Fear and Loathing on the Iditarod Trail
Professional musher Aliy Zirkle was prepared for the minus-50-degree temperatures and the brutally long distances of the Iditarod. What she didn't expect was a midnight attack by a snowmobile-riding stranger halfway through the 1,000-mile course.
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A light snow had been falling along the Yukon River on the afternoon of March 11, 2016, but it had stopped and the skies were clearing as night arrived. Aliy Zirkle was deep in the Alaska Interior in a tiny community called Galena. As darkness settled in, she and her dog team pushed off from an old U.S. Air Force forward operating station, a relic of the Cold War, and got back in the hunt to win Alaska’s most famous race, the Iditarod.
Zirkle was running behind the team of Brent Sass, an acquaintance from back home in Fairbanks. More than halfway into the 1,000-mile route from Willow to Nome, Sass was still the race leader, but his dogs were fading and Zirkle knew it. She was more worried about the people behind her. Four past champions were within hours of the lead, with a lot of race left to go. Soon they would hook up their teams to chase Zirkle into the night.
Other than that, Zirkle’s 16th Iditarod was going well. At 47, she was an established and successful veteran. The trails of Alaska were old and familiar territory; she’d spent most of her adult life traveling them. She’d never had a problem.
Little did she know that, before the night was over, she would be in danger of losing her life, and that nothing would ever feel the same again. “I actually get nauseous thinking about going back on the river,’’ she said months later. “Maybe someday I’ll be back to my old self.”
The words had the hollow sound of someone wanting more than believing.
“I haven’t really talked about it,” Zirkle told me during a lengthy conversation that happened late in the long Alaska summer of 2016. For months, she said, she didn’t want to say anything. The memories were too painful, too personal. So she dodged questions and largely avoided the media.
“They all wanted this story, but it was not a story,” she said. “It was my friggin’ life.”
Talking to Zirkle was like talking to a victim of domestic violence. You could feel her wrestling with how to let go of the idea that someone else momentarily took control of her fate. A tough, durable woman in every way, she had difficulty reconciling her own toughness with the fear she experienced that night on the Yukon. “I’ve never felt like this in my life,” she said.
Zirkle believes that what happened was no accident. That, in the dark, a long way from anyone or anything, someone on a snowmobile—what Alaskans call a snowmachine—tried to physically assault her, perhaps with intent to kill. She was cruising down the frozen surface of the broad Yukon when one of the machines came out of nowhere and buzzed her, banged off the side of her team, injured a dog, circled threateningly, and seemed to be stalking her for another charge before slipping away, at least temporarily, into the night.
Zirkle says she doesn’t know who was on the machine that attacked her. She only saw someone heavily dressed in winter gear in the middle of the night. But she is confident from the size, shape, and movement of her assailant that it was a man.
In the immediate aftermath, Zirkle didn’t know what to do. She thought about gee-ing her team off the river and into the woods to hide, but she worried this might make her an easy target. “I was scared,” she said. “I don’t want to shoot a human. But I’d have shot the guy if I’d had a gun.”
Fearing that the man was coming back, she pulled up a marking stake along the trail, sharpened the end with her knife, and decided to stop her team and prepare for what might be a last stand. If the driver returned and came at her, she would crouch in the middle of the dogs, hoping they’d protect her as much as they could. If the man made it through, she would try to drive the stake into him.
Not long after the initial incident, another roaring snowmobile approached. Adrenalin pumping, Zirkle prepared for battle. “I was really going to hurt someone,” she said, “but it wasn’t him.”
The second rider was a friendly man named Mike. (Zirkle didn’t get his last name.) She asked him to drive ahead to the village of Nulato, some 20 to 25 miles down the trail, and ask for help. She expected that help to arrive shortly, but it never came. “He didn’t talk to the right people, I guess,” Zirkle said.
Minutes passed and became tens of minutes, as Zirkle’s team pushed on for the next Iditarod checkpoint. Zirkle worried that her tormenter might return, which he did.
“He came back again and tried to hit me,” she said. Then he roared off and she didn’t see him again.
Shocked and terrified, Zirkle couldn’t believe what was happening. She was shaken when she reached the village of Nulato. She would continue the race, but it was not easy.
She’d almost always felt safe in the wilds of Alaska, in the bubble of being a celebrated musher. During our conversation, she suggested that what happened was an example of Alaska’s sometimes violent rural culture spilling over into the event.
“I’ve stomped through some villages in my time,’’ she said. “I’m not unfamiliar with what is going on out there. I bought dogs in Koyukuk in ’94- ’95. It was the biggest drunkfest in the world. I know what goes on.”
But she felt protected by her Iditarod status. A fan favorite in the north, Zirkle has yet to win the race, but she’s come in second three times. She’s the potential heir to the traditions of the late Susan Butcher, a four-time champ, and Libby Riddles, the first woman to break through and win, in 1985.
“I couldn’t believe this was happening to me,” Zirkle said. “If it’s happening to me, what about others? That’s screwed up, I know. I’m in such a state. I still am.
“I have got to deal with some issues,” she said. “It’s sad what he stole from me.”
Popularly portrayed as an idyllic vestige of an earlier time when Native Americans lived peacefully off the land, rural Alaska is in reality a place plagued with crime. Almost none of it is organized. Almost all of it stems from outbursts by people who just lose control. Alcohol often plays a part. Usually the incidents are driven by anger. Sometimes the reason for the anger is hard to define, sometimes not.
After two Alaska State Troopers were shot dead in the Yukon River village of Tanana in 2014, local residents described the shooter, 19-year-old Nathanial Lee Kangas, as “a ticking time-bomb” waiting to go off. He was fueled, they said, by a hatred of government and outside influences that his father convinced him were destroying village life. The high rate of suicides, the problems of alcohol, even the cash economy that reminds villages of what they don’t have, were seen as evils brought by white men.
The Tanana attack was unprecedented. Never before had a Native villager killed a trooper. Historically, village crime has only involved the people in the villages, and that is still largely the case.
Years ago, Otwin Marenin, a researcher at the University of Alaska Anchorage Justice Center, examined crimes in five Alaskan villages that happened between 1985 and 1990. He found that “only one of the criminal incidents … occurred between strangers. The rest occurred between family members, boy and girl friends, or friends (47 percent), or involved others known to the victim (33 percent).”
Experts on Alaska agree that village crime is seriously underreported, and yet the overall village crime rate is staggering. Assaults on women can happen at 12 times the national average, domestic violence is 10 times the average. Alaska is, overall, a rough place, but rural Alaska is violent even by Alaskan standards. In 2014, over 51 percent of all people living in rural areas were victims of violent crimes. And Anchorage is not particularly safe. Its violent crime rate is estimated to be 287 percent above the national average.
Given the frequency of village crime, many have spoken out about the problem over the years. “We should be outraged by this,” Jody Potts, an Athabaskan from the Yukon River village of Eagle, and now a Village Public Safety Officer (VPSO) coordinator in Fairbanks, said in a speech at the convention of the Alaska Federation of Natives. “Drug and alcohol abuse and violence have become the norm. I know as a people we can be better than this.”
Sadly, Alaskans have been saying that for decades. Marenin, now a professor at the University of Washington, reported village crime rates well above the Alaska average back in 1991. By 2012, the problem was bad enough that the federal Indian Law and Order Commission, a group organized by Congress in 2014 to look at the problems faced by indigenous Americans, labeled rural Alaska’s safety and justice systems the worst in the nation.
In 1977, Lloyd Weinreb, a professor from Harvard Law School, recommended that a constable regularly visit every village in Alaska at least once or twice a month, without a display of force, to enable people to seek him out. According to Weinreb, “[t]his is essential if the constable’s presence is to be sought and accepted.” The same sentiment was expressed in the original design of the VPSO program, which included stationing two additional state troopers in each regional hub, with the sole duties of VPSO oversight and support.
None of that happened, something for which the state of Alaska is regularly blamed. A lot of people in rural Alaska believe a political structure dominated by urban areas—Anchorage and the bedroom communities of the nearby Matanuska-Susitna Borough alone comprise 55 percent of the state’s population—just don’t care about the people living in outlying places.
There is some truth to the accusation. The state splits along a difficult rural-urban divide, reinforced in part by a federal “subsistence” law that gives rural residents a hunting and fishing priority. Natives are allowed hunting and fishing opportunities unavailable to Alaskans living along the road system. Many find that unfair in a state where almost everyone engages in hunting and fishing for food and recreation.
As a result, there are those whose reaction to the problems of rural Alaska is simple: “Fine. If they want to live off the land, let them live off the land. Why should we support them?”
But without support, rural Alaska is helpless. It is an area the size of Texas, with basically no tax base. There are no local revenues to fund law enforcement. The region faces problems similar to those of dying small towns all across the U.S., but on a far bigger scale. Alaska villages are remote and unconnected. Most can be reached quickly only by airplane. And, given Alaska’s severe weather, the planes can’t always fly.
The rural crime problem is difficult to solve, and in hindsight, it was obvious to many that it might spill over into the Iditarod. It already had long before Zirkle’s life was turned upside down. During the 2008 race, two back-of-the-pack dog teams were hit—and one dog was killed—by a snowmobiler. The mushers involved said the driver was drunk, but no charges were filed. The incident was considered an accident.
Not long after Zirkle was assaulted in March of 2016, there was another violent incident on the Yukon River. A snowmobile speeding toward Nulato slammed into the dog team of four-time Iditarod champion Jeff King. The collision killed a three-year-old dog named Nash and injured two others. The impact knocked the cowling off the snowmobile. The driver kept going and disappeared.
King picked up the part and loaded it into his sled with the body of Nash and the two injured dogs, and then carried everything to Nulato. It didn’t take much sleuthing to match the cowling, a snowmobile’s version of an automobile hood, to a Nulato Ski-doo that was missing this very obvious component. It belonged to a 26-year-old local named Arnold Demoski. Alaska State Troopers quickly arrested him.
Demoski soon confessed. In interviews with reporters in Nulato, one of them taped for TV, he apologized for hitting King’s team and for killing Nash. “It wasn’t intentional,” he told Anchorage TV station KTUU. “That’s not me. I don’t do stuff like that.”
The details he provided varied, in confusing ways. In one version of events, he said he was in an alcohol blackout that night and remembered nothing until he woke up the next morning, saw that his snowmobile was damaged, heard everyone in the village talking about dog teams being run down, and put the pieces together.
In another version, he claimed to remember having nearly missed Zirkle that same night. He said he circled back to see if she was OK, only to decide he might get in trouble if he stopped to talk to her.
Demoski later lawyered up and wouldn’t talk. His attorney, Jeff Wildridge of Fairbanks, didn’t speak much, but did say it was hard for him to reconcile the man he knew with the man Zirkle described. Wildridge began discussions with the state on a plea deal, though almost everyone who knew Demoski said the attack on Zirkle just didn’t sound like something he would do. “I’ve known Arnold since he was little,” said Nulato resident Bob Ruzicka. “It’s not in his character.”
A Franciscan Friar, Ruzicka is known far and wide along the river as “Brother Bob.” He has spent a large part of his adult life in the Nulato area. The mysterious, violent man that Zirkle describes, he said, is “not the person I know as Arnold. He’s a very respectful kid.”
Some in Nulato wondered if perhaps the snowmobile rider who attacked Zirkle was someone other than Demoski. But Demoski eventually took responsibility, despite the earlier claim he was in alcohol blackout and couldn’t remember anything.
Finally, after negotiations between his attorney and the state, the 27-year-old agreed to plead guilty to felony criminal mischief and misdemeanor charges of assault, reckless endangerment. and driving under the influence.
In a Fairbanks court room, he tearfully apologized to Zirkle before being sentenced to six months in jail, fined $1,500, and ordered to pay King $26,159 in restitution for the dead dog and as compensation for veterinary bills.
Many in Alaska thought the sentence too light, and some in rural Alaska questioned whether the authorities had really caught the right man. Zirkle readily admitted she didn’t know who was on the machine that attacked her. “Could it have been a different person?” she said. “Yeah, but it was the same snowmachine. I know exactly what the snowmachine looked like. I could easily I.D. the snowmachine.”
The snowmobile in question was rather unusual—a white and black Ski-doo Tundra LT. Most of those machines are yellow and black. But Nulato villagers said Demoski’s white Tundra is not the only one in the area. There is another, they said, which belongs to a resident of the village of Koyukuk. Koyukuk is where the Zirkle story began. Demoski is known to have attended a big, alcohol-fueled party there on the night Zirkle and King were run down.
About 30 miles west of Galena, at the junction of the Yukon and Koyukuk Rivers, Koyukuk has long been the setting for a boozy blowout that happens during the Iditarod. The late Donald Bowers Jr., in his definitive 1996 guide to the Iditarod Trail, said this of the community: “There is a liquor store at the northwest corner of the bend [near Koyukuk] that is frequented by villagers from up and down the river. Unfortunately, you may have to watch for discarded bottles and cans and inebriated snowmachiners.”
It’s possible Demoski got drunk there and drove his machine the 25 miles home from to Nulato in a stupor. And it’s possible he later made up or adopted the story about a close encounter with Zirkle, and how he stopped to check that she was OK and then decided to split.
It’s equally possible he tried to intentionally run her down, as she believes and as he admitted to before a judge. But there is a long history of young Native men admitting to things they didn’t do.
Almost a year to the day before the Demoski sentencing, four such men—now famous in Alaska as the “Fairbanks Four”—were freed from prison after having spent almost two decades in a jail for a murder they now say they didn’t commit. Two of the four had originally confessed to murder and then implicated their friends. There was little evidence they’d done the crime, and they later recanted. But the Alaska Innocence Project had to wage a long, difficult battle to get them out of prison.
Demoski still isn’t talking about that night on the river. Both he and Zirkle are trying to move on. He has gone back to his new wife and their baby in Nulato.
Zirkle has immersed herself in a new cooperative program with the Alaska Network on Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault that aims to turn the tide of those problems in rural Alaska. The effort is being funded by Matson, a Hawaii-based barge and shipping company that also sponsors Zirkle’s dog team.
According to a report by Alaska troopers, Zirkle was about five miles downriver from Koyukuk, headed for Nulato, when her sled was initially hit on “the side by a snowmachine and the snowmachine turned around multiple times and came back at her before driving off.”
The report said the machine then went downriver but later returned and approached Zirkle again, about 12 miles out of Nulato. The account is not consistent with Demoski simply driving home from Kokuyuk to Nulato in a drunken stupor.
On the second encounter with Zirkle, the official version says, the snowmobile aimed its headlight at her and revved its engine, but left without further harassment. Not long after, troopers say the machine hit King’s team from behind, killing Nash and injuring five other dogs, two seriously.
The Yukon at the point of the King collision is about a half-mile wide. There was, as King has observed, plenty of room for a snowmobile to maneuver around a dog team, but the situation is not quite that simple.
The Iditarod Trail along the river is only a few feet wide in places. People, whether on a snowmobile or on foot in the wilderness, have an inherent affinity for trails. They are reluctant to leave them unless forced to do so.
The possibility of an accident, however, was an idea that neither Iditarod fans nor those associated with the race were willing to accept. Nulato teacher Amy Graham saw in this idea not only hints of the rural-urban divide but specter of lingering race issues. “Funny how we don’t see any indigenous people commenting or condemning this man,’’ she wrote on the Facebook page of Alaska Mushing news. “And why is no one pointing fingers at ITC (the Iditarod Trail Committee)?
“It’s their f—— race!!! ITC could have done way more to help Aliy by far. I know. I was there. … But it doesn’t matter, because I know none of you will ever come into the Interior and do anything for anybody.”
Graham is an African-American who grew up in Minnesota. An Iditarod fan who’s working toward the goal of someday running the race, she said she posted in a fit of anger—but not without foundation. She admits to being troubled by the way the Iditarod swoops into a village and imposes itself. Villagers get pushed aside; celebrated mushers are often too busy to talk to them. It’s easy to see how villagers could resent the race, maybe more than a little.
What happened to Zirkle and King was not really new. They were not even the first to be hit near Koyukuk, home to about 100 people and the Last Chance Liquor Store, which Bowers mentions but does not identify in his trail guide. There are those who would like to blame the Last Chance for what happened, but there is no real reason to believe closing the liquor story would change things in a dramatic way.
Alaska has many so-called “dry villages” where liquor is banned, and some “damp villages” where it can be consumed but not bought or sold. Nulato is one of the latter. But the ban on liquor doesn’t mean a ban on alcohol. Where liquor is banned, homebrew seems to flourish.
In 2014, CNN’s John Sutter went to the dry village of Nunam Iqua, near the mouth of the Yukon, and later wrote a lengthy story about what he called “The lawless ‘end of the land.’ ” Nunam is a dry community, home to about 200 people. “Possessing, selling and importing alcohol are illegal here in a ‘dry’ village that, from what I heard, is wet as the sea,” Sutter wrote. “Locals make ‘home brew’ alcohol in large plastic buckets, often consuming the whole vat in one sitting. Recipe: water, sugar and yeast. Let stand for 24 hours.”
The situation he describes is not unique to Nunam. The home brew problem is so severe that some villages have tried to ban yeast. Alcohol and alcohol abuse are much-debated topics in Alaska. There are those who would like to see prohibition, and some who argue it is better to make commercially produced liquor available than to continue to push people into drinking homebrew that might be toxic. People die in Alaska almost every winter from drinking the stuff.
Whether the alcohol is homemade or store-bought, it is and has been a problem for the Iditarod, as a pair of Minnesotans found out in 2008. Iditarod veteran Blake Freking, from Finland, Minnesota, and his wife Jennifer, an Iditarod rookie, were stopped that year just off the trail near Koyukuk, when a speeding snowmobile barely missed Jennifer and slammed into both their teams.
The driver, Blake said in an interview, was a school teacher from Galena headed home from the Koyukuk party. Nulato, unfortunately, would be implicated in that Freking dog deaths, too, simply because it was the first Iditarod checkpoint the Frekings reached after the accident. They were carrying one dead dog and an injured dog that died later during surgery.
“I still think about it all the time,’’ Blake said in a fall 2016 interview. “It was right where the Koyukuk dumps into the Yukon. We were on the Galena side,’’ only five or 10 miles from where Zirkle had her first encounter with a snowmobile. The Frekings had pulled off the trail to feed their dogs. They saw the light of the snowmobile coming from the west and at first paid it little attention.
“We’d just stopped,” Blake said. “He was a long way down river, and then bang! He was on us. Jen was feeding in front of the dogs. He probably just missed her by two feet.”
The snowmobile slammed into Jen’s team. The skis went under the gangline and pulled her dogs back into Blake’s. The two teams stopped the snowmobile the way arresting lines on an aircraft carrier snag a landing jet. The Frekings were in shock. The snowmobiler, whose sled tipped over after the collision, was angry.
“The gangline was totally wrapped around his snowmobile,” Freking said. “He was so shit-faced he was just blathering. His girlfriend [a passenger on the snowmobile] was trying to calm him down. I sometimes wonder how he feels about it now.
“It was a nightmare,” Blake said.
“We did a lot of crying,” Jen added. “It’s amazing more dogs weren’t hurt.”
Jennifer never returned to the Iditarod. Blake ran again in 2010, but then stopped. Both say they’d like to come back, but it’s clear what happened almost a decade ago still haunts them both.
Ever since the Iditarod began in 1973, there has been the belief that someone would eventually die in the 1,000-mile race. It hasn’t happened, but there have been close calls.
Many have been seriously frostbitten. A few have been dangerously hypothermic. Iditarod veteran Hugh Neff claimed he nearly died on the ice of Golovin Bay in 2014 after his team quit, and he had to spend a night out in a storm squeezed into an undersize sled bag.
King and his team were blown off the trail along the Bering Sea coast the same year, and he barely made it a checkpoint in a remote roadhouse near Nome, aptly named Safety. Zirkle fought through a storm to reach that outpost as well, only to lose a race she appeared set to win.
Nature is dangerous in Alaska, but there are growing reasons to believe that if a musher dies in a future Iditarod, it will more likely be due to the actions of fellow humans than of mother nature. The snowmobiles that have proven a great blessing for rural Alaska have become something of a curse for Alaska’s biggest sporting event. Almost every musher on the trail has a story of a too-close encounter with a snowmobile. They are so common, Freking said, that mushers and the dogs sort of just get used it.
In 2008, 53-year-old Anchorage pediatrician Dr. Roger Gollub was mushing a sled dog team for the first time near the village of Kotzebue, north of Nome, when he and the team were hit by a speeding snowmobile. Kotzebue musher Tracey Schaeffer, whose team Gollub was driving, was in the sled basket at the time of the crash and suffered serious injuries. Gollub died.
As with Zirkle and King, the collision happened at night. The driver, 22-year-old Patrick Tickett, had been drinking and doing drugs. He was charged with second-degree murder. His lawyer argued the collision was an accident that couldn’t be avoided. But Tickett was convicted of manslaughter and sent to prison.
For Demoski, there is hope. He completed a 45-day-alcohol treatment program before his December sentencing. Zirkle she checked to make sure he stayed in. She has no sympathy for him, she said.
“I know what he did,” she said. “I don’t want to know [what he says], because in all truthfulness, I know what happened.”
Maybe, somebody she said, she will have more compassion. She understands the different roads life leads people down because she can, in some ways, empathize with Demoski even if she has no sympathy for him. “I could be a crackhead in North Dakota,” she said.
She’s known tough times. She hopes Demoski can build himself a better life. But for now, well, the emotional scars are still too fresh to forgive and forget. “I’m not there,” Zirkle said. “I don’t know. I don’t know what to say about that.”