Books

Book review: Contagious joy and a sled dog seminar in the pages of “Dogs on the Trail”

“Dogs on the Trail: A Year in the Life,” by Blair Braverman and Quince Mountain

“Dogs on the Trail: A Year in the Life”

By Blair Braverman and Quince Mountain; Ecco, 2021; 144 pages; $17.99

Several years ago I tethered my young sled dog to my bike for the short road ride to a nearby trail. It was his first time being hooked in and I expected him to pull me around a bit. What I didn’t expect was that being in a harness and tied to a vehicle would activate something apparently imprinted on every strand of his DNA. He took off straight for the trailhead at an almost frightening speed as I clung tightly to the handlebars. We’ve been bikejoring together ever since, and as I often tell people, I never had to train him, I only had to train myself. He knew exactly what to do.

I doubt that story would come as any surprise to Iditarod veteran Blair Braverman. As she writes in her recent book about sled dogs, “They know instinctively how to run and pull, and they’re wild about it.” The humans reciprocate, she adds, finding themselves gliding “through the woods with a pack of huskies who are absolutely flipping their lids with excitement, and the joy is contagious.”

More than a small bit of that joy is conveyed in Braverman’s recent book “Dogs on the Trail,” cowritten with her husband Quince Mountain, whose own Iditarod race unfortunately ended prematurely in 2020 when officials shut down checkpoints ahead of the emerging COVID-19 pandemic. In it, the couple invites readers into their northern Wisconsin kennel and onto the trail in a compact volume fortified with dozens of pictures that will melt the hearts of any dog lover.

Dogs running in a picture from the book “Dogs on the Trail: A Year in the Life” by Blair Braverman and Quince Mountain

“Dogs on the Trail” is a handy introduction to mushing for those unfamiliar with the sport. Readers are treated to an array of photos from the couple’s kennel, as well as shots from backcountry excursions and races, accompanied by a brief summary of the stages in a sled dog’s life and the responsibilities of the musher both on and off the trail. It’s basic stuff, familiar to many Alaskans, and it won’t be mistaken for a training manual. But be forewarned, the enthusiasm found in the text and clearly written on the faces of dogs and mushers alike in the photographs could easily lure susceptible readers into taking the plunge. Check your bank account first.

Understanding the nature of sled dogs is key to realizing how much they love what they do, and this topic opens the book. Alaskan huskies aren’t a formally recognized breed, having descended from northern work dogs, but DNA tests, the authors write, show that “this motley group of dogs is more genetically distinct than many other breeds.” They’re adapted to cold temperatures and brim with levels of energy and power that put many other dogs to shame.

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Anyone who has ever witnessed the start of a sled dog race knows the biggest problem a musher faces at that moment isn’t getting the dogs to go. It’s keeping them from launching down the trail before it’s their turn. Once they start moving, they each have a job to do. For readers who don’t know wheel dogs from swing dogs, it’s put in simple terms here, visually and with brief explanations. The all-important lead dog role is also detailed.

Most of the book follows the dogs through a year in their lives. In autumn their energy level surges as they sense the impending snow. Chilly mornings spent pulling the musher on an ATV or wheeled cart mark the early stages of training.

For obvious reasons, the chapter on winter is the longest. That’s when racing season commences and the real fun begins. Readers learn about proper nutrition, the importance of booties, preventing potentially calamitous wildlife encounters, assuring that the dogs get adequate rest, what to carry in a sled, and more, and also get to spend time with the authors on the Iditarod Trail.

The rest of the year is rushed through in the book, though for mushers it undoubtedly feels interminable. The brief section on spring is titled “Mud Season,” a time as familiar to the authors in their home in the Northwoods of Wisconsin as it is to Alaskans. Summer is barely mentioned.

Braverman is an accomplished journalist and author. She covered the 2020 Iditarod for the Anchorage Daily News, and her memoir “Welcome to the Goddamn ice Cube” is considered something of a modern classic. Here though, she and Mountain let the photographs tell the bulk of the story. And tell a story they do. Dogs go sailing across these pages, pulling sleds, romping through the woods, and, more than a few times, defying gravity for as long as they can keep themselves airborne. The contagious joy, mentioned early in the text, is conveyed on nearly every page of this book by the dogs living it. Only a coldhearted reader could get through it without smiling quite a few times. This book lifts spirits.

It also performs a function that, though perhaps unintended, is nonetheless worthwhile. Compared to 20 years or so back, the Iditarod and other sled dog races don’t seem to garner quite as much controversy as they used to. But there are still people vehemently opposed to mushing, mostly because they haven’t been exposed to it firsthand. They should see this book. The relationship between a musher and a dog team requires mutual understandings. From the brief biographical sketches of some of their dogs that highlight how well the couple knows them, to photos that show how mushing is a true partnership, Braverman and Mountain’s love for their dogs is palpable.

Additionally, while “Dogs on the Trail” isn’t specifically targeted at young adult readers, the book is definitely age-appropriate, and hopefully will find its way into school libraries across Alaska. Although they’re Wisconsin residents, Braverman and Mountain have spent ample time in our state and are celebrating and continuing a tradition born in the far north. Their book is an all-around joy. And as I’ve learned from being pulled by my own pooch, joy is what sled dogs are all about.

David James

David A. James is a Fairbanks-based critic and freelance writer. He can be reached at nobugsinak@gmail.com.

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