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March 09. 2014 2:45PM

NH native leads field in Iditarod sled dog race in Alaska

Two hours before the sun rose in Shaktoolik, a village of 251 people on the Bering Strait in western Alaska, Nashua native Aliy Zirkle hitched her 11-dog team and headed her sled out over Alaska's snow-covered wilderness as the leader in Alaska's famed Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race.

Zirkle took the lead in the race of more than 1,100 miles on Saturday, about 12 miles before leading the field into the checkpoint of Unalakleet at 4:39 p.m. Saturday.

After a rest period of 3 hours 21 minutes, Zirkle, who lived in Merrimack until she was 8, sent her team mushing out of Shaktoolik, toward the next checkpoint, some 48 miles away at Koyuk, which is located on a river inlet from Norton Sound, beneath the Bering Strait.

It was not until she was bearing down on the Unalakleet checkpoint Saturday that Zirklem 44, knew she had taken the lead.

"I didn't know until eight miles ago that Martin (Buser) wasn't ahead of me," Zirkle said after reaching the checkpoint that marks the race's departure from the Yukon River and arrival on the Norton Sound coast. Buser is a four-time winner of the race.

"I finally asked a four-wheeler guy, I said, 'How far ahead is Martin?' He goes, 'Martin's not ahead of you.' I was like, 'Wait a minute, what?,'" she said.

As the first musher to reach Unalakleet, Zirkle won the race's Gold Coast Award, which includes $2,500 worth of gold nuggets. She finished second in the last two races and would be the third woman to win the race.

The next checkpoint in the race, the village of Koyuk, represents the beginning of the all-land, 173-mile, four-checkpoint run to the end of the race in Nome.

Also in the race is Mike Ellis, a Massachusetts native who attended Plymouth State College and spent a quarter century in New Hampshire before moving to Alaska in 2007. He was listed in 42nd place Sunday morning.

Zirkle graduated from Pennsylvania State University and lived in Missouri and Puerto Rico before moving to Alaska to work for the United States Fish and Wildlife Service in 1990.


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