Zirkle's team comes face to face with ornery bison and its calf

Posted: Thursday, March 07, 2002

McGRATH (AP) -- When her dog team came to an abrupt halt Tuesday afternoon in the Farewell Burn, musher Aliy Zirkle found herself eyeball to eyeball with brown death -- a gigantic and disturbed bison blocking the trail with its calf only yards away.

Then the bison charged.

It covered about 20 yards toward the team but stopped just short of the lead dogs. There the colossal animal shook and lowered its head, pawed the ground and snorted.

It was, said the former winner of the Yukon Quest International Sled Dog Race, the ''scariest mushing experience I've ever had.''

Zirkle isn't sure how long the standoff lasted -- minutes felt like hours, she said -- before a single-engine Super Cub airplane buzzed in to save the day.

The occupants saw the confrontation on the ground. The plane swooped low and circled. The drone of its engine drove the bison down the trail and over a hill ahead of Zirkle.

Her heart pounding, Zirkle stomped a snowhook into the ground to anchor her team, grabbed her ax and walked up the hill through the trees, checking to see if the path was clear.

Anger, she said, replaced her initial fear.

''I walked up there with my mandatory ax because I was going to clobber her,'' Zirkle said. ''It's a good thing I didn't have a gun, because I'd still be there cleaning her.''

Luckily for all involved, the bison was gone when Zirkle crested the hill.

The musher returned to her team to regroup and continue a bumpy trek to Nikolai.

''I still don't think I've recovered,'' she said, laughing in McGrath on Wednesday.

She was wondering if somehow some bad karma had been spawned when she slept under a stuffed bison at the Rainy Pass Lodge the day before her encounter.

A 34-year-old wildlife biologist from New Hampshire, Zirkle has been mushing since 1993. She ran the 1,000-mile Yukon Quest three times, placing fourth on her second attempt and winning in 2000. She finished 33rd in her first Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race last year and hopes to do better this time.

Zirkle's encounter, while wild and woolly, is almost par for the course for this hellish section of the Iditarod known for busting sleds and people.

Musher David Straub from Willow crashed his sled last year, went flying and dislocated his shoulder on the Burn. The injury eventually knocked him out of the race.

In 1998, musher Suzan Amundsen from Fairbanks had to quit when she impaled a calf muscle on the stump of a spruce tree on the site of one of Alaska's largest wildfires more than 30 years ago.

The Burn has grown back with some willow and birch over the years, but plenty of scraggly carcasses of spruce trees remain.

''It's kind of ghostly. You have all these funny-looking roots. They kind of look like sculptures. Everything is dead,'' Shaktoolik musher Palmer Sagoonick said.

Mushers are always happy to get the Burn behind them. They know the problems that have come here before. John Ace of Sutton broke his leg in 1977 and to be taken by snowmachine to Nikolai then flown to Anchorage. Arctic adventurer Norman Vaughan once got lost for days. Herbie Nayokpuk, ''the Shishmaref Cannonball,'' one year had the wildest ride of his life when his team took off chasing a herd of bison.

Bison were originally transplanted to the area by the Alaska Department of Fish and Game in 1965. The Canada animals struggled at first, but have thrived since another 20 animals were added in 1968. By 1972, the herd was up to a couple hundred animals. It has been maintained at between 200 and 300 animals ever since.

Many mushers have reported encounters with bison in the area over the years, but few meetings were quite as exciting as Zirkle's. Usually, the excitement in the Burn has focused on notoriously rough, snowless trail interspersed with rock-hard snow drifts. But it's better this year.

''I used to see many broken sleds. This year I didn't see any. I saw a couple of broken brakes, but that's about it,'' said Tony Alexia, a Nikolai resident and volunteer Iditarod checker for many years. ''It's usually windblown with ruts five feet deep.''

Lance Mackey, a Kasilof musher running his second Iditarod, said the Burn was much smoother because of the snow. And, he added, he got to cross under a display of northern lights painting the trail.

''The way it was coming over the mountain, it was really cool,'' Mackey said.

Sagoonick added that he saw a bison in the moonlight as he made his way across the Burn. That, combined with the northern lights, made for an inspiring run.

''The northern lights were amazing. I turned off my headlamp and they were shimmering,'' he said.



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