Nine Dog Winter
Reviewed: January 21, 2009
By: Bruce T. Bachelor
Publisher: Agio Publishing House
364 pages, $23.95
The cover copy of Nine Dog Winter does a good job of describing the book.
“With more courage and energy than common sense, two young Canadians recruit
nine rowdy sled dogs, and head out camping in the Yukon as temperatures plunge
to Sixty below and colder.”
By the time Bruce Batchelor decided he wanted to spend a winter in the bush
he already had a writing bug, having produced a map book called Yukon Channel
Charts, and worked on the first Lost Whole Moose Catalogue.
In the summer of 1980 he hiked into the fire tower where his future wife, Marsha
McGillis, was working and talked her into spending the winter in the bush with
him, explaining that he “needed a good heater to keep me warm on this
winter adventure.” He and Marsha had met while they were both team leaders
for Katimavik, so the union wasn’t completely out of the blue.
Nine Dog Winter is the story of how they prepared for the trip, how they found
themselves living in a run down cabin at Horsefall Creek between the Pelly Farm
and Fort Selkirk, how they took nine mismatched dogs and their own beginner’s
luck and forged them into two teams hauling custom homemade toboggans for that
Batchelor indicates that part of his inspiration for writing this book was his
reading of such northern memoir classics as Dangerous River by R.M. Patterson
and Come a Long Journey by Allen Fry.
He was also interested in producing something of a “how to” book
for anyone who might like to duplicate his adventure. Twenty-five years after
he first wrote the book he returned to the unpublished manuscript and improved
it substantially by doing two things.
First, he moved all the technical material for building toboggans, harnessing
dogs, assembling winter gear, making up a nine month supplies list, cutting
firewood, dog care, how best to sleep with a partner in joined sleeping bags,
and other details into a series of appendices (about 60 pages worth) in the
back of the book. This cut down on interruptions to the narrative and actually
gave him more room to add stories he hadn’t thought to put in the original
manuscript. The result is a much more unified memoir than it might otherwise
have been, with more room for revealing the characters of the human protagonists
as well as the dogs.
The appendices are not merely dry instructions. They include their own shorter
stories, but these tales are tangental to the main arc of the book and would
have been distractions if left where they originally appeared.
The main story, that of two novices surviving and enjoying themselves in unfamiliar
territory, reminded me of some of the more amusing parts of Farley Mowat’s
northern work. Bruce doesn't agree with me on this comparison, but was happy
to find his writing also reminded me of the work of Gary Paulsen, a writer of
young adult adventure novels who has also run the Iditarod several times and
wrote about his early days of dog mushing in a memoir called Woodsong.
Nine Dog Winter provides the reader with tales of cabin life, tales of life
on the trail, stories of camping under the stars and in a wall tent, as well
as the realization that even Carmacks in the early 1980s could seem large after
several months in the bush.
The book is also full of Yukon characters who remain well known. They are visited
by Cor Guimond, on his way to the Sourdough Rendezvous by dog team. They visit
the Dowdells on their farm south of Dawson; the Bradleys on the Pelly Farm;
Greg Skuce & Sally Robinson and Jon Rudolf & Carol Racz in Whitehorse;
Danny and Abbie Roberts at Fort Selkirk, and many others.
From freeze-up to break-up Nine Dog Winter takes the reader through an invigorating
experience that manages to sound like a lot of fun, but does not in the least
deny the amount of hard work it must have been.
As a coda to all of this it is worth noting that extreme experiences either
destroy relationships or build them. Bruce and Marsha got married two years
after this adventure and have shared their love of the outdoors with their son,
Dan, who arrived nine years later.