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Embracing independence, and the challenges of long-distance sled dog racing, in new memoir

  • Author: Nancy Lord
    | Alaska books
  • Updated: April 20, 2019
  • Published April 20, 2019

This Much Country

’This Much Country, ’ by Kristin Knight Pace

By Kristin Knight Pace. Grand Central Publishing, 2019. 320 pages. $27. Also available on e-book and audiobook.

At the very least, we’re currently being graced with a strong run of books by adventurous Alaska women. “This Much Country” joins this spring’s “The Sun is a Compass” by Caroline Van Hemert and “Water Mask” by Monica Devine. In the last year or so we were also treated to adventure-memoirs from Adrienne Lindholm (“It Happened Like This”), Nancy Pfeiffer (“Riding Into the Heart of Patagonia”), Rosemary McGuire (“Rough Crossing”) and Erin McKittrick (“Mudflats and Fish Camps”).

Early on in “This Much Country,” Kristin Knight Pace tells us of her Texas childhood and an infatuation with a Montana man she met on the internet. At 18, she took off for Montana to be with and eventually marry that man. In those early years, along with earning a photojournalism degree, the author worked various outdoor and journalism jobs. One summer job brought her to Alaska, to work at the Denali National Park Sled Dog Kennels. There, her love of dogs solidified into a passion.

After her divorce in 2009, Pace accepted an offer to return to Alaska to caretake a cabin and eight sled dogs. While the early parts of the book, laying the groundwork for the person she would become, sometimes provide an overabundance of prosaic information, the story really takes off once Pace connects to the challenges of living a dog-centered life in remote Healy, near Denali National Park and Preserve.

As one example of her learning curve, she describes the task of supplying water in extreme (minus-40 degree Fahrenheit) temperatures. She first had to fill a tank in the back of her car, during which process the hose broke loose to spray water over her and everything in the car. Then a fitting on the pump for transferring the water from that tank to another in the upstairs of her cabin broke, which meant that she would soon have a solid iceberg in her car. Friends who could manufacture pump parts saved the day, leading to her ever-after appreciation of neighbors and community. She reflects, “That was back before I knew that almost everything Alaskans had, especially in the Interior, was jerry-rigged beyond belief.” She became a pretty good jerry-rigger herself.

Living alone that winter for the first time in her life, Pace figured out who she was as an individual with her own set of skills, needs and desires. Very soon she was running those sled dogs and discovering the pure pleasure of giving herself over to the experience. “I allowed myself to be pulled into the unknown to figure out exactly where I was. It turned out the middle of nowhere was actually the middle of somewhere amazing, and I was a little dot on the map that described it.”

Soon enough, she met the right man and settled into an Alaska life. She worked as a backcountry ranger in Denali National Park, including as part of the dog mushing team that travels the park in winter to monitor activity and resupply cabins. She volunteered at a checkpoint during the 2011 Iditarod. Watching the mushers sweep through, “My imagination forged ahead, up into the wild distance, and I vowed that someday soon, it would be me on the runners.”

A chance meeting with musher Jeff King (a four-time Iditarod champion) ended with an offer to work with him as a handler. Pace learned competitive racing and dog care from King and began racing one of his teams to qualify for the Iditarod. She and her partner purchased dogs from King and soon built their own kennel. She adored those dogs and knew every aspect of their personalities, every nuance of every lick and howl.

When Pace learned that she was short on qualifying miles for the Iditarod, she signed up instead for the 2015 Yukon Quest, the other 1,000-mile sled dog race, from Whitehorse to Fairbanks. Her account of that race, through temperatures of minus-45 degrees, blizzards and so much open country between checkpoints, is detailed and riveting, adrenaline-burning even for a reader. She and the legendary Lance Mackey ran together much of the way while she repeated a mantra to herself: “I’m a big brave dog.”

The next year she trained for and entered the Iditarod. Her narrative of that race is lively with descriptions of the trail, the checkpoints, the dogs, the other mushers and the “animal life” a racer takes on in the wild. She also includes her reaction to violence on the trail that year — when a snowmachiner purposely and repeatedly drove into the front-running teams of Jeff King and Aliy Zirkle, injuring dogs and killing one. She recounts another instance of a harassed female musher and her own resentment of having to face such personal dangers while dealing with all the normal challenges of a long-distance race.

In a bit of self-analysis late in the book, Pace considers that the sudden death of her biological father when she was very young had left her with a “morbid fearlessness.” “I thought about dying every day, but I also thought about making every day mean something, because what if it was my last day on Earth?”

“This Much Country,” ultimately, is a soul-warming story about setting goals, loving those you’re with (including the dogs), and finding accomplishment and joy in every step of the way.