[box_light]FairbanksAlaska.com is following Allen Moore’s team from Skunk’s Place (SP) Kennel in Two Rivers as they train for and run the 2013 Yukon Quest International Sled Dog Race. Allen operates a professional sled dog kennel with his wife Aliy Zirkle, veteran musher who, in 2000, became the first woman to ever win the Quest. Allen’s team placed second in 2012, just 26 seconds behind the champion. We’ll keep you up to date on Allen’s progress with his team from now until the start of the race with updates about his finish in preliminary races and his final preparations as the Quest draws near. Then, we’ll catch up with Allen soon after the Quest and share the behind-the-scenes stories of how his team fared on the trail.[/box_light]
As you read this Allen Moore is hard at work, likely at SP Kennel in Two Rivers. Otherwise, he’s lifting weights as his morning workout (the stuff of legend to his rivals), mushing across fifty miles of unbroken backcountry in the White Mountains, or sprinting toward a finish line in a half dozen competitive runs between now and the Yukon Quest International Sled Dog Race, which starts in Whitehorse on February 2nd, 2013. Last year, Allen and his team came within 26 seconds of winning the Yukon Quest, one of the toughest sled dog races in the world. Allen was in the lead for much of the second half before jockeying for position in the final few miles with Hugh Neff, whose dogs pulled ahead just in time for the finish line.
.. now we’re 400 yards from the finish line, and he’s just right there in front of me,” Allen describes of that day. “He’s closer than 26 seconds. And we’re on the river and the banks go up like this and we’re right beside the bank and there’s a watery stretch right in the trail. His dogs get to it, they don’t want to go across it, they go right up the bank and stop. I can see the finish line, all I’ve got to do is go around him and win.
So I tell my dogs ‘Haw’, left, go around him, and mine go right up the bank. Now we’re both up the side of the bank with 400 yards to go, this far apart. Stopped. He’s off his sled running up to get ahold of his leaders so he can pull them back down and get on the trail. Of course in hindsight, if I would have just got off my sled to start with and pulled them across this water, then I would have won easily. Instead, I just give them a command and they all went up there with his. So after all that, it came down to that.
To win (or lose) by such a slim margin is unheard of in long distance races, and was the closest finish ever recorded in the Yukon Quest, but Allen laughs about it now. When asked to describe his reasons for running again on his official registration form for the 2013 race, he answers:
“Make up 26 seconds.”
The Yukon Quest is a 1,000-mile race on the frozen river routes used by pioneers to deliver mail and dry goods between Whitehorse, Dawson City, and Fairbanks. Allen says it’s the toughest race of his season. “Darkness, for one,” he laments from his kitchen table in a three-story log home that overlooks a tidy dog yard where dozens of Alaskan huskies excitedly strain against their chains and hop atop wooden houses. “It’s a lot darker in the Quest, more so than most races. It’s colder. Two years ago, it was 60 below for at least the last third of the race. The checkpoints are farther apart so you have to carry a lot more supplies with you and you have to camp out a lot more than in the Iditarod.”
This year, Allen and the Black Team will run up against the nearly 3,000-ft. vertical climb to Eagle Summit, just 169 miles from the race finish in Fairbanks. The mountain pass will stand as a formidable barrier during the final leg of the race with the potential to shake up the standings just a day or two from the conclusion. Allen says the most difficult years to run the Quest are those in which it travels from Whitehorse to Fairbanks because of this impossible stretch of trail.
There are more risks on a 1,000-mile run in early February than any musher or fan would care to dream about. Bragging rights and a purse payout ($100,000 in 2013, split between the top 15 finishers) are at stake, but the money is rarely a musher’s true motivation. “You don’t do it for the prize money,” Allen admits while walking through the dog yard and tossing yellow balls of “dog sherbet” (a scoop of frozen poultry fat) to his teammates.
To put the purse winnings into perspective, each attempt at the Yukon Quest is estimated to cost a musher at least $9,500 in race-related expenses. At SP Kennel, the thirty-eight athletes in the dog yard chow down nine tons of kibble from Eagle Pack (a major sponsor) each year. The kennel also pays race fees, buys countless booties, and purchases ointments or medicines for dogs that need extra care.
Allen isn’t in mushing to become rich. On the contrary, his very first days in a dog yard were a labor of love, and that frame of mind has persisted as his success in mushing has increased. First introduced to sled dogs by his daughters when they took to the sport at the age of seven, he supported their interest by buying and training dogs, a trend which continued as his daughters grew.
Before you know it, you’ve got 16 dogs and [my daughters] leave, and I’m still doing it.
Allen, shaking his head
Mushing remains a family affair, as Allen and Aliy operate SP Kennel together on ten acres in Two Rivers and run alongside (and against) one another in mid- and long-distance races. Aliy runs the Red Team while Allen runs the Black Team, but all SP dogs are interchangeable between them.
Allen has completed six Iditarods and ran his first Yukon Quest in 2011, finishing 6th that year in a tough race plagued by harsh weather. He was awarded the Sportsmanship Award from both the Yukon Quest and the Iditarod in 2011, partly for his assistance to a fellow musher who was suffering from dehydration. Allen strapped her sled to his and safely transported the musher and her team forty miles down the trail to the next checkpoint.
This year, the Black Team will match up against familiar competitors and aim to close any gap between them and a top finish.
I would like to beat [Hugh] by 26 seconds, going this way, Allen jokes. But there are others, it’s not just Hugh. Lance [Mackey] could always be there, Brent [Sass] could always be there. Scott Smith, it’s the first time he’s ever run it but he’s done very well in other races. Jake Berkowitz came in fourth last year in the Quest so he could do very well, also.
It’s still early to know which dogs will run with the Black Team during this year’s Quest, but the leader has already been decided. Her name is Quito. “It’s actually ‘Poquito,’ (which translates from Spanish to little bit) but we shorten it,” Allen says. “The last two years, she’s finished with me on the Quest and [Aliy] on the Iditarod, back to back”
Allen’s primary job between now and race time is to prepare himself and his team. This means rigorous physical exercise and mental exertion to mimic the most challenging stretches of trail that the Black Team will encounter in the months ahead.
“We try to get in the best shape we can get in so when we get in those situations, it’s not going to exhaust you to the point that you can’t do anything,” Allen says.
[box_light]FairbanksAlaska.com will check back in with Allen and the Black Team in the thick of racing season and as they approach the start line in Whitehorse. You can learn more about the kennel and teams (or sponsor a sled dog) on the SP Kennel blog.[/box_light]
Read Part II here: Ready & Waiting
Photos by: Ronn Murray Photography