2011 Iditarod

2011 Iditarod, Aliy Zirkle, Alaska Photography

I came all the way to Alaska to find a level playing field.

There isn’t a Men’s Iditarod and a Women’s Iditarod. There is just the  Iditarod.

The Iditarod is one very long, 1,049 mile, sled dog race that starts in Anchorage and ends in Nome with 22 check points that are so remote they can only be reached by snow machines and small planes. The Iditarod trail runs along and across rivers, over the Alaska range into a 200 foot deep gorge and ends with a breathtakingly scary run into Nome along the coastal ice where the wind, snow and cold are legendary. Mushers do everything alone. No help.

Two women have won the Iditarod, Libby Riddles in 1985 and Susan Butcher in 1986. She went on to become the first four-time winner. This year, 26 of the 86 mushers in the Iditarod are women, several having placed in the top five many times. They’re not tokens or novelties, not a GoDaddy promoter in the bunch.

An experienced woman musher told me today that there was never talk of gender-based races. She said it’s the Alaska way that if a person qualifies for something, they can do it. She said it was part of the frontier mentality. I thought about this. And I envied it. I wished I had found a frontier when I was younger.

Instead of facing what I thought was the inevitability of male dominance, of having to choose to struggle or acquiesce, I could have just competed. I could have trained my dogs, packed my sled, put on my parka and flown off across the snow. I could have sped along through the wilderness without asking, arguing, negotiating or apologizing. The cleanliness of it seems unbelievable to me. Life so streamlined.

I guess what I’m saying is this: Today I saw a unicorn and I wish it wasn’t just one of a kind.