takes title in Quest
is first woman to win 1,000-mile race
Aliy Zirkle of Two Rivers arrived in Whitehorse, Yukon Territory,
a half-hour ahead of her nearest competitor, Thomas Tetz.
Last year, she finished the Yukon Quest International Sled
Dog Race in fourth place. (ERIK SIMANIS / Whitehorse Star)
By CRAIG MEDRED
Daily News outdoors editor
Fifteen years after Libby Riddles brought an international
spotlight to Alaska by battling through a raging Bering Sea storm
to become the first woman to win a major, long-distance sled dog
race, 30-year-old Aliy Zirkle has mimicked the feat in the 1,000-mile
Yukon Quest International Sled Dog Race.
All she and her team had to do to grab victory was best four mountains,
bitter weather, and 28 other mushers.
By the time Zirkle reached the finish line in Takhini Hot Springs,
Yukon Territory, at 9:59 a.m. AST Wednesday, fully a quarter of
the Quest field had given up, judging the trail too tough for their
dogs or themselves.
Billed as the toughest sled-dog race in the world, the Quest roller-coasters
its way most years over cold, windswept mountains between Fairbanks
and Whitehorse, Yukon Territory.
When the trail isn't climbing or descending, it is often crossing
jumbled ice on the Yukon River or treading dangerously close to
open water on that big river.
This year the finish line had to be moved north of Whitehorse to
Takhini because race officials decided the open water and thin ice
along the last 25 miles of Yukon River trail was simply too dangerous
for mushers and teams.
Racers who have done both the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race, which
Riddles won, and the Quest say it is hard to compare the two, but
the consensus is that the Quest trail is more challenging, the Iditarod
Denali Park musher Jeff King, who has won both, says a superior
dog team is required to win the $525,000 Iditarod, while wilderness
savvy is necessary just to survive the $125,000 Quest.
Distances between Quest checkpoints are longer. Temperatures have
been known to drop to 80 degrees below zero. And traffic is minimal;
mushers who get in trouble have to help themselves or hope their
competitors save them.
Zirkle, who grew up in New Hampshire and Puerto Rico, developed
the background necessary for this challenge after earning a biology
degree at the University of Pennsylvania and moving to Alaska in
1992 in search of adventure.
She found that in the isolated village of Bettles on the south
slope of the Brooks Range above the Arctic Circle. There she worked
as a biologist and trapper and began mushing.
Over the years, she collected an assortment of village dogs and
learned the subtleties of dog handling. She entered her first Quest
in 1998 and finished 17th. She surprised a lot of mushers by moving
up to fourth last year.
Author Brian O'Donoghue of Fairbanks, a veteran of the Quest and
the Iditarod, called that a breakthrough performance and predicted
that this year would determine if Zirkle was the real thing or a
She proved herself to be the real thing, crossing the finish line
first to claim the $30,000 top prize. Her time was 10 days, 22 hours
and 7 minutes.
A strong-closing Thomas Tetz of Tagish, Yukon Territory, was about
a half hour back. He collected $24,000 for the effort. The transplanted
German marathon runner had managed to cut into the two-hour lead
Zirkle had built three-quarters of the way through the race, but
his team didn't have enough to catch her.
Only three other mushers - Frank Turner of Whitehorse, Peter Butteri
of Tok and Jack Berry of Homer - were close to finishing Wednesday.
They left the Braeburn Lodge checkpoint about 6 a.m. to vie for
shares of the purse. The race pays the first 15 finishers.
Zirkle dominated the second half of the Quest as the race crossed
into some of the most sparsely populated land in North America.
She told reporters at the finish line that she felt confident she
would win when she reached the Dawson checkpoint, where mushers
are required to take an extended break about halfway through the
"I didn't really want to be too big-headed," said the exhausted
musher. "I had a plan going into the whole thing. We stuck to that
plan and that put me an hour or so ahead of everyone else."
She left the final checkpoint at Braeburn shortly after 1 a.m.
Wednesday. Knowing Tetz was close on her heels, she ran the final
80-mile leg of the race through the night as the temperature dipped
to about 10 degrees below zero.
Zirkle runs a kennel and plots race strategy in Two Rivers with
Jerry Loudon, another Quest veteran. Two Rivers is a conclave for
mushers in the Fairbanks area. It is full of dog teams and laced
with mushing trails.
Zirkle now joins a distinguished list of mushers - including five-time
Iditarod champ Rick Swenson - who have brought major titles home
to the community.
The Associated Press contributed to this story
Thomas Tetz of Tagish, Yukon Territory, glides along the Yukon River
as he makes his way to the finish in Whitehorse. (ERIK SIMANIS /