This book reminds you of the beauty of books: They can transport you anywhere! Sat on a park bench on a sunny late summer’s day in London I felt I almost had to put on an extra layer of clothing as my brain was taken over by temperatures below zero, snow boots, and cold Alaskan weather – that is what you want from a book.
My Lead Dog Was a Lesbian is a glimpse into the little known world of sled dog racing. Little known is not quite correct, in certain circles it is a schedule to live by, a job, a passion. For most of us however, it is almost unknown and reading this will make you learn about a lifestyle that seems almost impossible. Forget about the endless hours of training, of a professional ballet dancer or the crazy sleep schedule of musicians on tour.
Taking part in one of the toughest sled dog races in the world is at least two weeks in the middle of nowhere in Alaska, carrying with you everything you need to sustain yourself and at least a dozen dogs, nowhere to hide and hardly more than a couple of hours sleep at a time.
“In the tunnel vision created by my headlamp, I was lucky to glimpse the dogs, much less the landscape. Visibility was so poor, we could be within ten feet of the shelter and I might not see it. New snow was already piled a foot deep, and it was coming down hard.
Rainy was in her element, acting strangely buoyant. She and Harley were leaping, leaping into the swirling soup, splashing through the flowing drifts. I was so tired I could hardly stand.”
Brian O’Donoghue is originally from Washington D.C., was a New York cab driver and as a journalist started covering sled dog races. He has covered all the important ones: The Klondike, the Yukon Quest, and the Iditarod – 1,000 miles across Alaska’s ice fields. Still, writing about it and taking part are worlds away from each other, yet he did it. After training with a dog team and qualifying through a number of smaller races, he started first in the 1991 race.
“Where does time go? First I bedded the dogs in straw. Then I picked up my four-gallon pot and searched for water. Other mushers directed me to a hole chopped in the thick river ice. You had to reach way down to scoop the water out with a coffee can. Filling the pot took a little longer than I expected. That set the tone, I guess. Everything took longer than I expected.”
A quick look at the back of the book (or online, since we are now 24 years ahead) will tell you he ended last, taking three weeks to complete the trail. It takes a lot to finish the race, and everything that could have gone wrong, went wrong: from storms, to a relatively short time to prepare, to sexually confused dogs; but in the end, he made it past the finish line in Nome.
“It grew darker and the wind picked up. Snow began falling. The trail was rising with no end in sight. I sensed we’d lost our race with the storm, but there was no turning back.
Seeking a spiritual boost, I popped a tape in my Walkman. The band was Los Lobos. I enjoyed the tune until I actually listened to the words: ‘There’s a deep dark hole, and it leads to nowhere…’”
The timeline isn’t always clear throughout the book. At times you wonder “Eight dogs? When did he drop the others?” until you realise it is a scene from previous training. Between the ongoing race and snippets of history it is not always easy to follow and the biographic recollections and interspersed with third person updates of other mushers, as this was written in hindsight. The changing point of view doesn’t always make it easy to situate yourself in the story. Of course, it doesn’t help having to keep track of mushers’ names, entire dog teams (at least a dozen dog names each), and rest stop names, but that’s what it is like in Alaska, it all sounds a little weird.
While you may initially need to read up on some of the terminology or at least take a look at some pictures of how dog teams and sleds are set up, it will transport you into a world that seems absolutely unimaginable. Unless you would like to roll up in a sleeping bag on a sled in temperatures below 50 in the middle of the snow with only your clothes to keep you warm?
“Placing the sled upright, I slipped off my snowmachine suit, shook it off, and stretched it across the bottom of the toboggan for insulation. Next, I unpacked my sleeping bag and laid it across the suit. Kicking off my bunny boots, I slipped into the sleeping bag. I grabbed the open flap of the sled bag and pulled it overhead. Then I pressed the Velcro strips together and sealed myself inside. My sled bag had become a survival cocoon.”
My Lead Dog Was A Lesbian by Brian O’Donoghue
Originally published 1996