As part of her training for the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race, it's not uncommon for Two Rivers musher Aliy Zirkle to run on little or no sleep.
But being awoken by wolves in her dog yard at 3 a.m. isn't necessarily what she had in mind as far as sleep deprivation training.
"They come right down the driveway, every other night at about 3 in the morning," said Zirkle, who, as the first woman to win the Yukon Quest International Sled Dog Race, is one of the more prominent residents in the small mushing enclave 20 miles east of Fairbanks along Chena Hot Springs Road.
"They've been 12 feet from some of the dogs," Zirkle said. "They're getting pretty close."
Too close for comfort for Zirkle and the 50-plus sled dogs she raises and trains with husband Allen Moore. The wolves have paid several early morning visits to Zirkle's yard and were back again on Thursday morning. There were five of them, she said.
"Allen shot at one of them last night but all we could see were eyeballs," said Zirkle, who has been a perennial contender in the Iditarod since winning the Quest in 2000.
While the wolves haven't harmed any of Zirkle's dogs, the same pack is suspected of killing three dogs in the past five weeks - two in Two Rivers and one in North Pole. Several residents along Chena Hot Springs Road between Miles 14 and 20 have reported seeing the wolves lurking around their yards in the past week, putting mushers like Zirkle and dog owners in general on high alert.
In response to the anxiety surrounding the wolves in Two Rivers, the Alaska Department of Fish and Game is holding a community meeting Sunday at 5 p.m. at the Two Rivers Church of the Nazarene at 14.8 Mile Chena Hot Springs Road. Department spokeswoman Cathie Harms said state wildlife biologists will answer questions from local residents and provide information about wolf behavior and tips on how to keep them from attacking dogs.
After Thursday morning's encounter, Zirkle called a trapper to get some tips on setting wolf traps. When the trapper found out there were five wolves wandering around her yard, he offered to do the job himself. That's fine by her.
"These aren't like normal wolves," said Zirkle, who lived and trapped in the Brooks Range before moving to Fairbanks 10 years ago. "They're not sneaking through the woods, staying out of sight. They're either coming right down the driveway or they're going down trails."
Zirkle has noticed a pattern to their behavior.
"It's like they send one of them in to kill a dog and bring it back and three or four of them just stay on the outskirts waiting," she said. "It's interesting. If it wasn't my dogs it'd be real interesting."
Zirkle and Moore have also seen wolves on the trails around Two Rivers while running their dogs with four-wheelers. A wolf ran in front of a team that Moore was driving on Wednesday for a short distance.
"They don't seem all that spooked by ATVs," Zirkle said. "You drive by them and they get 10 feet off the trail and crouch down in the woods when you go by and then you look back and they're standing in the trail."
While she and Moore had been planning to head south to run the dogs on the Denali Highway, Zirkle said that will have to wait until things settle down on the wolf front.
"If we leave now we would definitely have a dead dog," she said.
In the meantime, Zirkle said she and Moore plan to line the driveway with motion lights and rig up a window so they can shoot from inside the house if the wolves return, which she's sure they will.
Dog mushers and pet owners aren't the only ones worried about the wolves. Parents are also concerned that the wolves could go after children, though Harms was quick to emphasize that the wolves have not shown any sign of approaching people.
Tammi Rego, who lives at 15 Mile Chena Hot Springs Road, said her husband, Manny, spotted a wolf lurking around their house on Tuesday night. There was also a dead dog found in a ditch at 15 Mile that Rego said appeared to be killed by wolves, though there is a question whether that dog was hit by a car or killed by wolves.
"My concern is they can take a 70-pound dog and my kid weighs 70 pounds," said Tammi Rego, who no longer lets her 9-year-old son, Devlyn, walk home from the bus alone. "Pet dogs are easy targets and so are kids."
Officials at Two Rivers Elementary School, located about a half mile off Chena Hot Springs Road at 18.5 Mile, canceled the school's after-school skiing program because of concerns over the wolves. One of the dogs that was killed and eaten by the wolves was less than a mile up the road and the ski trails are in the woods, which was cause for concern, said Brenda Meierotto, the school's administrative secretary.
"Even though we have adults with them, the kids get spread out," she said, noting that only a small part of the trail has lights. "We just didn't want to take the chance. We have enough parents out here that are concerned about it that we just thought it would be safer to cancel it."
The school sent a letter home to parents letting them know what was going on, Meierotto said. Children are still going outside for recess, she said.
Weller Elementary School, located at 1 Mile Chena Hot Springs Road, took the pre-caution of beefing up adult supervision on the playground during recess after principal Mary Carlson heard that three wolves had been spotted trotting down the road less than a mile from the school. In a letter sent home to parents, Carlson also advised parents to escort their children to school bus stops and stay with them until they get on the bus.
Contact staff writer Tim Mowry at 459-7587.