Aliy Zirkle

Two Rivers musher Aliy Zirkle, seen in a file photo, will be starting her 21st and  final Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race this afternoon in Deshka Landing.  

This afternoon, 47 mushers will set off on an Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race that is unlike any race in its nearly half-century history. 

With the traditional ceremonial start in downtown Anchorage due to COVID-19 concerns, mushers will instead head out directly onto the trail from Deshka Landing, a new start venue for the race. Spectators won’t be able to watch the start, but can station themselves out along the trail, so mushers can expect to see some of the typical bonfires and bonhomie as they head out.

The entire race is operating under strict COVID-19 protocols. Mushers, race officials, veterinarians and other necessary personnel have all undergone multiple COVID tests. More tests will be administered along the trail, which has been rerouted to avoid villages along the way.

The trail itself has been shortened to about 860 miles. Instead of going to Nome, mushers will head for the historic village of Iditarod, do a loop around the ghost town of Flat and double back to the finish line at Deshka Landing. 

That’s twice through the Alaska Range, down and back up the Happy River Steps and through the notorious Dalzell Gorge going out as well as coming back. Twelve of the mushers are rookies. 

Several mushers dropped out because of difficulties posed by COVID restrictions on transportation. Veteran Cindy Gallea, who lives in Minnesota, had her dog truck packed and was ready to head to Alaska when border officials refused to let her travel through Canada. She managed to get all of her dogs to an airport and flew them and all her gear up in time for the race. 

Sunday also marks the last time perennial top 10 finisher and fan favorite Aliy Zirkle of Two Rivers will leave the Iditarod starting line. Zirkle announced earlier in the winter that she’s retiring from competitive racing. 

In a retirement letter posted to Zirkle’s SP Kennel website, Zirkle says “I don’t want you to think that I’m just up and quitting. My retirement has not been a quick decision. In truth, I know what it takes to be ultra competitive. I have always raced the Iditarod to win. While the Last Great Race has been a spectacular adventure for me, it has also been physically and mentally demanding: every year, every winter, every day, every mile. And if I’m being honest, at times, I have been challenged to my very core. I know that in the not so distant future, I will not be able to give it my 100%. So, I am retiring before I have to retire.”

Dogs will still be an important part of her life, she says, but she and her husband, three-time Yukon Quest International Sled Dog Race champion Allen Moore want to be able to find some new adventures. 

In her competitive mushing career, Zirkle became the first, and so far only, woman to win the Yukon Quest, which she accomplished in 2000. The following year, she entered her first Iditarod. At the time, she said her goal had been to win the Quest. With that done, she was looking for her next goal, to win the Iditarod. For the past 20 years, that has been her focus. 

She came very close, finishing second three times in a row and in the top 10 several other times. More important, she says, are the awards she received for outstanding dog care -- the Leonhard Seppala Humanitarian Award -- which she has been awarded a record five times. She also brought home numerous other honors over the years and is a role model for many.

Iditarod race marshal Mark Nordman said he is sorry to see Zirkle retire, but expects to see her remain involved in the race in some form. 

“Aliy is the darling of the Iditarod in this age,” he said. “I think she’s looking forward to moving on, but she will still be around the Iditarod.”

The mushers will leave Deshka Landing at 2 p.m. today. 

2021 Iditarod start order

Bib No. 1 is reserved for honorary musher

2. Aaron Peck, Grande Prairie, Alberta

3. Peter Kaiser, Bethel

4. Kristy Berington, Knik

5. Jeremy Traska, Two Rivers

6. Richie Diehl, Aniak

7. Jeff Deeter, Fairbanks

8. Dennis Kananowicz, Tolsona

9. Ramey Smyth, Willow

10. Nicolas Petit, Girdwood

11. Gunnar Johnson, Duluth, Minnesota

12. Hal Hanson, Kenai

13. Anna Berington, Knik

14. Ryne Olson, Two Rivers

15. Brenda Mackey, Two Rivers

16. Riley Dyche, Fairbanks

17. Matt Hall, Two Rivers

18. Chad Stoddard, Anchorage

19. Christopher Parker, Fairbanks

20. Ryan Redington, Skagway

21. Brent Sass, Eureka

22. Joanna Jagow, Fairbanks

23. Dallas Seavey, Talkeetna

24. Jessie Royer, Fairbanks

25. Wade Marrs, Willow

26. Michelle Phillips, Tagish, Yukon

27. Will Troshynski, Fairbanks

28. Mille Porsild, Denmark

29. Matthew Failor, Willow

30. Joshua McNeal, Fairbanks

31. Susannah Tuminelli, Willow

32. Aliy Zirkle, Two Rivers

33. Travis Beals, Seward

34. Martin Buser, Big Lake

35. Sean Williams, Chugiak

36. Aaron Burmeister, Nome/Nenana

37. Cody Strathe, Fairbanks

38. Lev Shvarts, Willow

39. Dakota Schlosser, Willow

40. Dan Kaduce, Chatanika

41. Joar Leifseth Ulsom, Norway

42. Paige Drobney, Cantwell

43. Larry Daugherty, Eagle River

44. Jessie Holmes, Brushkana

45. Rick Casillo, Talkeetna

46. Cindy Gallea, Wykoff, Minnesota

47. Sean Underwood, Talkeetna

48. Victoria Hardwick, Bethel