A story of dogsleds and survival

"Ice Island" author Sherry Shahan, shown at her Morro Bay home, has spent much time in Alaska.
"Ice Island" author Sherry Shahan, shown at her Morro Bay home, has spent much time in Alaska.

Every winter, the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race turns a slice of the Alaskan wilderness into a speedway.

This weekend, nearly 70 mushers and their sled dogs will set out on a 1,049-mile journey from Anchorage to Nome, braving blinding blizzards, sub-zero temperatures and gale-force winds as they trek past spruce forests, frozen lakes and isolated villages. They’ll battle exposure and the elements, risking sore paws, sunburned faces and worse.

Morro Bay author Sherry Shahan first experienced the race in the late 1990s, when she tagged along in a dogsled team.

She soon discovered that the musher she was paired with had a son who participated in the Junior Iditarod, open to ages 14 to 17. “And I went, ‘Light bulb! What a great photo-illustrated book that would be for kids,’ “ she recalled.

Her adventures tagging along on training runs with Dalton Fieldler and his family formed the basis of 1997’s “Dashing Through the Snow: The Story of the Jr. Iditarod.”

“I just fell in love with the wildness of Alaska,” said Shahan, who has visited the state a dozen times.

In her latest young adult novel, “Ice Island,” Shahan traces the adventures of Tatum, a 13-year-old Oregon transplant who developed an obsession with the Iditarod after moving to Alaska with her parents.

“More than anything in the world, she wants to race,” Shahan said.

Tatum inherits Bandit, a retired sled dog, from a seasoned musher just before leaving Nome to spend a week on remote San Ysabel Island with her mom. They discover a tiny community, inhabited mostly by Siberian Yupik tribal members, where snowmobiles share space with dogsleds and walrus-hide boats lean against cement-block houses.

When Tatum meets Cole, a Yupik youth who shares her interest in dog-sledding, she decides to join him on a training run. But she fails to tell her mother exactly how far the two will be traveling with their two four-dog teams — or that they’ll be forced off course by a freak snowstorm and powerful winds.

With their food supply dwindling and exhaustion setting in, the two must split up to survive in a snowy landscape where the slightest mistake can spell disaster.

Shahan, whose books include the adventure novels “Death Mountain” and “Frozen Stiff,” said she’s drawn to stories of survival. She cited award-winning authors Jean Craighead George (“Julie of the Wolves”) and Gary Paulsen (“Hatchet”) as two inspirations.

Like those writers, Shahan draws inspiration from her own experiences — whether camping and kayaking in eastern Alaska or hiking in the Sierra Nevada Mountains. Her visit to Alaska’s St. Lawrence Island inspired the events of “Ice Island” a decade later.

“There’s something very unique about a woman who is having these adventures and writing about them,” said Shahan, who’s also written several nonfiction children’s books and a series of picture books inspired by Latin American culture.

“If there’s something that interests me, then I think there will be an audience.”

“Ice Island,” published in January by Delacorte Press, offers an action-packed narrative full of fascinating facts about life in Alaska.

But the novel only touches briefly on the controversy surrounding its central subject. Animal rights organizations such as People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals consider the Iditarod, established in 1973, animal cruelty.

Shahan acknowledged that sled dogs can fall prey to illness, injury and even death while racing, but noted that Iditarod rules — which mandate pre-race physical examinations, drug screening and treatment by volunteer veterinarians — are designed to safeguard the dogs’ health and wellbeing.

“These dogs absolutely love to run and they love to pull,” she said. “When you go out on training runs, the dogs that are left behind are heartbroken because they’re not going.”

Although “Ice Island” is intended for ages 10 to 14, her next young adult book is aimed at a slightly older audience.

“Skin and Bones” is a darkly comic love story about two anorexic teens set in the eating disorder unit of a hospital. The book, which Shahan described as “ ‘Love Story’ meets ‘One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,’ ” is scheduled to be published next spring by Albert Whitman & Company.