Dog Sledders visit Manila

Wednesday, August 17, 2005
Aliy Zirkle-Moore is pictured mushing through Anchorage. Aliy finished the 2005 Iditarod, an intense 1,150 mile sled dog race, in 11th place in 10 days, one hour, 46 minutes and 30 seconds. (photo provided)

Arkansas in the summer is a far cry from Alaskan summers which are short with temperatures sometimes rising to 70 degrees for one month out of the year. Allen Moore, Manila native, and his wife, Aliy Zirkle Moore, of Two Rivers, Alaska, were recently in Manila for his daughter's wedding.

Allen and Aliy, owners of Skunk's Place Kennel, a premier sled dog kennel, are both into racing sled dogs competitively.

Both are very well known in the dog mushing circuit, and Aliy holds the prestigious title of being the first woman and the youngest competitor to ever win the 1,000 mile Yukon Quest. The Yukon Quest International Sled Dog Race runs from Fairbanks, Alaska to Whitehorse, Yukon Territory.

Aliy won the race in the 2000 competition. It took her 10 days and 21 hours. The 2000 event was her third 1,000 mile race. Her first attempt in the Yukon Quest was in 1998. In 1999 she placed fourth and won the "Challenge of the North Award" given to the musher best representing the spirit of the race. She raced in the Iditarod Musher five consecutive years starting in 2001.

The Yukon Quest began in 1984. Racers follow the old mail routes and Gold Rush trails created over a century ago. Racers summit three mountain ranges including the treacherous Eagle Summit and spend hundreds of miles on the frozen rivers of the North. It is a sister race to the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race.

The Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race is a 1150 mile race running from Anchorage in south central Alaska to Nome on the western Bering Sea. The race celebrates the 1925 serum run to save the people of Nome. The serum run covered 674 miles between Nenanna and Nome in relay fashion. The first Iditarod was run in 1973. The historic first running took 20 days for the winner to cross the finish line. Some of the more recent winners have done so in just over nine days.

Aliy has raced in numerous shorter races. In 2004 she raced in the Denial Dash (100 mile Solsice Race) taking third place and the Knik 200 where she took second place. This year she ran the Tustumena 200 at the end of January in Kenai, Alaska taking third place and the Humanitarian Award.

Allen also competes and won the Copper Basin 300 earlier in the year. It was a difficult year for the race and almost half of the competitors dropped out before finishing.

"We had to cross a river almost waist deep that was 20 degrees below zero," Allen said. "The dogs did not want to cross and I had to go first."

A lot of the mushing is done in the dark. During December there may be only two hours of sunlight in a day.

"You get accustomed to the dark," Allen said. "You have the northern lights and reflection from the snow that helps."

Allen and Aliy pick out two or three medium distance races each during the season. Aliy plans on being in the next Iditarod. Last year, her fifth time for the long distance race, she came in 11th out of 80.

"A lot of men in their late 40s have been running the race a long time and have the experience," Aliy said. "There are two younger women also doing well."

Moore has always been sports minded. Growing up in Arkansas he loved participating in basketball and baseball. It was only natural when he moved to Alaska in 1990 to get involved in the most popular sport of the area.

He said he actually started dog mushing because his two daughters, Jennifer and Bridgett, became enthusiasts at a young age.

Aliy moved to Alaska 15 years ago and said from that point on everything was geared toward someday having her own kennel. For the first years she worked summers so she could enjoy her hobby of running the dogs. Over the last four years their hobby turned into a serious business.

"Our kennel is small compared to some," Aliy said. "We have 50 to 60 dogs. We train them ourselves, and we know them by name and personality. It is like having 50 children."

The 10 acre kennel, with the Moore's house on a hill overlooking the dogs, is a full time, year round job. Each dog has his/her own house and area. There are two cabins on the property for visitors with a lot of pole barns. Aliy's sister, Kaz Zirkle, is part of SP Kennels. SP Kennel is a premier Sled Dog Kennell dedicated to individual dogs through excellent health, nutrition and over all dog care.

The Moores' home is located about 25 miles from Fairbanks.

"It is a small town with more dogs than people population," Allen said. "It is a beautiful place to live.

"We always have an open door policy. We love for friends and family to visit us."

When they are caring and training the dogs it is like putting together a wining basketball team.

"For instance, we have one dog that is great leading through a crowd, we have another that is a little shy around people but great at going across ice," Aliy said. "Each dog has his/her own special trait and is trained to work together. The dogs are born to run and would never stop on their own. When we run the long races, we have to make sure they get proper rest. These dogs could pull a car down the road with ease. They don't bark while running, just when they are excited before starting.

"We work on scheduling the dogs for the 1,000 mile runs so they get rest and nourishment they need. I usually run six hours and rest them six hours. The dogs are checked out by veterinarians before races. They get blood tests, EKGs, and each dog is micro chipped for identification. On the long races there are at least 20 check points. Our supplies are shipped ahead including the dog food. Veterinarians are posted at each check point to care for the dogs. If the dogs have any type of injury, even a minor one, they are flown back to a hospital."

Aliy started with 16 dogs and finished with 10 in 2000 when she won the Yukon Quest.

"The dogs' injuries were minor such as hurt wrist, sore feet, and an upset stomach," she said. "They were all fine and back home by the time I finished the race. It is rare for a dog to suffer a major injury in a race. The dogs are well trained and in excellent health. Our dogs are more important to us than winning the race and we take notice of any problems."

On average, SP Kennel has about 30 racing adults, two years old or older, 12 yearlings and 12 puppies, as well as a half dozen retired dogs.

"At age six, we will often look for homes for these dogs. Most have accomplished a great deal with us. They either go to other mushing homes or pet homes, depending on the dog," Allen said. "There is actually a waiting list for them. If we do not place a dog with another home, they will retire here and live their lives out at the kennel. The older dogs can teach the younger dogs a lot."

Training is a big part of dog sled racing. The dogs are trained to voice commands. There are no reigns to control the dogs. Allen and Alliy both work with the dogs training and preparing for the races.

They compared dog mushing in Alaska to the popular NASCAR races.

"The way to make a profit is through sponsorship," Aliy said. "For instance, we get sleds from one sponsor, dog food from a dog food company, as well as other sponsors. We feed over 10 tons of dog food a year at an approximate cost of $18,000. Eagle Pack Dog Food Company is one of our sponsors."

Everything they earn from racing goes back into the kennel. There are two months a year when it is too hot for the dogs to train. Allen and Aliy take this time to work construction. They build a house each summer.

"That gives us our spending money," Aliy said.

Aliy spends a lot of her time visiting schools. It gives her the opportunity to educate the students on dog sled racing. She has also appeared on several televised talk shows.

Aliy, Allen and Kaz also offer Arctic Challenger Trips and workshops. Participants enjoy adventures by dog team to learn about and explore the beauty and wildlife of the North. They agree they have met some very interesting people through these trips.

The Moores returned to their home last week and will be ready to start training as soon as the short summer months are over. They start in September and work through May training and racing. In addition to training the dogs, they work out to keep themselves in shape for the competitive races. They call it fun, rewarding, accelerating but never easy.

Aliy plans to run the Iditarod run again in March and is looking forward to her sixth Iditarod.

She gives credit to her four-legged teammates for her 2000 Yukon Quest win.

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