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Veteran musher Aliy Zirkle thanks first responders, details her accident on the Iditarod trail

The longtime musher recalled her rescue from the trail after being injured in a crash during this year’s race
Published: Jun. 28, 2021 at 8:22 PM AKDT
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ANCHORAGE, Alaska (KTUU) - Longtime sled dog musher and fan favorite Aliy Zirkle of Two Rivers was plucked from the 49th Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race in March after suffering injuries in a crash. On Monday, she finally got to meet the team of people who extracted and cared for her.

Zirkle, 51, suffered a concussion and injuries to her upper body when her sled crashed on the way to the Rohn checkpoint during the Iditarod in March. She had previously announced the race would be her last as she retires from professional sled dog racing.

On Monday, she met the team of people who extracted her from the trail and took her to a hospital in Anchorage — members of the Alaska Rescue Coordination Center, which is under the 176th Wing of the Alaska Air National Guard. Zikle gave a presentation at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson to thank them for coming to her aid.

“I’ve raced the Iditarod for many, many years,” she said to the small crowd of people gathered in a room on the base. “I raced the Iditarod for 21 years straight, and before this year, I would stand in front of you and say I’ve started the Iditarod 20 times and I’ve finished the Iditarod 20 times.”

The race, she said, is like life.

“You never kind of really know what’s around the next corner,” Zirkle said.

Sometimes it’s easy, she said, “and sometimes it throws you for the biggest curve in your life.”

Zirkle detailed what happened leading up to the accident. She and her team had already made it through two of the more challenging sections of the trail, she said.

She prefaced the description of the crash with the fact that she, as a musher, ties herself to her sled with a surfboard leash.

“I’ve done that for 25 years,” she said. “Allen’s (her husband) been upset about that for 25 years.”

It’s a habit born in a time when she mushed in remote areas, before she had a satellite phone, where she would be stranded if separated from her dogs.

Zirkle had about 5 miles left before her next checkpoint. She said she’s not entirely clear about what happened, but that somehow her sled turned sideways with her dogs traveling between 8-11 miles per hour.

“I would imagine that there was a rock in the ice or something in the ice that made my whole sled kind of tip over,” Zirkle said.

She was told she hit the back of her head, so Zirkle guesses she was on the ground on her back before being dragged forward by the tether attached to the sled.

“Then I blacked out for a while,” she said.

Zirkle was dragged by her right arm behind the sled by her dogs until she came to and saw them tangled in a tree that was frozen in the ice.

Injured, Zirkle knew she had to make it another 5 miles down the trail to the checkpoint, where she said there was a cabin. It’s probably the only time she’s been scared while out on the trail, she said.

Zirkle said she isn’t sure exactly how she got herself and the dog team to the Rohn checkpoint, but that her dogs were parked and she was brought into the cabin. From there, it’s all a bit fuzzy, she said.

There was a long helicopter ride to Anchorage, where Zirkle was taken to the hospital. She described a weeks-long recovery from her brain injury, during which her husband, Allen Moore, helped by reducing her exposure to light and sound.

Zirkle went on to tell the group gathered at JBER more about the Iditarod, including some of its history and what it’s like when it’s more successful. She brought some of the dogs with her to the meeting who were part of the team running into the Rohn checkpoint.

She said looking back over her sled dog racing career, she has no regrets.

“Everything that I have done, I had done with pride, and with effort and with intention,” Zirkle said. “And all I can say is when you try to live your life and ... you can say, I’ve always tried to do the best I can — perhaps you didn’t do the best you could, but you tried to do the best you could — then you have to go out smiling.”

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