2 December, 2022

LitStack Recs: Top reads & Winterdance

by Gary Paulsen

For this week’s recommendation, I’m going to revisit a wonderful “winter” read. There’s always hope that we’ll get our fair share of snow and cold this season – not only good for skiers, snowmobilers and skaters (and skijorers and ice fishermen and snow-shoers), but also for those of us who love curling up in an easy chair with a mug of hot cocoa and a good book. So in the spirit of hope, I’d like to share with you one of my favorite of those good books, this one written by Minneapolis native Gary Paulsen.

Gary Paulsen is perhaps best known to young readers for his Brian’s Saga series of books (including the Newberry Award winner, Hatchet). But it was his 1994 book Winterdance that opened up a new world for me, that was to become a passion of mine for many years: sled dog racing.

Ah, sled dog racing! Where teams of winter-hardy canines who live to work, who love to pull, are harnessed to a sled piloted by some hardy (or foolhardy!) human, and fly across the ice and snow for the pure joy of running as a pack, with a purpose! True poetry in motion, full of strength and incredible power and beauty. To see it up close, to be part of it, is astonishing and amazing. Many books have tried to capture the spirit of sled dog racing, but few come close. One of those that comes the closest is Winterdance.

Aptly subtitled The Fine Madness of Running the Iditarod, Winterdance recounts author Gary Paulsen’s own attempt, at age 43, to take on Alaska’s daunting sled dog marathon: a 1,100 mile race from Anchorage to Nome in the dead of winter. With a team of 16 dogs and almost no experience, Paulsen pursues a dream that pushes him to the limits of his endurance, both physical and mental. But more than just an account of his harrowing 17 day journey, it is a testament to the bond between man and dog, a celebration of the beauty of nature (both peaceful and fierce), a study in perseverance, and an inspiration to all who have struggled to come to terms with life and one’s place in it.

“Do you like the race so far?’

I looked at her, trying to find sarcasm, but she was serious; she really wanted to know. And I thought of how to answer her.

I had gotten lost, been run over by a moose, watched a dog get killed, seen a man cry, dragged over a third of the teams off on the wrong trail, and been absolutely hammered by beauty while all this was happening. (It was, I would find later, essentially a normal Iditarod day — perhaps a bit calmer than most.) I opened my mouth.

‘I …’

Nothing came. She patted my arm and nodded. ‘I understand. It’s so early in the race. There’ll be more later to talk about …’

And she left me before I could tell her that I thought my whole life had changed, that my basic understanding of values had changed, that I wasn’t sure if I would ever recover, that I had seen god and he was a dog-man and that nothing, ever, would be the same for me again, and it was only the first true checkpoint of the race.

I had come just one hundred miles.”

Poignant, insightful, often hilarious, and full of danger, excitement and wonder, Winterdance embodies the spirit of adventure and beautifully relates one man’s love for the creatures who make his life meaningful.

For those of us who embrace winter and revel in the snow and cold of the season, Winterdance is a marvelous reinforcement of living in the Great White North. For those who prefer sun, sand and much warmer environs, you will still thrill to this wonderful, true story – and you just might become a fan of sled dog racing yourself, even if you follow it from afar.

—Sharon Browning


  • Lauren Alwan

    Lauren Alwan’s fiction has appeared in the O. Henry Prize Stories, the Southern Review, the Alaska Quarterly Review, StoryQuarterly, in the Bellevue Literary Review. She is the recipient of a First Pages Prize, the Goldenberg Prize for Fiction, and.a citation of Notable in Best American Essays. Her essays have appeared in ZYZZYVA, Catapult, World Literature Today, The Rumpus, The Millions, Writer's Digest, and others. She is a prose editor at the museum of americana, an online literary review. Follow her on Twitter at @lauren_alwan and learn more at www.laurenalwan.com