Wednesday, October 13, 2021

Award winning author and Iditarod finisher passes

Photo from Gary Paulsen's
GoodReads bio.
The news of Gary Paulsen's passing earlier today was shared on social media via Publisher's Weekly and news quickly spread in both reading and mushing circles. The 82 year old author penned many books for young adult readers, three of which landing him a Newbery Award. Paulsen's work was based loosely on his childhood and young adult experiences of wilderness adventures, and sparked the imagination of many young readers.

Paulsen's most known work - most likely, anyway - is Hatchet, about a teen thrown into the wilds of Canada forced to survive for weeks before he finally finds rescue. The book would land on many required reading lists across school districts. The book was so popular, fans begged for sequels and so Paulsen returned to the story for several more books creating "Brian's Saga". 

Wilderness Survival tales weren't the only themes of Gary's books. The author also penned several novels for young readers - and a couple for adults - about his life as a dog musher. Paulsen began dabbling with sled dogs after beginning trapping and being intrigued by the (fairly new) sled dog race The Iditarod. Always up for a new adventure, Paulsen learned how to mush by trial and error. He entered the Iditarod in 1982 as a rookie, finishing in 43rd place. He would run again in 1985 but failed to complete the race. His third and final time running the Iditarod was 2006 (he did not finish that race either). 

He would write about his experience training the Iditarod in his semi-true book Winterdance: The Find Madness of Running the Iditarod (which is a must have for any Iditarod fan). The book follows his hijinks as he becomes a musher, as well as covers much of his rookie run on the Iditarod. The author would later admit that some of the stories he shared in the book were not his stories but ones he borrowed from others. It still makes for gripping and entertaining reading and inspires many a musher and fan. 

Winterdance was written with grown up readers in mind, so Paulsen would write a similar one for young readers and titled it Woodsong. He would also write a book entitled Dogsong about an Inuit boy and his journey into mushing to honor his history. Both books are often used by teachers using the Iditarod Education curriculum in their classrooms. 

"I had gotten lost, been run over by a moose, watched a dog get killed, seen a man cry, dragged over a third of the teams off on the wrong trail, and been absolutely hammered by beauty while all this was happening. (It was, I would find later, essentially a normal Iditarod day — perhaps a bit calmer than most.) I opened my mouth.

‘I …’

Nothing came. She patted my arm and nodded. ‘I understand. It’s so early in the race. There’ll be more later to talk about …’

And she left me before I could tell her that I thought my whole life had changed, that my basic understanding of values had changed, that I wasn’t sure if I would ever recover, that I had seen god and he was a dog-man and that nothing, ever, would be the same for me again, and it was only the first true checkpoint of the race.

I had come just one hundred miles." -excerpt from Winterdance

Gary got out of dogs in the 90s to pursue another adventure in sailing, but soon returned to his true passion. He would write in his 2006 bio: "I never should have left dogs-all the time sailing the Pacific, not a day went by that I didn't miss dogs and the dance that running them is for me. I will not leave them again." Paulsen would sign up to run the race again in the twenty-teens, but would not make it to the starting line due to unforeseen circumstances. 

Paulsen's legacy will live on in the imaginations of readers all over the world, and he will keep inspiring. He was writing up until his death and should have at least one more work published early next year.

Sunday, October 10, 2021

Hobo Jim's wife shares final message from singer

As most have heard, Alaska's Balladeer Hobo Jim (James Varsos) passed away at home on Tuesday, October 5 with his wife Cyndi at his side. The singer-song writer was diagnosed with end stage, stage four pancreatic cancer a mere 17 days before his passing - a shock to all who knew him. While never one to spend a significant amount of time on social media, Hobo would post wonderful stories and throwbacks for friends and family to enjoy. During the height of the pandemic in 2020, Varsos would often put up a live feed and do free concerts for viewers playing requests and his all-time favorites (he even did one specific for children and made Alaskan millennials happy by playing his songs from the books Thunderfeet and Danger the Dog Yard Cat). 

Sunday, Hobo Jim's widow went onto his page to post Hobo Jim's final work he had saved to his phone. "Upon going through Jim's phone," she writes, "I came across this final message Jim wrote to all of you in his own beautiful words. "Thank you for loving him and embracing his music and love of Alaska. There is no one like a Hobo Jim fan. Here is to all of you. May God Bless you all, Cyndi."

Not surprisingly, Hobo Jim's mind was tuned to Alaska and her spirit that constantly called to his. Varsos spent 49 years of his life in the 49th state, most of those literally singing her praises. His songs spoke to many Alaskans on their lifestyle and why they loved their homeland. His memory will live on through the ballads, polkas, and folk music dedicated to his adopted state. 

The GoFundMe account is still active to help support Jim's wife Cyndi through this time. Hobo Jim's facebook page (and fan group page) is still up and fan tributes continue to pour in. 

Thursday, October 7, 2021

Mushing community mourns the loss of Alaskan Balladier

Photo courtesy of "Alaska Bob" Parsons.
James Varsos, better known as Hobo Jim, passed away after a short battle with pancreatic cancer on the morning of October 5. His wife of 42 years was by his side and confirmed the singer's passing in a statement to Alaskan media on Wednesday. Hobo Jim was 68 when he died.

Hobo - as he's lovingly called by friends and fans alike - moved to Alaska in 1972 and immediately fell in love. The singer-songwriter wrote songs of the Alaskan way of life from commercial fishing, to mushing, and off grid life. His songs endeared him to Alaskans and in the early 80s he was given the official title of Alaska's Balladier. 

Varsos and his wife Cyndi settled and raised their family near Soldotna, Alaska (a town on the Kenai Peninsula). His homesteading life inspired many Hobo Jim classics, and many were inspired by his love for his devoted partner. He didn't just write for himself, several well known singers throughout the decades recorded songs he wrote (including Country Legend George Jones). 

The song that solidified Hobo Jim's legendary status came in 1982 when he released the famed Iditarod Trail song which quickly became the official song of the Last Great Race. What was once a "bar song" is now sung in classrooms around the country (if not the world). The catchy polka inspired hit both inspires and haunts those that hear it (mainly because it's an earworm rivaled only by Disneyland's It's a Small World"). 

Hobo Jim would write other memorable mushing songs including Redington's Run which he wrote in tribute to his friend and Iditarod founder Joe Redington Sr. after the musher passed in 2002. Hobo's classic "Wild and Free" was the inspiration for Yukon Quest Champion Brent Sass's kennel (known as, what else, the Wilde and Free Mushing). Hobo Jim was often seen playing concerts benefiting the different races and kennels. 

Varsos announced September 18 that he was diagnosed with end-stage cancer and doctors had given him 3-6 months to live. The singer would pass just 17 days later, a shock to most every one. Family, friends, and fans all took to social media in the days leading up to his passing sharing favorite memories and songs along with encouragement and love. Following the news of his death, the tributes continued. The mushing community was no exception as the emotions and tributes poured out from kennels all over Alaska. 

Hobo Jim left one final message on his facebook at the end of September. 

When Varsos announced his cancer diagnosis friends rallied and started a GoFundMe to support the singer and his wife. Their goal was $75,000 and they had just over $51,000 raised at the time of the singer's passing. They've chosen to continue to raise funds to help Cyndi Varsos, if you would like to contribute you can find the GoFundMe link here.

Do you have any fond memories of Hobo Jim? Favorite song? Share below.

Sunday, October 3, 2021

Mid-Distance races open up registration this weekend

With snow falling consistently for the last two weeks in Alaska, fans can officially say it's mushing season. Teams began early fall training late in August and have continued to share their impressive early season miles as the weather remains cool to crisp. While races like the Yukon Quest and the Iditarod open registration in mid to late summer, the mid distance races wait to organize as thoughts turn to long hours on the back of a dog sled. 

This weekend two of the big names in mid-distance races opened registration. The Copper Basin 300 in Alaska and the John Beargrease of Minnesota opened registration Saturday with much fanfare. With Covid numbers rising in Alaska and elsewhere, it was curious if there would be much enthusiasm by the mushing community to look ahead to January and sign up - but sign up they did.

While the Copper Basin is missing some familiar names to the opening name roster - most noticeable is reigning champion Nicolas Petit is not listed (however the musher did comment with plans to sign up, but was having credit card issues) - the Beargrease is welcoming a rookie to their race but not to the sport Wade Marrs. Marrs joins a field with several past champions (Redington, the Frekings, and reigning champion Erin Letzring) as well as some fan favorites and is shaping up to be one competitive race. The Beargrease is partnered with the Iditarod and QrillPet Sports as part of the "Grand Prix" of mushing known as QRILL PAWS Arctic World Series which began in 2019 but has since been sidelined due to the global pandemic. 

The Copper Basin 300 race begins in Glen Allen on January 8, 2022. Registration is open for the first 50 teams, after which names will be held on a waiting list until/if a spot opens up. Deadline to register is December 1, with late entries being allowed for an extra $150 registration fee. So far, the Copper Basin has not maxed out on registrations. 

The John Beargrease Marathon's registration is open from now until January 27, however if mushers want to get in at the cheapest rate they need to sign up by December 31. For the marathon race, due to covid mitigation - they will cap the registration at 25 teams (and then a wait list). The marathon has not maxed out its roster, yet. The race begins in Rice Lake Township on January 30, 2022.

Other races have also opened registration or will open in the next couple of weeks. Snow is literally in the air. It feels like sled dog season. Before we know it, we'll be cheering our teams from the comforts of our home (or out on the trail). 

Which races are you excited to watch? Who are you excited to see sign up, and who are you hoping to see add their name to the roster(s)? Comment below!

Like what you see and want to see post like this continue? Support is always greatly appreciated, if you want to buy me a slice of pizza (or more) I won't say no. (To be honest that money goes into paying for internet and other website related costs.)