The Iditarod Trail Dog Sled Race is a famous race held each year between Anchorage and Nome, Alaska. However the Iditarod is more than a race. It is over one thousand miles of cold and wind and snow and ice. It is days and nights where sleep deprivation causes hallucinations that can be worse than the most terrible nightmare. But above all it is an endurance test of a person and a team of dogs. Woodsong is, in part, a day-by-day account of Paulsen's running the Iditarod. Although Paulsen finished forty-second in a field of seventy-three mushers on his first try, this is not a book about competing in a race. It is the story of a man learning about himself, his dogs, and the wilderness; and it is the story of how the man changed from being a hunter to becoming a student of his dogs and the wild creatures in the woods.
The first part of Woodsong consists of Paulsen's reflections and is written as a series of brief vignettes rather than a chronological narrative. Paulsen relates some of his experiences living in northern Minnesota, running a trap line to help support his wife Ruth and their son, and traveling through the snow behind his sled dogs. Trying to explain how his attitude toward nature was changed by the things that he observed, he describes some of his encounters with wild animals and the woods. There is the fawn who waded up to his canoe; the deer who escaped from the timber wolves by leaping past his circle of sled dogs to stand,...
(The entire section is 379 words.)
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Part 1, Chapters 1-2 Summary
Author and narrator Gary Paulsen spent most of his life "in the forest or on the sea," frequently hunting. While running a dog team one December morning, he finally began to examine the rightness of this aspect of his life.
Paulsen followed his trapline, acutely aware of the surrounding pristine beauty. Suddenly, a white-tailed doe exploded from the woods, chased by a wolf pack. She raced onto a lake's thin ice and fell through. Although she recovered, the wolves were on her, and Paulsen, watching helplessly, was witness to her horrific death.
While two wolves held her nose, others ripped her rear until they could pull out her entrails. She was still alive and standing as they hungrily devoured her. Paulsen, sickened, yelled, but the wolves only paused. One rose to see him, and Paulsen observed its blood-covered head.
Paulsen realized the wolves "[were] not wrong or right—they just [were]." "It was wrong to think they should be the way [he] wanted them to be." With that small understanding, he was seized by an insatiable desire to learn more—about the animals and the woods.
Paulsen became involved with sled dogs relatively late. At forty, he lived with his wife and son in Minnesota in a cabin with no plumbing or electricity, trying to supplement his meager income as a writer. He took a job trapping for the state; some friends gave him four older dogs and a broken sled. Through trial and error, Paulsen got the dogs to run. Obeah, a large, wolf-like creature, became a passable leader.
Paulsen ran his line regularly, catching a few beaver. He felt confident but really knew nothing about trapping or dogs. One bitterly cold night, twenty miles from home, he foolishly decided to let the dogs run rather than camp, thereby learning a valuable lesson from one dog, Storm.
Storm pulled "from somewhere within himself," exceptional in strength and devotion. The going was tough because of the terrain and extreme weather. Suddenly, Storm began to spray blood from his rear end.
Paulsen unhitched Storm and tied him in the sled's basket. Determined to pull, Storm went "absolutely insane," ripping the sled until he got to the side, pulling awkwardly.
Storm pulled for seven more hours, spraying blood continuously, while Paulsen waited in dread for his beloved dog to die. Amazingly, when...
(The entire section is 418 words.)
Part 1, Chapters 3-4 Summary
From a very young age, Paulsen hunted and trapped. After a "simple . . . almost silly" incident, he believed they were wrong. One dog, Columbia, pulled a prank demonstrating humor. In the kennel, the dogs were restrained by chains. One day, Columbia maneuvered a bone just out of reach of Olaf, his dim-witted neighbor. As Olaf struggled, Columbia watched and finally "leaned back and laughed."
The trick's sophistication astounded Paulsen; he reasoned other animals also must be capable of high-level planning. Concluding it was wrong to kill such intelligent, complex creatures, he stopped trapping.
Until he began training his dogs for the Iditarod, a grueling dogsled race across Alaska, Paulsen ran trap lines without trapping to take his dogs out. On one "phony" run, his sled shot off a gully edge. Paulsen sustained a serious knee injury and was stuck forty feet below the trail.
Ordinarily, when a musher is lost, a team continues on. Paulsen's dogs, however, found their way to him; with their support, he made it home. This reinforced his belief that his dogs had much to teach him. In their compassion, they possessed "great, old knowledge; they had something [humans] had lost."
Paulsen notes that the main element setting people apart from animals is fire. An early insight from this came on a run to train young dogs for the Iditarod. The first night, Paulsen started a small fire; the dogs instinctively "went crazy with fear."
Paulsen calmed them; fear quickly became fascination. When the fire went out, they wailed a song of loss. Within an hour, his pups went from fear to understanding to loss. He reflected that humans take much longer to go through the same process, marveling at the dogs' advanced sophistication.
In another incident, Paulsen was stopped for the night when a large doe appeared. Chased by wolves, in a "mad gamble" for her life, she sought protection from two usually fearsome adversaries, man and fire. Tense, the doe stayed until the wolves left, then disappeared.
A third experience involved a bear, Scarhead. One summer morning as Paulsen burned trash near the kennels, Scarhead made a mess trying to get "whatever smelled so good." When Paulsen chased him, Scarhead towered over him threateningly. Paulsen froze, but the bear walked away. Angry, Paulsen ran for his gun to kill...
(The entire section is 414 words.)
Part 1, Chapters 5-6 Summary
One late spring day, Paulsen was running his team on a country road near his home when he came upon a dead ruffled grouse. The bird had left a nest with fourteen eggs in it and, out of sympathy, Paulsen carried them home and placed them in the care of a banty hen called Hawk. When the eggs hatched, Hawk adopted the chicks and raised them as her own. All went well until the baby grouse were old enough to fly. Banty hens cannot fly, and Hawk, furious at losing control of her brood, took out her anger on anyone unfortunate enough to venture into the yard.
Among the targets of Hawk's ire were Paulsen's wife, who had to cross the yard to hang laundry; the family's small terrier, Quincy; and Paulsen's six-foot-two-inch son, who entered the forbidden territory to fetch the mail. Fred, the resident Labrador retriever, and a hapless fox who had come to pilfer one of the chicks from the yard, were also victims of the feisty hen. Hawk finally mellowed when the baby grouse grew up and returned to the wild, but it was a long time before anyone—human and animal alike—could venture across the yard without looking over their shoulder when she was present.
Paulsen recalls a number of mysteries—"unexplainable, out-of-place" events—that he experienced during his sojourns in the woods. In one incident, he was feeding a cookie to a small chipmunk when a red squirrel, normally a passive, non-carnivorous creature, appeared out of nowhere and tore the chipmunk to pieces. Paulsen was at a complete loss as to how to explain the random, violent encounter.
In another incident, Paulsen was running his dogs in the dark when the team was spooked by an eerie, green-yellow glow emanating from a spot down the trail. Initially not alarmed, the outdoorsman became frightened when the dogs began to keen a death song. Drawn by a curiosity which was stronger than his sense of dread, he ventured forward to investigate. The light was coming from the rotten stump of a tall tree; it had somehow sucked phosphorus from the ground and held the light from the day well into the night.
Paulsen remembers two scenes which were notable for their complete improbability. He once found evidence of a grouse killed by a fox in the middle of a clearing, with no tracks leading to or from the site. Another time, he was witness to a flock of cedar waxwings settled in rows on a...
(The entire section is 748 words.)
Part 1, Chapters 7-8 Summary
Over the years, Paulsen has owned many dogs, and each one has taught him much. He discovered something about temper in animals through Fred, a dog who became "enormously fat." In an attempt to help the canine lose weight, the author started him on an extreme diet and exercise program. When the requirements became too severe, Fred, a normally placid dog, pointedly bit his perceived tormentor once, with clear purpose. Paulsen got the message loud and clear, adjusted the regimen, and Fred regained his sunny disposition.
Paulsen learned the rudiments of sled-dog running primarily through trial and error, and consequently made many foolish blunders along the way. On one occasion, he stubbornly ignored his team leader Cookie's obvious desire to go in a certain direction, forcing her instead to proceed along his own chosen path. This ultimately resulted in an unavoidable tumble into a steep gully. Cookie, obviously frustrated with Paulsen's refusal to let her follow her instincts, allowed the fall to happen, and afterwards, the dogs went on strike as a unit, refusing to pull. Ignoring their callow master, they lay down to sleep for eighteen hours, rising to continue on with glee only after they felt that he had learned his lesson.
The dog that taught Paulsen the most was a mighty creature named Storm. Storm was one of the outdoorsman's first dogs. Paulsen estimates that they logged more than twelve thousand miles together and the two came to know each other perhaps better than family. Storm was exceptionally clever, and relished pulling pranks on fellow canines and humans alike.
Storm had a habit of carrying short sticks in his mouth while running; he would choose a new one each day and present it to Paulsen periodically, for approval. Paulsen soon realized that the dog was using the stick as a means of communication, to tell him that "everything was all right." When Storm grew old, he continued with this ritual, reassuring his master with his trademark mannerism until the very end.
Paulsen was not present when the time came for Storm to die; he returned from a run one day to find his old friend lying dead in the snow by his house in the kennel. Frequently, when a dog knows that his time is near, he will turn to face the east. Paulsen had left Storm chained to his house in such a manner that it was impossible for him to turn in that direction; indeed, there were signs...
(The entire section is 706 words.)
Part 2, Days 1-7 Summary
"The Race—Day 1"
The Iditarod begins in Anchorage. The first time Paulsen participates in this incredibly arduous undertaking, he pulls the thirty-second spot, right in the middle of the seventy-team race. Paulsen's team of fifteen dogs are insane with anticipation as they wait for thirty-one teams to be sent out before them. Finally, they are on their way, only to have to repeat the process again a short time later: the start from Anchorage is a sham, staged for publicity. In reality, a freeway blocks the route to Nome; thirty miles out of town, the dogs are stopped and taken in trucks to Settler's Bay, where the race truly begins.
By the time Paulsen's team leaves the second starting point, it is close to dark, and "with darkness comes chaos." After running for a short time, the dogs suddenly stop; the lead dog has run into a moose on the trail, and the huge creature will not get out of the way. Chastised by the racers behind him, Paulsen tentatively kicks the moose in the flank, and to his surprise, the animal lumbers away. Paulsen continues on, but in the confusion, his dogs make a wrong turn, and go over forty miles in the wrong direction. The teams behind him follow, and when the mistake is discovered, all must turn around on the narrow trail, creating a situation of unqualified bedlam.
"The Race—Day 2"
Dawn of the second day is breathtakingly beautiful, and the dogs run magnificently. By the end of the day, Paulsen is exhausted, but the dogs will not sleep so he lets them continue on. Sleep deprivation causes him to hallucinate and he envisions flames spurting up between each dog's toes; naturally, when he stops to fix the imagined problem, he finds nothing. At one point during the interminable night, Paulsen becomes convinced that there is a man sitting in his sled; he engages in an altercation with the imaginary man. Finally, as daybreak nears, the dogs are ready to rest.
"The Race—Day 3"
Paulsen's team is slower than most, and he realizes that he will "be very lucky to finish the race, let alone do well. The dogs are healthy and eager, however, and the beautiful scenery around him lifts his spirits. Paulsen experiences a sense of euphoria, "like becoming a true human...before [man] became cluttered by civilization."
"The Race—Day 4"
The race proceeds over Rainy Pass...
(The entire section is 776 words.)
Part 2, Days 8-17 Summary
"The Race—Day 8"
The race progresses to the barren interior of Alaska. The tundra is endless and unchanging and Paulsen's lead dog, Wilson, literally begins to fall asleep on his feet, mid-run. The musher discovers that if he softly calls out "Willy" when he sees the dog weaving a bit, he can keep him on track. When a fellow racer later comments that twice during the night, he had been passed by a person who was looking for someone named Willy, Paulsen, realizing the ludicrousness of his situation, does not even try to explain.
"The Race—Day 9"
In the "ghost town of Iditarod," Paulsen is accosted by a man who disembarks from a plane. There is a muzzled, female wolf in the aircraft; the man wants to mate her with one of Paulsen's dogs. The author passes on the offer when the man reveals that the wolf had killed the three male dogs he had tried to breed her with previously.
"The Race—Day 10"
The wind on the run up the Yukon Valley is so chilling that Paulsen turns backward on the sled to avoid its bite, with little avail. The dogs, however, seem to be doing fine and, as there is no place to stop, the team must forge ahead through the "cursed, cutting, tearing, soul-cold wind."
"The Race—Day 11"
The unforgiving weather continues and Paulsen must run beside the sled to keep his body temperature up. The raw air freezes the lining of his throat and he finds himself choking on blood and mucus. When he finally reaches the village at the end of the valley, Paulsen sees a graveyard and feels the ghosts of the dead welcoming him. Their call is gentle and he smiles at them as he heads away from the river out to the Bering Sea.
"The Race—Day 12"
The run from the river to the sea is classic and Paulsen feels that he has entered an altered state, where he is in complete harmony with his dogs. He feels that they can run forever this way, and he knows with certainty now that they will finish the race. The team comes to an Eskimo village and Paulsen is taken in by one of the residents, an older man, for the night. As he falls asleep, he realizes that his host looks like the man who saved him in his hallucinations, first when he was sick and later on in the Burn.
"The Race—Day 13"
Paulsen is two hundred miles from the finish...
(The entire section is 781 words.)