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A Conversation with John Balzar
Author of Yukon Alone

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ukon Alone, John Balzar's book about the famous Yukon Quest sled dog race, is an exciting combination of lively sports reporting and vivid character portrayal with a healthy dose of thrills and chills adventure. An award-winning roving reporter for the Los Angeles Times, Balzar was a Quest volunteer for the 1997 and 1998 races, giving him an insider's view of this classic long-distance sled dog competition. Your editor, Barbara Petura, interviewed John recently, gaining added insights on the 1998 race, the book, Quest mushers and dogs. Click here for the interview.

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Barbara Petura:   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 soughdough.

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 those racing?

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 dog race.

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 line?

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 favorite dog.

Barbara: What was your assessment of the mushers' care of their dogs?

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 days over?

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?

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John: Yes, may I express my thanks to you, and to the many mushers and mushing fans I've met in the lower 48. At bookstores and on radio-call in shows, people who know working dogs have made me feel welcome and convinced me that my efforts have been worthwhile. Up in Alaska and the Yukon, many mushers feel besieged by critics. I didn't know what might be in store for me when I went to the big cities to talk about dog mushing. Nothing has made me happier than to write to my friends up north and tell them what I found down here: Instead of pickets, I've met people with open minds, full of wonder. And I've met a surprising number who know what its like to be share a trail with a team of dogs.

John Balzar was interviewed via e-mail by
Barbara Petura, Webmaster,
on March 5, 2000. Thanks, John!

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Yukon Quest


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Iditarod & Quest Books   [ Top ]

turq-vsm.gif (920 bytes) Dashing Through the Snow: The Story of the Junior Iditarod
Sherry Shahan / Paperback / Published 1997. Search for used copy

turq-vsm.gif (920 bytes) Iditarod Dreams: A Year in the Life of Alaskan Sled Dog Racer Deedee Jonrowe, Lew Freedman & DeeDee Jonrowe / Paperback / Published 1995Order this book here

turq-vsm.gif (920 bytes) The Last Great Race: The Iditarod, Tim Jones / Paperback / Published 1988.  Order this book here

turq-vsm.gif (920 bytes) Race Across Alaska: First Woman to Win the Iditarod Tells Her Story, by Libby Riddles, Tim Jones / Paperback / Published 1988. Order this book here

turq-vsm.gif (920 bytes) Running North : A Yukon Adventure, by Ann Mariah Cook / Hardcover / Published 1998. Order this book here

turq-vsm.gif (920 bytes) Winterdance: The Fine Madness of Running the Iditarod, by
Gary Paulsen / Hardcover / Published 1994. Order this book here
turq-vsm.gif (920 bytes) Winterdance: The Fine Madness of Running the Iditarod, by
Gary Paulsen / Paperback / Published 1995. Order this book here
turq-vsm.gif (920 bytes) Yukon Quest: The 1,000-Mile Dog Sled Race Through the Yukon and Alaska, by John Firth / Paperback / Published 1998. Order this book here

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Iditarod Country: Exploring the Route of the Last Great Race,
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How-to & Training Books   [ Top ]

turq-vsm.gif (920 bytes) Mush : A Beginner's Manual of Sled Dog Training, by the Sierra Nevada Dog Drivers / Paperback / Published 1980. Order this book here

turq-vsm.gif (920 bytes) The Speed Mushing Manual: How to Train Racing Sled Dogs, by Jim Welch / Paperback / Published 1989.  Order this book here

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Lessons My Sled Dog Taught Me :
Humor and
Heartwarming Tails from Alaska's Mushers
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by Tricia Brown / Hardcover / Published 1998) 

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