On the Iditarod Trail, gender doesn't determine success
Sitting on the Yukon River, the village of Anvik marks 512 miles of trail and signifies an Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race more than halfway completed for teams that make it to the checkpoint.
Throughout the day, mushers leading the pack blazed through Anvik. Some were coming off of a mandatory eight-hour rest in Shageluk, while others were pushing forward to spend the down time in Grayling.
As each team arrived, a dozen or so of the roughly 60 residents who live in Anvik during the winter showed up at the checkpoint to cheer them on.
Each visit after Nic Petit’s stop for a meal lasted only a couple minutes or less.
That is, until the sixth musher arrived.
Aliy Zirkle showed up with a smile, stepped off her sled and grabbed one of her food bags that was sent to the checkpoint. She then offered one of the village children a snack bar.
Farrah Huntington turned it down; she’s allergic to peanuts. Zirkle reached back into her bag and found a cheese snack instead. She then handed a homemade snack to Dalisha Huntington and signed her name on another girl's sleeve.
The stop didn’t last long, but it was the most exciting musher visit for mom Roscanne Huntington.
“She actually stopped and talked to them, gave them snacks and everything,” said Roscanne. “It was nice!”
Zirkle is a crowd favorite, and that includes the Huntington household.
“She’s nice and she’s a role model for the younger ones,” Roscanne said, adding, “and she’s a woman in the race. It’s a tough race.”
On International Woman’s Day, she says Zirkle is someone she wants her daughters to look up to.
Women have been competitors in the race almost since it began. A year after the first race in 1973, Mary Shields was the first woman to complete it. Just over a decade later, Libby Riddles would be the first woman to win the Iditarod in 1985. She would be followed by mushing great Susan Butcher, a four-time Iditarod champion who won in 1986, 1987, 1988 and 1990.
If you ask musher Jessie Royer about being a woman on the Iditarod Trail, she’ll tell you she doesn’t care for the extra fuss.
“I just think everybody makes too big of a deal about women out on the trail,” she said during her 24-hour stay at the Takotna checkpoint. “[…] I don’t think most of us women care. We’re just out here doing what we love to do, you know? And I don’t feel any different or any more special than the guys, honestly.”
Rookie musher Alison Lifka’s take on women on the trail is somewhere in the middle.
“It is really cool that it’s a sport that your gender doesn’t determine your success in it,” she said, “but like they said, we’re just out here doin’ it. We don’t really care whether we’re a guy or a girl, and our dogs don’t care if we’re a guy or a girl.”
At the end of the day, veteran racer Royer said every musher, man or woman, must be mentally tough — advice that also applies to everyday life.
“In all of life, you’re gonna run through storms, you know? Whether here on the trail or just things that happen to you in life, we’re all gonna run into stuff,” she said, “and this race isn’t much different than just life and staying positive.”
As of Friday evening, both Royer and Zirkle were in the top 10 — Royer in fourth, Zirkle in sixth. They and 14 other women continue down the trail, traveled by women before them, headed for Nome.
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