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Magnificent Mush

YUKON ALONE; The World's Toughest Adventure Race By John Balzar; Henry Holt: 302 pp., $25

March 26, 2000|TIM CAHILL | Tim Cahill is the author of numerous books, including, most recently, "Dolphins" and "Jaguars Ripped My Flesh." He is a columnist for Outside magazine

Dog-sled racing has always struck me as among the more completely moronic of sports, a kind of brain-dead athleticism engaged by social misfits and hermits--potential clock-tower snipers and mail bombers. The races are atavistic and aloof, conducted, as they are, mostly out of sight of potential spectators and, in any case, so sluggishly slow that interested spectators are likely to perish of boredom long before freezing to death. First-place prize money hardly compensates a winner for his or her expenses. Worse yet, sometimes dogs die, and there are those of fine sensibility, animal activists and others, who would ban the sport altogether. A long dog-sled race, or so I once thought, is an obscure exercise in masochism that allows dangerous people to risk their lives for a few bucks, much scorn and almost no notoriety. It is, in short, a terrific subject for a book.

You don't want a sports writer for this effort, someone who is likely to get carried away with the idea that the race and its outcome are at all significant. No, the author of such a book would have to be a bit warped and antisocial enough to hobnob with the solitary because a major question here is: "Who are these people?" You'd want a big-picture kind of guy who is dumb enough to learn to run a sled himself, love the land and maybe even fall in love with a local; conversely, and in order to actually cover the race, the writer would have to have some survival skills and be able to stay alive at 50 below. What you want here is an acutely disaffected literary journalist, preferably one with a sense of humor, along with a sensible stand on animal rights and some serious perspective.

John Balzar is a writer possessed of all those virtues and more. "Yukon Alone" is the luminescent book he wrote about the 1,023-mile Yukon Quest International Sled Dog Race, the second most famous sled dog race in the world. The Iditarod garners what ink editors care to spill on dog sled races, but the Yukon Quest, which bills itself as "the world's toughest adventure race," is by far the more telling and culturally significant event. And it is tougher: The mountain passes are higher, the temperatures colder, the isolation more profound.

Balzar knows a good story when he sees one. In a rather checkered career, he has been both a foreign correspondent and a political writer for the Los Angeles Times. The latter job, Balzar says, involves interviewing "gasbags" and shouting "inane questions at would-be presidents across a velvet rope." It is, he says, "not work to raise gooseflesh" and results, in Balzar's case anyway, in a condition he calls "cirrhosis of the spirit."

He quit politics and, at his request, began writing about the Northwest, including Alaska and Canada. The first year he covered the Yukon Quest, he volunteered as a vet's assistant, which meant taking dogs' temperatures with a rectal thermometer and cleaning up great frozen piles the animals had left behind in the dog yard. The second year he covered the race, Balzar was "demoted" to the unpaid position of press liaison, flack to a large contingent of reporters from Germany on an all-expenses-paid trip sponsored by the race's backer, a tire company from Frankfurt.

This was a thankless task in that the reporters had "no eye for what lies beneath the race." The entire press contingent, for instance, passed by the village of Pelly Crossing in Yukon Territory where the indigenous village elders had mushed the same trails 50 years ago, when dog sleds were the only means of transport. The people of the village were prepared for a visit from the press but ended up hurt and confused. "Why the hell did I ever let myself be cast as press handler?" Balzar muses. "If anyone knows what a pack of jerks reporters can be, it's me."

Cleaning up dog crap, he concludes, was far more honorable work. To Balzar, the "oddball winter culture of the Far North" was the story. It has "the power to fascinate--and inspire." The culture is epitomized in the mushers. There are some rough and antisocial characters, to be sure, but Balzar's portraits of these men and women are so compelling that I came to admire several of them, including rookie musher Aliy Zirkle, a former track and field athlete from Two Rivers, Alaska; as well as Wayne Hall--burned and scarred from a plane crash--who is a wilderness guide from Eagle, Alaska.

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