Miller’s motionless form lay in the deep Alaskan snow, his nose turning as cold as the icy air. The other sled dogs, restless in their harnesses, whined, the biting wind carrying their cries across the barren white terrain.
The 16-dog pack and its musher were 435km into the Last Great Race on Earth, Alaska’s 1,820km annual Iditarod Trail dog sled race, and one hour past the last checkpoint; they were remote, alone and in need of assistance. Zoya DeNure was faced with a difficult decision: leave the dog to die and continue the race or return to the checkpoint for veterinary assistance and ultimately drop out. Scooping Miller in her arms, she carried his numb frame to the sled basket, pulled the reigns clockwise and turned around.
The decision to save her dog, staying by his side overnight at the Puntilla Lake checkpoint and consequently quitting the 2011 Iditarod race, was a move that would draw criticism from the male-dominated musher community.
“I heard a lot of comments about being too soft and needing to toughen up that year,” the former fashion model recounts from her home in Paxson, Alaska. “People said I should have dropped the dog and continued the race but to me it wasn’t only about the race, it was about my team and if my team wasn’t doing well then why would I want to continue without them?”
The compassion shown that day is representative of the way Zoya, 36, not only races but cares for her dogs, and is a trait that sets her apart from many of her sled-racing colleagues. As the founder of The Crazy Dog Kennel, a home that focuses on rescuing and rehabilitating unwanted huskies, and a dog sled racer who has completed some of the world’s toughest courses, she has demonstrated that a softer approach to the historically tough process of breeding, rearing and caring for professional sled dogs can be a successful one.
Zoya’s ability to battle on despite criticism may have been established in the showrooms and catwalks of Milan, Paris and Tokyo where she worked as model for a few years. Starting her fashion career in the US Midwest at the tender age of 13, by 19 she had been selected from thousands of contestants in Chicago to model at The International Fashion Week in China, and from there she travelled the world from one haute couture runway to the next.
After a few years of a nomadic existence, the industry began to lose its allure. “I started to feel everything was about our looks and how we managed our weight. Our nails, hair, skin, everything had to be perfect all of the time,” she says. “I remember always feeling stressed by it. You get turned down a lot at castings and that would hurt my feelings. I’d think I wasn’t good enough or pretty enough and after a few years I was questioning myself constantly.”
Zoya’s last job, at the age of 22, was in a fashion powerhouse in Milan, Italy. As she waited two hours for the client in order to model outfit after outfit in a showroom for private orders, the penny dropped and Zoya realised there simply had to be more to life.
“I wanted to do something that made me feel alive, something I could feel passionate about,” she says.
In 1999, acting on impulse and tired of the gasps of horror elicited by having even a strand of hair out of place, Zoya decided to leave the modelling world and return to Chicago. Her intention was to take acting lessons but instead she bought a Siberian Husky, Ethan, and spent plenty of time in the great outdoors. By chance she was introduced to a sled dog racer from northern Wisconsin who would change her plans, and life, forever. “This woman had 75 sled dogs,” Zoya recalls. “I was so intrigued because I had Ethan. She invited me to visit her kennel and there I came across Alaskan huskies for the first time.
“I stayed for the weekend and helped her mixing the food, feeding, handling, putting them into the harness and hooking them up to the sled. I had no idea what was involved with having a kennel or taking care of a dog team and I was so surprised at how much work there is behind the scenes.”
Starting with the basics
That weekend with Ann Jandernoa would be Zoya’s entry into the world of mushing, the general term used for dog sled racing, and her first lesson would involve learning the difference between her pet Siberian Husky Ethan and actual racing dogs, Alaskan huskies.
“I knew nothing about sled racing back then,” she laughs. “I thought I could race Ethan because he looked like the dogs that pull sleds in movies but Ann explained that Siberian huskies just aren’t fast enough.”
Speed is an essential quality for a sport that sees 15 metres of rope and dogs being raced across almost 2,000km of remote, Alaskan winter terrain. Competitive by nature and already a lover of dogs and the great outdoors, it didn’t take much for Zoya to realise this was a way of life she could happily become accustomed to. Despite the 10-hour physically demanding days at Ann’s kennels, the cold, the wet, the soggy dog smell, Zoya was in her element.
“I felt so alive,” she says. “I was out in the fresh air and I remember being so happy that I was wearing dirty clothes and there was nobody who cared what I looked like. It was so different.”
Zoya worked alongside Ann for the next six months and her love for the lifestyle and the animals grew. “They were just incredible,” she says. “Just like people, they all have their own personalities. It’s difficult to see at first because you get to the kennels and there are 40 dogs all barking at you but slowly you realise they all have their own names, their own stories, their own abilities and their own personalities.”
Recognising Zoya had a special affiliation with her animals and after proving to the veteran dog racer that she had the dedication and capability to run a kennel of her own, Ann sold Zoya her first sled dogs. “I bought eight and opened my own kennel right outside of Madison. I rented a four-acre farmhouse and we trained around a corn field. I fell in love with the life. A few girlfriends were like, ‘What, are you crazy girl.’ And I think to this day, they still shake their heads!” she laughs.
As a high achiever with a competitive spirit, the local four-dog sprint races soon became too small for Zoya and her first pack of dogs and as the 12- to 20-minute dog races simply weren’t enough anymore, her focus turned to the home of sled racing, Alaska, and to the Iditarod.
“Madison was fun,” she says. “But I couldn’t help but feel it wasn’t enough. I had started to read about the Iditarod, the 1,000-mile race where you’re out in the wilderness with your dogs; you’re in the mountains, the back country, starting campfires and camping with the team.
“I started reading everything about it; I watched videos of Susan Butcher winning it in the 1980s and I was so impressed, it captivated me. All the serious mushing happens in Alaska and if I wanted to be serious about it I knew that I had to go.”
A break-up with her boyfriend meant Zoya could no longer afford to keep her small team of huskies. Forced to rehome them, she decided the time was right for a move to Alaska.
With the support of family and head-shaking friends, who despite not understanding how she could give up the glitz and glamour urged her to follow her dream while still young and single, Zoya upped sticks and took a job as a dog handler with a veteran Iditarod champion Bill Cotter. Living in a cabin on his land for the next four months she absorbed all she could about the life of a musher. “I learned how to care for the dogs, feed them in cold temperatures, cook outside, and train them,” she recalls.
“Then he [Bill] asked me four months in if I wanted to race. So he ran the older dogs and I ran the young. I did a 200-, 100- and 60-mile race that year and I loved it. My first race was 60 miles and I came in second place. I felt on top of the world. I thought, ‘I can do anything’. It gave me a lot of confidence to keep going.”
Determination and perseverance are much-needed traits in the world of professional dog sledding but are also often matched with a tough approach to breeding and rearing. As Zoya immersed herself in the local community she was taken aback to witness the ruthless way dogs were sometimes treated; discarded to the wayside if they failed to race effectively and given only a few chances to excel.
“Many mushers want the dog to perform at top level within the first year,” she says. “That’s unrealistic because many dogs don’t mature until after their first year. They race puppies then at six months decide they’re not fast or good enough and they sell them or get rid of them, sometimes they put them down.”
A love for animals and limited funds to purchase a team of racing breeds compelled Zoya into action, eagerly taking on cast-offs from local professionals. Leaving the Cotter kennels behind, she rented a cabin near Nenana and with her dogs moved to the town with a population of less than 400. Work was not too easy to come by and with no job, no food and no money for anything other than feed for her dogs, Zoya found herself sleeping in a nearby shed, a smaller space to keep warm on Alaskan winter nights when lows can plunge to a desperately cold -10°C.
“I had no work and no money. I ate fish and potatoes for a month before I found a job,” she told Anchorage Daily News.
However, soon Zoya found herself juggling jobs as a substitute teacher in the local school, as a private tutor, and as a yoga instructor. “I piecemealed the programmes together to make a living to support the dogs,” she says. “It was hard work but it worked out well.”
Falling in love with a local hero
Zoya’s fortune was to continue improving when the following year a chance request for a lift would see her face to face with her future husband – Alaskan born and bred Iditarod racing legend John Schandelmeier. He was an 18-time contestant and two-time winner of the infamous 1,000-mile Yukon Quest – labelled the most difficult sled dog race in the world due to the harsh winter weather and limited supplies with which competitors are equipped.
John had organised a small race named the Denali Dash 120 in Paxson, eight hours away from Nenana, and he and Zoya with their dog teams shared the drive up there, competed together, stayed in touch and fell in love.
“He has won almost every race in Alaska,” Zoya says. “But when I met him I knew nothing about him. John was a local hero but I didn’t know that; I liked him because we connected, we shared the same philosophy about dog care and training. For two years it drove me crazy that people would tell me I had a great mentor. He wasn’t my mentor, he was my partner.”
And proving this was love, not an attempt at self-improvement, they moved in together within seven months and were married in 2003.
Their mutual respect for the well-being of animals (they were both avid rescuers and rehabilitators of discarded huskies and both had kennels called Crazy Dog) allowed them to join forces to try to make a difference in the local mushing community. “When we moved in with one another I had 16 dogs and John had 20 so we decided to form Crazy Dog Kennel. We took on dogs that had been discarded by mushers; often they would call us and let us know they were getting rid of a few. We would have patience with the dogs then they would do really well. My husband would finish in the top five. The dog simply hadn’t been given a chance.”
Ninety-five per cent of Crazy Kennels dogs are rescues, often unwanted due to behavioural issues that make them too difficult to race, or saved from the euthanasia list at shelters. At their kennels, Zoya and John have embraced positive training practices for their dogs, and to date have had a 100 per cent success rate.
“We have a no-discipline rule,” says Zoya. “If the dog’s not running right we try to find out why. Maybe he doesn’t like the distance, so we put them in different races. Each dog is unique. If he’s shy we work to build his confidence. There are a lot of kennels in Alaska that do discipline or if they’re not working out they get rid of them. We don’t participate in that.”
She adds, “We realise we can’t take on all the dogs and we have to be selective so we typically take dogs that are shy or difficult and usually after a few months they’ll be better. They’ll grow in confidence, become trusting and outgoing and we can either find them a good home or they’ll stay and race with us.”
Their rehabilitation and rehoming efforts are reaching far and wide, with some formerly abandoned huskies ending up in new homes as far away as Norway, Switzerland and Canada.
Having rescued and rehabilitated more than 100 dogs, they have now started to expand their positive training in the community, teaching up-and-coming mushers effective tools for successful, happy dogs. They promote methods such as rewarding good behaviour, patience and a soft hand over discipline at dog clinics and weekend training sessions.
“There’s a lot of new mushers who want to learn how we do it,” she says. “Our dogs are confident, they’re not scared, they’re beautiful and socialised and they’re fast.” The attention Zoya and John are bringing to the way sled dogs are bred and reared is slowly having a positive impact on mushing in general. “I honestly feel I’m able to make a difference in the sport,” Zoya says. “We get a lot of attention for the good work we do with the dogs.”
Zoya’s success rehabilitating and rescuing dogs in the community has brought her much fulfilment. “The bond we have with our dogs is awesome,” she says. “I can turn 14 dogs loose and they don’t run off. They trust us because they feel loved, because we treat them like our friends, and that’s what they are, not working machines.”
However, real success in the race that lured Zoya to Alaska back in 2002, the Iditarod, has to date evaded her. As a full-time sled racer Zoya has competed in a multitude of Alaskan races including the Yukon Quest, Copper Basin 300, and UP 200 – where she came in 6th – but luck has not been on her side for the epic trail from Nome to Anchorage.
When Miller collapsed back in 2011, it was the second year in a row Zoya had been forced to scratch the race. The previous year she suffered from an infection and medics insisted she stop.
When asked with hindsight if she would still stay with Miller, Zoya says, “Now, looking back, I have mixed feelings about my decision. Caring for him was the right thing to do but maybe in the morning, seeing he was OK, I should have carried on with my race rather than pulling out.
“But I was so concerned and if anything had happened to him I would never have gone back to racing because I feel so responsible for these dogs. Their well-being is my number-one priority when I’m out there. I put them on the trail so I’m responsible for them.”
Having last completed the race through snow-covered forests, sub- zero temperatures, gale-force winds and blizzard whiteouts back in 2008 (finishing 53rd out of 96), Zoya is now firmly focused on getting to the top with her rescue dogs.
“I want to be the next woman to win it,” she declares. “And I plan on going back next year. I believe we can do anything we set our minds to, we can make great changes, no matter how big or small; one day at a time, one step at a time, one mile at a time. I have hit some bumps in my racing but I refuse to give up.”
It’s that determination that has pulled Zoya through the difficult journey into the male-dominated world of sled racing and, as not only a woman but a former fashion model, she has had to fight harder than most to achieve credibility.
“This is a very serious sport in Alaska and you have to know what you’re getting into,” she says. “Eighty per cent of the mushers are very tough so it’s not easy.”
As for regrets about ditching the runway for trails, it seems Zoya doesn’t have any. She replaced the snarling and teeth baring at backstage fashion shows for daily wet-nosed kisses and tail wagging at the Crazy Dog Kennel.
“This is where my heart is,” she says. “With my family, where we have space, mountains, endless trails for mushing and big skies. The glamorous life didn’t fulfil me or make my heart happy. Here, I am building something I believe in, a life I love and can be proud of.”
On her website she says, “Imagine walking into your office every morning and having 40 friends there to meet and greet you with a big smile – that is what it’s like in our kennel.”