Moving North - to write and mush

Popular young-people's writer finds a home

Posted: Tuesday, March 08, 2005

ANCHORAGE - Writer Gary Paulsen left the Hollywood party scene years ago for a less glamorous life.

He's found it in Alaska where he gets kisses and adoring looks from a leggy creature who promises to take him places no starlet ever could.

"Oh, he Frenched me," said Paulsen, after Flax, his favorite Alaska husky, got a bit over-affectionate when getting a hug at Paulsen's log cabin in Willow, about 85 miles north of Anchorage and a mile from the Iditarod Trail.

Paulsen, 65, recently moved to Alaska to bring his two passions together - writing and dog mushing. He plans to write during the summer and mush in the winter. His wife, Ruth, will stay at their home in Santa Fe, New Mexico.

"Where else could I go to do what I want to do, run dogs and live in the bush?" Paulsen said. "With dogs, you are never alone."

Paulsen's fans will find him. He's one of America's most popular writers for young people, having written more than 175 books and 200 articles and short stories. His current publisher, Random House, has published 16 million copies of Paulsen's books. His book signings routinely attract audiences of 700 to 1,000 people, mostly young adults, said his editor, Wendy Lamb.

One time, Paulsen said, he was on a panel at a writer's workshop when thousands of young people showed up.

"The kids ... they crash everything," he said, laughing. "They just mobbed the scene."

Paulsen credits the experience of running in the 1,100-mile Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race in 1983 and 1985 for his receiving three consecutive Newbery Honor Books awards for "Hatchet," "Dogsong" and "The Winter Room."

"I don't think it would have happened without the race," he said.

Paulsen had hoped to run the Iditarod - which started Saturday - this year but he withdrew because his team wasn't prepared. He'll race next year, he said.

Last fall, he pulled up stakes in northern Minnesota and moved to Willow, where he bought a log cabin from musher Vern Halter. Next to the house are more than two dozen yapping, howling sled dogs - bought for between $700 and $1,200 apiece. He sold his 28-foot sailboat for $65,000 to buy dogs, sleds and equipment.

Paulsen knows what he's getting into. He finished the 1983 Iditarod and scratched in 1985 - the same year that Libby Riddles pushed through a fierce coastal storm to win.

The winds were so bad that year they picked Paulsen's team up and pitched his dogs back on him.

"All the dogs rolled back on me. After that they were kind of demoralized. They didn't want to do it," he said.

Paulsen wrote about his first Iditarod in "Winterdance: The Fine Madness of Running the Iditarod," which contains a hilarious account of hooking up the team to an old bicycle and crashing through the woods.

Paulsen's life wasn't always so funny.

"My folks were drunks," he said, bluntly. "They were drunks, both of them in the Philippines, and I became a street kid."

Paulsen's father was career military and was a member of Gen. George Patton's staff. When his father retired in 1949 or 1950, the family moved to Thief River Falls, Minn., where Paulsen said his parents continued to drink heavily.

"I was 10, 11 and I fostered myself to the woods. I hunted, trapped and fished, and skipped school," he said.

At age 17, Paulsen joined the Army by forging his father's signature on enlistment papers. While in the Army, he took electrical engineering classes. He didn't much like the Army and got out in 3 years, 8 months, 21 days and 9 hours.

He went to work in the aerospace industry in California. One evening, while staring at a tracking console at the Goldstone Deep Space Tracking Center, it hit him. He had to be a writer.

"I had never thought of writing," he said. "I was sitting there looking at the console - and I knew I had to be a writer. I walked out that night."

He packed up his VW Bug and drove to Hollywood, where he exchanged his $500-a-week job in the aerospace industry for a magazine proofreading job that paid $360 a month. He got work writing movie dialogue.

"I met the right people. I was going to the right parties," Paulsen said.

But he knew the scene was wrong for him. It was affecting his writing, so he left one day. Following a survival instinct that began in childhood, Paulsen headed for the woods - this time to northern Minnesota where he rented a cabin on a lake for $25 a month.

He snared rabbits and ate deer and wrote all winter on a portable typewriter. By spring, he'd come up with his first book.

"It sold about 12 copies," he said.

In the mid-1960s, Paulsen moved to Taos, N.M., where he met his wife, Ruth. They married in 1968. His plan was to produce two books a year.

"How hard could it be?" he told himself.

Paulsen lost control of his drinking. Within two years, he was an alcoholic. He didn't sell another book for seven years.

Paulsen moved from Taos to near Evergreen, Colo., where he worked in construction and continued to drink until May 4, 1973, when he quit.

"I sobered up and I had to learn to write again," he said.

Paulsen accepted all kinds of jobs. He wrote advertising copy, screenplays, mysteries, Westerns, adventure stories and political speeches.

He found his groove in kids' books. He signed a 20-book deal and wrote four, two of which were bestsellers. But the deal fell apart. Everything - the house, the land, two cars and a boat - got repossessed and Paulsen got sued.

"I told Ruth we got to go north. I've got to go into the woods," he said.

They loaded up the Pinto wagon, this time with a dog and their son Jim, and headed again to northern Minnesota. They had $900. Paulsen used $200 of that to put money down on some land that came with a metal lean-to with a barrel stove inside where the family lived.

Paulsen said he didn't go far enough into the woods. The repo man showed up one day and took the Pinto.

Paulsen relied on what he knew. He set up a 30-mile trap line, later to grow to 210-miles, and made his own snowshoes. Someone loaned him a muzzleloader for hunting. But he found out that it was illegal to use a snowmobile or four-wheeler to check his trap line. Dog teams were OK.

Word got around that Paulsen needed some sled dogs. Neighbors gave him four old ones - not one of them a leader.

"First time I left the yard I had a rope around my waist and I was the lead dog," Paulsen said.

He got two more dogs that did know how to lead. One was "Cookie," who would later help him get to Nome in the 1983 Iditarod.

"I have a picture of her in my wallet and no picture of my wife," Paulsen said. That in no way reflects on his feelings for his wife, he added.

Paulsen had about 65 dogs in 1989 when he was diagnosed with heart disease. He quit dogs and sailed the South Pacific.

But in January 2003, with his heart trouble over, he got a call. A children's hospital in Spokane, Wash., asked Paulsen if he would do a benefit. His job was to help the kids into dog sleds for a ride and autograph books.

After the event ended and just about everyone had gone home, a guy with Alaskan huskies asked Paulsen if he wanted to take the dogs for a run.

Paulsen said he wasn't 200 yards down the trail when he knew his life was about to take a turn again, this time back to Alaska.

Paulsen's move to Alaska is a good one, said Lamb, his editor.

"It does seem to be where he belongs," she said. "Gary, unlike other people, going to the dogs is a very positive thing to do."



CONTACT US

  • Switchboard: 907-586-3740
  • Circulation and Delivery: 907-586-3740
  • Newsroom Fax: 907-586-3028
  • Business Fax: 907-586-9097
  • Accounts Receivable: 907-523-2230
  • View the Staff Directory
  • or Send feedback

ADVERTISING

SUBSCRIBER SERVICES

SOCIAL NETWORKING