Lance Mackey is having a very abnormal start to his mushing season.
Unlike seasons past, Mackey, the first musher to win both the Yukon Quest International Sled Dog Race and Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race in the same year, has several trucks that actually run, working four-wheelers for training, extra help with the dogs, a stockpile of wood and, most importantly, spare time.
Yes, that’s right. For the first time in a while, maybe in his life, Mackey has an abundance of time.
Don’t misunderstand now, he’s still training like crazy — he’s up to 240-kilomere trips with his race dogs — but when the work is done Mackey has taken on a new activity: Interactive video games.
“This is not a lazy person’s video game,” Mackey said at his home north of Fairbanks off Old Murphy Dome Road. He motioned toward his shiny new Nintendo Wii System.
Mackey jumped off the couch and acted out the motions of one of his favourite games: Boxing. He threw a right hook, then a jab.
“By the time we’re done playing, we’re sweatin’ and the windows are all steamed up,” he said of himself, his veteran handler Braxton Peterson and his son Cain.
Let’s not call it playing; let’s call it a preseason cardiovascular program before Mackey begins another winter of winning.
“It’s pretty cool because that’s one of the big things that has changed for me; I’ve never had time to do that stuff, ever,” Mackey said. “I didn’t even know what a Nintendo Wii was. But things are going nice and smooth for me for a change.”
This season Mackey has the help of Peterson and Cain plus a handler named Dale Curry who is running his yearlings and helping with chores four days a week.
Having Curry around benefits them both.
Mackey gets the help and Curry gets to fulfill his dream of working with dogs.
“It’s been interesting, it’s been fun and it’s been stressful,” Mackey said of his new protégé Curry. “But I tell the boys (Cain and Peterson) every day: ‘We all have to start somewhere,’” said Mackey.
Mackey credits his success for the mellower pace around Mackey’s Comeback Kennel these days.
Part of that is being more financially secure, even though Mackey claims he’s “still as broke as ever,” he laughed.
“But I don’t have any bills and everything I own is paid for,” he said. “Last year when we moved here, we had a really small generator and we had to haul all our water in five-gallon buckets, the dogs were tied to trees, the four-wheeler was broke down, the snowmachine was broke down, the trucks weren’t running and I was struggling keeping dog food stocked up,” he said.
Last season, Mackey was up in the morning before his dogs had their first, er, howl and didn’t hit the hay until the wee hours of the next morning, just trying to stay ahead of the endless repairs, training and wood cutting.
“It’s just a lot easier now,” he said, adding that Simard Automotive has sponsored him and kept his four trucks in top working condition.
“All these things that have been a brick wall in the past, well, we just climb right over it now.”
He also bought himself a new four-wheeler, fixed his old one and had one donated, so running three teams takes a fraction of the time it did last year when Mackey used just one half-dead machine.
“Myself, Cain and Braxton, we go on one run and all the dogs are done,” he said.
The first event for Mackey’s Comeback Kennel is the Sheep Mountain 150 later this month.
Mackey, Peterson and Curry will each run a team in the race.
“I’m a little bit nervous but I’m putting these guys in races that I’m going to be in so I can kind of keep an eye on them,” he said.
If he’s not way out in front that is.
After that, Mackey will run the Copper Basin with Peterson while Cain and Curry will race in the Cantwell Classic.
Mackey will hit the road again after the Copper Basin to run the Tustumena 200.
So by the time the Yukon Quest and Iditarod come around, Mackey should have a good crop of well-trained dogs to choose from.
Then that only leaves the All-Alaska Sweepstakes, a revived 100-year-old, winner-take-all, 644-kilometre run from Nome to Candle and back at the end of March.
The champion gets a guaranteed $100,000.
Mackey’s heading into this season with mixed feelings, he said.
On one hand, he feels relief that he accomplished his goal of winning both 1,600-kilometre races in the same season and now the pressure is off.
But on the other hand, he said, he still feels the need to keep that Mackey success train plowing on full steam ahead.
“Now I know I can do it but I need to be realistic,” he said. “I know everybody’s out to get me this year, but my goal is the same as it’s always been: To have as much fun as possible and finish with as many dogs as possible.
“But don’t for a minute think I’m entering these races to go on a camping trip.”
The only way he can top last year’s performance, he said, is to win both races again. And possibly win the Sweepstakes as well.
“Of the three big races, if I can win one, well, that’s a good year,” Mackey said, adding that he really wants to win the Sweepstakes, not just because of the money but the historical value of the race and because he hasn’t won it yet.
“If I don’t win the Sweepstakes, I want the Red Lantern because I don’t have a Red Lantern and if I have to get one, that would be the cool one to have. I’m pretty adamant about it, if I can’t win, I’ll camp for five days if I have to get that lantern.”
But, he said, he’s got the dogs to choose from this year that could definitely pull off a win.
“This year I have 52 raceable dogs, last year I had 28, and that is a really comfortable feeling. I can go to the top of the lot, close my eyes, and pick out 16 dogs and I wouldn’t be wrong,” he said, adding that he’s got a couple new, young superstar leaders — one named Rev and one named Dread.
“It’s just been so smooth this year, it’s weird … abnormal is the word, it’s been abnormal.”
With the help of his wife Tonga’s steady paycheck, and a clean bill of health, the Mackey family, which includes 70 sled dogs, 10 tiny house dogs and one cat with an “identity crisis” are still floating by and are as happy as ever.
“I consider myself a normal person and I hope I never change. I’m just doin’ a job that I love and I’ve had a little bit of success at it,” Mackey said, adding that he’s only picked up one new sponsor after last season, from Maine.
“I’m not disappointed in the fact that I don’t have major sponsors because I’ve made it this far with the minimum, but I do believe that I’ve earned them. But I’m not the poster child that corporate sponsors want to see.
“That’s what I love about this job is that I don’t have to cut my hair or change my clothes.”
There are clean-cut mushers out there, and those are the ones with corporate sponsors and no worries, Mackey said.
“I’m not that guy. I’d much rather worry a little bit and still be me.”
Jillian Rogers is a freelance writer and photographer living in Fairbanks.