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John Balzar’s Snow Daze

John BalzarBetween Whitehorse in the Yukon Territory and Fairbanks, Alaska, the course of the Yukon Quest International Dog Sled Race stretches 1,023 miles over frozen rivers and icy mountain passes, through spruce forests and meager backwoods outposts - "wildlands settled only here and there, and even then barely settled at all," as John Balzar writes in Yukon Alone.

Established in 1984 in counterpoint to the more famous Iditarod, the Yukon Quest is a colder, darker race (taking place a month earlier and farther north), inspired by the trails of the Klondike Gold Rush. In February 1998, thirty-four men, four women, and five hundred thirty dogs set off from the corner of First Avenue and Main Street in Whitehorse and disappeared into the tundra. Eleven days later, the first would reach Fairbanks. The twenty-sixth and last to finish needed another four and a half days.

"I had the dumb luck as a writer to stumble onto something that didn't photograph," Balzar explained in the relative comfort of the Powells.com Annex, hot coffee in hand. "You see pictures of dog mushing, and they're really boring: starting lights and a crowd and some dogs lunging. That's pretty much our image of it. It's hardly the truth at all."

In his first book, the award-winning L.A. Times correspondent finds nineteenth century adventure in the unforgiving cold of the Far North. An addictive concoction of history, risk, character, and local color, Yukon Alone has been hailed as "the best book on the Far North since Barry Lopez's Arctic Dreams."

Dave: I finished Yukon Alone about a week ago, and in the interim I thought I'd read some other accounts of dog sled racing to see it from other perspectives, but I was surprised to find a real lack of literary reporting on the subject. Gary Paulsen's Winterdance and a book by Brian Patrick O'Donoghue, My Lead Dog Was a Lesbian, were recommended to me, but they're both quite a bit different - and both focus on the Iditarod, the bigger, better-known race.

John Balzar: Nonfiction writers tend to mass around certain kinds of stories. How many books will be written about the Bush campaign? I was lucky enough to stumble upon a story that was mythical in dimension, at least as I saw it. It conjures our greatest myth about ourselves: the frontier. And like you, I was surprised that people hadn't stumbled on it before.

I could have written a sailing book and gone up against Joseph Conrad - or I could write about dog mushing. There's a lot less competition.

Dave: The subject demands a certain amount of commitment. Plenty of writers enjoy sailing. There aren't so many who are willing to go into the Far North in February, much less drive a dog sled for fifty miles.

Balzar: Well, I've been kicking around Alaska for about a dozen years now. I kept finding people who would say, "You can go deeper. You can get closer to the real Alaska." And I began hearing about this dog race that had been started in counterpoint to the more famous Iditarod because people wanted something more authentic. I kept hearing about it as if it were a wellspring from which people up there drew measures of themselves.

Dave: When you covered the race for the book, in 1998, the Quest appeared to be on the cusp of becoming a more commercial event. Fulda, the German tire maker, paid a large sum of money to sponsor the race and flew in reporters to bring the story back to Europe. The event seemed to be getting away from the locals. How has that evolved since?

Balzar: I think there's an ebb and flow. This is a culture that represents the last remnants of our frontier heritage. That's both good and bad. There are exhilarating moments of joy in the outdoors and then there's the temptation, going back to the Gold Rush, to get rich quick. Easy money. It's tough living up there.

The German sponsor thought they could market a tire called "The Yukon" because Germans have an affinity, apparently, for the area. They've since dropped out, I'm happy to report. Another sponsor came in which was more suitable, I think: Sorel, the cold-weather boot maker. Then they went bankrupt. Now the Quest is back where it was: local homegrown people, local homegrown sponsors.

Dave: You point out that you're not a sportswriter by trade, and I think the book speaks to that. More than simple sports stories, Yukon Alone reminded me of books in our Americana section, titles like Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, books about eccentric, old fashioned, American subcultures.

Balzar: This is not some new pop culture. The people up there are living nineteenth century lives, far from roads, in proximity to nature and by the rhythms of seasons.

The reaction so far to the book has been uplifting. The more urbanized we get, the more bombarded by television and the Internet, there's a part of us that cries out to escape. Even if we can't go back, it helps to hear about people who have gone, who are there and have stayed there. How they live and their values.

Dave: The race itself is almost impossible to follow; you admit that right up front. The racers are hundreds of miles apart, alone in the wilderness for very long stretches of time, far from cameras or race officials. Yet the book is filled with adventure and excitement - you write many of the scenes from within the action. We follow Bruce Lee up that hill; we're out on the cold trail with Aliy. Clearly the racers were in no position to talk to you during the race, so how did you go about recreating those scenes?

Balzar: I was in the proximity of mushers all the time, but as you say, people are spread out. Also, most of the day is night - seventeen and a half hours of darkness. So a lot of the work involved preparing with people: helping them, packing their dog food, becoming part of their culture, learning to mush with them, then watching the race as I could along the trail and later asking them to help me reconstruct it.

There are some stops. There's one at the half-way point for thirty-six hours, and people do rest up and sort of emerge from their sleepless coma enough to complete a human sentence, more or less. But during the race, you're right, there's not a lot of commentary. It's not golf.

Dave: The racers hardly sleep; they hardly eat. They're basically running on fumes for ten or eleven or, in some cases, as many as sixteen days. What are they like when they finish?

Shut-eyeBalzar: Like zombies. It's an interesting endeavor in that dogs run and rest about equally. If they run two hours, they rest two hours. But the person running those dogs has to melt snow to get water - you have to keep the dogs hydrated - thaw dog food, take their booties off - the dogs wear booties to protect their paws from the abrasive quality of the snow, which at forty-below is like sandpaper. And each dog needs some love, some attention. Your life depends on their willingness to move on. By the time you do that for fourteen dogs, it's almost time to put the booties back on and start back over again.

So how much rest does a racer get during those two hours? That goes on around the clock. You can train for almost anything in the world, but you can't train for exhaustion. People start hallucinating. It's a real endurance contest. Mind over matter.

Dave: What was it like to run a length of the course on a sled?

Lookin' goodBalzar: It's both majestic and unsettling. I'm not an expert. I went up there and I got beat up pretty bad. One day I had five stitches in my head, a detached retina, and frostbite, from a sled crash. Running a dog sled isn't a natural thing; it takes some skill. If you're out alone - I was with another musher but often he was in another space, far off ahead - you're essentially alone with these animals, and you have to keep them going. I'd trained for this for a year, but was I going to be able to pull it off?

On the other hand, imagine the world all around you, black and white - snow, ice, shadows, rocks, trees - and the sky is exploding in great shivering belts of color, the Northern Lights. You almost think you can hear them, they're so vivid in the cold. It's so dramatic. You're bundled up and protected in layers of clothes, parkas; your body is its own furnace, and you feel very small in the world.

Dave: You mention that the Athabascans believe that if you whistle, the Northern Lights will come closer. That really brought out for me the otherworldly nature of the landscape you describe. It almost seems like a fairy tale or fantasy.

A popular book around here these days is Philip Pullman's Golden Compass, much of which takes place in vaguely Nordic lands. I was reminded of it reading Yukon Alone, that sense of being so far north that it's a different planet from the one I know.

Balzar: I was not prepared for the sensation. When I began to witness and experience this kind of close embrace of nature in its dramatic, monumental scale, I thought to myself, Is this real?

You see pictures of dog mushing, and they're really boring: starting lights and a crowd and some dogs lunging. That's pretty much our image of it. It's hardly the truth at all. A hundred yards down the trail you've entered the nineteenth century.

Most of what we know about that part of the country and mushing dogs comes from Jack London, who wrote about cold as danger. To Build a Fire: Oh my God, if you don't build this fire, you're going to die! Well, that's part of it, but he forgot to tell us how strangely beautiful it is. At forty-below, during those times when the sun is out, or even when the Northern Lights are in the sky, the air is so incredibly dry it's like getting a new pair of glasses. There's no moisture in the air. All of a sudden, your vision is extra sharp.

No Facilities Next 200 Miles

And the sense of remoteness! I once wrote a story wherein I searched for the place in the lower forty-eight states where you'd be farthest from a road. That turned out to be in southwestern Yellowstone Park. The farthest you can get from a road is 20.3 miles, about the distance from downtown to the airport in a major American city. Up there in the Far North, you're a hundred-fifty, two hundred miles from a road. Now add that element of winter and the drama, and you feel very, very isolated.

Dave: You spend quite a bit of time reporting on the towns along the race route. Dawson City, you note, was once the largest city north of Seattle. The towns along the race route and various outposts in the bush provide another whole thread in the narrative.

Balzar: Those are great, colorful corners of the world. Dawson City now, if you take the pickup trucks out, looks a lot in the winter as it did when Jack London was there. Some things haven't changed. The trails cover those same Gold Rush trails, and this race directly comes out of those traditions.

This is an old endeavor, an old way to get around up there. Racing dogs goes back to two men who each found a gold nugget in the same stream bed and tore all hell into town trying to stake their claim - except the town was fifty miles away and it became an epic race. Jack London wrote about that, and it's true.

That's what appealed to me: the combination of nature and the old culture that really takes us back to what America was. And I think there's a lot to learn about the Gold Rush history. When you start thinking about the value of money and the value of adventure - that's what was at play back then, and it's still the case today. Look at people's lives: ski stores and snowboarding and scuba diving and all the rest, examples of people trying to connect with "the real world" as it were.

Close to natureWe evolved next to nature, living with weather and seasons and wild animals and the rest. It's only in the last hundred years that we've developed the air-conditioned office and automobiles, the forty-hour work week. We're fish out of water. We didn't evolve to answer life the way it now exists. We evolved to be close to nature, so when you venture up there where nature is real, it's really a homecoming.

Dave: A dog died during the race you covered. To your credit, it's a heartbreaking scene. You use it to raise issues about whether or not mushing is cruel to the dogs. If people didn't evolve to spend their lives in air-conditioned offices, I think it's even more obvious that dogs didn't evolve to spend their days alone in small homes, yet many people who would think nothing of chaining their dog in the yard day after day would argue that sled racing is cruel to dogs.

It's not just our relationship to nature but our relationship to dogs which is at the center of this book.

Balzar: It's essential. I think animal rights activists have done us all a favor. Their vigilance has made mushing a more responsible sport. It's inconceivable today for anyone to be the kind of cruel musher that existed not so long ago.

Do dogs die on this trail? Once in a while they do. It's a thousand miles; it's tough. But that then raises the next question: Is mushing inherently cruel? In my career, I've written a great deal about the concerns of the animal rights movement. I consider myself in good standing with them. But I think they're wrong if they say that dog mushing is inherently cruel.

This bond with dogs goes back thousands of years. There is no relationship I've ever seen where humans are so close to animals. It's one of those rare times when you put yourself in dependence of your dogs. A hundred miles down the trail, nobody's getting out alive unless those dogs and that musher work together.

These aren't dogs who live lonely lives; they know the joy and the camaraderie of the pack. Dogs came from wolves; they run in packs; they run at night. It's not just the humans going back in evolutionary time; it's the dogs, too. I wouldn't have written a book to glorify the sport if in two years I wasn't convinced that good mushers are among the best friends dogs have ever had.

Dave: Do you have any pets?

Balzar: I do. I have two cats.

Dave: Hah! I figured as a writer, traveling a lot, you might be more apt to have cats.

Balzar: I spend a lot of time in the outdoors, but I live in the city. Having dogs in the city is problematic. Sometimes dogs require more attention, and I don't have that to give them now, though I miss being around dogs a lot.

Dave: I was surprised how small the race dogs are. I thought to run a 1000-mile race, these must be big strong dogs, when in fact they weigh only fifty pounds or so.

Dogs in BootsBalzar: You think if it's going to be forty-below, they're going to have giant shaggy coats, and they don't. They look like dogs in the city park, and you think, How can that be?

What's amazing about these dogs is the energy they generate. A single dog consumes in a day on the trail about the same as twenty-five quarter pound cheeseburgers, about 10,000 calories. They burn through food like you wouldn't believe. They generate a lot of heat. The only real protection they wear are the booties on their feet - and when it gets really cold, the exposed part of the boy dogs might warrant protection. But if it gets above zero, dogs start to overheat, and oddly that's as much a concern as getting to cold at fifty below.

Dave: You've been working for the L.A. Times for a long time now...

Balzar: ...twenty years.

Dave: And this is your first book. As a writer, in terms of how you write, this must have been a radical change in some ways.

Balzar: In all ways, it was the most topsy-turvy thing I've done. I'm used to much shorter rhythms. I work on a story for three weeks, a month, a long story maybe two months. When you go out to write a book, it's like raising a family; it doesn't go away. Sometimes when I was halfway through I'd be thinking to myself, You've waited twenty years to write a book, and now you've written one about dog mushing. What sense does that make? But it was the most astonishing endeavor.

On the TrailI'd written a story about the race for the L.A. Times, and something happened that has really never happened to me in all my years in journalism: people tracked me down at home, and they cried - a dog had died, and the readers were brokenhearted, but also uplifted by this adventure. I realized I wasn't the only person nutty enough to be blown away by this story. I had to go back again.

Instead of weeks, then, I spend a year up there, so I actually spent a total of two winters trying to get close and become familiar with that culture. But things happen when you do that, some things I wasn't prepared for. For instance, I fell in love. The only way I can write the story is to explain what's happening to me - I'm the reader's stand-in - and I spent part of this trail distracted by the fact that I'd fallen in love with a woman. It turns out that the love affair stuck. We ended up in Portland because this is her home. So this book changed where I live and whom I live with, among other things. That's irrelevant to writing, but in a way it's not. The book was a marvelous experience.

Dave: Are you working on another book now?

Balzar: I am, but I've decided to go warmer. I'm writing about my adventures trying to fathom the oceans.

Dave: What led you to that?

Balzar: I've been writing adventure stories for the L.A. Times for six years now. I write about people's encounters with nature. Again, it looked to me like opportunity.

Last year, you could find perhaps fifteen thousand reporters in Los Angeles for the Democratic National Convention. But you look to the west, out into the ocean, and say, "Wait a minute, there's three thousand miles of open ocean and there are no reporters there."

The oceans are important to our lives and our continued existence on the planet, and it's a heck of a lot of fun out there. It's the biggest wilderness in the world. So I'm out there intermittently trying to enjoy it, understand it, and meditate on why people are drawn to sea.

Dave: You've done a lot of different kinds of writing. First you covered politics, then you were a foreign correspondent, and for years now you've been an outdoors or adventure writer. Having written about those other topics earlier in your career, how do you look back on them now?

Balzar: The traditional ladder up in journalism is fairly narrow. You start on a rung somewhere, and chances are that's where you're going to end up. You specialize, you get a lot of sources, maybe you become a columnist. Political writing is one of those favored places in journalism. Many people think it's the most important job of all.

When I was young, it was the most important job, but politics has changed. It's become less human and much more electronic; it's posing. A dozen years ago I realized that didn't leave much room for writers, certainly not newspaper writers. It became much more like secretarial work. I was kept apart from the people I was covering by a velvet rope and Secret Service agents. I didn't feel close to what I was writing about.

You have a lot of rhythms in that kind of work - political seasons. Your life is essentially planned for you. But finally I said, "Enough! I can't bear this!" I took a dare with myself to reinvent my life and move to Seattle and roam around the West, which I love, to see what I could find. That was really scary, but it became habit forming once I realized there are so many stories out there that nobody's telling, stories that have meaning. I'll never turn back.

Dave: And all the while you've been at the Times?

Balzar: I did take a leave. Newspapers generally support the idea that books reflect well on the newspaper. Newspaper writers who publish books are considered writers of stature. The new-age term is synergy. So they've been very tolerant of that. They've also been very tolerant of keeping me on the road, traveling around the world, which is an expensive proposition, digging up stories that aren't going to lead the NBC Nightly News but are well worth the 25 cents somebody pays for the newspaper.

Dave: In your reading, do you find yourself predisposed to books mostly, or shorter length essays?

Balzar: I'm a binge reader. I try to keep at least two or three things going at once. I contribute quite often to the L.A. Times Book Review, so I try to stay moderately current with trends in today's publishing.

I search for those books that somehow got overlooked but were really great books, which is one reason why it's such a joy to be here at Powell's. I love that sensation of either stumbling upon it or following somebody's recommendation, finding a book that's so much better than the other books I've just read. It's like gold mining, to find this nugget there.

At the moment I'm on a kick trying to read the stuff I was forced to read in college that didn't go down so well when I was looking for dates and fun. Last year, I reread Melville and this year I'm rereading Conrad. I'm having a blast.

John Balzar visited Powell's eastside store on Hawthorne Boulevard on January 16, 2001 to celebrate the paperback release of Yukon Alone. A few days prior, he'd browsed downtown at the City of Books sat for a while across Tenth Avenue. Special thanks to John for lending us the photographs on this page.

÷ ÷ ÷

Dave interviews authors for Powell's. He created our Out of the Book film series. He likes cats and dogs.

Books mentioned in this post

Dave is the author of Out of the Book, Volume 3: State by State

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