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By DANELLE LANDIS
Daily News Staff Writer
Alaska author Dan O’Neill presented his most recent book, “Stubborn Gal,” to an audience of about 30 children and adults on April 6 at the Ketchikan Public Library.
O’Neill also is the author of “A Land Gone Lonesome,” “The Last Giant of Beringia” and “The Firecracker Boys.” He has twice received the Alaska Library Association’s award for the best book on Alaska published anywhere, and the Alaska Historical Society named him Alaska Historian of the Year.
O’Neill also works as a carpenter and has spent his years in Fairbanks running sled dogs, trapping, fishing, producing radio and television documentaries, and writing a newspaper political column.
“Stubborn Gal” is a nonfiction children’s book about the determination of a Fairbanks-area woman who is a novice to dogsled racing. She sees an advertisement about a 60-mile race and decides to enter, with no racing experience and with no practice running more than five dogs at a time. She must learn to wrangle 10 determined, tough dogs to get through the race.
As the youngsters in the library snacked on goldfish crackers and grapes and lolled on floor cushions, O’Neill introduced the audience to the ins and outs of dog mushing.
“You guys live down here in the rainforest and there’s not a whole lot of dog mushing around here,” he said. “Although, I know you have a gal who’s run the Iditarod twice,” reminding them of Ketchikan’s star musher Angie Taggart.
He then delved into Iditarod history, touching on the story of the musher Leonard Seppala, who in 1925 was part of a team to carry a critical delivery of serum to Nome.
“He was the guy who had to carry the serum across sea ice,” O’Neill explained. “All of this is frozen ocean that they had to run their dog teams across.”
He further explained that the leg of the serum run over the sea ice was the “scariest part of the whole trip,” and very dangerous, because it’s 60 miles one way, with fiercely low temperatures and hurricane-force winds.
“They picked Seppala to do the scariest part because he was the most qualified guy,” O’Neill said.
He then introduced the plot of “Stubborn Gal” by comparing the protagonist Sarah’s big race to the Iditarod.
“The race is smaller than the Iditarod, which is 1,000 miles long,” he said. “The race we’re going to talk about is 60 miles long, which is still pretty far.”
The book opens with a folk-artsy illustration by Klara Maisch of a grandfather sitting in a lawn chair on a grassy lawn near a house. His small granddaughter has approached him to ask him to tell a story about his time in Alaska, while her grandmother works in the garden in the background.
“This Sarah was tall and strong and pretty, just like you,” O’Neill read as the illustration filled the screen behind him. “She lived in a cabin in the woods with her husband and their 10 sled dogs.”
O’Neill continued to read, following the story as Sarah’s husband leaves to work in the oil fields, and Sarah stays behind to care for the house and the dogs. Each day, she would take five of the dogs for a sled training run.
One day, Sarah was bored from being home alone, when she was intrigued by an advertisement for two dog mushing races — one 30 miles long, and the other, 60 miles.
“What the heck, I’ll enter,” O’Neill said Sarah thought.
She decided not only to compete, but to enter the more challenging, longer race.
The race organizer, who was a friend, tried to dissuade her from entering that race. He pointed out that she’d never raced before, and that she’d need to run all 10 dogs, which she’d never done.
“What if you fall off and the team got away?” O’Neill said the organizer asked.
If a musher falls off the sled, the team will continue running, either leaving the musher alone, or dragging the clinging musher behind, helplessly, O’Neill said.
He added that, compounding the challenge was that back in 1981, when the book’s race took place, racing dogs were about 10 to 15 pounds bigger than modern sled racing dogs .
O’Neill continued to read, following Sarah’s travails as she trained for the race — she was forced to break up a dog fight among the big dogs on the trail, and on another training day, she had to fight her way to her feet after she fell off the sled.
When race day finally arrived, Sarah’s and her team pulled together to beat “Burly Bob,” the race favorite.
At the book’s conclusion, the granddaughter realizes that Sarah, the musher, is her grandmother, who had been plying her stubbornness in the background to work a small stump out of the ground.
“Does anyone wonder if the “stubborn gal” is still alive, and where she must be?” O’Neill asked audience members at the conclusion of the story.
Several adults and children nodded their heads.
“Well, you know what, she is still alive … she’s in this very room!” O’Neill proclaimed.
His wife, Sarah Campbell, stood shyly near the back of the room, to the gasps and applause of the audience.
O’Neill then opened the floor to questions.
“I’ve never heard such colorful detail on what it’s like to manage a bunch of those dogs,” Bridgit Stearns said. “I guess it’s all true?”
All the details were complete truth, O’Neill assured her. Even down to the low temperatures Sarah endured while mushing.
Attendee Amie Grim asked Campbell about the race: “What was the most frightening part?”
Campbell answered that although the race route was somewhat familiar to her, she did have a few moments of unease.
“A guy had put survey tape on the trees, and the survey tape ran out and I thought, ‘Well, where am I now?’” Campbell said. “It was more about losing than about being totally lost, but otherwise, it was … when someone tells you you can’t do something and you want to prove yourself, then that sort of thing takes away a lot of the fear.”
Caroline Seabright asked how Campbell had cared for the dogs along the way, and Campbell answered that the dogs, who had been training hard in preparation, needed only short rest and snack breaks.
At one point, Campbell said, the race route met up with the Iditarod route, about 100 miles from Nome.
She said she saw some of the Iditarod mushers that put their team’s welfare ahead of the goal of winning, but she noted other teams in which the Iditarod dogs were so exhausted, it took their handlers several tries to stand them up and get them to stay on their feet.
“My personal feeling is that, they have what’s called a ‘stage race,’ where you go from x to y in a day, and they keep track of your time” Campbell said. “Then everybody rests, stays overnight, gets a good feed and the dogs get to sleep and you start again the next day. To me, that’s a much more humane way to run dogs.”
Young attendee Sam Grim had a more simple question: What were Campbell’s dogs’ names?
Campbell and O’Neill rattled off a few, including “Puck,” “Boozer” and “Jessie.”
O’Neill, in between signing books at the Parnassus Books sale table, said he’d first arrived in Alaska in 1975, hailing from San Francisco. He’d boarded the ferry in Seattle and landed first in Ketchikan. On the ferry, he met a one-armed man who invited him to spend a week with him on the boat he lived on in Thomas Basin.
The man showed him around town, taking him to his favorite spots.
“Almost every memory I have was in a bar,” he said, laughing.
The man had just returned home to Ketchikan after a couple of years away, so everywhere they went people called out greetings and offered to buy their drinks.
“I remember some of the bars that aren’t there anymore, and where they were,” he said, sketching some of their locations on scrap paper.
“We raised a little hell,” he said, grinning.
While in Ketchikan this past week, O’Neill also gave a presentation titled “Writing about Alaska as an Alaskan” at the University of Alaska Ketchikan Campus Library April 4 as part of its Ask UAS series. His last visit to present his books in Ketchikan was in 2015.
When asked how audiences in Ketchikan are different from other locations he’s visited, O’Neill said that all Alaskans seem to be curious whether he was born in the state. In Ketchikan, he has noticed a particular focus, however.
“I think people here are very interested in local history,” he said.