For the next 1,000 miles, Jason Mackey will be carrying some special cargo on his way to Nome. Aside from the required gear, the Willow musher has made room for the spirit of a man who was always up for an adventure.
"I don't even know his name," said Mackey at Saturday's Iditarod ceremonial start in downtown Anchorage.
Jason Mackey, meet Troy Johnson, a sports fanatic from San Clemente, Calif., who passed away unexpectedly on Jan. 7 at the age of 26. Johnson was finishing his last year of college when he died. He didn't know much about mushing or Alaska, but had a soft spot for animals and planned to travel the world once he graduated.
"Alaska was definitely on the list," his mom, Tamy McNamera, wrote in an email.
Thanks to Mackey and Iditarod Air Force pilot Gerry Moriarty, McNamera can now check off Alaska.
A few weeks ago, Moriarty phoned Mackey, the brother of four-time Iditarod champion Lance Mackey, to ask if he would be willing to carry Johnson's urn.
"Absolutely," Mackey said without hesitation.
Before the ceremonial start began Saturday, Mackey spent part of the morning trying to figure out how to travel the trail with Johnson's remains, which rest in an urn the size of a baby food jar. Mackey decided to carry it Alaska style; he wrapped the urn around the handlebars of his sled in black electrical tape.
"He ain't going nowhere," Mackey said. "He's a good passenger."
The handlebar seemed like the best place for it, said Mackey, who figured if the urn had made the trip all the way from California to Anchorage, he might as well give the guy he never knew the best view possible.
"Everyone was like, 'What are you gonna do with him? Put him in the bag?'" Mackey said. "And I'm like, 'Dude, he wants a bird's eye view to see what's going on.'"
Carrying the ashes of the deceased and spreading them along the trail is nothing new to the Iditarod. Back in 2007, Dave Monson spread the ashes of his wife and four-time Iditarod champion Susan Butcher along the trail between Kaltag and Unalakleet near Old Woman cabin. More recently, the ashes of this year's honorary musher and former Iditarod employee Deby Trosper were spread near Rainy Pass.
Mackey said he's not going to spread Johnson's ashes along the trail. When he reaches the coast, his plan is to pass the urn over to Moriarty, who has flown commercially in Alaska for 20 years and is entering his second year volunteering for the Iditarod Air Force.
Years ago, Moriarty went to high school with Johnson's mother, Tamy McNamara. When Johnson passed away, Moriarty wanted to reach out to McNamara and help her mourn the loss of her son.
"After talking to Tamy about her son, I was trying to help her with some of the grieving and I told her that if she wanted, I would take some of the remains from the cremation out on the trail with me, not only as an adventure but also as a distraction," Moriarty said by phone from Lake Hood. "Then I asked if she'd be willing to have some of the remains go with one of the mushers and she thought that would be a great idea."
Moriarty first reached out to Lance Mackey to ask if he would be willing to carry Johnson's urn, but Mackey respectfully declined the offer due to the fact that he's sitting out this year's Iditarod.
Lance Mackey suggested his brother, Moriarty said, "and Jason stepped up to the plate right away."
Moriarty and Mackey are hoping to meet either in Unalakleet, where Moriarty is scheduled to be flying cargo in and out, or perhaps Nome.
"Hopefully in first place," Moriarty added. Once Moriarty receives the urn, he plans to return it to Florida where Johnson's mother lives.
Since last Sunday, Moriarty has been shipping cargo, such as boxes of Heet, bales of straw, and food drops for mushers, from Anchorage to McGrath and McGrath to more remote checkpoints along the 1,000-mile trail, such as Cripple and Ophir. The urn and a picture of Johnson rode co-pilot the entire time.
"I had it sitting up on the windscreen as if he's got the best view in the house," Moriarty said.
Every now and then Moriarty took a moment to snap pictures of the Alaska wilderness so he could share the experience with McNamara in Florida.
"There's a group in Florida and San Clemente who are now interested in the Iditarod because of this," Moriarty said.
Mackey may not have known Johnson or his mother, but those details didn't matter much to the 41-year-old musher who's trying to bounce back from last year's disappointing race in which he scratched in Unalakleet. Anything he can do to positively promote sled dog racing and help out others is what matters most to him.
"It'll be an honor to carry this young man," Mackey said. "It's a first for me, but if you can help someone live their dreams, I'm all for that."
By KEVIN KLOTT
Daily News correspondent