As Iditarod racers, volunteers and fans gathered in Wasilla on Saturday to relax, picnic and shell out $3,000 checks to sign up for the 42nd Iditarod Sled Dog Race next March, a missing musher commanded the most attention.
Lance Mackey, 43, arguably the most dominant and popular musher in race history, will sit out next year's Iditarod -- and perhaps others.
"No, not this time," Mackey said by phone Saturday from his home in Fairbanks. "I've got a bunch of pups to raise and other things to do. It's time to take a breather and get a little enthusiasm back. At the moment, it's just for one year, but we'll see.
"If I'm not having fun, what's the point?"
Mackey is a record-shattering musher who in four consecutive years won both the Iditarod (2007-10) and the Yukon Quest (2005-08), Alaska's other 1,000-mile race. In 2007, he astounded fans by winning the two marathons back to back, a double previously considered impossible. Then he did it again -- a feat unmatched by any musher. All the while, the cancer survivor built a large fan base in and out of Alaska with his accomplishments, friendliness and brash style.
In recent years, however, Mackey's fortunes have turned. His last three Iditarods have produced finishes between 16th and 22nd. He scratched from February's Quest. And about a month ago, Mackey was arrested at 2 a.m. in Fairbanks, charged with driving under the influence of alcohol and refusing to take a breath test at the police station. However, a field sobriety test registered a breath-alcohol content of 0.147, police told the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner. A hearing in Fairbanks Superior Court is set for July 24.
Mackey said the charges had no bearing on his decision to step away from the Iditarod.
"No, not even a little bit," said the 43-year-old. "It was just a stupid move on my part. But you know, I'm not the only person in the world who has one of those (DUIs)."
"Financially, I just don't have the sponsors to continue to race and finish 19th. And, to be honest, I'm just not into it at the moment. "
But while Mackey ends his streak of 10 consecutive Iditarods -- races from which he's earned more than $365,000 in prize money -- the Mackey name won't be missing when mushers gather at the start line on 4th Avenue in Anchorage on the first Saturday of March.
Younger brother Jason Mackey, 41, of Wasilla, was the first person to sign up for next year's race -- continuing a family tradition that dates back to the first Iditarod in 1973. Nearly every Iditarod has included a Mackey, whether patriarch Dick (the 1978 champion) or his sons Lance, Rick (1983 champion), Bill or Jason.
This will be Jason's fourth Iditarod. He's never finished higher than 26th, and last year he was in the bottom third of the field when he developed giardia and scratched at the Unalakleet checkpoint on the Bering Sea shore.
'I wanted to be the first'
"I've been chomping at the bit since last year," he said Saturday. "First one to sign up, maybe first one to the finish line.
"I'm not superstitious, but I wanted to be the first." He's not the only Mackey to feel that impulse. In 2006, Lance camped out for a week before signups began in order to be the first in line -- and nine months later ended up with his first victory.
Jason's effort should be helped by a half-dozen dogs from his brother's kennel and some hard-to-beat advice.
"Lance and Rick Mackey are the best two dog people in the sport," he said. "Being the younger brother, you couldn't ask for better coaches."
"He's going to have a great team," Lance said. "He's motivated and determined."
Fifty-one mushers joined Jason Mackey in signing up Saturday. Among them was defending and two-time champion Mitch Seavey and his son Dallas, the 2012 champion. Four-time winners Jeff King of Denali Park and Martin Buser of Big Lake will both try to join Rick Swenson, who has not signed up yet, with five victories. Aliy Zirkle of Two Rivers, the runner-up to one Seavey or another the past two races will be back -- as will her husband, Allen Moore, the defending Yukon Quest champion.
But perhaps the most fascinating entrant is Robert Sorlie of Hurdal, Norway, a two-time champion and the only foreigner to capture an Iditarod title. Sorlie won the 2003 and 2005 races, but after finishing 12th in 2007, he never returned.
But for this Iditarod, he leads a refurbished Team Norway that includes Joar Leifseth Ulsom, Tommy Jordbrudal and Yvonne Dabakk -- the biggest Norwegian contingent in years.
And perhaps Sorlie's return to the Iditarod gives Lance Mackey fans hope that the Fairbanks musher will once again race across Alaska to Nome. But his brother is not so sure.
"In the Iditarod, finishing in the Top 20 is extremely good -- but not for a champion. But if Lance never races another Iditarod, nobody can take away his accomplishment.
"He battled cancer. Radiation took a great deal out of him. He's beat up and worn out, that's the bottom line. Maybe he'll put together a sprint (dog) team, where you race and then you're back in a warm truck in a couple hours. There's a lot of challenges out there for a him that a lot of people don't have."
The full list of Iditarod entrants is here.
Correction: The original report said that Mackey finished third in February's Yukon Quest, but that was his result in 2012. He scratched in 2013. We regret the error and have corrected it above.
Contact Mike Campbell at mcampbell(at)alaskadispatch.com