On the Mark

Author, musher makes most of Yukon Quest course

Posted: Friday, February 11, 2000

In the low-hanging afternoon sun, my dogs underwent what I call the multiplier effect -- each acquiring a high-stepping shadow. I pulled out (a) camera and snapped off a few frames, documenting the odd twists that placed this former urban dweller driving a dog team on the Yukon Quest Trail. Is life stranger than fiction or what?

--from Brian O'Donoghue's "Honest Dogs"

When Brian O'Donoghue stepped on the runners and took off down the starting chute of the 1998 Yukon Quest Sled Dog Race, he was embarking on more than just a grueling 1,000-mile competition. Like any long-distance event, the Quest also is an adventure. That it takes place -- like its better-known cousin, the Iditarod -- in the middle of winter in a hostile and unforgiving environment may even qualify it as an oddity.

Yet its attraction is undeniable.

In his second book, "Honest Dogs," O'Donoghue, a reporter at the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner, shows the reader how life, indeed, can be stranger than fiction. It is the story of his own humorous, touching and, ultimately, very personal odyssey along the trail between Whitehorse, Yukon Territory, and Fairbanks.

His is an everyman's story, a story of patience and perseverance by a dog lover and family man doing battle with the elements -- and his own doubts -- while standing in awe of his canine companions.

n n n n n

Luther fell to work as if nothing happened. Cinder's tug was also tight despite his traveling on three legs more often than not. The sight choked me up. They're doing this for me and I don't deserve it. I suddenly longed to hold Kate and Rory, who was growing up so fast. I was missing so much. And for what? What are we doing out here?

n n n n n

Although he was racing as a Quest rookie in 1998, the race, like the book, was not the first for the 44-year-old. As a 35-year-old bachelor, O'Donoghue took a string of dogs up the Iditarod Trail in 1991, collecting the red lantern and enough stories in the process to churn out "My Lead Dog Was a Lesbian," which was published in 1996 by Random House.

The publishing giant passed on "Honest Dogs." Since O'Donog-hue finished last in the race, as he had in the Iditarod, Random House said it was too much like his first book. And that's too bad, because, other than the outcome, the stories are hardly similar.

In 1998, O'Donoghue, then 42, had a five-months-pregnant wife and an 18-month-old son. Seven years earlier, the reporter's life -- and race experience -- were as different as the two wild landscapes that each race trail traverses.

"I had no idea how easy I had it then," said O'Donoghue, who, perhaps, is best known for proposing to his reporter wife, Kate, on the floor of the Alaska Legislature while both were covering the session.

n n n n n

I boxed up the contents of my efficiency apartment on the Lower East Side to fill a reporter's job at the Frontiersman in Alaska. Since then I've gazed out across the world from Denali's lofty base camp, chased oil spills and wildfires, clutched the stick -- and a puke bag -- executing a roll in an F-16, and collected tales from Alaska Native elders.

Few reporters have mined a richer vein. In the process, I struck El Dorado meeting Kate.

I'm hoping to stretch out our days together, but I never forget that it's all a race. And I'll never blame anyone for grasping opportunities to leave a personal mark on this indifferent world.

n n n n n

Perhaps the most striking and engaging aspect of "Honest Dogs" is the skillful way O'Donoghue interweaves his own, often self-deprecating race tale with the larger story going on around him. And with a cast of colorful characters, including a pair of Quest champions, he is never at a loss for rich material.

His twin roles as reporter and musher serve him well in both the nature and detail of his observations. At its best when the author shares the delights and frustrations of his own rag-tag band of canine cohorts, "Honest Dogs" also serves up hefty doses of reader-friendly commentary on other racers.

O'Donoghue's retelling of the racing chess match going on miles ahead of him between front-runners Bruce Lee, the eventual winner, and mysterious rookie Andre Nadeau, proves that long-distance mushing is about far more than a bunch of sourdoughs being dragged around by dogs.

Still, it is the author's personal story that is the most memorable aspect of this very fine tale of frustration and triumph on the Yukon Quest Trail. While O'Donoghue makes no bones about lacking both the dogs and the experience of competitive mushers, he makes no apologies for it.

n n n n n

It had taken us more than five hours to go, perhaps, twenty-five miles. But I didn't care if they were slowest on the trail, my dogs stood on top of a world populated by stars dancing over a wavy black horizon. ... To my eye, they all had the bearing of champions, "All hail, the conquerors of Eagle Summit!" I shouted.

n n n n n

"Honest Dogs" recently received its second printing by Alaska publisher Epicenter Press. It is being released just in time for this weekend's start of the Yukon Quest. O'Donoghue will not be racing this weekend -- or anytime soon. His commitment now is more to family than training.

That's too bad for readers, who will miss out on O'Donoghue's unique perspective of the kind of adventure -- and of the one bright, shining moment of triumph -- that most of us can only dream about.

"Honest Dogs," like its predecessor, is well worth the literary journey.

Mark Kelsey is the Clarion's managing editor (mkelsey@alaska.net).

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