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Don't get dragged! Iditarod musher shares tales from the trail

Blair Braverman, an adventurer and sled dog racer who finished Alaska's nearly 1,000-mile long Iditarod race in 2019, has some advice for aspiring mushers. Rule no. 1, she says, is to never let go of the sled or the dogs.




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Other segments from the episode on November 16, 2021

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, November 16, 2021: Interview with Blair Braverman; Review of the album Breaking Point.



This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, in today for Terry Gross. Not many people know what it's like to run the Iditarod, guiding a sled and dog team for 13 days and nights through the Alaskan wilderness, but one of them is our guest, Blair Braverman, a writer, dog sledder and adventurer who finished the 1,000-mile race in 2019 at the age of 31.

Braverman has a new book with her husband and dog sledding partner Quince Mountain called "Dogs On The Trail." It's filled with beautiful photos and text describing a year in their dogs' lives. It's less about racing than what it takes to keep the dogs healthy, happy and working together. It's also about the dogs' common instincts and their individual traits. One likes cats, chickens and wearing outfits. Another loves massages and long conversations. And one, named Grinch, actually resembles the Dr. Seuss character.

Blair Braverman is a contributing editor to Outside Magazine and a contributor to The New York Times and Vogue. She's written a well-received memoir called "Welcome To The Goddamn Ice Cube," and she had a memorable appearance on the Discovery Channel reality show "Naked And Afraid," where she was left with a partner in a remote area of South Africa without clothes, food or water and expected to survive among elephants and hyenas for three weeks. As you'll soon hear, it's quite a story.

Well, Blair Braverman, welcome to FRESH AIR. You grew up in California but have long been drawn to the Arctic. Your family spent time in Norway when you were a kid. And I wanted you to share a bit of the memoir that you wrote about your first real encounter with dog sledding. This is at a little school in Norway which taught young people the basics. First, you want to just describe this school?

BLAIR BRAVERMAN: Thank you so much, Dave. Yeah. I grew up in Northern California, in Davis. You know, I had a mom who was obsessed with Alaska. She had all these Alaska books on her shelf, and I would sit there and, like, flip through them on the hottest summer days and just sort of imagine what that could be like.

And so when I was 18, I moved to the Norwegian Arctic to go to a folk school, which is a yearlong nonacademic boarding school where students study something that brings them joy. And it's actually - it's quite a political project if you dig into them. They're very interesting.

But in this case, I went to a school with about 40 students in a village with about 40 people and learned dog sledding. And it was very isolated. They push us off the deep end. You know, we were out there spending nights alone in 30 below. And it was incredible. It shaped my life, full of interesting characters.

DAVIES: All right, so I'd like you to read this little section that we've chosen from your memoir called "Welcome To The Damn Ice Cube" (ph). I guess it's the first time you rode in a dog sled, right? You want to just set this up and share this with us?

BRAVERMAN: Yeah, absolutely. So I, you know, had been obsessed with dog sledding. I had tied myself on rollerblades to my golden retriever a number of times without success. It's shortly after I arrived at the school, and it was my first time on an actual dog-pulled vehicle. In this case, it was a wheeled cart that the dogs pulled before the snow fell.

DAVIES: Right. And you weren't driving, right? You know, you're - the instructor was driving. You were a passenger, is...

BRAVERMAN: I was a passenger.

DAVIES: Right, right. OK, share it with us.

BRAVERMAN: (Reading) The dogs flowed; a perfect, thrilling engine. Their legs stretched out like pistons. Their ears and tongues bounced in unison. Their running had nothing to do with me. They wouldn't have stopped if I'd asked them to. They were beautiful. They were so beautiful. I have never loved anything as hard and as fast as I loved those dogs, as I love dog sledding itself. I could have watched them for hours. I could have watched them forever. They ran like water, and I was part of it.

And I was struck with the instant and undeniable thought that I had finally come to the place that I had spent my life trying to find - right here. Of course, it was here, in the Arctic, in Norway, between the great mass of the fjord and the sharp, snowy mountains at the top of the turning world. It was almost too much to acknowledge. It was hard to trust the fact of my body in this place. But here were the dogs pulling me, proving it.

DAVIES: That was Blair Braverman reading from her memoir, which - cleaning up the title a bit would be called "Welcome To The Damn Ice Cube" (ph). I'm sure a lot of people at age 18 or 19 have had experiences that think, oh, my heavens, this is my calling. With you, it really stuck, didn't it?

BRAVERMAN: (Laughter) It did. You know, I left that school, and, of course, I was coming back to the United States. I had promised my parents I'd come back after a year. All I was thinking was, how am I going to continue to be with sled dogs? Because it's not - you can't casually mush, unless you happen to live in a really rural Northern place and have a neighbor with sled dogs. Like, it's such a commitment. It's such a lifestyle that I was really scared that when I left the school and the structure and the dogs I'd fallen in love with, it would be impossible for me to find my way back to a sled.

DAVIES: Right. It took commitment, and you stuck with it. This school - this teacher, his name was Tallak, right? He was tough. What were some of the rules he taught you for handling the dogs and the sleds?

BRAVERMAN: You know, the first rule that we learned in dog sledding - and it's the first rule a lot of people learn in dog sledding - is that you don't let go because I think people have this idea that if you let go, if you fall off the sled or if the sled tips over and you let go, the dogs will wait for you. But in fact, they will just be happier because they can run even faster, and they will keep going, and you'll be left completely alone in the mountains without even your supplies that are in the sled. So that's, like, the first instinct that we had to learn.

This - I tipped over a sled seven times the first time I drove one. And I have been dragged for a quarter mile before, until I can get the sled upright. You know, the dogs want to run, and you just got to hold on.

DAVIES: When the sled would tip over and you held on to the sled, how long would you be dragged? What did it feel like?

BRAVERMAN: Well, you can't see, so you have to trust your dogs. You know, your lead dogs and the dogs on the team, they can steer, even if you can't. You know, they're going around trees and following the trail. You know, you just get this massive amount of spray in your face. You're just getting coated with snow, just snow plastered all over your face. And it's like, you're bouncing along on your stomach and just trying to hold on with your hands as the sled is bouncing.

And what you have to do eventually is sort of - either the dogs will slow down because they get to an uphill or something, or they'll slow down 'cause - if you have a good bond with them, they'll figure out that you're in trouble, and they'll slow down to sort of let you scramble back on if you call out, whoa, whoa, and they hear you. But even then, you only have a second, you know?

And I will say here also that this is a point of marital dispute between me and my husband, Quince Mountain, because he disagrees with the practice of teaching new mushers never to let go of the sled because he worries that someone might actually put themselves in danger. So if I didn't say that, he would want to issue a correction for FRESH AIR.

DAVIES: (Laughter) Right. So if you do let go, well, what happens? I mean, eventually you catch up with them two miles down the road or what?

BRAVERMAN: Basically. You know, that is every musher's nightmare, is losing your team, falling off or letting go. And I've had it happen to me, I think, twice that I can think of right now - once when the sled handle actually broke off in my hands. So I was left holding the handle, and the team and the handle-less sled went off without me.

And what you do is you just have to walk. You have to walk until you find them. And eventually, they'll slow down or stop and wait for you. But it's not a situation you ever want to be in. In 15 years of mushing, I'm glad I've almost never been in that situation.

DAVIES: Let me reintroduce you. We're going to take a break here. We're speaking with Blair Braverman. She's a writer and long-distance dog sled musher. Her new book with her husband and mushing partner Quince Mountain is "Dogs On The Trail." We'll talk more after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.


DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR, and our guest is writer and long-distance dog sled musher Blair Braverman. She has a new book with her husband and mushing partner Quince Mountain called "Dogs On The Trail."

Well, you now live in northern Wisconsin, and you have this whole crew of dogs that you sled with and race with. And this book tells us a lot about them. One of the things that people will notice right away - I mean, the pictures are terrific. I mean, who doesn't love pictures of dogs? - that they're not what people think of as huskies, the Siberian huskies? These are Alaskan huskies. You want to explain what that - what the difference is?

BRAVERMAN: Yeah, absolutely. And thank you. I do want to say that we have some incredible photographers represented beyond myself and my husband, and it's just a complete honor to have their photos of our dogs included in the book. You know, most people imagine huskies, and they're picturing, you know, Siberian huskies who are sort of beautiful and very fluffy, and they all have the gorgeous masks. And most mushers these days actually work with a kind of husky called an Alaskan husky.

And what that is is sort of a very fast, very enthusiastic mutt who does well in cold temperatures. One way you could think about that is a long time ago, way up north, people started breeding the prettiest dogs to the prettiest dogs, and those became Siberian huskies. And other people were breeding the fastest and the most athletic dogs, and those became Alaskan huskies. So they have a similar heritage, but they've branched apart a bit.

And so Alaskan huskies are interesting because they have never been bred to a standard of appearance. They have only been bred to a standard of health and athleticism. And so they come in every color. They come in, you know, beautiful patterns, and their ears can be upright or floppy. And they have curly tails, or they have straight tails. And you know, we've had - you know, some of our dogs are yellow, and some of them look like black labs to people, and some of them people think are German shepherds.

And - but they're all actually the same kind of dog. And what that is is a very highly efficient, ultra-runner, basically. People think that sled dogs have to be big and strong because they think of the sport as pulling. But it's really more like running. You know, when people have measured how much weight a sled dog is pulling in the kind of events we do and the kind of training we do, each dog is actually only pulling about 5 pounds at a time once the sled gets moving, so what they are is ultramarathoners. And they're quite small, and they're quite lean - if you picture, you know, what a human ultramarathon looks like and then just sort of translate that into dog form.

DAVIES: Now, explain that - there are dogs that have different roles in a dog team. You want to just explain what they are?

BRAVERMAN: Yes. So a lead dog is the dog who runs at the very front of the dog team. And people think - I think this is such an interesting misconception. People think that the lead dog is, you know, the, quote-unquote, "alpha," like a really bossy dog. And the lead dog may be bossy, but typically what you're looking for in a lead dog is a dog who loves the open trail. They're very independent. They love seeing a trail and running down it and making those decisions for themselves about where they're going to go. And they're really in close connection with you, the musher.

So the lead - the way I imagine it is if you picture, like, kindergarteners going for a walk and there's a teacher on either side and all the kids are holding hands in a line. And the teacher on either side keeps them, you know, from running out into the road or doing anything completely ridiculous. My lead dog - Pepe is my main lead dog - Pepe and I are those teachers on either end of the line...

DAVIES: (Laughter).

BRAVERMAN: ...When we're mushing. She and I are in cahoots to keep all the other, like, chaotic, energetic dogs sort of going in the right direction or going in the same direction and not chasing squirrels, things like that.

DAVIES: Right. And I think you wrote that there are times when a difficult circumstance will present itself on the trail, and you might think we should go left or right or here or up or down. Pepe, the lead dog, has a different instinct and is usually right.

BRAVERMAN: You know, she very rarely disagrees with me. But when she does, she's correct. If I think - what she's very, very good at is finding trails when they're buried in snow. And when we're in storms or in tough conditions, she actually thrives on that kind of challenge because she loves to use her brain. And she will zigzag across the trail, and she's using her paws and her nose to figure out exactly where we should go. And in conditions like that, I am not going to question her at all.

Now, I have another lead dog, Jenga, who's now retired. She doesn't really lead the team anymore. She's a lady of leisure. But when she was younger, she was my other main lead dog. And she is cranky. And so when she got bored, she would actually cause mischief and take the team on wild goose chases to entertain herself.

DAVIES: She wanted a challenging run every time.

BRAVERMAN: Exactly, exactly. So I learned I could only put Jenga up in front of the team when the situation warranted her intellect because she wants to be making decisions up there. She wants to be using her brain and solving problems, you know, navigating something difficult, crossing a river.

You know, even, like, if we're mushing down a city street and the dogs are distracted by driveways and stuff and you need a focused dog up in front, like, Jenga thrives on that sort of thing. But if we're just on a lake for an hour, oh, man, she's going to start hunting for mice in the snow. She's going to start pulling pranks on the other dogs. So (laughter) you get to know them as individuals, and it's really teamwork in that way as well.

DAVIES: What's a prank she would pull on other dogs?

BRAVERMAN: Well, it sounds like I'm exaggerating, but she pranks them for sure. You know, I remember one instance in a race called the Canadian Challenge, which goes 300 miles through the boundary waters, we were crossing - we spent about 24 hours running mostly on lakes. And so the trail on the lake is a very thin, packed piece of snow surrounded by, like, 6 feet of pure powder. So if you step off the side, you're going to sink into powder almost like sinking into water. And you have to sort of balance on this little narrow, like, tightrope of trail.

And Jenga got bored and she started, like, with her shoulder, pushing Pepe off the trail to entertain herself, to see Pepe fall into the powder and have to climb out again. And the first couple times, I thought it was an accident. I was like, Jenga, like, that's so thoughtless of you. You're smart. You can figure out how to stop doing this.

And I watched - I kept watching closely, and she was absolutely just bored and doing it on purpose. And Pepe was so over it. And so Pepe started pushing Jenga back into the powder. And that's when I - that's when I'm like, OK, I have to entertain the dogs. So I start singing them songs or something so that they'll be distracted and will stop playing pranks on each other.

DAVIES: How many dogs do you have?

BRAVERMAN: We have usually around 21. I'll tell you a secret. You never ask a musher how many dogs they have because you're never going to get a straight answer. You will not get a number. You will get an hourlong, you know, circuitous conversation about, well, we have this many retirees and we have this many puppies, and we're fostering a few dogs, and one of our dogs is at a friend's house and the fosters are only here for a little while. And, you know, like just - you will just get stories and not a number. And the secret is to ask a musher, how many dogs are you feeding? That's how you get a number.

DAVIES: Well, that's kind of where I was going. You have a lot of dogs. Tell us about feeding them.

BRAVERMAN: (Laughter) We have 24 dogs at home right now. And they are a lot of work and a lot of love. We spend an incredible amount of our time and our lives just, you know, working with the dogs and taking care of the dogs. You know, for instance, for feeding, we just got a bunch of bear fat from the taxidermist here in town, and we have been slicing it up on a band saw to make little chunks that we're going to feed them all winter when they want a little fat or a snack.

They eat kibble. They eat butter. They eat fish. They eat a lot of wild meat, sort of the scrapings from wild meat. We live in a hunting area, and people hunt for food, but there's parts of the animal they don't eat themselves, and we gather all that and - during hunting season. And then we keep it in a freezer and feed it to the dogs all year.

DAVIES: You like running dogs on sleds. Racing is a little different, I guess. What's the appeal of entering races?

BRAVERMAN: For a long time when I started mushing, I actively didn't want to race. So this is a great question because I would go out with the dogs and I would think, why would anyone want to take this, like, pure, beautiful thing and turn it into a competition and make it complicated? And, you know, every dog is always a winner (laughter) in many ways. And so why would you go to a race?

And then I started going to a few local races because I was working with a musher who raced and he said, oh, come on, you know, give it a try. You know, you can use these six dogs and just - you know, you'll have a fun run with them. And as soon as I had gone to a race, I realized how ignorant I had been to think that a race is just about, like, winning and having the fastest dogs and having a competition and sort of, like, taking this activity and making it into something with winners and losers. The way to think about the kind of races that I particularly enjoy, which is mid-distance, which is usually between 200 and 400 miles...

DAVIES: Wow (laughter). That's mid-distance, right.

BRAVERMAN: Yeah, so mid-distance is 200 to 400 miles. If I want to go on a 200-mile adventure with my dogs, which physically they're completely capable of that, and I'm just leaving from home, I need to spend so much time researching a trail. I need to figure out if I'm going to be crossing highways and how I'm going to do that safely. How am I going to get dog food to different points of the trail? What if I need a veterinarian? How will I have a veterinarian on call if a dog has an emergency? There's all these things I'm thinking about that are so complicated.

And if you sign up for a 200-mile race, those things are all taken care of. It's just like a beautiful trail that's groomed, and you get a map. And the dogs are excited because they get to, you know, be around other dog teams, which they don't often get to do, and they love other dogs. And you know, there's checkpoints. And your food is going to be waiting for you at the checkpoints, your kibble and your meat, for you to prepare it. And, you know, there's always veterinarians there who are volunteers who just want to, like, answer any question you could possibly have.

And it's incredibly safe in that way. And if you go missing in the wilderness, someone's going to notice. And it just is like - it's so relaxing. It's such a relaxing way to have an adventure with your dogs. And that was the thing that wasn't clicking for me before I did it myself. I thought, you know, oh, it's just about trying to win. And in fact, it's actually about having a structure to come together with the community and have an adventure.

DAVIES: We're going to take another break here. Let me reintroduce you. We're speaking with Blair Braverman. She's a writer and long-distance dog sled musher. Her new book with her husband and mushing partner Quince Mountain is "Dogs On The Trail." We'll talk more in just a moment. This is FRESH AIR.


DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, in for Terry Gross. We're speaking with Blair Braverman. She's a writer and dog sled musher. She and her husband and mushing partner Quince Mountain have each run the Iditarod in Alaska, and they've co-authored a new book called "Dogs On The Trail." It's filled with beautiful photos and text, describing a year in their dogs' lives. Blair Braverman is a contributing editor to Outside Magazine, and she's written a memoir whose title is a saltier version of "Welcome To The Damn Ice Cube" (ph).

The one race people know about, the one dog sledding race, is the Iditarod in Alaska, you know, roughly a thousand miles from around Anchorage to Nome. And you ran the race in 2019. Your husband, Quince, ran it in 2020. And you wrote a great piece about it in Outside Magazine. Let's just talk a little bit about the rules. I mean, when you're going, what do you have to carry, and what are you prohibited from carrying?

BRAVERMAN: Well, some of those rules have recently changed. You basically have to carry everything you would need to camp out, to be in a survival situation. You know, if you get stormed in, you have to be able to take care of yourself and, even more importantly, take care of the dogs while you're out there.

Now, the Iditarod is an unassisted race. That means nobody can give you any assistance. Everything along the way, if you're repairing equipment, you know, when you're putting booties on your dogs and massaging them and putting ointment on their feet and, you know, melting snow to turn into water for the team and for yourself - all of this you do entirely by yourself. Until very recently, you could not bring any two-way communication device - a phone, nothing. And that's something that I have seen change in distance mushing since I got into it, even in the past couple years, is going from not being able to communicate with anyone when you're out there to - you know, according to the rules, you can. Although in practical terms, like, a cellphone's not going to work out in the middle of the wilderness anyway (laughter).

DAVIES: The Iditarod is - it's long and grueling. And I think it was 13 days for you. And there's a lot of - it's not always a smooth trail, right? I mean, there are places where you go miles over dirt and gravel, and there's howling winds and a frozen river. One of the things that you described worrying about was something called the Happy River Steps. You want to explain what this is and what your experience was navigating them?

BRAVERMAN: (Laughter) So the Happy River Steps - there's all these places along the Iditarod trail that if you say them to a musher, you know, you conjure various images of terror. And the Happy River Steps are a series of extremely steep, sort of clifflike drops onto a riverbed, where you just descend an incredible amount of distance in a very short time. And it was something I just spent the entire year when we were training - I was terrified about the Happy River Steps. And, you know, then the first two days of the trail, all I'm thinking about was, how are we going to handle the Happy River Steps?

I'm not an adrenaline seeker. I don't like thrills. I knew the dogs would just run down it. But I was worried about my ability to handle the sled. And we got to them, and they were over very - they were very intense, and they were over very quickly. Just boom, boom, boom, just - the trail falls away. And before I knew it, the dogs were just sort of pulling me out onto the Happy River, which is the river at the bottom of the steps.

And it was sunny, and it was beautiful. And I just had this moment where I thought, we got it; we have this race in the bag. Like, we just did the hardest thing. And, you know, we stopped, and we had a snack, and we took a nap out on the sunny river. And boy, was I wrong. It got harder after that (laughter).

DAVIES: A lot of mushers talk about hallucinating during the Iditarod because they're going so long without sleep, and you're going through this dark terrain. Did you?

BRAVERMAN: I never have hallucinated on the trail. And it's a little disappointing. I hear it's sort of entertaining. It's like a little bit of entertainment while you're out there.


BRAVERMAN: You know, the stories I've heard, people know that they're hallucinating. They aren't sort of losing track of reality. But the most common one that I hear about is people will be mushing along and, all of a sudden, they think the horizon is a solid object, and they duck so they don't get hit by the horizon line. Apparently, that happens to people a lot. But it's - it has not yet happened to me. We'll see.

DAVIES: Did the dogs wear out? Did their energy flag as you moved along? Did yours?

BRAVERMAN: My energy definitely flagged. An interesting thing that I had heard from people but not witnessed myself is that in a race of that distance, the dogs start gaining energy again. So for the first three days, usually you can see their - they start off super pumped, just completely chaotic energy and enthusiasm. And they get, like, calmer over the course of three days, and, you know, you might see some fatigue. And then they start actually getting stronger again.

And this is - you know, scientists who do a lot of research on sled dogs call this throwing a metabolic switch. Their metabolism actually switches over in some really interesting ways where they are able to repair their muscles while they're in motion. And - you know, so scientists are there taking blood samples and stuff, trying to understand how this happens and how, you know, for instance, one might be able to help humans achieve this kind of athletic achievement. But as a musher, you just feel it in your team's energy. You can see that they start adjusting to the trail in really interesting ways, and their fatigue actually decreases at a certain point.

DAVIES: I'm wondering how you know when it's time for a sled dog to retire, how that happens.

BRAVERMAN: Typically, a sled dog will tell you when they're ready to retire. People always say, well, dogs can't talk. And to me, that never makes sense to me because I feel like they actually talk very clearly about what they want and what they need, if you're listening. And just - if there comes a moment where they are less overwhelmingly thrilled about going for a run, we think, well, this dog might be ready to chill out for a little bit and take a step back.

And, you know, when dogs retire from being - we have a team that's running the longest distances that we're training, you know, the most every day. But if a dog doesn't want to be part of that team or isn't ready for it, they still run shorter distances with us, and we do more sort of, like, fun runs and runs where they're not in harness, where they're just sort of, like, running next to us on an - when we're on an ATV or something.

And we have a couple dogs who are retirees here who are in the double digits, who just bring a lot of wisdom and patience and kindness to the team. I think they're such a good influence on everyone else, and we're so lucky to have them. And also, sometimes a dog will retire, and, you know, often they'll become a pet with a friend of ours if it's a dog that has a personality where they would enjoy that kind of life. We've had a dog - we had a dog who was very young who announced to us very young that she did not want to pull sleds; she wanted to be a pet - her name was Glory - so she moved in with my parents in Oregon and is their pet now. So it's - there is no hard and fast rule.

DAVIES: Wow (laughter). You know, the Iditarod has long been criticized by animal rights activists. I mean, PETA claims that, you know, 150 dogs have died in the race since 1973, which is a long time. Some sponsors have left the race. I mean, I assume you would disagree with this. I mean, there were some accusations of doping a few years back. I just wondered, do you think the critics have a point, at least about some of mushers or some teams? Can we be sure that animals are treated humanely all the time?

BRAVERMAN: I think if someone is not treating their animals humanely, there should be no space for them in this sport at all - something I feel very, very strongly about. There is no space for that. The point of this sport is to be a - be with dogs who are doing something they love. And if someone does not have their dogs' best interests at heart, like, I do not want to be in community with them.

I think that racing can be an extraordinarily positive thing for the dogs. And that's the only reason that I would want to do it. And the community of mushers that I love and that I believe in and who I think are - you know, mean so much to me and mean so much to the sport all have - feel those values very, very strongly.

DAVIES: Well, do you think that there are some who don't share those values, who don't treat their animals humanely? I mean, based on - I don't know - what you see, what you observe, what you hear?

BRAVERMAN: I have seen more pet dogs whose welfare I've been worried about than sled dogs. But of course, I'm not going to say it doesn't happen. But I think it's the job of institutions within the sport to make sure that there is no space for that.

DAVIES: Has climate change affected dog mushing in the time you've been doing it?

BRAVERMAN: It will. It will. It's hard for me to say in the past 10 years. You know, I don't know if I've seen massive shifts in 10 years. Of course, there are trends. I think the future of mushing is going to be hugely affected by climate change. I mean, we're deluding ourselves if we think there's anything that isn't going to be hugely affected by climate change.

But what I do see a lot of and something I really appreciate is urban mushing and dry land mushing, which is people will have, you know, even just a pet dog or a couple of pets or mushers who have, you know, sort of short-coated dogs who, you know, who might have hound blood in them, and they're pulling scooters and bikes and runners, which is called canicross, and carts on wheels. And that's really a thriving community. And I expect that we'll see a lot more dry land mushing in the future, even more than there is now.

DAVIES: Let me reintroduce you. We're going to take another break here. Blair Braverman is a writer and long-distance dog sled musher. Her new book with her husband and mushing partner Quince Mountain is "Dogs On The Trail." We'll talk more after this short break. I'm Dave Davies, and this is FRESH AIR.


DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR, and we're speaking with Blair Braverman. She's a writer and long-distance dog sled musher. Her new book with her husband and mushing partner Quince Mountain is "Dogs On The Trail."

I have to talk about your experience on this reality show called "Naked And Afraid."

BRAVERMAN: (Laughter).

DAVIES: It's on the Discovery Channel. Not everybody knows what the show is. You want to just explain what it is, what the rules were, what - for your participation?

BRAVERMAN: Yes. So the show "Naked And Afraid," what they do is they take people, and they put them in the wilderness, naked and presumably afraid. And they see how long they make it. And the challenge is to make it three weeks.

DAVIES: So you end up getting paired with a male partner. And as it happens, you and your husband were separated. He went to Honduras. You went to a very remote section of South Africa, very near Botswana, and there's a night camera of you sleeping by the fire and suddenly waking up, and there's an elephant threatening you. And one time when the hyenas were really close, you picked up the radio, which is there for emergencies. It's not like you could get a sandwich or a bottle of water, but...

BRAVERMAN: Right, right.

DAVIES: ...It was there for emergencies. You called to say, hey, we have hyenas here. Tell us what happened.

BRAVERMAN: Well, one of the first nights - so my partner had been on the show many times before, very experienced, and I was the newbie. And you know, they do leave an emergency radio. There's a medic sort of on call - I don't know - some distance away. I don't know how far away. You don't see them, but you know they're there, theoretically. And there's a radio that's sort of left with you for emergencies.

And we got surrounded by hyenas for the first time. And I said to Gary, you know, I think this seems like an emergency. We should probably let somebody know that we're surrounded by hyenas. And he's like yawning. He's like, I mean I guess so. You could. He was very nice.

And so I pull out the radio and I, you know, press the button, spin the knobs - they've shown me how to do it - and radioed in to the crew who is, you know, staying far - not too far away. And I said, hey, I just wanted to let you guys know that we're surrounded by hyenas. It seems like something you should know. You know, I don't know if you were going to protect us or something. I don't know what your policy is.

And the crew were very nice. And they said, well, you know, we can't go out there. And I said, well, why not? And they said, well, there's hyenas.


BRAVERMAN: We can't go out where you are. There's hyenas. So at that point, I was like, OK, this is - you know, that was in the first day or two. And it helped me set my expectations. This was going to be quite intense.

DAVIES: You know, you - people can read - can see the episode if they want. I think a better thing to do is to read the article that you wrote in Outside Magazine in which you describe the experience. And there's some video of you talking about it.

One of the things you wrote in the magazine is you said, tiny bees crawled in and out of my nostrils. Blood trickled inexplicably from my belly button. I just ignored it all. You did experience some problems that ultimately led to your leaving before the 21 days were up. What was going on?

BRAVERMAN: Well, I had, like, a painful spot on my face, on my chin. And I - it was really one of - sometime in the first week, I - you know, I didn't know, is it a zit? Is it a mosquito bite that's sort of sore? Who knows?

I don't want to say, like, I'm super vain. I would say, I don't feel like I have the strongest chin. And I just felt like the universe was giving me a lesson, you know, when I went on TV in front of the universe, like, naked, completely revealing myself for people's judgment. My chin swelled up and became massive over the course of the two weeks. I think that's very funny and ironic, but I just got this massive swelling on my neck and started feeling very ill.

And I don't want to give any spoilers, but I did end up in a hospital after (laughter) I was done being on the show on some I.V. antibiotics. And I don't know. I'm not sure, still, if that was a spider bite or a staph infection or - there's a couple of things that can sort of mimic that kind of infection. But, you know, the benign spot on my neck that I had developed early on turned into something quite dramatic.

DAVIES: So you were out there for a couple of weeks. You know, you ate a couple of snakes. Somebody shot - what was it? - a warthog and...


DAVIES: ...Carved up...


DAVIES: ...The meat. I mean, this was really roughing it. How did the experience change you, if it did at all? I mean, you're certainly used to the outdoors.

BRAVERMAN: You know, part of what I found so interesting about being in that environment, which is so different from the kind of environment I'm in in my daily life up here in the North - I was surprised by how much the desert reminded me of the Arctic. Because they're both landscapes that are governed by a limited resource, and everything is oriented around the degree to which this resource is limited.

So when you're in the North, you're always thinking about warmth and sunlight and preserving warmth. And the animals you're with are thinking about warmth, and they, you know - everything has evolved around the scarcity of this one thing. And in the desert, I felt like everything revolved around water in a way that felt oddly familiar to me and kind of beautiful. Everything was oriented toward the scarcity of water and making the water last.

DAVIES: You know, I figured, when I'd first seen this, that the contestants must surely win a substantial payment. I mean, whether - you know, maybe more if they survive the 21 days. You actually don't get paid at all, is this right?

BRAVERMAN: No, it's for the experience. You know, there's a stipend to help cover, you know, missed work and stuff, but it is - people are definitely not doing it for the money. There is no prize.

DAVIES: Yeah. So why did you do it?

BRAVERMAN: Well, because I like adventure.


BRAVERMAN: Because I love adventure. I love the chance to, you know, see a new part of the world and the outside and challenge myself and see sort of, like - you know, be part of natural beauty. And the intensity of the natural world is - you know, I'm so drawn to it.

And so the chance to - you know, the TV thing, that was new for me. I was told that I was very introverted for someone on reality TV. But I didn't mind. You know, I'm not particularly shy. And it just was such an incredible wilderness experience. I'm so glad I did it.

DAVIES: Would you do it again?

BRAVERMAN: Probably. I would probably do it again. I would love to go to a tropical island. That's (laughter) - if someone wants to set up a survival adventure for me on a tropical island, which is an environment I have almost never encountered, I will be there tomorrow. Just give me a call.

DAVIES: Well, Blair Braverman, thanks so much for speaking with us.

BRAVERMAN: Well, thank you so much. It was really a pleasure, Dave.

DAVIES: Blair Braverman is a writer and long-distance dog sled musher. Her new book with her husband and mushing partner Quince Mountain is "Dogs On The Trail."

Coming up, rock critic Ken Tucker reviews the debut album from Jackson+Sellers, the duo formed by singer-songwriters Jade Jackson and Aubrie Sellers. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF ERROLL GARNER'S "IT'S ONLY A PAPER MOON") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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