Female champion takes on the ''petite fellows'' of the Iditarod

Posted: Wednesday, February 28, 2001

ANCHORAGE (AP) -- Aliy Zirkle has got to be one tough woman.

She won the 1,000-mile Yukon Quest International Sled Dog Race last year -- touted as the toughest sled dog race on Earth. But when she talks about the feeling she gets from mushing dogs, she sounds like a woman in love.

''You are going down the trail and you turn your light out and it's dark, and you have stars and really bright ones, and you can see the outlines of their heads and the breath coming from their mouths and a little aura coming from each one of them. You feel like you're floating... It is like you are dancing with them.''

Zirkle, 31, is going up against Alaska's top mushers as a rookie in the better-known 1,100-mile Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race from Anchorage to Nome. Mushers and their dog teams will gather Saturday in downtown Anchorage for a boisterous send-off.

While Zirkle earned her stripes with the Quest victory, she doesn't see herself approaching the race in the same way as the top Iditarod mushers. Their goal is to win, she said.

''I still do it for fun,'' Zirkle said. ''I haven't gone completely professional.''

Having fun is important to Zirkle. It's a key ingredient to her strategy for putting together a winning team.

''All the puppies play together,'' she said. ''As they grow up there is play time and work time. It is not all work and stay on your chain. The aspect of having play and work helps them work.''

Zirkle is applying the pleasure principle to her first Iditarod.

''I would like to be competitive but I am going to just say I really want to enjoy my first Iditarod.''

It's hard to say what Zirkle does for fun apart from mushing. When she feels she needs to get away from the dogs and enjoy more human company, she works as a waitress and bartender at the local tavern. She owns a television but rarely turns it on except to watch movies, and usually falls asleep before the end. She'd love to sit through a sitcom but her life ''isn't like that,'' she explained.

For the last two years Zirkle has been busy building her own house. She used to live in a 16-foot-by-16-foot cabin in Two Rivers that tilted into the tundra and had running water only until January when the pipes froze. She kept frozen salmon for her dogs in her bathtub. Even the dogs didn't think much of her place, she says.

She designed her new 1,700-square-foot home herself and did everything but the plumbing and the stairs.

''I built my house around this dog yard. I have two huge windows that look down on the dogs,'' Zirkle said. She put in sliding glass so she can talk whenever she wants to the 45 or so dogs in the kennel she shares with musher Jerry Loudon.

She calls the basement her ''dog room'' because that's where she hangs thawing meat for the dogs and stores all the mushing paraphernalia, including sleds, harnesses, booties and vet supplies.

She supports her kennel with a high-end adventure tourist business in which she takes small groups on 200-mile sled dog treks to Gates of the Arctic National Park and Preserve.

Zirkle, who was born in Manchester, N.H., in 1969, first came to Alaska in 1990, midway through getting a degree in biology from the University of Pennsylvania. She lived in a wall tent on the Alaska Peninsula, counting birds for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

She returned to college, finished up her degree in 1992 and headed straight back to Alaska, winding up in the Interior village of Bettles. The area just happens to be where some of Alaska's finest sprint dogs were bred.

''I got dogs right away,'' Zirkle said.

She credits the hardy dogs she found in Native villages used to begin her breeding program with making her dogs extra tough.

''I really think genetically they are a bit tougher,'' Zirkle said. ''You got to be hardcore to survive out there.''

Zirkle has excelled at what continues to be a sport dominated by men. The last time four-time Iditarod champion Susan Butcher won the race was in 1990. Libby Riddles, the 1985 winner, was the only other woman to win. Nearly all the women entered in this year's Quest scratched.

''I am not a typical woman. I am larger than a lot of the men on the Iditarod. I am almost six feet tall,'' Zirkle said. She described some of the Iditarod's top mushers as ''petite fellows.''

Zirkle suspects the women are falling behind because they aren't getting the same level of help the men get from their wives and girlfriends.

''The top 10 mushers have a counterpart, a woman round who is running the whole show,'' Zirkle said.

Zirkle's sister Kaz lives with her and is her kennel manager. Her father, a retired shoe manufacturer, serves as her dog handler for the big races.

Zirkle isn't worried about the Iditarod trail. Her Alaska adventures have taken her into wilderness where there were no trails. Years ago she was caribou hunting with Loudon on the North Slope when they got lost for two days in a blizzard. Her lead dog used his nose to get them headed in the right direction.

''When people talk about how tough this trail is I don't shrug it off but I say a trail is a trial,'' she said. ''I think I could get by in about any situation except downtown Manhattan.''


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