Haines’ Leo Smith a tough veteran of community’s beloved Alcan 200
Many know him as Leo “The Logger” Smith because of all the years he spent in the industry in Southeast Alaska, but Leo, 86, could also be called Leo “The Snowmachiner” Smith. The 47-year Haines resident raced in the first 15 Alcan 200 races, beginning in 1970. When he quit racing in the mid- to late-’80s he continued to volunteer his knowledge and help out where needed. It wasn’t until about 10 years ago that he gave that all up, but snowmachining is still in his blood.
“I rode them for pleasure, when I got to Haines I guess it was just the thing to do,” he recalled recently, as he reminisced about those past Alcan races. This year’s Alcan 200 is set for Jan. 17-18, and although Smith won’t be racing, he still vicariously supports a race that has given him a lifetime of adventure.
FROM THE SERVICE TO THE SNOWMACHINE
Smith served in World War II with the Paratroop Infantry from the 11th Airborne in Georgia. When the war ended, he remained in Japan and finished his time as an MP, or Military Policeman.
After he was discharged from the military, Smith came to Sitka, where he worked in the logging industry for four years. In 1966, he moved to Haines, continued his logging career and raised a family.
“Back in those days there was so much work that all you had to do was walk down the street and you would be offered work,” he said. “When we first arrived in Haines we claimed five acres of land at eight mile on the Haines Highway, during the Homestead Act, and built an A-frame house.”
During that time, Smith’s interest in snowmachining grew. In the early ’70s, he bought a Scorpion dealership to make some extra money, and the hot Trail-A-Sled machines were popular. He once got a call from an editor in New York who wanted to write a story about climbing the Chilkoot Pass by snowmachine.
“When she arrived in Haines, she brought with her a lawyer, doctor and a few other dignitaries that were going to ride with us,” Smith said. “She bought a Scorpion Super Stinger 440 from me for about $700 to take up the trail.
“We were hoping to make history.”
The group got close, Smith said, but missed the mark.
“A hundred yards from the top my snowmachine tipped over backwards and a handle bar caught me in the ribs, breaking them,” Smith said. “I t was a good thing the doctor was with us; he wrapped them for me. But, because of me being a daredevil, we didn’t make it to the top. A year later, a guy from Skagway did it.”
At his home, Smith proudly displayed all of the trophies he has collected over his decades-long racing career. Although still intact, many have severe smoke damage due to a fire that broke out at his home last spring. He lost all of his pictures, but the trophies survived.
According to the Chilkat Valley News, the Chilkat Snowburner’s club held its first Alcan 200 in February 1970 with 18 entries. Smith was one of them. He said participants raced from Haines to Dezadeash Lake in Yukon, and had to stop there because of a lack of snow on the road to Whitehorse, where the race was supposed to end. So, to make up the 200 miles they needed, they circled the lake several times before heading due west about 12 miles before calling it good.
For several years, the race began and ended in many different locations, Smith said. Sometimes routes had to be changed for conditions. Sometimes blowing snow or slushy, rainy conditions made the roads treacherous.
“During one race, whiteout conditions were so bad that some of the drivers would veer off the road without knowing it,” he recalled. “I kept pushing through it until bad visibility caused me to hit a snowdrift and be thrown from my machine. I watched it roll over several times until it stopped. The machine was fine and after rolling it over, I continued down the road. After I went a ways, I started smelling gas and stopped. When I lifted the hood, I found my gallon gas jug that I had tied in place had broken free and was lying up against the hot motor. If there had been any sparks, the gas could have blown up, causing a fire.”
Today, Smith can’t recall every detail of every race – there were so many of them and so many people he met along the way that the memories blend as they tend to do. Even how he placed in each of the races seems irrelevant to him now, but one thing he is still clear about: “I finished every race I started.”
The Alcan 200 continues to be a huge favorite in Haines, and Smith will likely follow the race’s progress. It’s dubbed the longest snowmachine road race in North America, and winners average 110-plus mph. The race starts at the Canadian border north of Haines and turns around at Dezadeash Lodge, roughly 100 miles north toward Haines Junction. An awards banquet will be held in Haines the evening of Jan. 18.
TAG: Angie Goodwin is a Haines enthusiast who enjoys turning the outdoors into art.