Competitor Aliy Zirkle
Aliy becomes first woman to win the Quest
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I've been in Alaska for 9 years (on and off), and lived here permanently since 1993. I am 30 years old and currently live in Two Rivers, Alaska with about 36 sled dogs. My Kennel is Skunk's Place. My dogs and I travel a lot, for both work and fun. Since we are always on the move, I couldn't come up with a kennel name having to do with a certain river or mountain or the like...so, I thought, the one thing that would surely be constant in my kennel is my retired leader: Skunk. So, where ever Skunk is, you'll find the kennel.
I have been running sled dogs for only about eight years. I feel that I am quite the novice, but continually learning and hopefully... improving.
For several years I lived in a small village north of the Arctic Circle, Bettles. I decided my first winter that I should travel, in order to avoid any hint of cabin fever. So, several of the locals convinced me to buy a snowmachine. I did explore much of the Brooks Range and the foothills to the south that winter. However, come spring my back hurt and I had a constant ringing in my ears.
The next winter I decided to heck with all that NOISE and graduated to a more elite method of transportation: a Dog Team. Not only did I now have a group of happy companions to travel with, but I enjoyed what I saw so much more because I could hear the owls hoot, the wolves cry and I took my time passing through the mountains. Needless to say my snowmachine has had few miles put on it since.
These first dogs were old trapline dogs. Just good natured and hard working. But the next year I bought a few dogs from villages to the south: Allakaklet, Hughes and Huslia. Not that I knew then, but these villages were the training ground for the premier sprint musher, George Attla. The dogs I got that year were fabulous. Fast, leggy and tough (like many village lines are known for.)
Only after a few years of acquiring dogs, and breeding these village lines into a steady trapline dog, did I decide that I might have some good dogs. This is when I decided to move to Two Rivers and really get into dog racing.
I try to maintain Skunk's Place with the original values, ideas and methodology. I run dogs because I enjoy it and THEY enjoy it. I do push them to their limits, but I push myself as hard as well. I believe that every dog has a place. They are all so very different physically and mentally that the challenge of pulling together 14 different minds and bodies for one common goal seems, at times, unbelievable.
My dogs eat a kibble that is meat based with 30% protein and 20% fat. I supplement the dry food with fresh meat and fish. The dogs in the kennel consume over 8 tons of kibble and 3 tons of fresh meat or fish a year.
All of the dogs are staked out individually. They are tethered, by lightweight chain, to a pole. They can spin around that pole in a full 360 degrees and their house is within this "spin zone". They each have their own house and their own spot in the dog yard. Each dog house is a 2 foot by 3 1/2 foot rectangle with a relatively small opening for the door. This works best for me because I can pack the dog house full of fresh straw during any cold snap and the dogs turn their back to the door and they are cozy. Each dog house has a bread pan installed in the roof. Most dogs either jump up on their house to eat or rest their front paws on the door opening so that their mouth is at a perfect height to eat from the pan.
One technique that I find very useful is training my dogs to identify which dog house is theirs. I do this by leaving snacks in their feed pans and letting them run to their house and find it. This saves me hours of time during a winter of training. When I bring in a twelve-dog team from a training run, I am usually not greeted by hordes of people waiting to help me unharness dogs. Therefore, the dogs and I have an agreement. I leave them in their harnesses while I put a snack or broth in their feed pans. Then I can let most of them go and they will make their way through the dog yard to their specific house and their snack. Then I follow them and hook them up to their tethers.
I do not have many litters a year. I believe in raising fewer dogs and investing more time with those individuals. This is the method that works for me. I do believe that other mushers are just as successful (or more so) with other methods. But, some of the best dogs that I have might not have made the final cut in a team from a larger kennel because they have a strange gait or a quirky personality, but they are awesome dogs.
I believe if I raise fewer puppies then each pup will become bonded and fully committed to me. Then in their adult years this commitment never wears off--it only strengthens as we compete together and succeed together.
As I mentioned, however, I see how this method would not
work for larger kennel operations. Number one: large kennels have handlers raising and
playing with the puppies, therefore they are bonding with the wrong people. Number two:
large kennels constantly sell dogs to other mushers, therefore the commitment and bond
with the musher is constantly changing. Number
I am still breeding primarily from those village lines (Allakaket and Hughes). I currently have one favorite stud: Fats. He is the father to a full third of the dogs in the kennel. The bitches are usually good, hard working race dogs that have a nice build, good attitude and preferably good feet. Last summer I had one litter of five pups, and this summer I would like to breed at least one bitch.
This summer I had two small litters. They were born in early May, so we will have a long summer of puppy fun. These litters are a continuation of Koyukuk River village lines that do so well for me. My "Golden Harness" Leader, Pedro, was at stud following the Yukon Quest victory. I will get a pup or two from those breedings as well.
I train primarily for the Yukon Quest. June and July are normally just too hot to run dogs in a team. I try to walk small groups of three or four individuals in order to stretch them out over the summer. There are a few swimming holes that are our favorites. On August 1st I start training the dogs in teams in front of a 4 wheeler. We take it slow the first month and work primarily on strengthening muscles, ligaments and tendons. With any luck this will reduce the number of injuries later on in the season.
The dogs are on a schedule from August 1st until the Quest. It starts off with muscle strengthening and veers toward endurance training. Later I work more on speed and attitude. A few weeks before the race its all ATTITUDE. Everyone is HAPPY to be a sled dog!
I do a few camping trips or a 200 mile race in December. This usually bumps them up to longer runs. And then we are ready to prepare mentally for the Quest.
Everyone, of course, has their own training techniques. Most of all I believe that the time you invest with your dogs can only strengthen the bond between the two of you. After all, sled dogs are dogs too. Each dog craves that pat on the head and a "Good Boy" now and then and it is amazing what you'll learn as you walk around the dog yard. It is these times when you notice "Sonic" has nearly worn out a link in his chain, or "AJ" is slightly favoring his left rear, or "Rubia's" eyes are discharging a tiny bit of mucus.
Dog care is critical. If you take the responsibility of owning sled dogs then care for them properly.
After winning the Yukon Quest 2000, my primary goal was accomplished. I feel that I now have even more directions and opportunities to further my passion of running sled dogs. Racing will continue to be a large part of Skunks Place.
In either the Yukon Quest or Iditarod it is important to finish with a happy, healthy, strong dog team! But if you are in the front running pack, there is very little chance that you are up there by accident. It is my belief that the reason you are there to begin with is that throughout the race you have maintained A HAPPY, HEALTHY, STRONG dog team.
In order to be successful a racer must follow his or her game plan. Each dog team was trained in a different manner and each musher begins the race with a strategy. It is important to keep your own strategy in focus and not get caught up in other people's races. Just because one musher isn't giving their team a break does not mean that you should do the same. Race YOUR dog team, not your competitors. Of course at the end of the race, you must keep an eye on your competitors. By then you know what they can do and vice versa...at the beginning no one knows what to expect.
After the racing season (end of March and April), both the dogs and I usually need to slow down. In order to do this and not just hang up the harnesses, we go camping. At this point, the dogs that did not race get a camping out experience and the dogs that did race get to camp out under no pressure whatsoever (very different from the Quest!!!). They really love it.
March and April are the best time to travel all around Alaska. Denali is gorgeous then. I tend to drift back north to my familiar stomping grounds in and around the Brooks Range. Heading up the Dalton highway is also a must. There is nothing quite like mushing across Alaska's North Slope - as thousands of caribou monitor your every move. Many years you can run dogs into May on the North Slope - how about that for extending the season?!?
I have also taken tourists out camping in March and April through Sourdough Outfitters in Bettles, Alaska (www.sourdoughoutfitters.com ). I enjoy sharing my passion for dog mushing with people who are interested and ready to learn.
"Nugget" is a cocky little female that I bought in order to breed a little more speed into my line. She came to me via Allakaket, Alaska, but little did I know until years later that she was a very traveled dog. She had been a main leader in the North American Sprint race in the early 90's. I did finally breed her and am very happy with the pups.
Like all the dogs in my kennel she works, so I took her out on a few camping trips. The first trip was into Denali National Park in the Spring. I had an eight dog team and was traveling with a friend. We camped for the night and I staked everybody out on their own line. I noticed that "Nugget" was not too comfortable with the idea of sleeping in the snow. Where was her dog house?? Well, I left her to figure it out and went in my tent which was set-up nearby. In an hour I heard this panting and running in circles. I went out to investigate and found "Nugget" working herself into a frenzy. She hadn't even sat down. So, I decided to give her a bed. I pulled the sled over and tied her to a stanchion. She slept curled up in the bag all night. To this day "Nugget" is my most privileged camper. Now, if you don't show up with the sled soon enough she barks until you get it. Dog yards are full of characters like "Nugget" that's why we are dog mushers, isn't it?
The future of dog mushing lies in maintaining a happy, healthy kennel AND a successful racing career. I will admit that I am relatively new to the sport and I have dues to pay and lots to learn. BUT, I am up for all that!!
The 2000 Yukon Quest was a culmination of hard work and dedication both canine and human. I brought one of the best dog teams that I have ever run to the starting line in Fairbanks. They proved to be the toughest and fastest over the next 10 days and made me very proud to be a part of such an amazing team.
A quick thanks to: Pedro, AJ, Diesel, Fats, Martin, Sonic, Roller, Bob, Beaner, Fatty Juns, Cisco, Scotty, Grill and Roger!!
Are you interested in sponsoring Aliy's kennel?
or Visit Skunk's Place on the Web
Yukon Quest, Yukon Quest International
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