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Unfinished business at the Horn

At 70, author-sailor-Iditarod racer Gary Paulsen still intends to take on the sea’s ultimate challenge

Gary Paulsen has a new boat, the sort of boat he’s made for, built for — a tough, stubby cutter that can take — maybe even welcome — the anger of Cape Horn.

Best-selling author Gary Paulsen (standing) has a new boat (a Cape George 31).

It had been six years since the author of youth adventure novels (three have won highly prized Newbery Honors) owned a boat. He had gone back to sled dogs in Alaska, quitting the sea the same way you have to quit booze or smoke. But it was still there. You never escape the curse, not even at age 70. He has 50 dogs at his place north of Willow, Alaska, and they raise a mighty, holy noise, but it wasn’t enough to drown out the sea, its surge and smell and deadly power. Or its grip on him.

The sea was there, an ember waiting to be fanned, if only because he had unfinished business offshore. Paulsen admits as much in his 2003 book “Caught by the Sea.” He tells of a huge wind that assaulted him sailing in the Pacific, leeward of Catalina Island.

“I was nearly killed in 22 minutes,” Paulsen writes. “But I was still there, and that very night I began making plans. That night I decided, someday I would try the one great passage of the sailor’s world. Someday I would try to sail around Cape Horn.”

And so last winter, in the midst of training for the Iditarod dog sled race across Alaska in March, he bought a boat.

“Two things, unfinished,” writes Paulsen in an e-mail to Soundings. “Last run on the Iditarod was a bust, and it’s been eating at me since 1985 — like unfinished notes in a symphony — and the other thing … “The [expletive] Horn.”

The writer explains. “My whole life I’ve been fighting something, someone, some place, some weather, some ocean, some storm, something impossible,” says Paulsen, who is married but most of the time lives alone both in Alaska and in his second home, a “ranch” in New Mexico up a dead-end mountain road. He has fought his jousts “usually alone, almost always alone, and one thing I hated more than anything … when I fought people, men, I hated when they got up if I put them down. Not because I was afraid they would beat the [daylights] out of me, which they often did, but because it was something left unfinished. I hated that more than anything. To not finish a thing … I hated to not finish … a storm, a fight, a book … a love, a good dinner, a song … a life.”

Paulsen has an old mission: to sail around Cape Horn.

Paulsen’s life has been filled with adventure and rough sledding, much more than most. Yet his story is still unfolding. He has won Newbery Honors for three different books — in 1986 for the novel “Dogsong,” in 1988 for “Hatchet,” and in 1990 for “The Winter Room.” Newbery Honors are the second-highest award given each year by the Association for Library Services to Children.

Last winter, he won the New Mexico State Book Award for young adult novels for his humorous book “Lawnboy.” There have been many more accolades, along with huge wealth. The wealth has allowed Paulsen to pursue on a big scale both dogsled racing and, with that lapse of six years, sailing.

Sharks and dogs

This is no scion of yachting pedigree, no sailing-camp brat predestined for the commodore’s braided cap. Paulsen was approaching middle age when he got his first boat. Indeed, raised in the Midwest, he was 7 years old before he first saw the sea.

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“The sea was there, deep cobalt, immense, rising like a great saucer to the blue horizon, where it was impossible to see a defining line between water and sky,” he writes in the foreword to “Caught.”

He was on a Navy troop ship being taken to the Philippines by his mother to meet his father, an Army captain whom Paulsen had never known because he was engaged in World War II. The boy had been smuggled aboard the ship because he had open chicken pox sores and was deemed contagious. But his mother had brought him on deck to see a drama unfolding — an airplane filled with military dependents ditching near the ship on the Pacific. The plane split open on impact, the passengers swam out, and the sharks came.

“There were many of them,” he writes in his autobiography, “Eastern Sun, Winter Moon.” “And from above you could see their gray shapes, like huge gray bullets just beneath the surface arrowing for the wreck.”

Paulsen, the child, saw women and children being torn apart that day, and in “Eastern Sun, Winter Moon” he relives the terror. But he saw something else; he saw the sea.

“It staggered me, stopped my breath, stopped all of me dead on the deck when I first saw it,” he writes in “Caught.”

“I loved the sea instantly,” he says, reminiscing in his ranch house, a bachelor space of clutter and unmade bedding where a miniature poodle with but three teeth roams freely. “It was bizarre. I was not afraid of it. You’d think with the sharks and all of that it would be frightening, but it really wasn’t.”

The sharks and the sea. They are metaphor for Paulsen’s life, for the rawness of the life to which he was exposed at an early age and for the beauty he separated from it, captured in his mind and saved for when he would write. The beauty of the sea and of the sled dogs.

“I hate my parents,” Paulsen says, sitting by his computer at the New Mexico ranch. That is a phrase he will repeat often. The parents are not the only objects of his hatred, but they are primary. “They were the town drunks,” he says.

Their drinking and his mother’s promiscuity, to which he bears firsthand witness as a child in “Eastern Sun,” were the agents of an early life in chaos. After their behavior drove them out of the Army, Paulsen’s parents moved back to Minnesota, where their excesses made Paulsen an outcast.

“[Paulsen’s father] wasn’t a nun, but she was … horrific,” Paulsen says. “My mother tried to kill me one time under the kitchen table with a butcher knife.”

By age 12, Paulsen began running away from home, seeking shelter with reliable adults — uncles, aunts, his grandmother. These people were “wonderful.” He captures those times on the family farms in northern Minnesota in a lyrical book-length poem, “Clabbered Dirt, Sweet Grass.”

The natural world

His youth novels — by his count, Paulsen has written more than 200 books — often feed off the other bitter experiences of his early life. “Most of the people I knew were [expletives] — my parents, the people they drank with, other kids on the street,” he says. “I had some friends I hunted with, but most of them had stable families.”

Paulsen bought the Cape George 31, Reunion, specifically to conquer Cape Horn.

Paulsen continues, “I was never chosen for sports. I never had the right clothes. I never had money. I finally made my own … by setting pins in the bowling alleys and selling newspapers to drunks in the bars and stealing their change and hunting and trapping.” He hunted for the furs and for bounties.

“The forest started there [near his hometown] and went north,” Paulsen explains. “There were farms but few and far between.” He found the woods to be “an honest place. Like the sea, it doesn’t care. You’re allowed to be there and do what you want, and if you do it wrong you might die. It’s not devious.”

Paulsen says that when he’s been in trouble — emotional or physical or financial trouble — he goes to the woods. “You can put me in almost any woods in North America and I’ll do just fine,” he says.

One of Paulsen’s mentors in the natural world was a police officer in his hometown. “I’d get off setting pins at night and sleep in the back of the squad car, and we’d go hunting in the morning when he got off duty,” Paulsen recalls. That went on for a couple years.

Meanwhile, the teenager was getting straight Ds in school and having to repeat some grades. One night, while he was waiting to begin selling his newspapers, Paulsen stepped into the public library to get out of the weather. The librarian let him take a book and said that when he had finished reading it, he could have another. Today, Paulsen tells children: “Read like a wolf eats.”

He was still a long way from sailing when, in 1958, he enlisted in the Army. At Fort Carson, Colo., he found purpose in life. “Back then, the Army was not a place [where] you could be all you could be,” he says. “A lot of guys on their way to prison were asked if they would rather go to the Army, and … there was a draft. Most people had this obligation. To me, it was an escape.”

There was a drill sergeant who made an impression. Paulsen dismissed the sergeant’s suggestion that he pick up a cigarette butt that wasn’t his. The sergeant methodically removed his starched shirt, folded it neatly, faced Paulsen and, with one punch, knocked him to the ground.

“He did what he had to do to show me I was not able to handle him,” Paulsen recalls. “That went on for three days. I was stubborn — stupid, actually. On the third day, I was on the ground. He asked me if I wanted to go back to the barracks.” When Paulsen said yes, the sergeant promoted him to squad leader.

Paulsen had graduated from high school with some electronics training, so the Army added to that education. “I was in three years, eight months, 21 days and nine hours,” he often says. He also says he hates the Army, an emotion he extends to its generals. He spent his Army time in electronics schools and at aerospace bases. He continued that work in civilian life when he was discharged in 1962, taking a job with Lockheed in California.

Paulsen had, in these first 23 years, accumulated the elements of what he would be: the toughness of a hardwood plank, the restless persistence of a shark, the keen eye of a soaring predator, and a nature as uncompromising as a rocky coastline.

It would take the next two decades for the pieces to finally fit.

A nobody starts writing

Paulsen had been out of the Army three years when he told a fellow employee he was going to become a writer. That day, he handed in his gate pass, turned over his company car, and went to Hollywood. Using a fabricated résumé, he got a job as a magazine editor. He begged fellow employees at the soft-core publication to teach him to write. He bought dinner. They lectured.

It was Hollywood, so there were parties. Nobodies like Paulsen were invited by important movie people, like extras in a film, to provide background noise. At one party in the mountains, Paulsen got bored and walked to a nearby lake where a small sailboat was tied to a dock. He watched as a man rigged the boat. The man turned to him and asked if he would like to sail.

The boat glided effortlessly across the lake, and the man’s hand on the tiller seemed as sure to Paulsen as the touch of God. Not long after, he bought a 22-foot Schock and began teaching himself to sail. Months later, he moved back to Minnesota and began writing in earnest. He moved into a cabin on a lake and set up a snare line and a fish house on the ice to spear northern pike.

He wrote “Some Birds Don’t Fly,” a humorous book about missiles, published in 1968 by Rand McNally. “It was not successful,” he says, sitting by his computer at his New Mexico ranch, a cluster of nondescript buildings on a gravel mountain road once used, he says, by Billy the Kid to move stolen horses. In the cabin, he also wrote an historical novel about the West, “Mr. Tucket,” that “did really well.” Paulsen decided it was time to move to New Mexico for the literary scene.

“There had been a couple of marriages in there, too,” Paulsen notes. “I was the problem. I wasn’t good with living with people.”

Paulsen, because of his alcoholic parents, was afraid of drink and had never touched it. But in Taos, N.M., he developed a taste for booze. “Unfortunately, when I did drink … I hit it like a baby hits a bottle. I was chronic in less than a year.”

The drinking would last until May 5, 1973, a couple weeks before Paulsen’s 34th birthday. In that time, he lost his agent, if not his gift. And he made a nautical mistake, buying what he now regards as the worst boat ever — a Bayliner Buccaneer that he sailed on lakes. When he quit drinking, he was in Colorado and he was still writing, but he was headed for a new low.

“I had gotten involved with a crooked publisher and a crooked bank and some crooked lawyers, and they repossessed the boat,” he says. He now was married to his current wife, Ruth, an accomplished artist, and they had a baby. They moved to Minnesota, and Paulsen took jobs in construction. “Writing was never enough to support us,” he says.

At the same time, “I quit writing, I was so sick of dealing with publishers,” he says. To this day, he hates much of the publishing business. He will not deal with those who wear Rolex watches and loafers with no socks and cufflinks, nor will he talk with middle-aged men with ponytails. “I hate it,” he says.

The spotlight

In Minnesota, he went back to trapping, a work far removed from publishing, from people in general, miles and miles away in the woods, alone for hours and hours. The state had a law forbidding the use of snowmobiles when trapping. A trapper could use a dog team, however.

“Somebody gave me four dogs and a broken sled, and I started to hunt and trap with them,” Paulsen writes in his book “Winterdance.” “So we lived, and I began to run dogs for transportation and work and, finally, for joy,” he writes. “I did not actually ever decide that I would go to Alaska and run the Iditarod.”

He would do that in 1983 and again in 1985. But for the time being, he had to make some money. Like a forgotten wallet in an old coat pocket, he had his writing. “I found out I had to write,” he says. “I would do short stories.” He would appear in local town halls in Minnesota with a musician friend who played guitar, and he would read his stories to an audience.

When he finally signed up to run the Iditarod, he wrote “Dancing Carl” and “Trapper.” (Film rights for each have been sold.) Once he completed his first Iditarod, he wrote “Dogsong,” the first of his books to win a Newbery Honor.

“Dancing Carl” was the first book Paulsen wrote for publisher Richard Jackson. Paulsen’s agent had sent Jackson some short stories to consider.

“They had a sort of clenched quality,” Jackson recalls. “He really sounded like a man talking to boys. I guess it was the same sort of bitten-off quality [as the writing of Ernest Hemingway]. He also was able to write very interesting short sentences that every now and then would bloom into something really long. He’d take a great gulp of air and out it would come. It seemed like the way young men breathed.”

“Writing wise, it just got growing after [‘Dogsong’],” Paulsen says. “I’m one of the really lucky ones. And I mean that. I work hard, but I’ve been lucky with writing.”

“Dogsong” was the first of Paulsen’s books that Pat Scales, president of the Association for Library Services to Children, had ever read. “I remember the exquisite language in that book,” she says. “In all of his books, he uses words as a painter may use paints.”

The boat thing

In the late 1980s, he discovered he had angina. “The doctor said I had to quit running dogs,” Paulsen says. “He put me on medication.”

Quitting dogs was, for Paulsen, like walking away from your sweetheart, still deeply in love. He needed a place to bury the hurt, so he began writing hard, and he made a lot of money. “I bought a little house in Wyoming and did pack trips with horses,” Paulsen says. “I realized I was healthy enough, but I hadn’t finished the boat thing.”

The rugged and seaworthy cutter had been prepared for the Horn by a previous owner with the same aspirations.

In 1992, he took $7,000 and bought a small sailboat with a diesel. It was an experiment. “I sailed it out of Ventura [Calif.] and realized I could do it,” he says. But he also saw that he needed a larger boat. He bought a Hans Christian 38. “I realized pretty soon after I’d bought it that … it was a clunker,” he says.

Still, he twice sailed it to Mexico, and then to the north end of Vancouver Island and out into the Gulf of Alaska, then outside Vancouver Island and down the West Coast. “I sailed up the Inside Passage twice and then down the outside,” he says. “One time it was a milk run going down the outside and, the next time, I found God.”

Tucked into these voyages was that big blast of wind out of the lee of Catalina Island. Like most of his other trips to this point, Paulsen wasn’t alone. A man he’d taken on as crew was lying on the cockpit sole, he says, dead drunk. Booze “lost me many a potential crewmember,” he says.

For four years, Paulsen made do with the Hans Christian. In 1996, he sold it at a loss and bought a catamaran with a résumé. It had crossed the Pacific twice. He made plans for its next crossing in the month of May. May came, but so did the trial of a secretary who had embezzled thousands from Paulsen, so he had the boat delivered to Hawaii.

With a Vietnam veteran friend who could stand a good watch but otherwise wasn’t much help on board, he cruised the Hawaiian archipelago and, after another court visit, sailed from Samoa to Tonga to Fiji.

His South Pacific interlude was interrupted by more heart problems involving a trip to New Mexico and the insertion of two stents in his arteries. The catamaran was delivered back to California, where Paulsen recruited another friend for a voyage to Baja, Mexico.

Hanging out on his boats with his pals — Mike, the Vietnam vet, and then Paul — was fun. However, gestating in Paulsen’s mind, sharing room there with the developing plots of dozens of unwritten novels, was a new, embryonic urge: going to sea alone. He found what he thought was the ideal boat, a Bristol Channel Cutter, 28-feet and with no engine.

“I just got sick of [messing] with crew,” he says. He single-handed Scallywag up and down the Pacific coast, playing at times in the rugged waters at Point Conception, northwest of Los Angeles. “People say they want to sail offshore,” Paulsen says, “but they really want to have sailed offshore.”

When asked to speak at yacht clubs, he would encourage inexperienced sailors to go sailing at the Point, in its “wicked, beautiful conditions,” to see if they really wanted to sail offshore. “You couldn’t sail against the wind there,” he says. “The wind and currents create huge waves, waves that collide and create columns of water.” Nobody ever took his advice, he says.

Similarly, he writes for children because he believes it is pointless to write for adults. They are locked into their conventions — jobs, families, expectations. You can’t influence adults with art any more than you can persuade them to test themselves in treacherous waters. But children are open to ideas.

Paulsen sent the cutter to Hawaii, where he did some more sailing. He says he was there in 2002 preparing to make a run at Cape Horn when he was asked to appear in Spokane, Wash., for a group that gave children dog sled rides. “I realized how much I missed [dog sledding], and I just jumped back into it,” he says. The dogs and single-handed sailing, he says, are the “only two things … that I could never finish doing.”

Sailing the cutter Scallywag without an engine was primitive, he says, just as the dogs are primitive, “more so than a cave painting.”

“The way I got into places [with the engineless cutter] when I didn’t think I could. It’s the same with the dogs. Silent. You have to know and see and take care of the dogs or you ain’t coming … home,” he says. “You really do become part of the winter, the snow, the weather. You literally osmose with it. The same thing happens without a motor. The way you find to survive has nothing to do with technology. A rope around a twig, around kelp. There are things you can do if you only sail.

“I was there when I was in Scallywag,” Paulsen says. “Not any of the other boats. I lust after that. It’s exalting. It really is.” His voice lowers to a near-whisper, near-prayer. “To realize that you are a cave painting, trying to understand nature or be part of nature. This happens to almost everybody who runs dogs. It alters their lives. It ruins their lives.”

Paulson left the boat in Hawaii, he says, and never went back to it. “It was a spiritual experience, and the dogs are almost exactly the same thing,” he says.

To the dogs

In Willow, Alaska, Paulsen has a house that could be in suburban Akron. It is adjacent to the homes of 50 sled dogs. They are not huskies or malamutes. Those breeds, he says, have been ruined by the American Kennel Club.

Each of the dogs has a name, each a personality that Paulsen has come to know. They are mixed-breed animals. Some are part German shepherd, some part border collie, some part hound or retriever. If Paulsen were a sled dog, he’d be part Rottweiler. Like members of that breed, his nose is not his most prominent feature. He has sagging lids, revealing eyes that assess you, always, awaiting your flaws. His trimmed gray beard suggests a Rottweiler’s jowls. His chest is thick, his frame sturdy.

All of these features disappear beneath parka and quilted overalls when it is time to run dogs at minus-20 F. Methodically, Paulsen brings each dog to the gang line of the sled after feeding them snacks and giving massages. There might be as many as 16 dogs attached to a line. The ones that are going with the sled pay close attention and grow quiet compared to their mates who are to be left behind. This larger, latter group of dogs jumps, howls, barks, pulls at leashes, bellowing a message: Take me! Take me!

Before the sled leaves, before Paulsen leans into the first turn — a foot on each runner, knees bent like a slalom racer, after which all becomes silence except for the hiss of the runners over the snow — he explains just how dangerous dog sledding in Alaska is. There are moose in the scrub spruce and birch forest that will, for no obvious reason, attack the dogs, the sled, the musher. There is thin ice hidden beneath the snow that can give way under the weight of the sled. There are bears, although in winter they should be hibernating, that will start eating you buttocks-first before killing you.

He points to the snow beside his mukluk. “Death is here,” he says. “Right here!” In the beautiful, vast subzero landscape that stretches, almost unbroken, north to the polar region. The dogs are your salvation in that world, Paulsen says. Much as a well-found vessel is your lifeboat on blue water, the dogs, who he says have intelligence that humans have lost, will bring you home.

Paulsen had abandoned boats and devoted himself to the dogs because of unfinished business. He entered the Iditarod in 1985 for a second time but did not do well. And then he was told his heart would not take the stress, and he spent nearly two decades seeking an alternative to this addiction, finding it finally in sailing alone on the Bristol Channel Cutter. Only that trip to Spokane brought him racing back to Alaska, the Iditarod dream blazing strong. Unfinished business.

“To not finish a life. A life. To leave loose ends, scattered efforts, scattered on the winds of unfocused effort, wasted. And I had more or less settled,” Paulsen says, “for the dogs, for the beauty of the dogs and that dance and that song.”

Until the thought of Cape Horn sneaked back in.

Within weeks, he had found a boat to romance the big Cape. She is a Cape George 31, a fiberglass cutter with a full keel and a big sail plan and everything needed to head to the Southern Ocean. He located her at a brokerage in Port Townsend, Wash., and told the broker by phone that he would like to see the boat.

A couple days later, he got a call from his old sailing buddy, Paul, who wondered if Paulsen was looking for a boat. Why, yes, Paulsen said.

I own the boat, Paul said. It were as if Paul had been marking time, keeping the stubby cutter ready for Paulsen’s decision to return to the sea. Then there was another surprise.

“I was stunned,” Paulsen says, “when Paul told me the man he bought it from was actually getting it ready for a run down Chile to do the Horn. I think all I need to do is put furlers on the jib and staysail, and it’s ready to go.

“The great paradox — no, dilemma,” Paulsen says, “is that when I’m on a boat, I miss the dogs, and when I’m with the dogs, I miss the boat, the sea.”

This article originally appeared in the January 2010 issue.