JOINT BASE ELMENDORF-RICHARDSON, Alaska — When veteran Iditarod sled dog musher Aliy Zirkle woke up March 8, she didn’t find herself in a comfy bed. Instead, she awoke to the site of her dog team tangled in a tree springing from the frozen subarctic tundra.
Her right arm was tethered to the sled by a surfboard leash, and it was apparent the dogs – laser-focused on their task of rapidly covering the nearly 1,000 miles of the race distance – had been dragging her for quite some time.
When she tried to get up, she quickly realized she was in trouble, and she needed to get to the race’s Rohn Roadhouse checkpoint cabin about five miles down the trail.
“I remember thinking I wasn’t normal, like there was something going on,” she recalled. “And then I tried to get up and untangle [the dogs] from this tree, but I couldn’t use my whole right side. So I was obviously thinking I broke something, or I wasn’t really sure. One thing I did know was I knew I had to get to that cabin.”
For years people asked her if she was afraid while contesting what is called the Last Great Race, and for years she said no. Her ordeal less than 200 miles into the 2021 race changed that.
“I can honestly say that was the one time I’ve ever been scared, which is not easy to admit,” she said.
Afraid in the midst of her predicament, Zirkle would be saved through her grit, her dogs, the Rohn Roadhouse cabin, and Alaska Air National Guardsmen who came to her on the rotors of an HH-60G Pave Hawk helicopter.
Debt of gratitude
Zirkle – accompanied by husband Allen Moore, Iditarod race director Mark Nordman, and personal friends – came to Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson, Alaska, June 28, 2021, to express gratitude and share her harrowing tale with the Airmen of 176th Wing who rescued her.
“I’m standing here pretty thankful to be here,” she said. “I’ve raced the Iditarod for 21 years straight. Before this year, I would stand out in front of you and say, ‘I started the Iditarod 20 times, and I finished the Iditarod 20 times.’”
That record came to an unfortunate end in the Dalzell Gorge, notorious for rapid river waters punching through the ice and making for hazardous trail conditions.
“I’m not clear of what happened,” Zirkle said. “Somehow my sled – which has plastic on the bottom of the runners – kind of got sideways, I think, and the dogs were probably traveling at 8, 9, 10, 11 miles per hour, and I would imagine that there was a rock in the ice – something in the ice – that made my whole sled kind of tip over, and I guess, they said I hit my head right here,” she said, pointing to the base of the back of her head.
Zirkle said the rest of the day was a blur, and she doesn’t remember how she got to the Rohn Roadhouse. She does remember race officials talking about her injuries, though she confused their chatter as a conversation about an injured dog.
“Oh crap, I hope that dog’s okay,” she remembered saying to herself. “I was almost crying because I was worried about this dog.”
Zirkle’s lifeline would be an HH-60 and crew of the 210th Rescue Squadron and pararescuemen of 212th Rescue Squadron dispatched by the Alaska Rescue Coordination Center at JBER. Once on scene, the pararescuemen stabilized Zirkle, managed her considerable pain, and evacuated her to Providence Alaska Medical Center in Anchorage for release to civilian medical professionals.
Zirkle said the experience gave her an abundant appreciation for how the rescue triad of 210th, 211th, and 212th rescue squadrons serve Alaska by providing civil search and rescue.
“I think we realize, especially looking at the [Anchorage Daily News] and various front page news articles, it hits you personally how much you freaking do for the state/country,” she said. “Sometimes, you don’t realize how you are affected by another group of people until you are personally affected by that group of people, so I have been meaning to come here to humbly give you my gratitude.”
Lessons from the trail
After 21 years of vying for sled dog racing glory, Zirkle said she is retiring and has run her last race. Through more than 20,000 miles of the Iditarod, she said she has learned much from the competition.
“It’s interesting; the Iditarod is like life,” she said. “You never kind of know what’s around the next corner. Sometimes it’s super easy, and you’re kind of skating through like, ‘Oh, where’s the next bump?’ And sometimes it throws you for the biggest curve in your life, and you’re like, ‘Wow, I wonder if I will be able to get up and go again.’”
Though Zirkle placed second on three occasions, she never won the Iditarod. After braving a raging blizzard during the 2014 race, taking shelter at Safety near the finish line, and falling asleep for a 30-minute nap, she would place second that year with a scant margin of 2 minutes, 22 seconds to the leader.
Though missing victory by a whisker, the musher said she is more than happy with her racing career.
“People would say, ‘What regrets do you have in your Iditarod career, in your racing, in your choices in life?’” Zirkle explained. “And I will tell you right here and now, I have none. Everything that I have done, I have done with pride, with effort and with intention.”
At the conclusion of the meet and greet, event coordinator Senior Master Sgt. Corey Ercolani, 210th Rescue Squadron, expressed his appreciation of Zirkle’s candor and shared lessons learned.
“I would like to thank you for coming out,” he said. “I really appreciate it.”
Zirkle beamed with a smile and shot back, stunned at the hospitality of the unit who rescued her.
“You don’t have to thank me!”