat. She was near despair and fought not to show it. If they would not eat, she would
have to scratch. She dug through her sled bag and found some different kind of food. Her
hands numb in the cold, she cooked another meal and dished it out, rubbing her hands over
the tired muzzles of her team. The dogs looked at her, looked at the food. They ate.
Barbara: Your approach to writing about the Quest was
refreshingly different from the style of "famous musher as told to" books. What
were two or three of your own personal goals in writing the book?
John: I am not a sports writer. And mushing is much more than a sport to those
who devote themselves to it. It's a way of life and a very old one - it's the way our
ancestors lived for tens of thousands of years: by the rhythms of nature, close to the
wild, in proximity to animals.
I had two goals: I wanted to
comprehend enough of this culture so that the people who lived it could see themselves in
the book. And for those who were uninitiated, I wanted to convey the joys of living on
that far edge, where rewards come by hard work, love and perseverance, but when they come,
they are so deep and primal as to give meaning to one's life. I would not trade the memory
of even 50 miles of trail for the fanciest new car. I didn't set out with the goal of
writing that lesson - but I was lucky enough to have learned it.
Barbara: Have you done any more mushing or are your sled dog
John: Between writing and now talking-up this book, I have shortchanged
myself trail time lately. But I see the northern lights in my dreams still. I'm
cooking up some plans for next spring right now. I could no more give up dogs and the
trail than I could give up streams and trees. They will always be part of my life.
Besides, I have a personal
connection now. Readers of "Yukon Alone" will recall that I fell in love with an
Alaskan woman during the Quest - the woman who ran the company that made cold-weather gear
for the mushers. Because of deadlines, the book doesn't tell how this romance turned out.
But I can tell you: Three months ago we were married. We have moved to the Pacific
Northwest, but Alaska will always be her home. You'll see us up there on a cold night
sometime with the lights snaking overhead and our hearts renewed.
Barbara: What's your next adventure?
John: I've set sail for the oceans. For many years the water was a place to
play. Now it has become my work. I never thought I would find a wilderness as engaging or
spacious as in Alaska and the Yukon, but I think I have. Nature is very wild in the oceans
and the adventures are staggering.
Barbara: What are your thoughts about the future
of distance sled dog racing, especially the Iditarod and Yukon Quest, given your
experiences during two Quests?
John: Money and fame have ruined many of our sporting
endeavors. Just look at college football. I hope that the billboard events of
long-distance mushing continue to attract people of ordinary means. The Quest arose
because the Iditarod had become too fancy and crowded. I hope it stays faithful to its
roots. The Iditarod is a wonderful spectacle, but some of its connection to raw nature has
been lost in the exhaust fumes of snowmachines and the roar of spectator planes.
The smaller, quieter scale of the Quest
appeals to me. One need not have a 100-dog kennel to be competitive. If that should
change, and the Quest become too big, I think you'll see mushers band together and create
still another contest that is part winter rendezvous, part camping trip and part race.
Barbara: Any other observations that you'd like to share with
people who read this interview?