Living Large at Forty Below

Yukon Alone: The World’s Toughest Adventure Race
By John Balzar
Henry Holt, 1999
304 pp

review by Tim Harris


The Yukon Quest is perhaps the world’s most extreme undertaking. This 1,023-mile dog-sled race from Whitehorse, Canada to Fairbanks, Ak. was initiated 15 years ago by people who felt the Iditerod had lost its soul, becoming just one more meaningless, corporate-sponsored spectacle. The Quest would be longer, colder, darker, and through more harsh terrain.

Nights are more than 17 hours long. Temperatures range from zero to more than 40 below. At 40 below, a haplessly ingested M&M will scald your throat. Hot coffee tossed into the air will vaporize before it hits the ground.

There are other dangers. Running rivers can erode ice from underneath, making the surface dangerously thin, even where it appears solid. Normal cycles of freeze and thaw sometimes create jumble ice: razor sharp frozen slabs that stand up at odd angles. Hungry, wild animals are an issue.

The Quest is the sort of race that makes the hardest thing you’ve ever done, no matter what that may have been, look like a cinch. And that, more or less, is its entire appeal.

The Yukon Quest is not for everyone.

Former LA Times Northwest Bureau Chief John Balzar writes about the Yukon Quest from as inside a perspective as any non-native could achieve. After spending time in the far north as an adventurer, he became fascinated with the whole culture of tough, authentic, people, scrappy dogs, and counter-cultural values, where people are more respected for what they can endure than what they own.

In exchange for service as a dog crap shoveler, assistant vet, and then finally, press liaison (a demotion), Balzar got close enough to the race to bring the reader within striking distance of what things might be like inside the sleep-deprived world of dogs, more dogs, and the people who love them. He even drives a team on his own for a leg of the race, and almost loses his fingers in the deal.

Through an expertly woven series of character sketches, he introduces us to the mushers, people who have given up anything resembling normal life to spend two weeks of the year enduring pain and staring at dog butt. There are cab drivers, fur trappers, waitresses, and homesteaders; what people do in the rest of their lives is mainly a means to the end of keeping their dogs fed and buying the rather expensive gear one needs to survive.

One 50-pound dog will eat the caloric equivalent of 20 double cheeseburgers over a day of racing. Most mushers will have a kennel of around thirty dogs from which their race team of 14 is drawn. The typical musher is a working stiff who spends all of his or her money on dog food. The Quest is not simply a race; it is a full-blown obsession.

This, apart from his engaging style, is what makes Balzar’s book worth the read. The people who race the Quest do not have "lifestyles." They have lives, lived close to the bone, which happen to center upon surviving some of the world’s most rugged terrain through near telepathic communion with their dogs.

In a moving passage on the difference between adventure and adventurism, Balzar says the distinction hinges upon our willingness to sacrifice. Adventure has been reduced to just another "diversion from the otherwise ordinary ambitions of living." There must be, he says, "a commitment of soul before the soul can be redeemed."

The Quest inspires because it reminds us of what humans once were, living close to nature and near the limits of human endurance. It reminds us of how far we can stretch when so moved, and how vivid life can become when we dare to live. The lessons from that can go anywhere we wish to take them.

Active Books Review