Tragedy has once again struck the life of Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race legend Lance Mackey.
Not long out of rehab after admitting to problems with drugs and alcohol, the 50-year-old musher has lost his partner of many years, the mother of two of his three children, and the woman he has credited with helping him get his life in order.
Alaska State Troopers today reported that 32-year-old Jennifer Smith – Jenne to her friends – was found dead Monday morning beneath an overturned all-terrain vehicle (ATV) not far from Mackey’s Comeback Kennel off Resolution Road on the outskirts of Fairbanks.
“It is with great sadness that I say my friend, my partner, the mother of my babies died in an ATV accident on Sunday night,” Mackey said in a post on his Facebook page today. “The babies are safe. They were home with me at the time. Family and neighbors have been here helping us and Jenne’s parents are coming up today.
“Jenne was my rock during my rehab and recovery. She will continue to be with the kids and I as they grow into the amazing people she knew they would be.”
The babies are going on four-year-old Atigun and going on two-year-old Lozen.
The Trooper report on the accident provided little information as to what exactly happened. The agency reported receiving a 911 call shortly after 10 a.m. on Monday that revealed Smith had been “discovered deceased near a friend’s residence on Resolution Road. Based on the preliminary investigation, it appears Smith had rolled her ATV late on Sunday and became trapped under the vehicle.'”
“Friends” found her, it said, and “Smith was not believed to be wearing a helmet at the time of the collision.”
Resolution Road is a quarter- to half-mile, unpaved spur off the Old Murphy Dome Road home to more dogs than people. There are several kennels along the road.
One-person, all-terrain, gas-powered vehicles known as four-wheelers – or “quad bikes” in other parts of the world – are a common way of travel in the area. They are used both to get around and to train dogs. Helmets are not common.
Over the years, a number of dog mushers have been injured in ATV crashes while being pulled behind the dogs on the vehicles in training. But troopers said there were no dogs attached to Smith’s four-wheeler.
A cancer survivor thrice divorced, Mackey has led a difficult life, his private world plagued with problems with the law and his professional life a series of extreme highs and extreme lows. The first musher ever to win the north’s premier sled dog races – the 1,000-mile Iditarod and the 1,000 mile Yukon Quest International Sled Dog Race – in the same year, Mackey reigned over long-distance dog driving in from 2005 to 2010.
In that span of time, he was four times champion of both the Quest and the Iditarod. Inducted into the Alaska Sports Hall of Fame midway through his Iditarod career, he was dubbed “a living legend…an iron-man musher with a kennel of wonderdogs, Lance Mackey has dominated long-distance sled-dog racing like nobody in the history of the sport.”
Highs versus lows
The dominance disappeared at the start of the 2010s and then went into freefall. Sixteenth in the 2011 Iditarod, Mackey had fallen to 43 by 2015 and failed to even finish two of the next three races in which he competed.
Along the way, he suffered severe frostbite, struggled with the death of two dogs in his team during the 2015 Iditarod and became a public target of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA).
“There should be a thorough investigation into the reasons why not one but two dogs died on Lance Mackey’s team this year, and this shamelessly cruel event must be stopped before more dogs are injured, run to death, or killed in other ways,” the animal right’s organization demanded that year.
The Iditarod investigated, but could find no reason the dogs died. Mushing fans rallied to Mackey’s side, but by the start of this year’s race he sounded like a man digging his way out of an emotional pit.
“My race record has been dull and not much fun,” he observed. “My last Iditarod was in 2016. It ended in Galena, and I haven’t been the same since. So for me, 2019 was about having fun, enjoying the checkpoints and the people of our state and its sport, about my dogs, fans, sponsors, friends and my family.”
That 2019 race ended with a 26th place finish that came after Mackey showed signs he might be on the way back to being the force of old. His team was 15th to the Bering Sea coast before fading on the run to Nome.
Then came the disaster of 2020. First there was a blow up over Mackey giving his dogs cannabidiol – popularly known as CBD – a marijauna derivative believed to ease pain. Iditaord rules did not specifically prohibit the drug, but the rules do contain a provision banning “pain medications.”
An Iditarod fan favorite, Mackey was largely forgiven for giving his dog what has been debated as a potential performance-enhancing drug (PED), but the stuff hit the fan when Mackey’s own post-race drug test came back positive for methaphetaime or what is commonly known simply as meth.
Mackey was subsequently disqualifed from the race, leaving him with a record of four wins, six top-10 finishes, three scratches, one DQ, and seven races as an also-ran in a 20-year Iditarod career.
He has not entered the 2021 race, the future of which is in limbo. Iditarod has put protocols in place to deal with the COVID-19 pandemic and is planning to race, but there is no telling what happens with the disease between now and March.
The disease is spiking in the 49th state. According to state Department of Health and Social Service data, Alaska is seeing about 20 times as many cases now as back in March and April when the state was in lockdown to prevent any spread.
There is considerable debate in the medical community of how much worse things will get as winter arrives and Alaskans increasingly move indoors. Closed, poorly ventilated spaces have been widely linked to the spread of COVID-19 everywhere.
Meanwhile, Mackey is wrestling with a family tragedy, and friends are worrying the loss of his life partner could seriously hamper his continuing recovery.