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What happens when a woman and her husband move their family from New Hampshire to Alaska to train a team of purebred Siberian Huskies for the world's toughest dogsled race, the Yukon Quest? They endure thousands of miles of lonely training in the Yukon trying to avoid thin ice, wolves, and rogue moose; they put up with the amused skepticism of Alaskan locals; and they pit themselves against the ultimate, fickle adversary--nature. RUNNING NORTH is the true story of how Ann Cook, her husband, George, and their young daughter, Kathleen, moved to Alaska and how their Siberians became the first team from the lower forty-eight states to finish the Yukon Quest. It tracks George on his horrific journey through the Yukon, recording the frostbite, the hallucinations that come with exhaustion, the wolves, and the nights out on the ice at minus ninety degrees Fahrenheit. This is the great story of man struggling against nature and surviving. But unlike most accounts of high adventure that center solely on the adventurer and the quest, RUNNING NORTH is also the story of Ann Cook, who drove the truck and carried the gear and kept the family together. In the tradition of MY OLD MAN AND THE SEA, she tells both stories in simple, elegant prose that reveals the tragedy, joy, and folly that lie on either side of the curtain separating the adventurer from the world left behind. They run up against crazy landlords, win over gruff neighbors, drive a broken-down truck that sucks oil like Alaskans suck coffee, listen to a radio show that keeps trappers in contact with the world, meet mysterious fishermen who appear without notice and disappear without a sign, fight with a young cousin who will betray them in the end, protect their young daughter from the dangers of their new wild world, and stare awestruck at the wide sweep of Alaskan landscape. RUNNING NORTH is the story of two very different adventures on the edge: one among the racers braving the Yukon and the other among the people they leave behind.
|Publisher:||Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill|
|Sold by:||Barnes & Noble|
|File size:||2 MB|
About the Author
Read an Excerpt
Anyone who has ever been to Alaska remembers the light. There is sometimes too much of it, and sometimes not enough. The land seems to be in a perpetual state of sunrise or sunset. There is always a pink-blue glow in the sky. Trees are silhouetted. Clouds and mountaintops are often rimmed with golden sunbeams. Even after dark, there is magic in the sky.
It is the light that controls the coming and going of Alaskans; not just the human Alaskans, but all living things in the territory. There are long summer days for the gathering of food, and brief winter days for hibernation. The power of nature is strong there: ever-present and overwhelming in the way it supports life and in the way it takes life away.
My husband and I are sled dog drivers, "mushers" in sled dog parlance, and we went to Alaska to train our team to race in the Yukon Quest, a thousand-mile challenge billed as the world's toughest race. We drove nearly five thousand miles from our home in New Hampshire in a truck and trailer that carried us, our three-year-old daughter Kathleen, our handler Sandy, and thirty-two Siberian Huskies. We drove into Alaska at a time when many people drive out. Labor Day had passed, and the snowbirds, as those who go south to escape the cold are called, were headed
out in camper trailers, vans, and trucks. On long stretches of the Alaska Highway, ours was the sole vehicle they met. We were traveling into the darkness that they were leaving behind.
Our summer had been spent making preparations for the trip. We were, in essence, taking a leave of absence from the life we had known for fourteen years. We put jobs on hold, gathered sponsors for our team, made and bought necessary equipment, and said a lot of temporary good-byes. To our friends and relatives, setting off for the Great Land was a huge undertaking fraught with risk. To George and me, it was
simply the final step in an adventure we began years ago. We'd been "heading north" in attitude and behavior for a long time.
As small children, George and I both thrilled to stories of pioneers and explorers. George, the only child of older parents, and I, a youngest child who trailed my siblings by a gap of five years, spent long, lone hours wandering lawns, fields, and forests, pretending we were forging off with Lewis and Clark, Admiral Byrd, or Charles Darwin.
We met in boarding school. We were in our early teens when we tried out for the same rowing team. Our instant friendship, which in later years turned to courtship and marriage, was based on a love of athletics, adventure, and teamwork.
In our school community, we were able to act out our dreams of expeditions by organizing real outings for ourselves and our classmates, and by participating in the modern adventure of traveling with a competing team.
When we worked together we had the effect of pushing each other toward peak performance. If we were bicycling somewhere, we would inevitably exchange a certain glance and start to race. If we were hiking, we'd rush each other up the trail. Underlying all our needling and fun, rivalry and competition, was our admiration for each other's ability to set and achieve goals. In our college years, I rowed in international competition. George became the captain of an intercollegiate lacrosse team.
Graduate school, and later George's job with the State Department of Environmental Protection, brought us to the outskirts of Hartford, Connecticut. We bought a fixer-upper home and really fixed it. Our goal at the time was to move up in the world enough to move out to the country. We wanted land, animals, and a family.
A bit ahead of schedule, we purchased a rugged, free-spirited Siberian Husky as our pet. We didn't realize at the time that Mocha, as she was named, would be the weaver of the threads of our youthful dreams. In her breed's athleticism and vitality, we discovered a four-footed reflection of ourselves. We began to study her breed, to steep ourselves in the lore of the arctic and investigate the role these dogs played in the settling of distant lands.
This led me to a copy of Jack London's Call of the Wild. The book contained vague illustrations of sled dogs in harness, and I had to guess how the tracings were fastened to the dogs. But after toiling over a piece of canvas strapping for several days, I was ready to begin a grand experiment.
Our yard was covered with little more than an inch of slushy Connecticut snow, when I hitched Mocha in her homemade harness to a child's wooden sled. I called Mocha to follow me and she pulled the sled with ease until she realized it was following her. Then she panicked and ran to escape the pursuing monster. The lightweight sled actually began to catch up with her. Within minutes, she gave in to the sled and crouched, trembling, beside it. I rushed to reassure her, and while I was asking her forgiveness, I spied our woodpile. I decided to weigh down the sled with a couple of pieces of cordwood and ask Mocha to try it all again. After some coaxing, she put her back into it. The more excited I became over her little triumph, the more delighted she was to pull the sled.
This wood hauling became a ritual with the two of us. We both enjoyed the outings, and I enjoyed getting some work out of a pet. Spurred on by this activity, I took the whole idea one step further and one day donned cross-country skis and hooked myself to Mocha's tracings. With only the slightest amount of encouragement, Mocha got the idea. We were soon flying over the snow--that is, until I lost my balance and fell. Mocha bounded all around me and pushed at me with her nose. "Get up, get up and try again!" she seemed to say.
That day marked a turning point in my life, and in Mocha's, too. Mocha and I had used dog power as a means of transportation and we had both loved the experience. We were like two kids with a wonderful secret. I shared the secret with George. He witnessed a few of Mocha's performances and decided that a second Siberian, a dog who could pull him, must be purchased soon.
Our second dog was a massive pup, aptly named Matanuska, after a valley in Alaska where crops grow legendarily large. He was a sweet-tempered fellow and he came from a very reputable kennel. Our first visit to that kennel was a revelation. There, we saw a real dogsled and we also saw a metal cart with wheels that sled dogs pulled in snowless conditions. Our reading led us to believe that dogsledding was a thing of the past, but we learned from Matanuska's breeders that sled dog events were held all over the world, in places where there was snow, and in some places where there was no snow. In Oregon and Australia, sled dogs ran on the sand dunes. In Maryland, they ran on the mud flats. On Long Island, teams of dogs raced through trails in the parks. Races took place everywhere, even in Connecticut.
We quickly joined a little club that held amateur-level races. George, I, and our dogs began to live for rocketing down trails.
When we moved to New Hampshire, it was as much for the dogs, eight Siberians by then, as for ourselves. In New Hampshire, we could race in professional-class events. We also began to travel, often north into Canada, to visit with accomplished racers. Occasionally we were able to buy a dog from their kennels, but excellent sled dogs are seldom available for purchase, so we started breeding dogs for our team. We immersed ourselves in the study of Siberian lineage and breeding stock, and we began to create the sort of dog we needed.
We were particularly lucky when one of our early litters produced a born leader we named Dan. Hard-driving and fast, Dan pulled our team from obscurity to the front of the pack at eastern races.
In twelve years' time, our kennel expanded to house over thirty working Siberians, and each winter, when race announcements arrived in the mail, I read the locations of the races aloud.
"Hey George, want to go to a race in Montana? How about Chicoutimi, Quebec?" At first, I was kidding, but somehow we always managed to be at the starting line in these races. There was something intriguing about having an excuse to travel so far.
Soon we were racing with the mushers who were our mentors. They became our friends. A few of them had run the most difficult races in the world. We admired their accomplishments, but we also saw that they were like us--mortals. Eventually Alaska, the mecca of sled dog acing, did not seem so impossibly far away. We let our dreams take over. We stopped saying someday and started saying next year, next month, next week.
Alaska or bust.
The romantic notion that a family can chuck it all and head for the wilderness is simply untrue. In the movies, haggard businessmen take their families, rush to the station wagon and head out of the city forever. Scene two shows the family happily settled in a lakeside cabin. They somehow have acquired their own floatplane and great chamois shirts from L. L. Bean. There is no explanation offered concerning how
they got from here to there. For years, I watched such films and wondered, Did they hire a broker to sell their house? Is that how they managed to afford the floatplane? Did Mom take a course in home-schooling the kids? Is anyone saving for those kids' college educations?
There was no carefree departure for George and me. All summer we worked up lists of what to take with us, then made lists of those lists. We discovered that the "bare necessities" of life just fit into our one-ton truck and a twelve-foot box trailer. The truck was specially outfitted to hold the dogs and all our kennel and racing gear. We affixed collapsible outriggers to the bumpers and connected them to chains so that all the
dogs could be tethered to the truck when we stopped. The box trailer held a folding table and chairs, a few pots and pans, four coffee mugs, blankets, air mattresses, sleeping bags, and clothing. Day after day I sifted through our possessions, assessing, deciding exactly which coffee mugs were going and exactly how many towels we'd need. I sorted through drawers, determining which clothes we could live without, all the while thinking that we were going to miss certain comforts and favorite items we'd previously taken for granted. Thanksgiving and Christmas would pass while we were in Alaska, but my silver flatware and serving pieces would be boxed up in a cupboard. My china would remain in a closet. For holiday cheer, I packed only a set of Christmas candlesticks, my daughter's Christmas stocking, and, after some consideration, the ragtag green and red stockings I kept for the dogs' Christmas treats. No tree lights. No damask tablecloths.
The day before we left, George came home from his final day at work. He had taken a seven-month leave of absence from his job. After fifteen years as a professional geologist, he was suddenly a free man. There had been assurances on both sides that George would return to work when our adventure was over and the company would welcome him back, but there was still some sense of being on a tightrope and
looking down at an uncertain net. We were giddy knowing that our days were now our own, but worried that those days would become unaffordable on our present savings and sponsorships. Still, we felt we could manage.
My cousin Sandy had worked at our kennel every summer since she was sixteen. She loved our dogs, had learned to drive a team, and over the course of several Christmas vacations she'd even raced in a few short races. In the spring, she'd graduated from college, and I asked her if she wanted to come with us to Alaska. With Kathleen to care for, household chores to do, and my regular magazine columns to write, I couldn't
be full-time help for George. He would need someone to help him train the dogs, and I thought Sandy would be perfect for the task. For so long she'd heard us talk of our dream, and in many ways, it seemed impossible to leave her out. When I offered her the job, she jumped at the chance. She even agreed to help me out with a little baby-sitting.
My interest in bringing Sandy along went deeper than just hiring a dog handler. Thin and blond, Sandy had once been a stoop-shouldered, awkward, introverted teen. She was the youngest child of my mother's brother, one of a string of girls who all seemed to be disappointments to their judgmental mother.
After four years of college, Sandy was more self-assured. She was now a wonderful young woman, and I was anxious to protect her from a move home and possible backsliding. I felt it was time for her to go out into the world, and I was pleased to give her this opportunity. Her degree was in photography, and she often focused on the beauty of nature. Alaska seemed like the perfect place for her to ease into both the
freedoms and the responsibilities of adult life. The wages we could pay were slim, but Sandy and I agreed the real reward was to be part of the race, to be in the thick of things.
The trip west was really a series of good-byes. We stopped in upstate New York, in Ontario, Michigan, and Manitoba, spending each night with friends. All of the friends had sled dogs themselves, and all of them had dreamed of a similar trip to Alaska. The constraints of life, the things that held them back, seemed to be the topic on everyone's lips. I felt lucky, but also nervous.
On our last night in Winnipeg, Manitoba, we visited friends with a young family. Our children played familiar games like hide-and-seek, while the adults chatted about ordinary things: our kennels, our jobs, future plans. All while we talked, I was aware that this was the last in-person conversation we'd have with anyone who knew us. This made the warmth and laughter we shared seem especially sweet.
In the subsequent days of travel, Manitoba and Saskatchewan stretched on and on, flat and motionless except for the occasional twist of the heads of the hawks, who watched from every power line and telephone pole. To escape the monotony and my feelings of uncertainty, I again and again thought of our Winnipeg friends. Eventually memories of that night became scenes, processed and stored in my mind. Not fresh,
distinct recollection, but worn thoughts. In that respect, I shared some kinship with the explorers who'd first ventured into this country, and with the immigrants who came to make farms out of its vast grasslands. They must have held pictures in their minds, too, pictures of home, of loved ones, of the eastern shores and of other countries. For those who dreamed of prosperity, the endless rows of wheat and sugar beets, interrupted only by an occasional homestead, were a testament that some dreams come true, For those who wanted civilization, there were railroad tracks that bordered the fields and ran the entire length of the two-lane highway, evidence that cities existed on all edges of the continent. Though it looked almost uninhabited to me, the land was clearly cultivated. Frontier no more.
After three days under bright, empty skies, the Rocky Mountains came into view. At first their peaks looked like high, distant clouds, but soon it was evident that a huge wall of rock jutted up along the western horizon. It took nearly a day to reach the base of the range and begin our climb into the foothills, but then the splendor of Banff and Jasper unfolded. Our cameras came out for the magnificent vistas of river valleys,
lakes, and glaciated peaks. At the same time, our truck attracted the attention of tourists, and our sightseeing and dogcare activities were interrupted by people who considered us one of the sights.
When we reached British Columbia, our dogs finally quit attracting onlookers, partly because it was now past the tourist season, and partly because dog teams and the trucks in which they travel are not an uncommon sight on the Alaska Highway. We were amazed to discover so many kindred vehicles. Strangers no longer asked us what we were doing with our dogs, they asked us how we were doing with them.
This was a comfort, albeit a new kind of comfort. Along the Alaska Highway, no motel owner questioned our ability to keep our dogs quiet or to clean up after them. Our routines were familiar to them. This acceptance was nothing short of heavenly.
After passing through northeastern British Columbia, we met other vehicles infrequently, and none were going into Alaska. All were headed south. Every vehicle looked like an enormous pack animal, tied up with tarpaulins, laden with trailers, camper tops, boat haulers, dog boxes, and what-have-you. In one instance, we even saw a small plane being transported in a dump truck. Alaskans, we noted, are quite
inventive about moving things from place to place, and they seem to have some unique things to move, so they customize car and truck bodies. Style never seems important in their designs, only function. The results often resemble nineteenth-century peddlers' wagons. Our truck was similarly outfitted. George remarked that he would have felt naked traveling that highway without a trailer and all our exotic paraphernalia.
Towns along the way were commonly fifty miles apart, and I use "town" loosely. We often came to small outposts where only a single building stood to mark that man indeed was there. Each building, referred to as a roadhouse, usually contained a garage, a general store, a restaurant, a bar, and lodging quarters such as cabins or rooms. Some places had entertainment on Saturday nights, and the people, rugged
workingmen, would gather from goodness-knows-where to socialize.
In this rough country, there was little reason to dress up. Perhaps not much reason to clean up either. The men had beards and wore wool plaid shirts, jeans, and boots. Their hats ranged from knit toques to broad-brimmed cowboy hats. There never seemed to be many women around, save one or two working behind the counter at the roadhouses.
No newcomer could fail to notice that the men watched any woman with interest. Sandy was unnerved by this and complained that she was repulsed by the appearance of these fellows. She was used to clean-cut college boys and couldn't see that the glances of the locals wereprompted by admiration and longing, not ill intent. In fact, these men seemed shy. They opened doors for us and tipped their hats and spoke politely when spoken to. They stared at George with wonder. Some of them seemed to be pondering how a mushing man like him got two women in a country where most men had none! I didn't see the harm of these gentle bears gazing at Sandy's lovely blue eyes. I wasn't insulted when one man working a store counter addressed me as "Miss Red" noting my hair color, Life in these parts seemed based on observation of weather and of nature. Why not of people, too?
It was the Native Americans who unnerved me. They watched us with sullen expressions and took particular interest in our dogs. If we stepped away from the truck while the dogs were out, they would come closer and pat the dogs, but they never risked conversation with us.
My knowledge of sled dog history made me as reticent with the Natives as they were with me. Some of the finest sled dog racers are Athabascans from Alaska and the Yukon, yet most of them can no longer afford to compete in some of the top races. Keeping dogs is expensive, especially in the bush where specialized food and veterinary supplies must be shipped in. Few can field a team without money from sponsors, all of whom later use the musher's name and image to hawk such products as winter clothing, lip balm, and dog food. The sponsors want their products to appeal to the average white consumer. They want the repressed adventurer in that consumer to identify with the musher.
Unfortunately, identification runs along racial lines, so few Alaskan Natives are successful at acquiring sponsors, and the privilege falls to white mushers. I often felt like a usurper, someone who took dogsledding--once a way of life for them--made it a sport, and then shut them out of it.
One night in Fort Nelson, we had our first encounter with an Eskimo. He was a Yup'ik man, somehow uprooted from his western Alaskan home. He staggered on elderly legs toward our truck. The dogs were out having their evening meal and the man was delighted to see them. He patted them and clucked at them in a language we did not understand. The dogs happily received him. It looked like a reunion of long-lost friends. The man turned his face to us and we saw that his jaw was twisted from more than one brawl.
"Good dogs, very good dogs!" he exclaimed. "These three!"
He pointed out three he particularly liked, and I had to smile. One was our most prized lead dog, Minnie. The next was her talented sister, Shasta, and finally Shasta's daughter, Patu. He was definitely a man who knew what to look for in a sled dog.
He explained in staccato English that years ago back in his village he'd had a team and our dogs looked very much like his. "Where you get these dogs?" he asked.
"Ontario, mostly," George told him.
"No--bullshit" he replied, certain that George was joking. "These GOOD dogs!" He laughed heartily, gave George a slap on the back, then wandered off.
The border crossing at Port Alcan would give the impression that the United States and Canada do not have friendly relations. The two nations' customs stations are twenty miles apart, separated by a thickly forested buffer zone. The U.S. customs station can be seen for a long way. It is brightly lighted and sits atop a high ridge. Although the actual station is a modern building, I was reminded of the drive up to a Scottish castle. I expected that a moat might surround the place.
The customs official there, a portly, balding fellow in a green uniform, greeted us in an enthusiastic and surprisingly informal manner.
"From New Hampshire?" he exclaimed, glancing at our license plate.
"All the way," George told him.
"What are you going to do out here?"
"Gonna train for the Yukon Quest" George said.
"Is that right? That's great! How many dogs in here?"
"Okay" He sighed and stood back to look at the full length of our truck and trailer. "I'm from Vermont," he said. "Bet its pretty back there now."
"Vermont? That's amazing," George said. Neighboring states seem closer together when one is farther from them.
"Well, good luck in the race and welcome back to the U.S.A" He waved us on with a big sweep of his arm.
Excerpted from Running North. Copyright (c) 1998 by Ann Cook. Reprinted with permission by Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill.
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What People are Saying About This
Cook is a natural writer, the very best. To put it simply, I love everything about this book.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
This is the book that made me decide to move to Alaska after i graduate from college. That's still my goal.
Traveling from the lower forty-eight states George, Ann, Kathleen, and Sandy head to Alaska to compete in the Yukon Quest. George is the man that runs in the race. Ann is the author and the wife of George. Kathleen is the young daughter of George and Ann. Sandy is the handler. But the trip was not just fun and games. Housing, friends, and money cause some of the problems along their goal. It had been George and Ann¿s life goal to compete in the hardest dog race in the World the Yukon Quest. All of their goals came down to this one race with their Siberian Huskies at their side. I loved this book! I thought Ann, did a great job in explaining their journey. I recommend this book to anyone who has goals or likes books about dog races.