“I can get a monkey to Nome for $50,000,” joked two-time Iditarod and four-time Yukon Quest champ Lance Mackey.“I can get a monkey to Nome for $50,000,” joked two-time Iditarod and four-time Yukon Quest champ Lance Mackey.Luckily for Mackey, Harry Alexie is no monkey and is in fact, rather dog savvy, Mackey added.Alexie, 30, is Mackey’s latest protégé and is leasing a team of Mackey yearlings and youngsters in hopes of qualifying for, and finishing, the 1,000-mile Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race in 2009.Under the watchful eye of the two-time Iditarod champ himself, Alexie, from Kwethluk, Alaska, near Bethel, has begun training 24 Mackey dogs. He has his sights on the Gin Gin 200 near Paxson and the Copper Basin 300 out of Glennallen to qualify him for the Last Great Race in March.Mackey’s getting paid $50,000 to guide Alexie to his Iditarod goal and the cash is coming from the Alaska Army National Guard of which Alexie has been a member for 13 years and is now the Personnel Service NCO for the 2nd Battalion 297th Infantry in Bethel. The goal is not only to put a little cash in Mackey’s pocket, but to train up his young dogs, give Alexie the experience of a lifetime and give the Alaska Guard some time in the spotlight to help bolster recruitment.“Everybody wins,” Mackey said.Even though Mackey could probably get anyone to the burled arch in Nome, Alexie comes to Fairbanks and Mackey’s Comeback Kennel with plenty of dog experience already. He grew up around sled dogs and in junior high, Alexie started to run the dogs just for fun and, most recently, has taken the plunge into sprint racing. He has 27 hound-crosses of his own and completed the 2007 Fur Rondy Open World Championship. His dogs are in Kwethluk now, where his father and cousins will take care of them for the winter while Alexie switches to a slower-paced form of the sport.The Mackey-Alexie partnership began after the Alaska National Guard approached Alexie about pairing up with an Alaska musher to do Iditarod in hopes of promoting the organization. They wanted an Alaskan Guardsman to work with an Alaskan musher. Alexie had met and helped out Mackey a few years ago when Mackey was in Bethel for the Kusko 300, so right away Alexie knew the musher he wanted to lease a team from.Why not go right to the top?“I’m confident about getting Harry through the season,” Mackey said. “It’s a shame that there aren’t more native mushers because that’s how all this got started so when I found out it was going to be Harry, I was interested right away.“Maybe it’s a small way for me to show my appreciation to the people who started it all. And I don’t want to sound selfish, but the money from the lease is going to pay for my race season. And dogs that might have been put away sooner or sold are now going to train and race for the full year. It’s just good all around.”Since October 1, when Alexie moved himself, his wife and his two kids to Fairbanks, he’s been responsible for his 24 leased dogs – feeding, watering, scooping and training – even on the days he’s not running them. He’ll choose the best dogs for his qualifying races and the best 10 for his Iditarod; Mackey will fill in the final six for the 1,000-mile affair to give Alexie some veteran leaders dogs.“He’s lacking some good front-end dogs, but you know, that’s part of the training process,” Mackey said. “I want to see the patience he has.”So far, they both agreed, things are running smoothly. Some days are smoother than others, but Alexie’s kind nature and dog knowledge are serving him well at Mackey’s place.His first week on the job, Mackey showed Alexie the trail once and then had to leave town for a week, leaving the would-be Iditarod musher on his own.The first training run was a little rough, Alexie admitted, but the subsequent runs have been getting steadily better.“That was the initiation, but I felt comfortable with him right away because he was good with the dogs and that’s comforting,” Mackey said.Though it was a pretty basic trail, there are a few chances to get turned around, a few road-crossings and, with no real command leaders, Alexie had his work cut out for him, Mackey added.“After that first week, he was still smiling and not pissed off at me, so that was a good start,” Mackey laughed. “He didn’t know any of the dogs, so he just put together a team and when I asked him how that first run went, he kind of had a weird look and I knew he didn’t want to tell me it went shitty. But yesterday, I think both his runs went pretty good.“That’s why it’s called training, they can’t all be good. But by the time you get to the races we’ll have two real nice teams.”Alexie agreed that things are going much more smoothly now, but it has still been a steep learning curve going from sprint to distance, despite his background with sled dogs.“It’s way different that what I’ve done,” Alexie said, adding that farther runs at a slower pace are the main differences. “I don’t really want to change over to distance after this, but I might want to try to the (Kusko 300)” in the future, he said.After this season, Alexie will have the knowledge and experience to take on any race in the sport. But for now, he’s focused on getting to the Iditarod starting line in Anchorage in early March. After that, Mackey said, it’s up to Alexie to get himself and his team to Nome.“That’s not up to me,” Mackey said. “I’m not going to babysit him on Iditarod and once we leave, I can honestly say he probably won’t see me.”It won’t be easy, even when it does come time to race, but said Alexie, it’s too early to get nervous.“I’m trying to stay focused on training right now, there’s no sense getting nervous about the races now,” Alexie said.As for working with Mackey, who after an appearance on Late Night with Conan O’Brien and a lead role in the Discovery Channel’s Iditarod documentary has reached a new level of stardom, Alexie said it’s been a great experience learning from the best.“It’s a privilege and very humbling to work with the only two-time Iditarod-Quest champion,” said Alexie.“And as time goes on, it’ll only get better.”Jillian Rogers is a freelance writer and photographer living in Fairbanks. She covered sled dog races for seven years before venturing into mushing herself and now owns nine huskies.


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