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 finally home, Storm stood tall, tail wagging. The mysterious bleeding stopped, and Paulsen knew he had learned a little about the insatiable drive behind animal behavior.
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 Scarhead. Then he thought, "Kill him for what?" "When it is all boiled down [he was] nothing more and nothing less than any other animal in the woods."
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...
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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...
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"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...
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"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,...
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