THE TRAIL was quiet. There was little wind to disturb the silence deep in the woods of Alaska’s interior. A single beam of light cut into the sub-Arctic darkness as Allen Moore’s headlight bobbed its way through dense pine forest. Hours ahead of the other mushers, he was making good time as he neared the Yukon Quest’s 500-mile halfway point in Dawson City, Yukon, Canada.
He was just one more run, maybe five hours away, from a hot shower and a warm bed in Dawson City, but his team was tired. Alaskan huskies are well adapted to the cold with double fur coats and hearty spirits, but in these extreme temperatures, they wear down jackets and fleece shirts to protect them from the chill. Allen, too, was bundled up. Layers of down and GORE-TEX protected him from the elements, and beaver-fur mitts shielded his hands from frostbite.
Even so, the cold was brutal, almost cruel. Mushers don’t carry thermometers—knowing how cold it is is only useful to a point—but Allen estimated it was colder than 50 below. At such temperatures, each movement is difficult, labored. It clouds thoughts and judgment, slowing the mind to a glacial creep. He’d slept only 1 1/2 hours in the past three days, and the sleep deprivation had begun to eat at the corners of his mind. Strange sounds and whispers emerged from the otherwise silent forest.
By the time he prepared to make camp on the frozen waterway of Birch Creek, it was early, maybe 1 or 2 a.m. The aurora borealis danced faintly overhead. After bedding his 14 Alaskan huskies down on a thin layer of insulating straw and feeding them frozen steaks and bits of salmon, Allen crawled into his sleeping bag for some rest. While he wouldn’t sleep—the frigid temperatures and thin foam pad he depended on for insulation would prevent any meaningful slumber—he would close his eyes and listen to the sound of snoozing huskies and try not to shiver.
This might seem a strange place to find a self-proclaimed redneck from northeast Arkansas, but Allen felt right at home.
ALLEN MOORE, sometimes referred to as The Southern Gentleman of Mushing, is an accomplished musher. He has run in the prestigious Iditarod nine times and its tougher 1,000-mile cousin the Yukon Quest eight times, crossing the finish line first for three of those. This puts him in an elite class of musher, of whom maybe two or three might run both the Yukon Quest and the Iditarod in any given year.
Sixty-year-old Allen is tall and lean—evidence of his past as a point guard. He has gray hair that’s cropped short and, depending on the weather, is typically buried under some combination of a ball cap, beanie or fur papakha. His gray horseshoe mustache is neat and trimmed, though more often than not, completely frosty. He has—or, had—bushy gray eyebrows to match. During his last race, his eyebrows got so heavy with frost and snow, he had his daughter clip them.
He was born in Manila, Arkansas, a small town in Mississippi County west of Blytheville with a population that hovers around 3,000. Growing up at the end of a long dirt road in the wooded, rural area that makes up most of the state’s northeast corner, he fell in love with wildlife and spent as much time outside as possible. When he was in the first grade, his mother moved him and his family to Anchorage for a year after an abrupt career change. He’d never seen snow before, and the mountains surrounding Anchorage dwarfed the rolling hills of his childhood. Memories of glaciers, snow and the northern lights followed him back to Arkansas when his family returned a year later, and he knew he wanted to go back.
Allen earned a degree in wildlife management from Arkansas State University and played point guard for the Red Wolves. After graduating, he worked for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and did some construction work. He loved being outside and working with animals, but he couldn’t stand the oppressive heat and humidity of Arkansas summers.
“Ain’t nothin’ worse than bein’ on a roof with a heat index of 110,” he jokes. “At a certain point, you can’t take anything else off.”
His work involved long, hot days tagging ducks and counting deer. In the stifling heat, his thoughts turned increasingly to Alaska. In July 1990, he’d had more than enough of the heat. He sold almost everything he owned and packed the rest of his possessions into his truck, along with his two young daughters, Bridgett and Jennifer, and drove to Fairbanks, Alaska. He remembers it being over 100 degrees as they departed for the Great White North. He started working with Fish and Wildlife just outside of Fairbanks, enjoying the cooler climes. His daughters, too, fit right into the Alaskan way of life.
“I was looking for these wild spaces, this seclusion. That’s what attracted me originally,” he says. “It’s similar in Arkansas, I think. Lots of land and no one to bug you.”
One day while walking through town with his daughters, they stumbled upon a children’s race at the local mushing racetrack. Kids tottered on small sleds attached to just one dog and raced around a snowy track. His daughters were immediately transfixed.
Allen bought his daughters a single Alaskan husky. Not long after that, they upgraded to a larger sled and two huskies, and Allen began racing and training alongside his daughters. Soon, he was running his first 100-mile race with a full team of 12 dogs. Then a year later, he competed in his first 300-mile race with a full team of 14 dogs.
While working with wildlife, he met fellow biologist Aliy Zirkle, also an accomplished musher. They connected through their mutual love of mushing and eventually married.
The couple began building and selling houses—one every summer—and used the money to run dogs all winter long. Aliy was incredibly competitive, a college athlete herself who was invited to throw the hammer in the 1992 U.S. Olympic trials. She first ran the 1,000 mile Iditarod sled dog race in 2001 and has run it every year since then.
Allen began racing 1,000-mile races in 2007, beginning with the Iditarod and moving on to the Yukon Quest in 2011. Eventually, his and Aliy’s success earned them the support of several sponsors, enabling them to raise dogs and race full time.
The majority of mushers cobble together gigs guiding on glaciers, running tours and racing to cover the costs of running a kennel. The couple’s ability to focus on racing is a competitive advantage, as well as a dream.
“Here we are, running dogs for a living. We were able to turn a passion into a vocation. That’s everyone’s dream,” Allen says. “You can’t beat it.”
FOUR DAYS later, it was relatively warm, a balmy 12 degrees above zero, the warmest temperature yet. Though it was almost 8 a.m., it was still completely dark. Snow fell in large, sticky flakes like ticker tape. A small crowd gathered in Whitehorse, Canada, at the Yukon Quest’s finish line.
Allen’s daughter Bridgett paced nervously at the finish line, fumbling with her phone in the cold to face-time with Aliy, who was back in Fairbanks. Moore’s tracker had stopped working for a brief period, giving the appearance that he had stopped just short of the finish line, and his wife and daughter were concerned.
“We were kind of freaking out for a minute there,” Bridgett says. “We were like, What’s going on? Where is he?”
The crowd was quiet, listening for the jingle of a harness or the swish of sled runners in the snow to signal Allen’s approach.
A faint glow blossomed in the distance. Then the patter of dog paws in the snow heralded the arrival of Allen and his team. Fourteen dogs, panting through frosted whiskers and snow-covered coats, charged across the finish line to enthusiastic applause. Bridgett enveloped Allen in a snowy hug as handlers fed frozen salmon steaks to the exhausted, but still excited, canines. Allen, too, was smiling through his own snowy whiskers as he hopped off his sled to nuzzle and thank each of his dogs individually.
For the third time, that self-proclaimed redneck from Arkansas had won the Yukon Quest.
“Well, that was pretty tough,” he says as a wide grin split his frosty face.
He turned to reward his two lead dogs, a pair of brothers named Dutch and Commando, with gourmet steaks for their performance. Usually so obedient, they couldn’t help but try to jump into his lap and lick at his mustache. He nuzzled them affectionately, running a hand over their perky sable ears. In mushing, it’s common to “drop” a dog, leaving it with a team of vets so that it’s not running anymore if it is showing signs of injury. Allen completed the Quest with all of his dogs—the mushing equivalent of pitching a perfect game in the World Series. It just isn’t done.
“It’s not like a pet. … It’s special,” he says. “It’s like you and your dogs. … You’re the same. You eat together; you sleep together. … They know what you’re thinking and feeling, and vice versa. There’s really nothing like it.”
It’s always strange to hear a familiar Arkansas accent emanating from the woolly parka-clad exterior of a musher, but also strangely right. It’s his love of the outdoors and of animals that compelled Allen to pursue this strange and all-consuming sport. If Allen’s not the only Arkansan in the world of elite, international mushing, it’s probably safe to say he’s the best.
“It does not make a lot of sense,” he says. “What’s a redneck from Arkansas doin’ comin’ up here and runnin’ sled dogs? But it’s what I do. … It’s who I am.”
Zoë Rom is a Boulder-based writer and journalist. When she’s not running, she’s climbing, and when she’s not climbing, she’s cooking or eating. Southern storyteller turned mountain-dweller, she starts every day with a cup of strong coffee and a good story. Her work has appeared in REI Co-op Journal, Discover, Rock & Ice, Trail Runner, Backpacker and Threshold.