Winter is coming — and Zoya DeNure takes us on an adventure from model to musher in the Alaskan wilderness.
By Angela Caraway-Carlton
Zoya DeNure made the dramatic move from Wisconsin to a remote area of Alaska to chase dreams of sled-dog racing, she didn’t totally let go of her glamorous life as a fashion model. Instead, she paid for a storage unit packed with extravagant clothing and shoes.
“I had shoes for every occasion, fancy shoes for dancing, special shoes for dinner,” DeNure recalls with a laugh.
When the model-turned-musher finally made a special trip back to reclaim her once-coveted possessions, something had changed: “I couldn’t shove my foot into any of my cute shoes. My feet have actually gotten wider because of all the work I do here. We ended up dropping them off at the Goodwill—someone got very lucky that day.”
Like those shoes, her old life as a model 20-plus years ago doesn’t fit anymore. Makeup and perfect hair are no longer a priority; puffer jackets and parkas have replaced dresses and heels. And instead of strutting down the runway, she’s often up at dawn, speeding through the freezing wilderness on the runners of a sled while juggling motherhood and taking care of a gaggle of rescue dogs that are like family. She’s a different person.
“I think I’m a better version, a more authentic version of myself,” she says.
It was 1988 when the 12-year-old beauty was scouted by a modeling school while shopping with her mom at a Minneapolis mall. At the time, DeNure’s bedroom walls were covered with posters of Cindy Crawford and Naomi Campbell, and the chance to model felt like a dream for the young girl living in tiny Black River Falls, Wisconsin. “My mom was a single mom, and she worked really hard. Life was tough. We didn’t have a lot of opportunities or a lot of money, so this really opened up a fantasy world,” says DeNure, who soon enrolled in a 12-week modeling school where she learned to apply makeup and work the catwalk. For nearly 12 years, she would live a jet-set lifestyle, walking the famed runways of Milan and even Beijing for China Fashion Week. Returning from a gig in Italy, the pressures of the industry began to weigh on the then 23-year-old. “I had this exciting life, wearing beautiful clothing and flying here and there, but I was always in a state of wanting,” she says. “I wanted to be prettier, to be skinnier, to be better, but I never felt good enough.”
A Dog’s Purpose
Ditching her modeling career, DeNure went in search of a simpler life in Madison, Wisconsin, where she rented a lake house and bought a puppy—a Siberian husky mix—to help fill her days.“He was this little white fur ball with cinnamon color on his back,” says DeNure of the dog she named Ethan. “Chasing material things was never fulfilling, but this dog made me happy. He awakened a new me.”Caring for Ethan would also lead to a new, life-altering passion. While buying dog food at the local feed store, she was introduced to the prominent owner of a sprint-racing kennel. She invited DeNure to her farmhouse, where she mingled with Alaskan huskies for the first time and took an exhilarating ride with the owner on the runners of the sled. “That ride changed everything,” she recalls. “The part that grabbed my attention was all these dogs have such different personalities, and they live for running.” After spending every weekend there for almost a year, training and taking care of the dogs, DeNure set up her own kennel in the country, where she would train a team of four dogs around a cornfield, and started competing in sprint races. She started with quick four-mile races, but “after some time, there was something in me that longed for more distance and more time with the dogs.” That’s when someone suggested she should check out the Iditarod, a grueling, thousand-plus-mile dog sled race in Alaska that runs from Anchorage to Nome. “I ordered some VHS tapes with Susan Butcher, who was winning in the ’80s, and I was intrigued by the independence of the mushers, alone in the wilderness with their dog team. I thought if she could do it, maybe I could, too.”
The Amazing Race
Called to go north, DeNure packed up a few of her belongings, along with her Ethan, and headed for the interior of Alaska. At first, she worked with well-known musher Bill Cotter, who encouraged her to start competing in mid-distance races. When it was time for her to begin putting together her own team, she realized that she couldn’t afford to buy the pricey race dogs from the kennels. She ended up rescuing dogs that were either going to be put down or weren’t considered raceworthy. “They were all good dogs with nothing wrong with them,” says DeNure. “I quickly bonded with them, and that was my little team.” That following winter, at a race in the middle of the wilderness, she would meet her future husband, John Schandelmeier, a fellow dog driver who had won many races and was well-known for taking unwanted dogs and turning them into champions. They married in 2003 and combined their dog kennels, and decided to go for her dream of competing in the Iditarod. In 2008, she finished her first Iditarod, placing 53rd, and was instantly hooked. “There’s nothing quite like it—maybe giving birth to your first baby,” she says. “It’s magical. You’re out there in the wilderness with your team; they depend on you, and you depend on them.” Now 42, DeNure placed 57th in the 2017 Iditarod, and she’s currently training to compete again this March. “I would love to compete in the top-end of the Iditarod, with a chance towin,” says DeNure, who believes she now has a top-20 team or better. “I also know the reality of the competition these days, the style of running it takes. You have to push the dogs really hard, and I’m not willing to sacrifice my team for the win. I feel like we can make a difference in the sport by how we play the game—how we run—and I think that’s more important.”
Rescue, Rehab, Repeat
That compassionate belief of putting the dogs first is the backbone of Crazy Dog Kennel, her family’s rescue and rehabilitation facility for unwanted sled dogs. The couple strives for positive training techniques, which means no negative or physical disciplining. With around 50 dogs, the family works to rehab the animals—giving them whatever they need to thrive—and then finds them a happy home. “A lot of the people who adopt from us send pictures and letters saying that this dog changed their life,” she says. “To me, that makes all the difference. We believed in that dog, and we gave him a second chance.” Along with dogs that they’ve bred, some of the rescued dogs will go on to race with them while others are a fit for their dog-sledding tour operation, Delta Outdoor Adventures. This is a real-deal tour in which DeNure takes visitors on a 3-to-5-mile excursion through the Delta Junction, where there are no roads or homes—just spectacular alpine views. “We’re giving them a taste of the ‘real’ Alaska,” she says. “It’s an authentic experience where visitors can walk away with knowledge about sled dogs along with a hands-on experience.” While it’s a far cry from her former life, DeNure has never looked back. “I’m still in a fast lifestyle—it hasn’t slowed down,” she says. “My goals and priorities have changed, and I’m always looking ahead.”
Editors Note: For more information, go to dogsleddenali.com.