With no experience in dogsledding (and no obvious passion for dogs), British travel writer and professional amateur-adventurer Polly Evans spends 11 weeks in the Yukon and Alaska learning everything she can about “the howling, capering, tail-wagging world of sled dogs.” Evans scoops poops, cleans pens, ladles out horsemeat, massages cream into worn pads, fastens booties, clips harnesses and eventually learns to steer a six-Husky team. The Mister Miyagi to her Karate Kid is Frank Turner, a veteran of 22 Yukon Quests. At one point, Evans joins the support crew for Saul Turner, as he follows his father’s sled tracks in the 1,000- mile-plus race.
Evans specializes in stranger-in-astrange- land, novice-tackling-tough challenges assignments. She’s the fallible but intrepid everywoman we relate to from our La-Z-Boy, a portal, in this case, to freezing toes and crashing a sled. You get the freshness and humor of the newcomer (dogs pee on her boots, steal her gloves and ignore her cries of “Whoa!”), but none of the rich insights of a seasoned veteran. For that, I suggest Gary Paulson’s mushing memoir, Winterdance: The Fine Madness of Running the Iditarod. Also, Evans doesn’t bring a critical eye to any of the controversial aspects of the sport; she mentions the practices of culling old dogs, tethering and “accidental” litters without question.
To be fair, Evans’s focus is travel. Throughout the book, she uses towns and landmarks as triggers for mini history lessons in Arctic wildlife, the Klondike, even drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Along the way, some deliciously quirky factoids surface, including tips from Professor Popsicle on what to do if you fall through the ice, and the challenges of building on permafrost. But these details weigh down a central narrative that’s surprisingly short on real drama, well-drawn people or even memorable dogs. The most vivid canine portraits are not of her teammates, but of the retired dogs who wander freely or live inside with the family and staff.
The best sections are the beginning and the end. Her first impressions are sharp, and, later, when she tests her newfound mastery in the backcountry, her descriptions of the teeth-clattering cold make it clear she earned her advance. In the closing section, set on a stretch of the Yukon Quest Trail, Evans provides a compelling view of the trials, beauty and teamwork that draw so many to dogsledding.
Mad Dogs and an Englishwoman: Travels with Sled Dogs in Canada’s Frozen North