Review: Winterdance: The Fine Madness of Running the Iditarod

After finishing up Into the Wild about a week ago, I found myself still thinking about Alaska and the pull of the Great White North. I remembered a book on my To-Be-Read pile that was set in Alaska, so I dusted it off and settled in for a WILD RIDE!!

Winterdance: The Fine Madness of Running the Iditarod by Gary Paulsen is a humorous non-fiction account of the joy, beauty, terror, danger, thrills, and utter lunacy of running the 1180-mile dogsled race from Anchorage to Nome.

From moose attacks and dog bites to crackling sea ice and sheer cliffs, from suckholes (frozen whirlpools) and 90 mile winds to murderous mushers and bitter cold, the Iditarod is not for wimps. It takes a certain kind of crazy for a person to attempt such a formidable test of their physical, mental, and emotional limits.

The story begins in the woods of Minnesota, where Paulsen’s obsession with his dogs and the beauty of the woods becomes so alluring to him that he forsakes all else in order to run dogs. He bonds so thoroughly with them that he begins to live with them, eat, sleep, and be with them 24/7. The dogs are born to run; semi-wild creatures (some part wolf), snapping, snarling, and fighting with each other while slowly becoming a cohesive team.

Paulsen crashes and careens around Minnesota, running the dogs for hundreds of miles before the Iditarod starts to take shape and form as a real possibility in his mind. The community gets behind him and gives him donations of money and gear. One person donates a truck and actually drives him to Alaska for the race.

If this was fiction, you might be rolling your eyes thinking, “No way could all these things happen!” But against every possible obstacle, and with fierce determination, Paulsen gets to Anchorage, runs the race, and miraculously lives through it. What a treat to be along for this white-knuckle ride!

Review: Into the Wild by Jon Krakauer

Who hasn’t thought, however briefly, of leaving the rat race behind and getting closer to nature?

Into the Wild by Jon Krakauer is a nonfiction account of Chris McCandless, aka Alexander Supertramp, a bright, 24 year old college graduate who gives all his money to charity and drops out of society on an Alaskan quest. Leaving his family and friends behind, he tells no one where he’s going. For 3 years, he wanders, having adventures and preparing for Alaska. He makes it to Alaska and walks into ‘the wild’ with 10 lbs of rice and not a whole lot more. He survives the Alaskan wilderness for 16 weeks before succumbing to starvation.

Was he stupid? No. Was he suicidal? I don’t think so. So how did this happen?

Jon Krakauer attempts to answer that through research and interviews with McCandless’ family and those who met him during his “lost” years. He makes comparisons to other “adventurers” and assorted nutballs who did similar things, with similarly disastrous results. It is a well written account of what may have happened to Chris during his odyssey. Granted, much of it is speculation, but Krakauer’s research is thorough and was made easier by the fact that McCandless left an indelible impression on those he met.

He felt things deeply, passionately. He stayed in written contact with people he met only briefly. People gave him rides, boots, jobs, sandwiches, advice. In one case, an elderly gentleman was so affected by him that he offered to adopt him. He brought out a protective instinct in acquaintances. Maybe they could see what he was.. a bright, caring, idealistic, naïve, ill-prepared wanderer who needed help.

I think my opinion of Into the Wild might have been different in my youth. Maybe I could have related better to Chris’ wanderlust. But, as a parent, I had so many mixed emotions. For almost 3 years, this kid (ok, sorry, Young Adult) wandered the western states without so much as a phone call or a postcard to his parents or sister. 3 years! I couldn’t help thinking, “Grow up! Call your mom!” This was not a kid from a broken home; he was not abused or neglected. He just selfishly wanted to be lost. And so he was..

For another book set in Alaska, check out my review of Winterdance: The Fine Madness or Running the Iditarod