No mush in ‘Four Thousand Paws’ — it’s an adventure story

There aren’t many things worse than unintentionally sliding on the ice.

You know it’s going to happen before it does, and that makes it worse. You slip, recombobulate, whirl your arms and adjust, them boom, down you go anyhow. Slipping on ice is not fun, never mind driving on it — unless, of course your ride doesn’t glide on gasoline. Unless, as in the new book “Four Thousand Paws” by Lee Morgan, it runs on salmon and dog chow.

We take travel for granted. It’s easy to jump in a car and go, forgetting that for centuries, Alaska’s Indigenous people used sleds to travel across what would become our 49th state’s terrain. We rarely consider that until 1973, their trail was just a trail.

That was when the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race officially began.

Basically following ancient trade routes, and said to be longer than a thousand miles (but actually shorter), the first Iditarod race itself was rough, making explorers out of the inaugural thirty-four teams. The man who won the first Iditarod completed it in 20 days; today’s mushers finish the race in roughly half that, days of physical and mental endurance, brutal weather, and beautiful terrain.

Knowing that, how could a long-time veterinarian who loved dogs possibly skip a chance to care for the musher’s teams? In 2012, Morgan applied for the gig because it was a natural match: He was an outdoorsman and adventurer, and volunteering in the remote Alaskan outback seemed like a good time. Plus … dogs.

Hundreds of dogs, huskies at 45 pounds each or less, goofy dogs that Morgan swears were smiling at him, patients that knew the drill and were impatient with him when he dared to do a required, regular-stop examination out of order. Dogs, he says, that should be considered as elite as any other high-level athletes that undertake a challenge that seems like fun. The dogs are eager to run, Morgan says, and up to 14 of them do their jobs well. It’s exciting and hard. And sometimes, it’s dangerous …

Before you start reading “Four Thousand Paws,” compare and consider this: Your vehicle is pretty great, but when did your car ever give you a wet, sloppy kiss?

Likely never but since you also probably won’t ever get to the grocer’s by dogsled, you can be glad that someone will tell you about it. Author Lee Morgan shares a journey that is, like many, from the back of a sled, from a freezing tent, and neck-deep in snow, but it’s also about a 10-year love affair with the land, the Iditarod, the mushers that run it, and the dogs that make it happen. His front-of-the-line perspective is different, and the race-to-dog balance of the tale is just right.

Don’t expect to see much “MUSH!” in this book; Morgan says mushers don’t say that. They yell, “GO!” and they’re off — just as you should be, too. If you’re the adventurous type or you love dogs, “Four Thousand Paws” is a book that’s easy to slide into.

Terri Schlichenmeyer lives in Wisconsin with her two dogs and a collection of almost 20,000 books.


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