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Women of the Iditarod
Stories about Aliy Zirkle, Susan Butcher, and Libby Riddles.


By Robin L Shen

Aliy Zirkle
Ranked 7th in this year's iditarod.

Iditarod champions Jeff King and Doug Swingley were the favorites to win or place in Iditarod 2001. But what of the others? But at the bottom of the list, there is the last name. It is last because it starts with a Z. It reads Aliy Zirkle. First timer to the Iditarod. Rookie, inconsequential. Yet upon reading it, many veterans, long inured to the cold of the arctic, have felt a cold chill run down their spine. It is the last name they ever wanted to read on the list of Rookies. Doug Swingy looked up from his work and gave pause when he heard the name. Jeff King was thought to reflect, and smile a little. Then remark that it will be "interesting". Susan Butcher was delighted, but then, she isn't racing this year. Who is Aliy, why does everyone care?

Aliy keeps a small kennel and feels that maintaining a small number of dogs is imperative in order to train pups, yearlings and adults to their highest potential. She was born in New Hampshire in 1969. She studied at the University of Pennsylvania and then came to Alaska in 1990 to continue her biological studies. She began mushing eight years ago and last year, in her third try, Her team brought her blazing in to a finish line to win a race in the second fastest time ever of 10 days, 22 hours, and 57 minutes. That race was the 1000 abysmal miles of the Yukon Quest. "Well, it's not the Iditarod" you might say. You are correct. The hell it's not!

The Yukon Quest challenges 1,000 miles of trail through some of the most spectacular geography on the North American continent, during the coldest month of the year. Running from Fairbanks to Whitehorse Canada, the Yukon quest runs an inland route. If there is anything that can be said about the Alaskan interior it is just this: Cold. Temperatures will dip to -60C and there will be no moderation from a nearby coastline. Following traditional mail routes, gold rush trails, and other Klondike era transportation routes, the race trail demands phenomenal endurance on the part of all the canine athletes and their mushers.

Teams must tackle the fearsome Eagle Summit, a 3,650-foot pass with a steep, treacherous final ascent. Known for its terrifying weather patterns and a frightening habit of shrugging off dog teams like a titan would shake off an irritating insect, Eagle Summit has claimed more than its fair share of lives. Then there are the icy slopes of glaciated streams along the Chena River, the river constantly changes course in the fall only to ice over and get covered in snow in the winter. Impossible to determine safe passage, teams often break through the ice. Next there is the sheer, glare ice of the wind-swept Yukon River near Circle City, the unpredictable and problematic overflow on Birch Creek, all culminating in more opportunities to fall through the ice and freeze to death or drown hundreds of miles from civilization. If you make it that far you "get to" experience the steep, windy side-hills of American Summit; relentless switch-backs through the Black Hills; natural moguls at McCabe Creek and a thousand more obstacles along the trail.

Then there is the weather! White-out conditions in the mountains; temperatures dipping to -60C along the Forty Mile River; fierce winds along the Yukon River and on the summits. And as if that's not all, unlike the Iditarod, there are often 200miles or more between checkpoints forcing mushers to constantly make their rests on the trail and carry most of their own food. With these conditions, it's no wonder that mushers often arrive at checkpoints covered in fresh snow, beards and hair iced, shoulders hunched. And when they travel through overflow, they arrive encased in thin shells of ice that crackle and shatter with every step.

It was precisely this race that Ailey won last year at the Yukon Quest 2000. This year, she thought she would run the "other" long race. Jeff King and Doug Swingy won't be the only champions on the Iditarod trail and they know it.

Susan Butcher, 4 time winner of the iditarod, and
Libby Riddles, the first woman to win.

When one thinks of the Iditarod, one invariably thinks of the First Lady of the Iditarod. That would be the great Susan Butcher. This is because Susan is the only person to ever win 3 Iditarods in a row and she has won 4 total. And back in 1985, Susan was favored to be the fastest woman and probably the first woman to win the Iditarod. Then, as she was mushing through Moose Alley, she ran into trouble. The biggest obstacles, associated with the Iditarod, with regard to wildlife is the Moose and the Buffalo. Most bears are in hibernation except for Polar bears which stick to the coastline and are seldom found that far south. Moose tend to shy away from dogs but every once in awhile they get it into their head that they need to charge the team.

Susan Butcher was mushing in Iditarod 85 down through Moose alley when she came afoul of a starving Moose. The Moose decided to charge the team. Susan had stopped the team in the hopes of averting disaster but the Moose kept coming until it was among the dogs. Susan did her best to fend it off with an axe handle and by flapping a coat but the Moose resolutely continued to stomp on her dogs. Susan had waived her right to carry a firearm and was helpless in the situation until another musher came and shot the moose. Two dogs lay dead and 13 were badly injured. Susan ended up scratching out of the race and spent the next few days in a veterinary hospital caring for the remaining dogs.

You might have said that the hopes for a woman to win Iditarod 85 were thus, mashed by a Moose. But Susan was not the only woman in the race. There was another woman and her name was Libby Riddles

Just before her 17th birthday Libby moved to Alaska. She lived right outside of Anchorage and later in a town called Nelchina. She loved all the dog races, and especially how the dogs seemed to love racing. She entered a small race in 1978, winning first place. Then she received a lead dog from Rick Swenson, a major Iditarod racer. After placing 18th in the 1980 Iditarod and 20th in the 1981 Iditarod, Libby decided she would have to breed her own dogs to get anywhere.

A short time later she moved to Shaktoolik, near Nome, where she worked as a fish buyer. There she started to train her dogs (and herself!) in the Arctic conditions. Not long after that she moved again, this time to Teller which is northwest of Nome. There she became partners with Joe Garnie and they bred and trained dogs together. Joe and Libby would take turns racing in the Iditarod and in 1984; Joe came in third place. In 1985, it was Libby's turn.

A few days after Susan's team was scratched from Iditarod 85, Libby was still mushing along and found herself at Check point Shaktoolik heading into a fierce blizzard. The musher right behind her came in, took one look at the weather, and said with a shake of his head

"If it's anything like what I just came through, it's impossible."

Libby was never one to be told about the impossible. She raised her team and with the terse command "HIKE" she disappeared into the white out. The other musher muttered "30, 30, 30" under his breath and went to sit by the heater. Many mushers who had arrived ahead of Libby were also in the room and everyone nodded with understanding. You see, there is a rule among polar explorers and arctic peoples. It is the 30, 30, 30 rule. It basically goes like this: If the temperature is -30, and winds are at 30 mph, your exposed flesh will freeze solid in 30 seconds. That is all. Libby was heading straight into a winter storm. White out conditions meant that you could hardly see your own feet. Howling winds were piling drifts that could almost drown a dog. But Libby did know one thing. It was unlikely that anyone else was going to brave the 30, 30, 30 rule. And Libby also wanted to win. She really wanted to win. So she set out immediately.

The conditions were as predicted. She could no longer see the trail markers ahead of her. But instead of turning back, she decided to press on. She drove her dogs until she could no longer see the marker behind her. Then she stopped and set her snow hook and snow shoed ahead of the dogs until she could see where the next marker was. Then she went back to get the team and started the process all over again. This was hardly the blistering pace that we hear of in Iditarod lore. Far from the 16-mph of the top athletes like Rick Swenson's championship team, or the sheer power and grace of Susan Butcher's lead dog Granite, or the dizzying speeds achieved by Reddinton's team. Instead, Libby crawled along at a snails pace, which kept her in the deadly 30, 30, 30 zone for many hours past 30 seconds.

Hour after agonizing hour she snow-shoed, crawled, kicked and clawed her way to the next checkpoint. Libby wanted to win. After 58 miles she reached Koyuk and the storm was abating. A couple of hours rest for the dogs. A warm meal for the team and back on the trail. Another 48 miles to Elim. Press on to Golovin for another 28 miles and continue on to White Mountain. Feed dogs, Sleep, 2 or 3 hours, who knows how much? Tired. Libby was very tired but she wanted to win. Libby, wanted to win. Libby pressed on to check point Safety. It was the last checkpoint on the trail to Nome, the finish line. Nome was 22 miles away! The startled check point volunteer rubbed the sleep out of his eyes and checked her tag in bewilderment. He spoke with significance;

"Ya know on the radio, they said that the guy behind ya checked in 5 hours AFTER you did at "White Mountain."

With tired resignation, Libby asked in a haze of fatigue, "How many guys are ahead of me?"

A grin split the face of the Volunteer; "Don't ya know? You're in the lead!"

Incredulity spread across Libby's tired face. The volunteer pointed at the team and waved on toward Nome,

"Only 22 more miles, what are you waiting for? Champ!"

Libby did not have the fastest dogs. Nor did she have the strongest dogs. She just had excellent dogs. But in a competition were only the greatest can win, there is another word for the merely excellent. And that word is Loser. But a chain is only as strong as its weakest link. And winning the Iditarod requires a team of dogs AND driver. In the Blizzard of the Iditarod 85, all the other teams with stronger faster dogs failed to take into account the weakest link, the human factor. While Veterans and Rookies alike huddled by the fire to wait out the storm, Libby raised the standard of human performance with a stunning display of grit and determination. You see, Libby wanted to win. And so Libby hit the trail hard out of Check Point Safety.

A couple of hours later, at 9 am on Wednesday, March 20th 1985, to the astonishment and cheering of thousands of spectators, Libby Riddles mushed into history and became the first woman to win the Iditarod.

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