Whitehorse Daily Star

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Photo by Whitehorse Star

A GOOD ONE LOST - Larry 'Cowboy' Smith, seen here arriving into Dawson City during the 1990 Yukon Quest, died earlier this week.

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Photo by Whitehorse Star

A 1,000 MILES AWAITS – Larry ‘Cowboy’ Smith is seen at the start of the 1995 Yukon Quest.

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Photo by Whitehorse Star

Larry Smith 1988.

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Photo by Whitehorse Star

Larry Smith 1989.

Yukon loses an 'unforgettable character'

Larry “Cowboy” Smith, known for his dog mushing, rodeo days and as a trapliner, died early this week.

By John Tonin on April 15, 2021

Larry “Cowboy” Smith, known for his dog mushing, rodeo days and as a trapliner, died early this week.

"He was everywhere," Frank Turner, who ran several Yukon Quests alongside Smith, said Thursday. "A lot of people, if you chronicled his life, people would think you were inventing stuff.

"Larry walked his own path. He was a tremendous Yukoner. Jim Robb recognized that years ago. He recognized that Larry was very special."

Smith was an "iconic figure" in so many ways in respect to dogs, said Turner.

He ran in five Iditarods, from 1980 to 1984. Smith was also no stranger to the Yukon Quest, having run the race from 1988 to 1995.

"We ran a lot of miles together on the Quest," said Turner. "The way I came to value him was that for the Quest, it gets cold or you deal with overflow. It is challenging.

"When we got into tough spots, when someone would say it has dropped two more degrees or the wind was picking up, Larry was happy, he'd smile. His eyes were so piercing. You could see it in his eyes that this was good."

This attitude, this willingness to face what was in front of him was a rare ability of Smith's, said Turner.

"He has the rare ability to take adversity and turn it to his advantage," said Turner. "He knew he was going to do it.

"He never hung back and let people break trail for him. There is a code on the trail. Larry would be out there and if someone was having trouble, he'd say, 'move over, let me give it a go.'"

Whether you are a fan of dog mushing or not, Turner said, Smith's death is a huge loss for the territory.

"He was a super person," said Turner. "He was so colourful. He will be appreciated for a long time. He's an unforgettable character.

"He did it all, he truly did it all. When we lose some of the storytellers, it is a big hit.

"In the Yukon, we have a sense that we live in a special place with the mountains, rivers, and tundra. But, mostly it is about the people. Larry was one of those people."

John Firth, who worked for the Star when Smith was racing the Iditarod, said Thursday he was very into his dogs.

"He'd come into the Star office, he'd sit there and talk about his 'dawgs', not dogs, d-a-w-gs, and how they were doing," said Firth. "It was interesting; he came to talk to me for about six months."

Firth said he wasn't sure why Smith decided to come chat with him since on the trail, he took little interest in talking with the media.

"He was notorious for not talking to the media," said Firth.

Because of his shyness, "he became the focal point of media coverage," wrote Firth in the March 21, 1983 edition of the Star.

Before Smith, Firth said, the Iditarod was once considered a competitive camping trip.

"People loved him on the Iditarod," said Firth. "It used to be a camping trip for 10 days, then they'd sprint like hell.

"Larry came in and said, 'I can do this in 10 days.' He changed the race and forced top mushers to go a little faster and test the limits of what they could do.

"He never did break the 10 days but that is why people loved him. The little villages liked those types of people."

Smith's best Iditarod finish was third in 1983.

Firth didn't just run into Smith on the trail but had a few other encounters over the years.

"He was an interesting person," said Firth. "I ran into him in Dawson City at the Eldorado Hotel. I told him the ice froze up the brakes on my truck; it was about -38 below.

"Larry grabbed an axe from his truck, slide under mine and banged the ice off my brakes. Then we went back into the bar for another beer."

Another time, Firth delivered mail to his cabin on Coffee Creek.

"I delivered mail to him when I was paddling the Yukon River," said Firth. "He wasn't home so I left the mail out front. About a year later, he told me he had gotten it."

Turner said Smith didn't want a big fuss, but he wanted the Yukon to know that another good one has been lost.

Comments (13)

Up 2 Down 0

Louise (Alexander) Bruce on May 1, 2021 at 9:41 pm

My first husband and I knew Cowboy Smith back in the 80’s. In fact we first met him in 1965. He was working for the same logging company as my husband in the Horsefly area of BC.
When we saw him again in the 80’s, he came to our place in Atlin to train his dogs for the Iditarod. I made 200 dog booties for him! I believe it was his first Iditarod. He was a real character.

Up 4 Down 1

Sammy L. Lennie on Apr 27, 2021 at 9:04 pm

Miss all the old mushers that used to come up this way.

Up 7 Down 1

Marie Gogo on Apr 25, 2021 at 7:30 am

I am saddened to hear of our loss of Cowboy Smith. I always enjoyed his company, his charm and good looks and gasp! Those eyes. Rest in peace, dear Larry.

Up 7 Down 0

ferone on Apr 22, 2021 at 5:12 pm

Larry, you were just here in Vancouver. It's hard to believe but it’s true, you are on another “Cowboy Journey”. You are a legend in the Yukon and will never be forgotten. ❤️

Up 7 Down 0

Observer on Apr 21, 2021 at 9:50 pm

Dear Mr. Kleedon, thanks for doing the best succinct job of describing Cowboy. He was a gem of a man that always got along with and showed respect for everyone.

Up 11 Down 0

William Kleedehn on Apr 21, 2021 at 2:58 pm

Just like to add that there was a lot more to the 'Cowboy' than dog mushing. Yes I know that everybody knows this but the pictures that went with the article never showed him with his cowboy hat! This hat was important to the Barge Captain, Pilot, Trucker, Trapper, Hunting Guide and Wrangler and of course Rodeo Cowboy. Never mind the Story telling and sport shooting. I will never forget him. RIP Larry

Up 12 Down 0

Dale Wearmouth on Apr 19, 2021 at 10:21 am

The Yukon has lost a true legend.
RIP Cowboy.
Your legacy will live on for years to come.
It was an honor knowing you!

Up 15 Down 0

Randy Johnson on Apr 18, 2021 at 6:31 am

I knew Larry and have heard of him for many years mostly when I flew out of Dawson City in 1981. When I was there in 2010, he was the first person I saw. His first words were, "Still flying the cub Johnson?" We had a bit of a visit. Then two days later I flew over him on the barge as he was moving equipment up the Yukon River. He will be remembered for many years as he was truly a part of the Yukon.

Up 19 Down 0

Eva van Loon on Apr 17, 2021 at 12:57 pm

I didn't run into Cowboy often enough but I always had more than the time of day for those piercing blue eyes and the Chilcotin poetry that emerged from his mouth as he talked about even the most mundane matters. Larry loved the big freighter dogs, I suspect because he and they shared more than a few traits, like quiet strength, self-reliance, a tendency to introspection, and a beautiful voice. Larry, anyone who ever met you will now find the world a poorer place.

Up 22 Down 3

BnR on Apr 17, 2021 at 10:24 am

We're losing our legends. The Yukon is just getting more and more tame and homogenous.

Up 17 Down 0

Dave Dillabough on Apr 16, 2021 at 9:54 pm

RIP Larry. I knew of you my whole life and I can say the last time I saw you I was able to buy you a beer and share a couple stories. You will be missed.

Up 33 Down 4

Brent Tipple on Apr 16, 2021 at 3:21 pm

I met Larry at Pelly Crossing back in the late 60's. He had a cabin down by the river. He wanted to start a dog team, so he borrowed my Malamute, Faro to breed one of his females. (Faro was one of Roy Chambers malamutes) We had a good, easy friendship until I left for the Kootenays in '73. Truly an unforgettable character. I followed his exploits through the media. Gone, Larry, but not forgotten. It's men like you that make the Yukon, "The Yukon"!
RIP, Buddy, and build a new team in the sky.

Up 32 Down 1

Elaine and Audrey Lee on Apr 16, 2021 at 2:13 pm

Rest in Peace Larry and will be missed by thousands of close friends from the Chilcotin and the Yukon. Lost but not forgotten.

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