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Class of ’92

A Mush With Greatness

When February comes to Fairbanks, and temperatures dip to 40 below, or colder, it would seem the time to hunker indoors and wait for Alaska to thaw. But Aliy Zirkle C’92 does the opposite, setting out on her dog sled for a 1,000-mile journey.
This year, on February 25–11 days, 19 hours and 21 minutes after their start–she and her dogs arrived in Whitehorse, Canada, placing fourth in the 1999 Yukon Quest. Not only was hers the best finish by a female musher, but her kennel’s "B" team came in 10th, for the best-ever performance of a kennel in this race. Nicknamed "Arctic Zirkle" by the press, she also won the "Challenge of the North" award, selected as the musher who best embodies the spirit of the race.
Among the family members proudly following her progress on the trail via the Internet were her grandfather, Robert McDonald W’40; grandmother, Lorraine McDonald CW’40; aunt, Sally McDonald W’84; and uncle, Bob McDonald WG’92.
Sally McDonald, who has more frequent access to e-mail than her northern niece, explains that before graduating from Penn with a double major in anthropology and the biological basis of behavior, Zirkle spent one summer as a volunteer research assistant for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in the Alaska Peninsula National Wildlife Refuge. She was taken with Alaska and returned to work for the service, tagging and tracking wolves and moose while living in a town of 35 people above the Arctic Circle. Tired of traveling by snowmobile, she eventually switched to a dog sled, and before long, became hooked on competitive mushing.
The grueling Yukon Quest is not for the weak of heart, or poor of circulation, with temperatures ranging from 30 degrees above zero to 80 below on the trail. Daylight makes brief appearances during Alaska’s winter, so Zirkle wears a miner’s light to see what’s ahead. Such equipment is useless, however, in a whiteout, which she experienced while traveling over a mountain during her 1998 race.
Zirkle now lives in Two Rivers, outside Fairbanks, with a kennel of about 40 dogs which she breeds, raises and trains for races; in the off-season she rewards them with leisurely camping trips. The kennel is named Skunk’s Place after her retired lead dog, whose markings resemble a skunk’s.
Zirkle supplements her modest prize income by conducting camping tours and waiting tables. Resuming training this fall, she hopes to find sponsors to help meet the expense of feeding and caring for her dogs: they eat 11 tons of food a year. She can be contacted by e-mail at <aliyzirkle@aol.com>.

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