57 pages 1 hour read

Gary Paulsen

Winterdance: The Fine Madness of Running the Iditarod

Nonfiction | Book | YA | Published in 1994

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First published in 1994, Winterdance: The Fine Madness of Running the Iditarod is a nonfiction young adult book by Gary Paulsen, who has won several awards for his outdoor adventure stories. The first-person narrative recounts Paulsen’s life as a novice dog-sled runner who takes on the challenge of Alaska’s iconic Iditarod race. The special cross-species relationship between Paulsen and his canine companions steers him through the perils of Alaska’s harsh terrain as he overcomes his earlier lack of confidence about his abilities. Paulsen injects gallows humor throughout the book, often poking fun at calamities that result from his own inexperience and nature’s surprises.

At the beginning of the book, Paulsen runs dogs to gather firewood, trap, and hunt while living in a cabin in northern Minnesota. His relationship with the dogs grows closer, and his motivation for running them soon changes because of his love for nature and the outdoors. Paulsen gives up trapping and hunting after witnessing animal suffering caused by careless trappers. He starts running the dogs for the pure joy of it and to immerse himself in nature. When his wife, Ruth, mentions the Iditarod race, Paulsen realizes that he wants to run the 1,180-mile dog-sled marathon.

Paulsen’s preparation for the race results in situations that are both dangerous and comic. In Canada, he purchases three cantankerous dogs named Devil, Ortho, and Murphy. After the dogs tear up their kennel, Paulsen rides in the back of the truck to keep them from jumping out. The dogs fight with each other and chew up Paulsen to the point that he starts to bite them back. During practice runs, the unexpected appearances of wild animals create surprising and sometimes disastrous results. One night on the trail, Paulsen thinks he is hallucinating when he sees nine dogs sitting by the fire when he brought only eight. The extra dog turns out to be a coyote who inexplicably befriends the dogs and stays with them for a while. The skunks they encounter are not as friendly; they spray Paulsen with their putrid perfume before Devil eats them.

When Paulsen comes back to the house stinking of skunk, his wife politely suggests he stay outside in the kennel with the dogs for a couple of days. Paulsen discovers this arrangement has the benefit of helping him to bond with the dogs better. He even gets the hyper-aggressive Devil to wag his tail once.

Paulsen, Ruth, and the dogs endure a grueling eight-day road trip to Alaska in a donated 1960 Chevy truck. The temperature sinks to 60 degrees below zero, and they have to put chains on the tires to scale ice mountains at two miles an hour. They finally arrive in Anchorage, where Paulsen is briefed on some of the more treacherous parts of the Iditarod trail.

Chaos reigns on the first day of the race, thanks in part to Paulsen’s erroneous last-minute decision to switch lead dogs. The new lead dog, Nelson, goes off course and takes Paulsen and the team on an unguided tour of Anchorage residential backyards. Paulsen finally manages to stop the sled and puts Cookie, the dog who was leading his team in practice runs, back in the lead. She saves the day, finding the trail and leading the dogs back on course.

From there, the race becomes a roller-coaster ride of near disasters and recoveries, with brutal weather conditions and treacherous terrain testing the team’s limits. However, somehow, they make it to each checkpoint. They get lost during the Skwentna segment when a snowmachine track confuses Cookie, and she leads the team, as well as 27 other teams, 60 miles off the trail into a mountain range. During the same segment, a moose attacks Paulsen and kills another musher’s lead dog. At the end of the day, Cookie redeems herself when she turns on a side trail and finds the checkpoint when an exhausted Paulsen was about to go past it. A fall in Dalzell Gorge knocks Paulsen unconscious, and he considers quitting, but the dogs inspire him to keep going. Fierce wind and a snowstorm force them to camp out in the interior. Paulsen witnesses a man murder a dog at Don’s Cabin and reports the incident at the next checkpoint. Paulsen can barely stand the brutal cold of the Yukon River Valley, while the dogs find it refreshing. Finally, the team almost falls through thin ice in Norton Sound, but Cookie alerts Paulsen to the danger by lifting her tail. Paulsen, who has learned to tell when Cookie senses danger, then commands the team out of the danger area.

Along the way, friendly villagers, checkpoint checkers, and other mushers provide hospitality and camaraderie. A cafe in McGrath gives Paulsen five free servings of ham, eggs, and hash browns simply because he is running the race. A nine-year-old boy in Shageluk serves Paulsen and the other mushers free moose chili. Paulsen grows closer to the dogs and starts to see things from their perspective. He even eats dog food and uses dog ointments on his own wound. He expresses complete contentment with his new life with the dogs and cannot imagine going back to the way he lived before. He relishes his new instinctual knowledge about the wilderness and has completely abandoned his earlier self-doubts about his dog-sledding abilities.

When the team reaches Nome and hears the sirens announcing they have reached the finish line, Paulsen is a physical wreck with a sore back and hips. However, he has no regrets and vows to run another Iditarod, which he does. Only a heart condition keeps him from running a third race.