Gary Markley is an open-class sprint racer in Alaska. What most people don’t know about Gary is that in addition to his sled dog hobby, he is also an accomplished bluegrass musician, and is a commercial cargo pilot for a living. Amanda caught up with Gary in between sets at the Anderson Bluegrass Festival. AB: Gary, you don’t look like you are a musher right now. GM: Yeah, I guess you see me when I have my big clothes on or my big beard or whatever. I don’t really try to look like anything I suppose. I just be myself. AB: So how did you get into bluegrass?GM: My whole family was into music. Growing up, I was the youngest of five and there was always guitars and pianos and organs around and accordions and instruments. Put an instrument into my hands and I can play it a little bit. Everything except for the fiddle. My parents were really encouraging and my grandmother too. So I started playing very young, but everybody else played guitar. And I heard the banjo when I was ten or twelve years old and that was it. I said man I have to learn how to play that if it’s the only thing I do in life. AB: It’s a tough instrument.GM: Yeah, it’s hard. It takes a lifetime of learning. I’m still learning. AB: So you play professionally? GM: Well, it’s like dog mushing. Semi-professionally. You might say we’re all semi-pros except for the guys that do it full-time. I don’t do this full-time so I would say it’s more of a hobby at a semi-professional level. AB: You play at festivals and with different bands?GM: I do. I play a lot. In years past I played with one band but since I’ve gotten into dog mushing more serious again..the dogs really take a lot of time so I play more with a lot of people rather than with one band. Next year I will probably be scaling back a whole bunch on the dogs and playing more music and doing other things. It’s a big commitment to do lots of stuff. Right now I want to concentrate on the dogs this winter so I try to play a little less music and play a little more dog team.AB: What was the other band you played with?GM: Ginger Boatwright. I sat in with Ginger and helped her play. I think her banjo player is down in Colorado for the weekend so I agreed to sit in with her for a bit just for today. AB: Where are you from originally?GM: I’m from Alaska originally. My grandparents came up in the early thirties. I was born in Anchorage and spent most of my formative years in Cantwell. I learned a lot about mushing there. As a kid in Anchorage we used to watch a lot of mushing. The big race, of course, at the time was the Fur Rendezvous. It was before the Iditarod and we’d run down there and watch all the old timers, well I won’t call them old timers, we watched the heroes of the day: George Attla, Doc Lombard, Gareth Wright, Orville Lake, Earl Norris, Carl Huntington..the mushing stars of the day. We’d go down and watch them start and sometimes we’d run out on the trail a little bit. Anchorage was a fairly small town and we all lived downtown. We’d watch the start and then run to Grandma’s because we were cold and watch it on tv and then we’d run back downtown to watch the finish. Those early Fur Rondy mushers were big heroes to us and to our parents. We had a lot of respect for them. We always thought, wouldn’t that be something to someday take a dog team down Fourth Avenue.AB: Well you’ve done it…a few times.GM: Yes, it’s exciting. I want to do it this year. I’m really excited because I raised all these dogs and I bought a few from the Siebolds and I bred to the Siebolds’ dogs. I raised these dogs as pups and they are three years old now so I’m real excited. I ran them in the Rondy as yearlings and I took it really easy on them and last year I learned a lot. They were two year olds and I really had a nice dog team and in January they were awesome, but then I overtrained them. It was a fun and interesting experience. This year I’m hoping to have a little bit better dog team – a little bit stronger and a little faster. I’m not out to win but just out to do the best I can do. I’m pretty excited about this year.AB: When you aren’t mushing or playing, you’re flying.GM: Yes, I’m a pilot for a living. I started flying fairly young also. My dad was a pilot. Some of my earliest memories are sitting on his lap and flying. When I was going to college in Anchorage I was getting my pilot’s license and ratings on the side. Then I got real lucky and got this really good job at Northern Air Cargo as a pilot and I’ve been doing that for them since 1990.AB: Those are the big noisy planes that bring fuel out to the villages?GM: Yeah, they fuel the villages with lumber and potato chips, soda pop, take the mail, cars, vehicles, boats – you name it, we haul it – horses – I’ve hauled everything. It’s a lifeline out to the villages of supplies and cargo. And there’s the occasional pilot that we take back and forth to work so we have a couple of seats back there for the pilots. I fly this DC-6 and there are only a few left in the world and a couple of operators flying them. They are so old but they are really strong airplanes, wonderfully forgiving airplanes. They fly very well but there’s always something interesting going on because they are fairly old. You have to be fairly proficient at making decisions. They’re just old planes and things break down. You’re flying along and the engine starts barking and smoking with oil coming out and you have to shut it down and come in and land on three engines instead of four. But that’s fairly routine. I have had some scary experiences being a pilot and I’ve seen some interesting things. There’s been some bad ice loading up on my plane and I’ve been nervous about that a few times. It’s a pretty safe job and I’m not really in it for the thrill or the excitement. I think the dog team is a little more scary and exciting to me. There’s nothing like hooking up twenty dogs to an eighteen-pound dog sled. Pulling that snow hook is like a slingshot – you take off out of there and just hold on. AB: Well, thank you for talking with me. Your music is awesome. GM: Thank you. It’s something fun to do and there is a lot of fun stuff out there to do in life. Music brings a lot of people smiles so I enjoy it.
Racing in the ACE Race with Tonya Helm On this episode of the Mushing podcast,