A Story of Triumph and Regret from the World’s Toughest Sled Dog Race
Brian Patrick O’Donoghue
On March 2, 69 teams of mushers and their dogs left the starting point of the Iditarod Sled Dog
Marathon on their way across the Alaskan wilderness – over 1,000 miles – a reconstruction of the freight route to Nome and a celebration of part that sled dogs played in the settlement of our most rugged state. This year the trail has not been kind to mushers, with a lack of snow causing lots of damage to humans and sleds alike; only 58 teams are still on the trail, and some of the most venerated names in the sport have been forced to withdraw. It truly is a test of endurance, unlike any other. It will be another week before the eventual winner crosses under the burled oak finish line.
Yet even this heralded race is not the toughest one in the sport of sled dog racing. The Yukon Quest, running between Fairbanks, Alaska, and Whitehorse, Yukon, Canada, is often called the “toughest race in the world” because of the harsh winter conditions, difficult trail, and the limited support that competitors are allowed. This race, also over 1,000 miles, tests the meddle of teams of 6 to 14 dogs and their musher, running on frozen rivers, over four mountain ranges, and through isolated northern villages. Although the race is staffed by numerous volunteers and scrutinized by a fleet of veterinarians, the mushers themselves must virtually go it alone, with no outside help. It’s an amazing feat. For many, it’s hard to understand what drives a person to undertake such a grueling ordeal. However, once the spirit of sled dog racing grabs you, it’s like entering a world unlike any other, where man (or woman) and beast work together towards yes, a common goal. The dogs, superb athletes all, live to pull and compete; the mushers often assert that they are just another member of the pack.
I have read many wonderful books written about sled dog racing over the years, and have
recommended Gary Paulsen’s amazing “Winterdance: The Fine Madness of Running the Iditarod” to LitStackers in the past. This year, I’m recommending “Honest Dogs” by Brian Patrick O’Donoghue, who was a reporter for the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner when he decides to take on the brutal Yukon Quest six years after coming in last in the Iditarod (but finishing – a feat not to be dismissed). His quirky writing style, his love of the land, and his utter devotion to his dogs shine in this story full of wonder and despair, triumphs and disappointments, and always, always, a joy in the dogs that share the trail with him. It’s a fun read, especially now – with 58 mushers and their teams still on the trail in Alaska.