SHAGELUK — In no time at all, Two Rivers musher Aliy Zirkle had attracted an energetic crowd Friday morning in this quiet village along the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race.
About a half-dozen children peppered Zirkle with questions as she broke up a bale of straw for her dog team to rest on at the edge of a snowy road in temperatures around 32 degrees. A cheerful Zirkle answered every one of them, often making the children giggle.
Among their questions: Where’s Scooby? Some got to pet the sled dog when the Iditarod came through last year. (Scooby stayed home this year.) How are the dogs strong enough?
“They eat really well and they exercise,” said Zirkle, an 18-time Iditarod finisher and three-time runner-up.
The musher had a rough time on the way into the previous checkpoint, breaking trail and navigating tussocks. She described her run into Shageluk as “the first good trail I’ve seen in a while.”
“And I’m thankful for that,” she said.
Shageluk, a community of about 90, sits on the bank of the Innoko River, at mile 487 of the 1,000-mile Iditarod. The Iditarod normally passes through the village on odd-numbered years, but poor trail conditions put mushers on a route out of Fairbanks in 2015 and 2017, skipping Shageluk.
To make up for it, this is the second year in a row the Iditarod is traveling through town.
“I think having the Iditarod continue to come through Shageluk keeps the mushing spirit alive and the whole Iditarod spirit alive,” said Sonta Roach, a teacher at the local school. “I think it’s a great thing for our community. We come out and show our support.”
Roach teaches her kindergarten through third-grade students about the Iditarod before the race passes through. They talk about how it started and how there weren’t always snowmachines.
The students get excited, she said. They like to talk to the mushers who stop to rest here. They walked around with handmade autograph books on Friday and gifts for mushers.
“All right, who wants an autograph?” Zirkle asked them.
She asked every child’s name, including Olivia, who gave her a yellow and orange pot holder. Zirkle told her she has a dog named Olivia, who’s really, really pretty and also a mom.
“So you’re not really a mom yet, but you’re really pretty, so you’ve got half of that down," Zirkle said.
Another girl gave Zirkle a red and white keychain made of beads as a good luck charm.
“You know, if I won Iditarod, I’d win a truck and I’d put my truck keys on this,” Zirkle told her.
For now, she attached it to a zipper on her jacket.
(Zirkle left Shageluk later Friday and as of late afternoon was in sixth place.)