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Reading the North: 'Life with Forty Dogs' and 'Alaska Bush Mother'

Life with Forty Dogs

By Joseph Robertia; Alaska Northwest Books; $16.99; 230 pages

What it's about: Here's an invitation to understand the essence of life with 40 dogs, and appreciate what author Joseph Robertia sees daily — but never takes for granted. In words and photos, he shares the qualities that define the unique character and personality of every animal. Not everyone can sacrifice their spare time, salary and sanity to get to know so many characters ― from well-mannered to wily ― but "Life with Forty Dogs" describes the endless adventures and misadventures that such a life invites. Robertia and his family have made a life-changing canine commitment — one they don't regret.

Excerpt: Halfway to my turnaround point, the top of the 2,860-foot Ptarmigan Peak ― the highest point in the Caribou Hills ― I began to realize my mistake with testicle-shriveling certainty. The wind picked up to a steady 20 miles per hour, with occasional stronger gusts that would yank my hooded ruff down over my face and nearly knock me off the sled. Rather than falling from the sky, a heavy, wet snow horizontally hurled itself at us, and every time we took a turn that angled us directly into the teeth of the gale, the exposed skin of my face felt a blast like taking pellets from an ice-loaded shotgun.

Mushing, particularly in extreme inclement weather, is somewhat like poker if you envision you're playing against Mother Nature and gambling with your life. With stakes so high, it's essential to have dogs you can truly count on, especially at the front end of the team …

Having to run just a little harder and faster to keep the gang line taut, sometimes breaking trail, never reaping the benefit of the wake from a dog in front of you ― the lead position is physically and mentally demanding … Only a small percentage of all sled dogs are suited for it …

In our kennel, we have been blessed to have a handful of extraordinarily reliable leaders … Penny, a wheat-colored, 25-pound female the size and build of a whippet, has an indomitable drive and shines late in races when other dogs may be too tired to motivate off their comfy straw beds …

Cyder and Zoom stand out in our kennel as the heavy artillery, only marched to the front lines when at war with the worst of winter elements. Their unflappable athletic abilities, aptitude for adhering to even the most obliterated trail, and natural large sizes make them a dynamic duo when running out front of a large string of dogs.

Alaska Bush Mother

By La Vaughn Kemnow; Mountain West Publishing; $28.95; 124 pages

What it's about:  True happenings experienced by a girl who in 1956 marries against her better judgment. Three years and three babies later, she finds herself on an Alaska homestead, in a makeshift, poorly insulated cabin in primitive surroundings. Her husband spends most of his time visiting other homesteaders and repairing their farm machinery — for which he is not paid.

Meanwhile, back at the homestead, the "housewife" carries water; cuts and carries firewood; stuffs paper in cracks in the walls to keep the cold out; scrubs clothes and bedding on an old-fashioned washboard; takes care of all the babies' needs and accidents and illnesses; has close and scary encounters with moose and bear … and a few humans.

This young woman has to use every bit of her intelligence and ingenuity to keep her brood from freezing to death … and fed.

The incessant workload leads to fatigue. Dealing with frightening situations by herself ushers in deepening depression and despair. Yet somehow she finds the will to keep going for the sake of her children.

Excerpt: I had been alone in the homestead cabin with the children for weeks. It was an extraordinarily cold winter, even for Interior Alaska. To see the thermometer just outside, I peered through the tiny spot I had melted with my hand through the thick frost on the inside of the window pane.

The temperature was unbelievably low, but was later substantiated by people living on other homesteads in the Clearwater area. It had been hovering around 60 degrees below zero for about six weeks …

Although it was more than nine years later that an official temperature of minus-80 degrees Fahrenheit was recorded in Alaska, at least three Clearwater area homesteaders reported 80, 81 and 82 below zero, in December 1961 …

Aside from the possibility of freezing to death, my situation was far from ideal. My great-grandparents were pioneer homesteaders on the Oregon coast, and I was used to hard work, innovation and making do with what I had. My idea of marriage, as it was in my pioneer family, was that husband and wife would make solid plans, and work together with mutual respect to accomplish their goals and solve any difficulties. It didn't work out that way for us. Where he had been attentive and thoughtful before, on the night of our marriage he suddenly changed. His needs and wants were more important; he got what he wanted in less than a minute; then he was sound asleep.

From that time on, he spent most of his time with his men friends and his parents. And that was the way it was to be … I had advocated for a winter's supply of wood to be obtained before cold weather set in. To him that wasn't a priority. As efficient as the stove was, it could not keep us warm.

My feet felt numb; three toes on my left foot had frozen even though I slept only a few feet from the fire, fully clothed, wearing layer upon layer of pants, shirts, and three pairs of thick wool socks topped with sheepskin boot pacs; military surplus sheepskin flight pants; a hooded woolen parka; and two wool headscarves — and covered with several quilts.

Fortunately, the children fared better. The small room they slept in had been built by my parents and was insulated — sides, top and bottom — with moss.

There were piles of unread magazines, piles of clothing in need of mending, piles of laundry that needed washing. But I was too cold, too tired. My fingers were so numb I couldn't have threaded a needle. Washing clothes — or bathing children, other than a quick swipe of faces, hands, and bottoms when necessary — was not an option when everything inside the cabin was frozen. I did not recognize the anger that lay hidden deep inside me — only the depression that permeated my being. I was barely functioning — but I had to keep going.

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