Tall and wiry with his dark hair in a ponytail, Lance Mackey looks more like a heavy metal guitarist than a champion musher.
He’s not wearing high-end Gore-Tex pants or a fancy new parka, and his dog trailer didn’t even make it to the start line in Fairbanks, Alaska, but 35-year-old Mackey is the Yukon Quest champion for the second year in a row.
And he is clearly a crowd favourite.
Into Metallica, sled dogs and the odd bottle of Crown Royal, Mackey lives life hard.
And it seems to be working out.
After winning last year’s Quest in his rookie year, he went on to place seventh in the 2005 Iditarod.
But he has had tough acts to follow.
His dad Dick Mackey was one of the Iditarod’s co-founders and won the race in ’78 by only one second, while Lance’s older brother Rick has raced in 22 Iditarods, winning in ’83.
“We’re the only father and son to have won it,” said Dick.
“And I’m hoping to be the only dad with two sons who have won it.”
Lance grew up around sled dogs, and used to walk around the dog lot with a little pail helping to feed them when he was three.
“It was in the back of my head before it was even in the back of my head,” said Lance.
“I was born and raised around champion teams.”
But as a teenager he moved onto other things, including fishing boats on the Alaskan coast.
It was not until seven years ago, when he met his wife Tonya, that dogs became a part of Lance’s life again.
“We were just married, had a beat-up truck, a black Lab and a pit bull and were living in this tent on the beach,” he said.
“And we started from scratch — we had nothing, but we knew what we had in mind.”
In a matter of days he had some sled dogs and enough money from the commercial fishery to put a down payment on a small parcel of land.
“We built a shack out of some tarps, got a woodstove and cut out some windows with the chainsaw,” he said.
By the end of the winter he had 10 dogs.
And it was cheap to feed them because Lance fished.
“They lived on fish, rice and beef fat,” he said.
He made a little sprint track and started playing around.
“I had a good 10-dog team,” he said.
Soon he was winning races.
“The greatest part was when I made my paycheque from racing,” he said.
By the end of the next year he had 20 dogs and was looking for some good breeding animals.
“In 2000 I decided that if I was not where I wanted to be in five years, I would try something else.”
Five years later, he won the Quest.
But it hasn’t been a walk in the park.
After finishing his first Iditarod in 2001, Lance was diagnosed with cancer.
“I had treatments all summer and couldn’t start training till November,” he said.
“And it was half-assed training.”
When he entered that Iditarod that winter, he still had a feeding tube in his stomach and was feeding himself with syringes.
“I was close to death,” he said.
“But running that race got me up in the mornings — it was my goal forever and I wasn’t going to let a little thing like cancer stop me.”
Financial difficulties forced him to lease his dogs the following year.
“I wouldn’t do it again,” he said.
“It’s like sending your kids off to be raised by someone else.
“And whether it’s right or wrong, I have my own way of running and training my dogs.”
The following year he ran the Iditarod with his younger brother.
This year, just before racing season, he had his left index finger cut off.
Ever since having neck surgery during his cancer treatment, this finger bothered him.
“I saw him undergo cancer and never cry and this finger caused him way more pain,” said Tonya.
“He kept trying to cut it off and I had to stop him.”
A few weeks later, with the stitches still in his hand, Lance won the 2006 Copper Basin.
And his racing career just keeps getting better.
“It’s my job,” he said.
“You gotta work hard when the work’s here.”
With more than 90 sled dogs, Lance is starting to rival the 178-dog kennel his father once had.
Running a truck stop on the way to the Alaskan oil fields, Dick raced dogs and pumped gas.
When he decided to travel in 1990, he sold the truck stop, and gave his racing dogs to his son Rick.
Now Dick winters in Arizona with a 10-year-old, blind chocolate Lab and a two-year-old Britney Spaniel, but being up here to watch his son win the Quest brought back lots of memories.
“God, I would love to step onto a dog sled again,” he said.
“But I don’t miss the dedication it takes.”
Dick first started breeding dogs in 1960.
“I took a registered Siberian husky and registered back lab and bred them,” he said.
“A lab has a good heart and feet, just not enough hair, so you breed it with a working Siberian husky with the ability to work in harness and with its good coat and you get a good sled dog.”
This year Lance acquired Handsome, the only dog he has with this original Mackey bloodline.
Handsome ran in this year’s Quest, but was dropped at Slaven’s Cabin.
He was only two and was getting a little thin.
“And he’s my up-and-coming superstar leader and I didn’t want him to get fazed; I wanted him to keep having fun,” said Lance.
“As long as they’re happy and wanting to go, we can get there. If they’re not happy, we’re not moving too good.
“That’s my whole attitude with dog care.”
And it seems to work.
When Lance’s team crossed the finish line Tuesday their tails were wagging and they were still barking and straining to go.
And Lance is as eager as his dogs.
“We just want to go out there and have some fun,” he said.
“And maybe win some races.”