Neither mush of  the Barbara Cartland sentimental variety, nor the pure twaddle of Dan Brown, John Balzar's Yukon Alone is the story of the 1998 Yukon Quest. There are two truly tough long-distance sled-dog races in the world : the better known Iditarod follows part of the trail that originally inspired the race - the scramble by dog to bring diptheria vaccine to Nome, immortalised in Gay and Laney Salisbury's wonderful book The Cruelest Miles (well worth reading), and then there's the Yukon Quest. This makes the Quest sound rather like an also-ran, certainly it's the Iditarod that gets more than its fair share of publicity, but in fact the Quest is the tougher race - it's longer (1,000 miles or the distance from London to Warsaw), is held at a darker time of the year with much of the action taking place in the sub-Arctic night, and runs through tougher terrain - running further inland than the Iditarod temperatures can sometimes plummet to 40 below. It's also one of the few races to cross a national boundary passing from Yukon territory, Canada into Alaska, USA (or vice versa depending on which direction the race is being run)

Balzar follows the racers from start to finish, filling in the background to their lives, their dedication to their dogs, and the politicking of the behind the scenes race officials. Along the way he also bumps into ordinary Alaskans, including the last of the pioneers homesteading in remote areas of the country, cut off in the winter from civilization except when the Yukon Quest comes past their cabin. You can tell that Balzar's background is as a journalist, Yukon Alone doesn't have the lyrical quality of, for example, Gary Paulsen's insight into the Iditarod Winterdance, but it does have an immediacy and a genuine excitement about it. Occasionally it's overly wordy, and I could have done without Balzar's own attempts to take a sled dog team along the trail, but his portrayal of the lives of the mushers and the people who help along the way is very moving.

The Quest is probably the kind of race that every year will throw up a news story - in 1998 there was the tale of Bruce Lee, whose entire kennel was wiped out by a dodgy batch of vaccine, coming back nearly 10 years after losing his dogs, he would go on to win. There was the tenacity of rookie Quester, Andre Nadeau, a Quebecois, who decided to race his own way, and the care and love of the "party pack" rookies, several of whom would win sportsmanship awards after helping each other through horrific weather conditions.

It's a wonderful adventure story, and anyone who enjoys the "across the South Pacific in a leaky canoe", "up Everest solo" type book (as I do) will love this. Where I think it falls down is in the portrayal of the mushers' relationship with their dogs, which is where Paulsen's Winterdance and the Salisburys' saga shines. There's lots of telling us how devoted the mushers are, but except in a very few instances the relationship doesn't really come across. And in spite of Balzar's own sledding antics, I don't think he does really "get" the deep emotional, even spiritual, connection that true dog people have with their hounds. This is not to say that he doesn't write about the dogs well, he does, but there just seems to be something a little lacking at the heart of the book. Not quite a 5-star adventure book then, but pretty close.


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