Meet adventure writer and master storyteller Gary Paulsen, who has raced twice in the Iditarod. This and Paulsen's many other experiences in the outdoors and growing up have shaped his writing about life. Students on Scholastic.com interviewed Gary during the Iditarod 2000. Gary answered a selection of students' questions about his dog-mushing experiences, his animals, his books, writing, and life.
What do you feel after you finish the race and don't come in first?
Tahel I, age 12, NY
Exhilarated that you've finished the race at all and totally, bone-tired exhausted. Most of all, though, I felt so proud and thankful to the dogs for all the hard work they had done. They are the real athletes of the race. I've never really slept normally since running the race. Somehow the exertion of training for and running the race — which means, of course, taking care of the dogs 24 hours a day, 7 days a week and putting their needs ahead of your own, affect your sleep cycles for the rest of your life. I still wake up listening for the dogs — even now that I'm living on a sailboat.
What do you feed your dogs during a race and where do you get the food?
John P., age 11, WA
The dogs eat meat. I got a donation of outdated meat from local grocery stores where I lived that I would grind up into sort of a paste that I could freeze and later thaw for the dogs. Also, I would go to the slaughterhouses and buy what was not human edible for the dogs — disgusting stuff, really, but the dogs loved it. You provide the food you need ahead of time and the Race committee and volunteers make sure it arrives at different checkpoints along the route before you get there. Everything is marked with the mushers' names so you know what's yours.
How long did it take you to train your dogs?
Will E., age 10, GA
It would take me years to train a dog team — to get to know the dogs well enough to trust my life to them. You have to know how strong each dog is and how hard they'll work for you and what bothers them. But it took about 18 months of intensive training (and by that I mean long runs, constantly, just going home to change dogs and then heading out into the bush again) to get me and the team ready for the Iditarod.
What is the biggest challenge of all in the Iditarod?
Christina S., age 12, OH
Staying awake, staying warm, looking after the dogs who are after all, what the race is all about. That's the most important thing and probably the biggest challenge and most crucial aspect of the race — to look after the dogs — not to rest or eat until they've been fed and watered and all of their feet checked and their own beds made. They're everything in the race and you, as the musher, are only there to make sure they're doing well.
What is the best thing about racing?
Keri G., age 11
The dogs are the best thing about racing. They're wonderful. They know about running and they have such stamina and heart and they're fascinating people to get to know. I've always thought of dogs as people — wonderful, wild, doggy folks. They have personalities and likes and dislikes and humor and anger and great heart and spirit. I never tired of watching them run and learning about them. That's why I ran the Race — to spend more time with the dogs and see what they could do.
Where and how do you sleep on the trail?
Ferris B., age 10, SD
You doze, but never really sleep. You have to keep an eye on the dogs, so you catch a few quick winks here and there — sometimes even when you're running, just standing there on the sled you fall asleep for a few seconds here and there.
Would you ever do the Iditarod again? Why or why not?
Tyler C., age 10, NH
I would love to race again, but have had some problems with heart disease that prevent me from training as hard as I would need to. I'm fine and currently living on a sailboat in the Sea of Cortez as I make plans to sail around Cape Horn, but the race would be, I think, too much.
What kind of wildlife can you expect to see on the Iditarod trail?
Mr. Nussbaum's students W N., age 8, VA
I've seen moose, wolves, and caribou on the trail. Except for the crazy moose, they're not troublesome, but moose have been known to attack dogteams for no good reason.
What is your favorite checkpoint on the trail? What is the coldest and most dangerous spot?
My favorite checkpoint is Rhone River because it is simply the most beautiful place I've ever seen — not that you have much time or energy for enjoying the view. The coldest and most dangerous spot is on the Yukon River where it can go to –83º F.
Have you ever been in a real igloo? What do you eat, and what do your dogs eat?
Yes, I've been in an igloo. They're surprisingly cozy and warm — small though, you can't really stand up in some. Both the dogs and I eat lots of meat for the protein while we run. They eat the meat patties that I explained earlier and I made myself these ugly protein burgers with raisins and meat and all sorts of things to give me energy and keep me warm.
Did you finish the Iditarod? If so, what place did you come in?
Yvette R., age 10, NH
I ran the Iditarod twice. I finished once. I came in 42nd or 43rd place out of 70 plus teams the first time and I scratched 80 miles from Nome the second time. You can read about my experience in the race in my books Woodsong and Winterdance.
How long does it take (you) to finish? Was this a lifelong dream?
Mr. Schmick's 5th grade class, age 11, WA
Seventeen days 14 hours to finish the race the first time I ran. This was a lifelong dream and I still dream of it. You're never the same after you run the Iditarod, and I still lust to go out and run with dogs, even though I know that I shouldn't. But I'd give just about anything to be able to do it again. To see the horizon again from the back of a dogteam would be wonderful.
I would like to know what kind of car you have. And which do you prefer to drive, your car or a sled dog?
Hector G, age 12, AZ
I have a pickup truck. And I prefer to be with dogs or on my sailboat than in a car — actually more than any other place on earth.
What do you eat on the trail?
Both the dogs and I eat meat on the trail. Like I said, I got a donation of outdated meat from local grocery stores where I lived that I would grind up into sort of a paste that I could freeze and later thaw for the dogs. Also, I would go to the slaughterhouses and buy what was not human edible for the dogs — disgusting stuff, really, but the dogs loved it. And I would make energy patties of meat for myself and cook them on a small portable stove that I carried in the sled. Actually not so much cook as thaw.
Do you pack anything on your sled? If so, what?
Kathrine T., age 12, VA
On the sled you have, first and foremost, food for the dogs, batteries for your headlamp, extra line for the harness, extra clothing, a small portable stove to cook, a thermos. A Walkman and a Willie Nelson tape. Safety gear of all kinds, but you want to keep it light and easy for the dogs to carry.
What do you say/sing when you're racing the dogs? How do you take care of your personal needs?
Nick C., age 10, NJ
You're very quiet when you run — they don't need to hear anything, so you just keep still and concentrate on how they're doing. By personal needs, I assume you mean going to the bathroom. Very quickly!
Have you ever seen a moose in real life? Have you ever eaten moose meat?
Scott W., age 12, WY
Yes, I've been attacked by a moose on the trail and I've eaten moose chili. Moose are crazy, I think, and they attack without reason sometimes. I've written about this in my book Woodsong.
Are you anxious when you reach Takotna to take a shower?
Carla K., age 11, IA
It does feel nice to take a shower, but you're mainly just thinking about getting back to your dogs quickly.
What do you like better, writing or mushing?
Matthew G., age 11, NY
That's a tough question — writing, by a hair. I love them both so much that it's hard to pick just one.
How do you learn to be a musher?
Frankie S., age 8, NY
The dogs teach you what to do. Since they're really all that matters and they're the ones doing all the work, you just pay attention to them. I've written many times about the lessons the dogs, Cookie, Storm, et cetera, taught me when we were training for and running the Iditarod. If you just pay attention to how they're running and eating and sleeping, you'll know all you need to know about running dogs.
Do you have to be a boy to be a musher?
Brittney W., age 8, NY
Absolutely not! Dee Dee Jonroe, Susan Butcher — lots of women have run and won the Iditarod.
Are you racing in the Iditarod for fun, to win, or to get a feeling for a new story?
Jeff H., age 10, IL
I ran the Iditarod for fun and to spend time with the dogs. Not to win, never to win, and I get book ideas from everywhere so I didn't do the race just to write about it. I never thought I'd write a book about it until Woodsong and Winterdance.
Do you think some people mistreat their dogs? How many women are there?
Brieanna C., age 10, WA
The race — and the safety and health of the dogs — are very highly controlled. The mushers, the vets, the volunteers, we're all there to look after the dogs. The dogs are the race.
Who or what inspired you to write Brian's Winter?
Kadee E., age 11, IA
The readers who wanted to know what would've happened if Brian hadn't been rescued. I got so many letters I had to write that book.
I just recently read your book Hatchet. I like writing stories. What advice would you give to a kid who wants to be a writer?
Me'shell L., age 11, CA
Read all the time and write every day. Don't get discouraged.
We just finished reading Stone Fox, written by John Reynolds Gardiner. Our class loved this book and now we are learning about the Iditarod Race as a follow-up to our book. What is your next adventure book going to be?
Ashley C., age 10, NJ
It's a book about the sea — I'm currently working on that, but the next book to be published will be The White Fox Chronicles — lots of action and adventure.