Alaskan Quest board blamed for dangerous trail

The Alaskan Yukon Quest board of directors and staff let down the mushers, says Bill Cotter. When the past champ finished speaking at the Quest…

The Alaskan Yukon Quest board of directors and staff let down the mushers, says Bill Cotter.

When the past champ finished speaking at the Quest closing banquet on Saturday night, the packed Yukon Convention Centre burst into applause.

Cotter started his speech like most mushers, thanking the officials, the vets, and his dogs.

And he thanked the Canadian Rangers for “the beautiful trail on this side of the border.”

“Unfortunately, I can’t say the same for the Alaskan side,” he said.

Cotter’s been racing for 35 years. He’s run more than 150 sled dog races.

“So I know a lot a lot about dog racing and dogs and mushers,” he said.

Cotter was even involved with the Iditarod when it began, as “the first checker at the first checkpoint for the very first Iditarod.”

“I know about how to put a race on,” he said. “I put races on myself.”

And when mushers participate in an international sporting event, sign up, pay the entry fee and train all year, they expect a marked trail, said Cotter.

“When we come to the race, we’re owed a trail we can safely negotiate.

“And that has not happened with this race.

 “We were let down by the American/ Fairbanks side of the border, the board of directors and everyone who works on staff at the Yukon Quest office — you let us down.”

The dogs should always come first, he said.

Cotter, who’s 61, doesn’t plan on running the Quest again, but expects to have a team in a future race driven by another musher.

“And we need to have a safe trail,” he said.

“We can break trail in a foot of fresh snow, we can go across open water, ice; we can negotiate steep hills — but we have to have a marked safe trail.

 “And with that I just say farewell,” he said, walking off the stage.

Cotter’s comments were a “little bit of a shock,” said race manager Josea Busby, after the banquet.

“We know there need to be improvements,” she said, citing bad weather and bad luck.

“And this was addressed at the finishers’ meeting and at the post-race drivers’ meeting, she said.

“It’s driven home that we need a better trail plan in the future.”

But funding to improve the trail has to be approved by the board, said Bubsy.

Both board presidents attended the meetings, she added.

“And if I have anything to do with this race in the future, absolutely, the trail needs to be improved.”

The trail conditions on the Alaska side of the border have been “bad for years,” said Tagish musher Michelle Phillips.

“And I’m glad people are finally saying it.”

Phillips has been accused of being a whiner for complaining about the trail.

“But Cotter, who’s been running dogs for 35 years isn’t whiny,” said Phillips.

“I hope the Quest steps up — I don’t know what is going on over there (on the American side) — whether it’s a lack of initiative …”

This year, mushers weren’t even warned the trail wasn’t broken, said Phillips.

“There’s no respect.

“I mean, it shouldn’t be a cakewalk, but holy smokes.”

This year, veteran musher Frank Turner scratched at Mile 101 dog drop.

Turner has, in the past, been a vocal critic of the organization’s inability to build a proper trail.

But this year, after scratching 227 kilometres into the race — well before reaching treacherous jumble ice on the Yukon River — Turner said he was frustrated by “all this talk of the trail.”

“Nobody makes us do this race,” he said.

“We decide when we want to do it and when we don’t.”

He was the only musher to take this stance at the banquet.

“I want to thank my dogs for not taking the opportunity to kill me in all the jumble ice, because it was an excellent opportunity,” said veteran musher Kelly Griffin, at the start of her speech.

Griffin agreed with Cotter.

“We need a safe trail  — it’s for the dogs,” she said.

“This is a dog race, not an episode of Survivor. And it was over the top in some places.”

The jumble ice on the Yukon River injured a lot of dogs, bruised mushers and put rookie Julie Estey out of the race, after she tore a ligament in her knee.

Champ Lance Mackey actually got ahead of the trailbreakers in the jumble ice and when they caught him, they told him he’d be better off going on ahead, because the trailbreakers weren’t sure they’d make it through.

The trailbreakers even offered Mackey a bundle of markers to help flag the trail.

But at the banquet, all this was behind the four-time champ.

“I don’t think this is ever going to get old,” he said accepting his award, carving and $35,000 cheque.

Mackey admitted he sometimes treats his dogs better than his kids.

“But the dogs are my kids,” he said.

“And I need them to make a living to support my kids.”

Mackey talked about one section of trail where there were shredded rabbit carcasses everywhere.

“It was a bit intimidating,” he said with a laugh.

“You wonder what’s around the next corner eating all these rabbits.”

Bu it was even more intimidating for second-place finisher Ken Anderson, said Mackey.

“He thought is was my dogs catching the rabbits.”

Mackey’s team did manage to catch a muskrat.

“They were playing volleyball with it as we were going down the trail,” he said.

He wasn’t sure what it was. “And when it made its way to my sled it scared the crap out of me.”

Mackey was upbeat and laughing when he claimed first prize and when he collected the four ounces of gold as the first musher into Dawson.

But he broke down when he learned he’d received the vet’s choice award for the musher who displays the most outstanding dog care.

“This means more to me than winning the damn race,” he said, choking back tears.

Veteran musher Bill Pinkham also got a little teary after proposing to his handler at the end of his speech.

Hugh Neff made a proposal during his speech as well.

The Annie Lake musher offered to pay Quest 300 winner Josh Cadzow’s entry fee if he wanted to enter the Quest next year.

The 20-year-old aboriginal from Fort Yukon, Alaska, was in Circle when Neff arrived at the checkpoint.

“He’d made up six hours on us frontrunners,” said Neff.

“The one thing the Quest could use is more character.

“When I moved up from Chicago, I thought this race would be more like Iron Will, with more native involvement.”

Rookie of the year went to Anderson.

Fifth place finisher Brent Sass received the Challenge of the North award as the musher who most exemplified the spirit of the Yukon Quest.

The Outstanding Sportsmanship Award went to Griffin.

Mackey’s lead dogs Rev and Handsome gobbled up steaks in their golden harnesses.

And Whitehorse veteran Kyla Boivin took home the red lantern.