Iditarod Coverage: After the scare of her life, Zirkle tries to keep her head in the game

TRIPOD CABIN — During the heat of the day Saturday, Aliy Zirkle and her 14-dog team camped a mile and a half east of Tripod Cabin. The BLM shelter cabin is located 35 miles down the trail from Kaltag and 45 miles from Unalakleet, the first coastal checkpoint and Inupiaq community on the Iditarod Trail.

Zirkle said she chose to stop before the cabin because there was an incredible 360-degree view from that point of trail.

Looking west toward the warm, spring sun, there was a gorgeous view of Old Woman and the Whaleback mountains, hinting of trail to come. Hills seemed to cradle where she stopped. There was plenty of snow, and with black spruce trees in the distance surrounding her team, the view made it a nice place to cook a meal and enjoy the sunshine.

Walking toward her, no one would have had a clue of the ordeal she faced about 14 hours earlier. Her trademark black and red parka with the wolf ruff sat next to her sled. Her dogs rested nicely on the side of the trail. She was busy tending to the fire in her cooker, adding a bottle of Heet to build it up as a slight breeze tried to put it out. On top of the cooker, she was melting a pot full of snow for her team.

She was in the business of taking care of the 14 dogs that got her to this sunny spot on the trail, so they could do the business they were bred to do. Why they were raised. Why they train. She was taking care of her team so they could do what they love.

Walking toward Zirkle and her team, no one would know that 14 hours earlier she told a race judge that someone tried to kill her with a snowmachine.

Zirkle looked like she always does during the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race. She looked like she wanted to get to Nome first. She had chores. She had a team ready for a meal. And so it felt wrong at that moment to ask her about what happened. It wasn’t a surprise that she didn’t want to talk about it. She said talking about it makes her upset, and the dogs pick up on emotions.

“They know your mindset sometimes before you do,” Eureka musher Brent Sass said a mile and a half away where he parked his team for about five hours. “They can read your emotions and your mood very well.

“They feed off of your energy. If you’re bummed out and unhappy, there’s a good chance they’re going to be bummed out and unhappy.”

Sass said throughout a 1,000-mile race like the Iditarod it’s important to keep a positive attitude — “but it’s pretty tough to hide it,” he said. “In Aliy’s case, she can’t fake it.”

Sass said the thing Zirkle can do is exactly what she appeared to be doing — focusing on her race.

Three-time champion Dallas Seavey agreed.

“The dogs know exactly what you’re thinking or feeling,” he said while he camped out two miles behind Zirkle. “If you’re thinking, ‘Man, we’re doing really good today,’ they’re going to keep picking it up and doing well.

“If you’re sitting there bumming about something thinking, ‘Man, this is a slow and miserable run,’ guess what it turns into? A slow and miserable run. The team certainly reciprocates whatever the musher is putting out.”

And so Zirkle didn’t talk about what happened on the trail between Galena and Nulato early Saturday morning while most Alaskans were safely asleep in their warm beds, in their warm homes.

It would only make her upset, she said. Instead, she tried to think about moves she can make after arriving in Unalakleet and continuing up the coast to the finish line in Nome. She was still thinking about how to be the first to Nome.

“The race is really…” she began, and then she stopped and sighed from deep inside. “It really brings together Alaska and Alaskans…and it’s where I feel comfortable.

“I love that people (are) really putting their heart and soul behind me. I really respect that from people. I always hope they know I try my best, because I do.”

Zirkle knows this race has the ability to inspire individuals in immeasurable ways.

“I forget about that,” she said. “I’m in a very ‘me, me, me’ world right now … normally I’m not in that ‘me, me, me’ world. And I wish I wasn’t to be honest with you,” she said. “I’m trying to get out of it.”

And she knows getting out of it is what her team needs. “I will…” she said.

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