TWO RIVERS — Aliy Zirkle sorted through piles of food and supplies in her kennel workshop on a Saturday afternoon in February, planning which items would be waiting for her at Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race checkpoints. This year, that will include homemade energy bars, labeled by friends to celebrate the close of her mushing career. “It’s been a great ride,” read one. Others said “Savor the moment” and “Thanks for the memories.”
Zirkle, 51, recently announced that the 2021 Iditarod, her 21st, will be her final race — news that captured so much attention that it crashed her website for a time. Zirkle has proven as popular with fans as she has a competitive racer. She finished in the top 10 seven times in the last decade. Three times she was the Iditarod runner-up.
She’s not the only top-notch musher retiring at SP Kennel. Her husband, Allen Moore, is done racing too. Moore, 63, is a three-time winner of the Yukon Quest, a race some mushers consider the tougher of the two 1,000-milers in Alaska for its challenging terrain and often-crushing weather. He’s also a nine-time Iditarod finisher, a race in which he has typically run a team of the kennel’s younger, up-and-coming dogs.
Zirkle’s final Iditarod will be unlike any other, as it will be for all 47 racers. Normally, the race would kick off with a ceremonial run across Anchorage. It’s a festival atmosphere that typically allows fans a chance to interact with their favorite mushers, and Zirkle draws a crowd. This year, due to COVID-19 concerns, the ceremonial start is canceled. The race will begin at Deshka Landing in Willow at 2 p.m. Sunday with “very limited spectator opportunities,” according to an Iditarod statement.
The race trail will also be very different. Instead of racing to Nome, mushers will loop around mining ghost towns at Iditarod and Flat before returning to Deshka Landing.
During a break from their final race preparation tasks, Moore and Zirkle spoke with me about their decision to retire from mushing, the memories they’ll cherish and what might come next. The transcript has been edited for length and lightly edited for clarity.
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It must feel weird to pack your last drop bags.
Zirkle: Not only that, but it’s weird that he’s not running Iditarod, so it’s less package. And it’s a different route. Plus, it’s COVID year.
So there’s one or two things on your mind.
Zirkle: As everyone. I think that’s the one thing that we’ve taken away from the last year, is that everyone’s life is complicated. And if it wasn’t complicated before, it is now. But yeah, we’re excited to have this Iditarod this year, and then kind of excited about pulling the plug.
So Allen, the announcement didn’t say that you were retiring. What does this mean for you?
Moore: Well actually, I retired last year.
Did you make that known?
Zirkle: He’s kind of an understated gentleman. ... I couldn’t drop the mic like Allen did. He made an announcement at the Yukon Quest finish banquet that he wasn’t going to race anymore.
Moore: I did. We already had the idea that I probably wouldn’t anymore. And at the time, she didn’t know if she was going to keep doing it or not. And even in early summer, she still didn’t know. She said, “Well, it’ll come to me. It’ll hit me.” And then all of a sudden it did, like a ton of bricks, and she said, “This is going to be the last year.”
Zirkle: But the one thing that we’ve done that hasn’t been a last-minute kind of thing is that we have conscientiously reduced our dog numbers.
Moore: This has been coming on for a few years. How many dogs did we have at one point in time?
Moore: Sixty-something. It took that to run three teams in every race. ...
She said five years ago that she don’t want to be in her mid-50s still running this. ... And now here she is in her 50s. We are so competitive, and we’ve been doing so well for so long, we don’t want to just do it to do it. There’s a lot of people doing that, and that’s fine.
There’s also people certainly 50s and older that are competitive.
Zirkle: There aren’t that many people in their 50s and above winning. ... I mean honestly, Allen is probably the most competitive person who was an elder statesman for a while there.
Moore: When they start telling you’re the oldest doing something, your time is limited. And I was the oldest person to win a 1,000-mile race.
Zirkle: The other thing is, sincerely, I have done this for 24 years straight. (This number includes years she ran the Yukon Quest before she ran Iditarod.) Like not a year off …
There’s not that many people who have finished 20 consecutive Iditarods. Started and finished ... every year, which has been great. Don’t get me wrong. I don’t regret it or anything.
Allen, for you, what are the things that factor in highest? Is it the physical toll? Is it the stressful lifestyle?
Moore: Actually, I think I enjoyed that part of it. We got a workout room right there. I enjoyed getting in really good shape, where I could do 40 pull-ups and being 60 years old. And 800 (crunches) in a day. Once you get to a race, oh man, when you’re in that good a shape, 60 don’t mean nothing. It doesn’t matter.
Most of the time, the youngsters, which is everybody else, they don’t do that. If they did, holy crap they would be good.
Zirkle: We human beings are always going to be the weak link on a dog team. Holy crap, a little gripe here, it’s a challenge to be a 50-year-old woman trying to keep up with 5-year-old Alaskan huskies. They’re fit, gung-ho, ready, youthful, spirited. And I used to be. (Laughs.)
Moore: We just want to do a few other things, you know. We don’t want to be 70 and have done nothing else.
Zirkle: I think the biggest thing is what you said before. It’s all or nothing for us. …
Thirty percent of the dog teams that are going to be on the Quest, the Iditarod, whatever, they’re doing it to do it. It’s out for an adventure, or something. I did that my first Yukon Quest. I was out for an adventure. After that, I wanted to win every time. ...
For me, what I think is going to be a new, a different life is the non-race mode, which obviously we’re not in yet.
Moore: Almost every day, during summer even, we’re walking as fast as we can to get to the store over there. And we look at each other, “We’re not in race mode.” We say that over and over. Because, in a race, that’s what you do.
Not only that mentality, but I would think looking at yourselves in the mirror, you’ve been a dog musher professionally. It’s been your identity. ... So, if you’re not doing that, then how do you reinvent yourself?
Moore: I don’t know.
Zirkle: Right now, this is going to sound weird, I don’t want to be in the limelight anymore. I think that was great, and I sure enjoyed a lot of the enthusiasm and the people. I don’t know if you read my letter. That was heartfelt. There’s a lot of people that mean a lot to me that got me out on that trail, and I brought them to the finish line with me. And it’s powerful.
But I kind of want to step away from that a little bit. I get mail and stuff that is amazing from people, but I need to just have a cup of coffee and be Aliy for a little while. And sometimes I feel like I use a lot of my own personal energy to …
Moore: Please other people.
Zirkle: Be with other people. But I enjoy it. So if I don’t take myself out of that situation, I’m going to keep doing it.
Moore: It runs her ragged.
Zirkle: It does. It’s a double-edged sword. It’s my personality. It’s what I do. It’s what I love. But in the same sense, I just want to go to Prince William Sound, sit on a boat, drink a cup of coffee, look at the sunrise and think, “Man.”
And we could talk about the past. Allen and I never talk about the past. ... We haven’t looked back at all. ...
The getting out of it, that’s a little stressful. Because, I mean, I slowly have reduced dogs for the last few years, and I don’t sell dogs. I find a home for each dog. … I have homes right now for about 50% of the dogs in the yard. ...
It’s funny, people have said, “Well, you know, dog mushers say they’re in and out of dog mushing all the time.” And I’m like, “No, I know.” I’ve had sled dogs enough for an Iditarod team for 25 years, and I will not next year. I don’t race other people’s dogs. I race the dogs I’ve raised from puppies and I know their parents, their grandparents and their great-grandparents. ...
The dog part is pretty emotional, almost more so than not ever seeing people in Golovin anymore, or Koyuk, or hugging this really nifty gal, Melody, who’s in White Mountain. ... No wrist warmers from that gal in Shaktoolik who meets us every year. …
But those guys (motioning to her dog yard), that’s stressful. That’s like your kids going off to college. They have to go to the right college.
So, is the plan you will not have enough dogs to have a team after ...
Zirkle: We barely have enough dogs this year to have a competitive Iditarod team. What we have is 24 athletic racing dogs. We kept 24 this season so that it’s just the two of us. Allen trains 12. I train 12. …
So out of that pool of 24, right now I have pet homes for almost 50% of those dogs that will not be here in April, May. Violet’s going to California. Decaf’s going to upstate New York. Sparky’s going to Anchorage. …
But these dogs out here, no, there will not be enough dogs to run a Copper Basin next year. There’ll be some dogs that I can go mush to the post office and we could go do something fun. …
It’s challenging (sending dogs to new homes). It’s hard. But they have to win Iditarod first. (Laughs.)
Let me get you guys to reflect a little on what this lifestyle has meant to you, what it has afforded you.
Moore: I think one thing is it’s given us good health. You look at people in their 50s or 60s in general, and how many people can do what we do? ...
And just being able to adapt and get through stuff. Because when you get into a race, there’s a lot of situations you have to get through, mentally and physically and all that. I don’t know what that does to a person. But in the race, I’ve been around a lot of people and almost every one of them (express), “I am never doing this again.” And then two weeks later, they soon forget that and they sign up like they want to get back and do it again.
So what is that? I don’t know what you call that.
But it’s special and it’s rare, because not everybody gets that in their career.
Moore: It is. They don’t.
Zirkle: It’s unique. There aren’t that many people who go mush down the Yukon River from Circle to Eagle. It’s just not a common thing to do. And why we were drawn to that specifically, God, I don’t know. Why we were incredibly successful with it, I think, is because of our, seriously, our dedication and our put-your-head-down-and-go and our organization … And we’ve been successful for a number of years, which has afforded us a lifestyle that isn’t too shabby.
Aliy, in a way, it’s given you a chance to affect lives. You talked about that a little bit in your letter. ...
Zirkle: Probably that’s what makes me so full. That’s what makes me happy with life and being who I am is probably the people who have reached out to me. It’s amazing. ...
I did a talk for the Girl Scouts of Alaska in Palmer for five, six hundred, seven hundred Girl Scouts. It was amazing, I was on the stage with all these girls there. It was really neat, the energy, the raw energy and the spirit in there.
Moore: When we got outside, she said, “Have you ever felt like a rock star before? Well, I just did.”
Zirkle: I would say I never wanted that, and would say that signing autographs is not something that makes me joyful. I think that’s the funny aspect to being a celebrity Iditarod musher. I got into dog mushing to be in the wilderness with my dogs. ...
So is it good or is it bad? It’s neither. It’s never bothered me. Allen would tell you that I’m the first person who would be interested in sitting next to someone with a cool life story and listening to them and giving them my opinion. ... But it gets hard when there’s 1,500 people who want to share that with you.
And also (during) the trials, the low moments, tremendous focus came upon you. I’m sure that was very uncomfortable.
Zirkle: Very. ... Everyone wants to help you in their own way, but it’s not necessarily helping. …
So, I always say there’s Aliy Zirkle. Aliy Zirkle is the public Aliy Zirkle. … I actually like people, and my public persona, thank goodness, is my private persona. Because I do think in celebrity life, that’s a challenge.
That scrutiny is always there, and it never turns off.
Zirkle: Yeah. We always make a joke, like, we don’t want to be on the front page of the newspaper. Because that’s like, “Oh crap, oh crap, stay off the front page, stay off the front page.” Cuz the biggest front page articles I’ve ever been on, I broke someone’s arm in arm wrestling and someone tried to kill me. Bing-bang right there.
Fair enough, fair enough. Tell me a little bit, for both of you, (about) the moments that stand out. Allen, you retired, so you get to go first. ... When you do get a chance to sit down in the living room with each other and say, “Hey, this was really cool that we did this,” what are the moments? What’s the top of the mountain?
Zirkle: (To Moore) That’s interesting. I wonder what you’re gonna say. What’s the top of the mountain?
Moore: (To Zirkle) I don’t know. When you got through some really tough struggles, I guess.
Zirkle: Yeah, probably. I was gonna say that.
Moore: When I got to the top of Eagle Summit in my first year …
The first three people scratched a hundred miles from the finish line, because they couldn’t get over the mountain. ... Well I just kept moving up and up and up. So, I get to the base. Now, it’s 25 below and it’s blowing and snowing and it’s bad weather on it. You can’t see …
Guess what, my dogs didn’t want to go over it either. … Tried everything in the world to get them to go. Well, finally I just start taking them off the line. … I got a dog, put him in my arms. I climbed the mountain all the way to the top with all my dogs, one at a time. ...
So, I’m falling and stumbling. ...
Wait a second, you were shuttling dogs in your arms from the bottom to the top? How’s that even possible?
Moore: I kept trying. I got about a third of the way up with the dogs. She even saw on my tracker where I went right back down. Gosh dangit, so finally, I put them in my hands. ... It took me eight hours total. …
There was a marker, so all I did was tie them to a marker. And the wind’s blowing, but ... they don’t want to move. So then I go all the way back down (the steep quarter-mile stretch of trail), which takes a while ...
So I go all the way back, get another one. Go all the way back, get another one. And then I get to the top and I’m sitting there, “Dammit, I’m missing a dog.” It got loose from the marker, went back down. So I had to go get him again.
But now, I still gotta get my sled up there ... and there’s a lot of snow and it’s hard snow. So I had to get my ax and chop out a place to put my foot and get my hook and pull it this far (indicates a foot or so with his hands). Put it down. And now I get my ax out, I reach up here, I cut another notch, I put my foot in, move it this far. Eight hours.
By the time eight hours had happened, the dogs had a really, really good rest. I hooked ‘em up and we like flew to the friggin’ finish line.
This sounds like hell.
Zirkle: I will tell you right now, it was harder on me, because I sat and watched the stupid tracker for eight hours and it never moved and it was blizzarding up there.
Moore: Getting through all that, that was probably the worst, but it’s probably the best. You know if you can get through that, you can almost get through anything.
What did you wind up finishing that year?
Moore: Fifth? Sixth? One of the two. ...
This finger turned black. I thought I was going to lose it, but I only lost a few layers of it. And what makes a person want to come back and do it again?
Zirkle: I don’t know.
Moore: I don’t know that.
But it’s interesting that those are the things. It’s not the wins, because you’ve won the thing (three times). ... That’s such an intense part of the sport, and I’m sure you’re intensely competitive, but you don’t come across that way. You seem like a pretty laid back guy.
Zirkle: He is. He is really competitive ... incredibly competitive when he’s racing.
Have you guys been competitive with each other?
Zirkle: No, never. I don’t even know why. ... I don’t think we’re competitive with each other about anything. I think that when you win, I win. Or when you catch a big fish, I catch a big fish. Like I really feel like I’m you, and you’re me.
Moore: Make the positives better, you know?
Zirkle: We’ve always made the agreement that ... when we’re ready to finish doing what we’re doing, we’re finishing together. Allen and my relationship is more important than anything. Any dog or any race or any whatever.
Moore: (To Zirkle) What’s your high point?
Zirkle: What’s my high point? Marrying you!
Moore: Well, that’s a gimme.
Zirkle: I would say 2014 for sure. I thought I could’ve died for sure … 2014 was something else.
But you consider it a high point for you.
Zirkle: That I made it to Safety? Yeah. Did you see Jeff King? He didn’t make it to Safety.
I remember the story well. ... Will you describe for me what your experience was in that wind?
Zirkle: Yeah. I mean, it was hurricane-force winds. When I first came down Cape Nome and I looked out, it was still daylight and I could see that the wind had blown the sea ice out. So it was water along the last 30 miles up the coast. And then it got darker and then it started blowing more. And then it blew, from the north, my dog team (and) me towards the ocean. And all I could think of was, “We’re going in.” With your headlight and the blizzard and the snow coming at you, you can’t see anything.
You perceived it as though you’re just inching your way closer to the water.
Zirkle: I more than perceived it. We would get on glare ice, and all the dogs would get like a cartoon character, slammed down and it would blow us until we hit driftwood. …
All I knew was I couldn’t go in the ocean. …
But I couldn’t even get in my sled bag to change my gloves to dry them, because I opened my sled bag and all the shit flew out. And then my mittens were so tangled around my back that I couldn’t get them off me. It was kind of one of those Beck Weathers things, like “OK, my hand’s frozen, whatever. It doesn’t matter. I gotta keep going.” ...
You could barely see a glow of Safety because the electricity was out there. So there was like a headlight. Everything was down. There was no heat in Safety. There was nothing. And I pull in there.
You pulled in first, right?
Zirkle: Yeah. I pulled in and they’re handing me the clipboard and my dog team’s blown to the building. You can’t stand up. And then I look at the clipboard and I’m like, “Where’s Jeff?” And they said, “He’s camping.” And I was like, “He ain’t camping. He’s dead if he’s out there.”
You were worried about him.
Zirkle: I thought he was dead.
Zirkle: Yeah! Oh, I thought for sure. And they’re like, “Are you going to keep going?” I was like, “No! I’m gonna frickin’ die if I keep going.”
So I said, “Is there somewhere I can put my dogs behind windblocks?” And they’re like, “Well, no.” So the veterinarian and I put my dogs in dog piles. They were all in a pile, and I put food drop bags around them. ... And then finally I left them there and I walked around to the front of the cabin to come in and I couldn’t even get in the cabin. It blew me and I crawled in the cabin.
And I crawled in, and they were like, “What are you doing here?” And I’m like, “What do you mean what am I doing here!?”
Like they thought you should just keep going?
Zirkle: Yeah! They were like, “You’re gonna win!” I’m like, “I almost died! I don’t really care about winning.” ...
They’re like, “Nordman wants to talk to you (on the phone).” He’s like, “First of all, did you see Jeff?” And I’m like, “No. Where’s his frickin’ tracker, because his dogs ... it’s bad.” He’s like, “Well, are you gonna stay?” And I’m like, “Yeah, I’m gonna stay!” I was like, “I’m gonna stay till I don’t die.”
And then all of a sudden these snowmachines show up, and Jeff gets a ride with them. And then he comes in my face, and he’s like, “How did you get here?” I’m like, “What do you mean how did I get here?” ... And so the Insider guys took Jeff (to retrieve his dogs). ...
There was no heat. Nothing was in there. Everything was cold. I remember the poor lady was giving me pudding pops. They were frozen pudding pops. … And then, it started kind of dying down, and we look out the window and there’s a light coming. And I’m like, “OK, it’s either those guys actually found Jeff’s dogs and they’re bringing them back or it’s the next musher.”
I’m not like crazy to go. I open the door and I see it’s Dallas, and he’s able to actually stand there. He switched his leaders out. His leaders didn’t get blown over. It was still windy, and he was able to move around and walk around and not get blown over. And I was like, “OK, it’s good enough for me to go.”
So then I left 22 minutes after him. I went back out to my dogs and bootied all my frickin’ dogs. … And then I tried to race him then. But at that point, I mean I would’ve loved to beat him, but it was like, whatever. And that whole time, he thought I was ahead of him.
So he genuinely didn’t even know you were at the checkpoint?
Zirkle: No. My dogs were behind the cabin in a pile. ... Oh, he didn’t know I was there.
That’s amazing. I mean, it’s a year you came in second, and a non-musher (might) look at your career and think “Oh, she must kick herself for those years that she came in second.”
Zirkle: Oh, everyone thinks that.
But for you, it was the moment of a lifetime.
Moore: She’s alive.
Zirkle: It doesn’t bother me at all. Those second places don’t bother me, because I truly know that when I’m out there racing, I give it all I’ve got. I give it all I’ve got. I camp at 47 below outside of Huslia. If my watch goes off in 28 minutes, I get up in 28 minutes. For those eight, nine, 10 days, I don’t slack. It’s all there.
And so, if you look at my career that way, those second places? I didn’t earn first place. I earned second place, and some of those were pretty frickin’ hard to earn, but I never won the race. I would not find any more self-worth in winning than in those second places.
The sport is so much about meeting real life as you find it and beating the obstacles in front of you, and it’s not really about how did you do compared to (others).
Zirkle: Not at all. It’s life. It’s like a mini-cosm of life. You go down the trail and these crazy things come at you, and you make these decisions. And you make these choices. ... It’s life. You kind of have to make the right choices and keep your head down and keep going and that kind of thing. Most of the time when you do that, and you have a good team and you’re a good musher, then you can do well.
For both of you, do you think it will be hard to see the sport go on and to not be right in the thick of it? Will it be hard to be watching from the outside?
Moore: I’m sure it’ll be hard. It has to be hard. Every time we get around a bunch of dog mushers ... you just get right into the conversation with them and get all excited about it again. …
I’m sure we’ll miss it, but we’ll have something else on our plate, which we don’t know what that is yet. ... We’ve got this boat we’ve been playing with the last couple years. We like that a lot at the moment, but that don’t mean that’s what it’s gonna be. It could be. Who knows?
Zirkle: We’ve been on a lot of parts of Alaska and mostly in the winter. So, it’d be neat to explore more parts of Alaska in the summertime. It would be neat to, you know, travel the Yukon River when it’s not frozen. Yay!
Do you have goals in mind for (Iditarod) this year?
Zirkle: I hope we can put together a team from these 24 that are really talented and can give it a shot.
Moore: They haven’t been in any races this year, which has never happened before. So, it’s just a lot of unknown. They’re really, really good dogs. Are they going to perform? They could, but we don’t know.
Zirkle: She’s a good musher. Is she gonna perform?
This year, everything will be the last time. Will that feel funny?
Zirkle: I don’t know. I’ve done it a lot. ... It’s awesome out there. But it’s kind of like when you’ve done some awesome things a lot of times, you’re like, “Oh, I bet there’s some more awesome things to do.”
The interview has been condensed for length and lightly edited for clarity.