Happy trails for Aliy Zirkle

When she lived in an Alaskan town with no roads in or out, Aliy Zirkle relied on her dogs and a sled to get from Point A to Point B. Years later, she entered her first race. Anchorage Daily News/Zuma Press/Icon SMI

When Aliy Zirkle saw Mitch Seavey and his team of dogs pass her 250 miles from the finish of last year's Iditarod sled dog race, she didn't panic. The top teams had been leapfrogging one another for days. Some slept while others ran. Any good musher will tell you to run your own race, not somebody else's.

Before Seavey made his move, Zirkle had come in first at the previous checkpoint in the village of Kaltag, 652 miles into the 1,000-mile journey. To get there, her team endured an arduous 122 miles on the mighty Yukon River, which cuts Alaska in half. Traveling upstream, into the wind, temperatures reach as low as 40 below zero. In a race known for its rugged and spectacular beauty, this stretch is dreaded for its mind-bending expanses of nothingness.

Coming off the river into Kaltag, which sits near the coast of the Bering Sea, Zirkle knew she would be navigating well-traveled village-to-village trails the remainder of the race. She came into the checkpoint of White Mountain just 13 minutes behind Seavey, a gap she could easily make up with 77 miles to go to the finish line in Nome.

Zirkle drove her team in hot pursuit after leaving that last major checkpoint. She tried to decipher Seavey's speed from the snowy tracks left behind by his sled. High above the icy treeline in the mountains, she was so close that she periodically caught glimpses of his sled.

"I could actually see him in the distance when he went up a ridge and I was going down. I just couldn't quite catch him," she said. "I didn't concede until about five miles from the finish, when I heard he had won."

One of the closest finishes in the history of the race, it would be the second year in a row that fan favorite Zirkle would pass under the finishing arch in second place. Based on the crowd's reaction to her arrival in Nome, however, you wouldn't have known she didn't win.

"When Mitch came in, people cheered and hooted and hollered like they would for any champion," said Suzanna Caldwell, a reporter for the Alaska Dispatch whose father, Harry Caldwell, was an eight-time Iditarod musher. "However, when Aliy came in second, the cheering was even louder. People were crying. They were chanting her name 'Aliy, Aliy, Aliy' over and over again."

The 45-year-old Zirkle hopes that 2014 will be the year those same crowds stand by as she is crowned champion of the Iditarod, which would make her the first woman since Susan Butcher in 1990 to win the coveted title. Her quest begins Saturday.

Uncharted territory

Zirkle came into mushing somewhat by accident. The New Hampshire native's sporting roots run deep at the University of Pennsylvania, where she played volleyball and was a national-caliber hammer thrower for the track and field team.

As a biology major, Zirkle spent a semester in Alaska doing research and fell in love with its wild landscapes. Upon graduating, she moved to the tiny town of Bettles, Alaska, north of the Arctic Circle, where she got a job with the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service. With a population of just 35, there are no roads that lead to the town, making it accessible only by airplane or boat in the summer and snowmachine or dog team in the winter.

"I figured if I was going to live there, I'd better have a dog, so I adopted an old husky," she said. "The next year I adopted five more huskies that needed homes."

Looking for an alternative means of transportation to buzzing around on a bone-shaking snowmachine, Zirkle discovered that her dogs seemed to enjoy pulling her by sled. A couple of years later, a friend convinced her to check out a dog-mushing event.

"It was then that I realized that this is what I was already doing -- traveling with my team of dogs 200 to 300 miles in the Arctic by myself," she said. "Except in the races, there were checkpoints and people handing the mushers supplies and I thought, 'Holy cow, that's great!' "

In the mid-'90s, she entered her first race in Allakaket, Alaska, and she finished second-to-last. Not long after that she moved to Two Rivers, outside Fairbanks, where she and her husband, Allen Moore, a champion musher himself, built SP Kennel.

"It becomes a lifestyle," she said. "You keep thinking you can feed the dogs better or make a better sled. There are so many variables, you get addicted."

Gaining ground

En route to her rise to the top of the dog-mushing world, Zirkle has raced either the Yukon Quest international sled dog race or the Iditarod every year since 1998. In 2000, she won the Yukon Quest 1,000-mile event, making her the first woman to do so. She's raced the Iditarod the past 13 years, snagging second place in 2012 and 2013.

Last month Zirkle claimed victory at the Yukon Quest 300-mile race, a year after narrowly missing first. Subsequently, her husband won the 1,000-mile journey. Her Iditarod team is a compilation of the best and brightest dogs from those two teams. Moore will not be competing.

Zirkle's 16-dog team is led by Quito, who will wear the golden harness, an honor bestowed upon the Yukon Quest's MVD -- Most Valuable Dog. Zirkle calls her "sassy as heck," adding, "she knows she's wearing the golden harness."

Some of Zirkle's most treasured accolades are related to SP Kennel's reputation for taking excellent care of their dogs. Instead of having an army of canines like many, they breed fewer dogs, devoting all their energy to two teams and their offspring.

Calling the dogs "our kids," Zirkle said, "There's nothing pulling them down the trail, that's something a lot of people don't understand. If you ask them to go too far or too fast or through a scary spot, they're not going to go. You have to stop at the right times, praise them, make sure their boots are on right and train them in a smart way."

The admiration Zirkle garners from fans probably has as much to do with the fact that she is a great musher and an accessible athlete and as it does with her being a woman. But people can't help but hope for history to be made.

"She is without a doubt the most popular musher in the sport right now," said the 26-year-old Caldwell, who grew up idolizing Zirkle and aspiring to match her tenacity after meeting her at a race when she was a kid. "It's hard not to want another woman to win after 20-plus years of nothing but men."

While Zirkle is proud to be a role model in a male-dominated discipline, she insists that gender isn't a factor in her chosen sport.

"I know there are a lot of fans who would really like to see a woman win," she said. "I'd like it to be me, but I want to win because these are the coolest, bravest dogs out there, not because I'm a woman."