Aliy Zirkle and Allen Moore

2009 Iditarod

In 2009 my husband Kevin and I and our daughter Audrey traveled to Alaska to see the start of the Iditarod. Audrey and I had volunteered to be handlers and I was in heaven being part of the excitement in Anchorage at the start of the race. There were also lots of informative sessions by mushers, photographers and other interesting people and that was where I first heard Aliy Zirkle speak about her mushing career and about her dogs.

Since that day I’ve been an avid fan. I don’t know if it’s her smile which hardly ever seems to disappear from her face, or her easy going demeanor, but I’ve followed her every year since then online following her as she enters long distance races. I also started following her husband Allen Moore because the 2 of them are a team, raising and training dogs together and preparing them for both the Yukon Quest and the Iditarod.

2013 Northern New England Sled Dog Trade Fair

So when both of these Champions were slated to speak at the Northern New England Sled Dog Trade Fair in New Hampshire, I knew I would be there. Aliy and Allen gave 3 different presentations and it was a treat to listen to them. They told stories, talked about the differences between the Yukon Quest and the Iditarod and talked about their philosophy in running their kennel and raising their dogs.

I could have listened to them for days!

Kevin wrote up a Mushing Bulletin for our friends and family and I’ve reprinted it here since I know there are lots of Aliy and Allen fans out there.

Here are Kevin’s musings on some of the topics touched upon by these 2 great mushers.

A Reluctant Team and Clown Shoes

Remember the scene from “Canadian Bacon” in which John Candy, playing Sheriff Bud Boomer, starts a fight in a hockey arena when he yells “Canadian beer sucks!”?

Well, if you’re among mushers, you can get the same result by insulting the Super Bowl of mushing. And, you ask, what is the Super Bowl of mushing? Well that’s the problem. It’s either the Yukon Quest or the Iditarod. You’re potentially in trouble if you insult either. And you can insult either simply by saying that the other is the “greatest sled dog race”.

In any bar patronized by mushers, there are a bunch of people lined up on one side of the room yelling “Less filling!” (Yukon Quest) and a bunch lined up on the other side yelling “More Taste!” (Iditarod). No sooner does somebody on the Yukon Quest side of the room proclaim that it’s “the toughest race in the world.” when somebody on the Iditarod side notes that the “official” title of the Iditarod is “The Last Great Race on Earth”.

Both races are about a thousand miles long. For you golfers out there, that’s about 250 PGA courses laid end to end with mountains, snowdrifts, high winds, frozen water hazards, sub-zero temperatures, and the occasional angry moose or wolf. Makes you want to hang up those clubs and run out and get a dog sled team.

There are some accomplishments in sports that, in my mind, are virtually incomprehensible e.g., world class marathoners who run 26 consecutive five-minute miles. I’ve not put enough distance between myself and tryouts for high school baseball, during which we had to run one six-minute mile to qualify for the team, to have forgotten how difficult that was. Twenty-six five-minute miles? That seems super-human.

And don’t even get me started on sled dogs. You want to talk about super-athletes. The winning team runs a thousand miles in eight or nine days in the Quest and then two weeks later runs another thousand in the Iditarod.

Mushers who finish either of the thousand mile Super Bowls of dog sled racing are another class of people who do things that are simply incredible. Let me introduce you non-mushers to two such people and then tell you two stories they related this weekend.

The lady in the middle of this picture below is Aliy Zirkle. She has run the Yukon Quest and the Iditarod numerous times. She won the Quest in 2000 and was the first woman to do so. She has finished second in the Iditarod the past two years. The man on the right is her husband, Allen Moore, who won the most recent Yukon Quest and came in second the year before. The lady on the left is a famous musher whose name escapes me.

Linda with Aliy Zirkle and Allen Moore

Linda with Aliy Zirkle and Allen Moore

Probably the most famous section of the Yukon Quest race is called Eagle Summit. Simply put, it’s a large mountain that some people say is the most difficult section of any dog sled race. It combines wind, snow, freezing temperatures and rough terrain in a diabolical way. In 2006, there were whiteout conditions on top of the mountain. Some mushers were evacuated by helicopter. Only eleven mushers finished the race. Not a very hospitable place even under the best conditions.

During one of his Yukon Quest runs, Allen Moore started up the mountain and, because of winds and bad weather, his dogs refused to run. When this happens, you might think the dogs are trying to tell you something about the wisdom of proceeding.

At this point in Allen’s story if you look around the room you can see every musher and non-musher mulling around in his mind the same question: “What would I do in this situation?”

You can’t just sit there, wait for a bus, and freeze to death. You’re in the middle of nowhere, in temperatures about twenty below zero and wind blowing about forty miles an hour. Do you just turn the dogs around and head back down the trail to the last check point and wait out the storm? Mushers tend to want to go forward toward the finish line. After all, the objective is to get to the finish line first!

Here’s what Allen Moore did – for the next six or seven hours!!

He carried each dog, all sixteen of them, one at a time, up Eagle Summit.

Now let’s just pause here for a moment and let that sink in. He picked up each of sixteen dogs weighing 35-40 pounds and carried it to the top, in a driving snowstorm, in temperatures way, way, way below zero. And then he pulled his own fully-loaded sled up the mountain, securing it every few feet or so with his snow hook so that it wouldn’t slide back down the trail as he rested. When he got everything to the top, after six or seven hours, he reassembled his team and, ultimately, finished the race. This gives new meaning to the word determination. I asked him the first question that came to mind: “What on earth ever prompted you to even contemplate doing such a thing?” And his answer was: “It seemed like the only way to keep going”.

The second story came from Aliy Zirkle and involved the word “overflow” and wet feet.

Overflow occurs when the water in a body of water freezes and the ice gets so thick and puts so much pressure on the remaining water that the water is forced to the surface and flows over the existing ice. If you are unlucky enough to be the musher who comes along before the water freezes you might be faced with crossing ice-cold, flowing, water several feet deep.

As you can imagine, the dogs aren’t crazy about this. The water is cold, the ice underneath it is slippery, the dogs can’t see the surface on which they are walking and are fearful of falling. So, the musher, in this case Aliy Zirkle, got off the sled, grabbed the leaders’ tug lines and led the team across the water.

And then her boots leaked. Outer boots, inner boots, socks, and feet wet and ice cold.

At this point, you might want to get up and fetch a pair of warm socks. I felt at least two toes freezing up while listening to the story.

Oh, did I mention that Aliy, in an effort to lighten her sled as much as possible for the final leg of the Iditarod into Nome, had left her extra pair of boots at the previous check point? Yup, no extra boots and freezing feet. Is this Murphy’s Law in action or what?

How long do you think you have before everything that is wet turns into a large ice cube? I don’t know either, nor do I ever intend to get into a situation where I have a chance of finding out.

To save her feet, she cut up a pair of thermal wind pants and some extra jackets she had for the dogs and tied them around her feet. She hopped back on the sled and headed down the trail.

Later on, as her feet started to feel cold, she found, hanging on a trail marker, an abandoned pair of insulated pants – a stroke of luck that probably saved her from serious frost bite. She cut up the pants and added them as the final warming layer to what Allen Moore described as her “clown shoes”.

As she finished her wet feet story, Allen interrupted and said “Wait a minute you forgot to tell them about the broken runner!” Yup, evidently she had to fit both “clown shoes” on one runner to finish the race. If you had any kind of complex before listening to these two mushers it would be an inferiority one by the time they finished.

That’s it for stories. We are currently eating our way across Maine making sure to evaluate the claims of as many lobster roll producers as possible. We’ll stop along the way to run the dogs and do some sightseeing, but our next full stop is in Milo, Maine, home of the best police logs in the country. I might favor you with a few choice entries in the next bulletin.

The One-Man Pit Crew

For more information about Aliy and Allen and their SP Kennel, check out their Blog on their website
The SP Kennel Dog Log

Happy Trails!

  1. Great read. This line – “The lady on the left is a famous musher whose name escapes me.” gave rise to a nice hearty belly laugh 🙂 . . .

  2. Second note . . . you mentioned dogs weighing 35-40 pounds . . . my husky, Gaia, a female, weighs just under 50 pounds . . . and everyone keeps telling me she’s small . . . but, from what I’ve read, for a Husky, she is right-sized . . .

  3. OH SO GREAT! Thanks for the info, the laughs, the insight. You are the best pit crew ever, Kevin. And you write cool stuff!

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