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Lance Mackey: An Evening with the Legendary Musher

The White Wilderness crew got a chance to meet Lance Mackey and watch the new Lance Mackey film, The Great Alone, as part of last weekend’s Beargrease fundraising event.  What a treat!  If you’re a sled dog fan, you will definitely want to check it out.  You can even bring your non-doggie friends along, as the human interest story is riveting in its own right.

A captivating documentary on the life of Lance Mackey, a celebrated mushing icon.
The award winning documentary on the life of Lance Mackey, four time Iditarod winner, is currently touring the country.

It was my first time meeting the legendary Lance Mackey. He holds the record for being THE four time consecutive Iditarod winner, not to mention back to back Yukon Quest-Iditarod wins.  Lance is the only one to ever win the grueling Yukon Quest, and go on to race the Iditarod, two week later, with the same dogs, and win that 1,049 mile race as well. In doing so, he has blown the lid off what we know about sled dog endurance training. Basically, Lance is a mushing super-hero. Despite that fame, I was overwhelmingly struck by how darn humble and stinking funny he was.  Down on luck and raised on scrappiness, he has more grit and determination than most sled dogs, and that’s saying a lot.

The movie wove together breathtaking Alaska scenery, a heartfelt cancer-survivor story, the crescendo of Lance’s Iditarod 2013 race footage, Lance’s humble and no-nonsense witty commentary and the rags to well, perhaps not riches, but certainly a plethora of record accomplishments in the mushing world. (“What did you do with the four trucks you won, Lance?” someone asked. “Did you have to bring that up?”, he quipped. “Well, my ex-wife got one, the lawyer got one, and I had to sell one.”)  In the Q & A session that followed, there were many mushers in the audience who were hoping Lance would share some of his dog training insights.

“The dogs only know what you teach them.”  It was a definitive pearl of wisdom, and a great reminder.

None too soon, either, as today we were back in the saddle, training dogs.  I found myself with a heightened mindfulness of that pearl. What am I reinforcing in dog behavior?  What am I rewarding? Am I being clear in my expectations, and being consistent? Whether dogs or kids, it is a series of questions that gets asked regularly as we attempt to shape the behavior of others.

Today, Trolley was in lead, with apparently the sole purpose of testing my resolve and reminding me about teaching.  A veteran leader, Trolley is very smart, athletic and talented, but at times, he also likes to call the shots on where he thinks we are going. Our first attempt to take the road less traveled today ended in my defeat, as Trolley rebuked and dragged the team past the turn and back on to the main trail.  Trolley 1-Theo zero. I was not happy, and Lance’s words rattled around in my head. I must do better.

Clearly, today was about reminding Trolley who was the pilot, and who was the co-pilot, to put it nicely.  At every intersection, I changed the rules on which way we would go. Maybe we’d go around this roundabout twice, or take turns from acute angles we’ve never dared try before. Every command was meant to make sure he was listening to the driver, and not just running his own auto-pilot show up front. By the time we got home, we had tracked out every snowy intersection with new footprints from fresh directions.  We’d bounced over logs, made tracks through the brush, and turned a predictable run on its head.  In the end, we were working together again, musher and lead dog, as it should be.

Thank you Lance, for the gentle reminder and bold inspiration.


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