Dog care leads Zirkle to Quest tite

Posted: Thursday, February 24, 2000

The teacher-student ratio can be a factor in getting a good education. Alaska musher Aliy Zirkle showed that the handler-dog ratio can make a similar difference in sled dog racing.

Zirkle became the first woman to win the grueling Yukon Quest International Sled Dog Race on Wednesday. The 30-year-old musher from Two Rivers crossed the finish line in Takhini Hot Springs, Yukon Territory, at 9:59 a.m. Alaska time behind a team of nine dogs. She finished the 1,000-mile race in 10 days, 22 hours and 59 minutes.

Zirkle dominated much of the second half of the race across some of the most sparsely populated land in North America. She said Wednesday night that the Dawson City checkpoint, about 450 miles back, was the turning point for her.

``My team was better off than any other team because I had one handler for every two dogs. My team got constant attention, constant massages. So leaving Dawson, I pushed them pretty hard and they took it with no problem at all,'' Zirkle said from a private home in Whitehorse. Zirkle said both she and her dogs were feeling good.

``I just had a few hours of sleep, woke up and had some chili then realized I had won. And now I'm ecstatic,'' she said with a laugh.

Her victory comes 15 years after Libby Riddles became the first woman to win Alaska's more famous mushing event, the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race.

Many mushers consider the Quest to be the more punishing than the Iditarod. While both are about the same distance, the intervals between checkpoints in the Quest are longer, the terrain has more ups and downs, and the temperatures are usually colder.

Juneau rookie musher Deborah Bicknell was still running in 22nd and last place this morning, and she was reported to be somewhere between the dog drop in Scroggie Creek, Yukon Territory, and the checkpoint of Pelly Crossing, Yukon Territory. Bicknell arrived in Scroggie Creek at 4 p.m. Wednesday afternoon, but race officials in Whitehorse didn't have her departure time and the checkpoint had been taken down. Bicknell's daughter-in-law, who was at the Bicknell's training camp in Tagish, Yukon Territory, said she expected Bicknell to arrive in Pelly Crossing late this morning.

Zirkle takes home $30,000 for the victory. The total purse is $125,000, with prize money paid to the first 15 finishers.

Thomas Tetz of Tagish, Yukon Territory, had been as much as two hours behind Zirkle as the race wound down, but he managed to narrow the gap. He finished a half-hour behind Zirkle to claim a check for $24,000.

The race from Fairbanks normally ends in Whitehorse, Yukon Territory. But unusually warm temperatures forced race organizers to shorten the race by about 25 miles, due to open water on the Yukon River trail near Whitehorse.

Frank Turner of Whitehorse, the only musher to run all 17 Yukon Quest races and the only former champion in the field, placed third, finishing at 2:29 p.m. on Wednesday. He was 15 minutes ahead of Peter Butteri of Tok, while Jack Berry of Homer arrived at Takhini Hot Springs at 3:08 p.m. Dave Olesen of Hoarfrost, Northwest Territories, took sixth place when he finished at 8:15 p.m. Wednesday.

Finishing early today were Cim Smyth of Big Lake, who took seventh place at 4:43 a.m.; Jim Hendrick of Denali Park, who finished at 6:01 a.m.; Darren Rorabaugh of Fairbanks, who finished at 7:20 a.m.; Andrew Lesh of Fairbanks, who finished at 8:04 a.m.; and Zirkle's kennel partner Jerry Louden of Two Rivers, who crossed the finish line at 9:08 a.m. for 11th place.

Zirkle, who grew up in New Hampshire and Puerto Rico, moved to Alaska in 1992 after getting a biology degree at the University of Pennsylvania.

She moved to the tiny village of Bettles, north of the Arctic Circle, and quickly adopted a Bush lifestyle, working as a biologist and trapper.

She collected an assortment of dogs from villagers and learned the subtleties of mushing before entering her first Quest in 1998, finishing in 17th place. She moved up to fourth place last year.

Zirkle and Louden operate a kennel together in Two Rivers, a wooded area outside Fairbanks populated by mushers and laced by mushing trails.

Twenty-nine mushers started the race in Fairbanks on Feb. 12. Seven of them had scratched as of early today.

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