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Petty politics bog down Yukon Quest board

After four years as its race marshal, the Yukon Quest organization sacked Mike McCowan.But it didn’t have the nerve to tell him.

After four years as its race marshal, the Yukon Quest organization sacked Mike McCowan.

But it didn’t have the nerve to tell him.

At the end of July, a month before 2008 race sign-up began, McCowan ran into an Alaskan Quest board member in his hometown, Delta Junction.

“We stopped and talked and that person said, ‘I’m so sorry you’re not going to be …’”

McCowan knew how the sentence ended.

But it wasn’t until two days before sign-up that he got a call from the chair of the Quest rules committee.

Apparently, the Quest needed a change, and one or two people in the organization had complained about McCowan.

“So they were making a decision based on one or two complaints and I was not given the opportunity to reply to the accusations,” he said.

“I wasn’t blaming (the chair); at least she had the guts to call me.

“But I was disappointed and embarrassed about how the whole thing was done.”

McCowan asked the rules committee why it hadn’t called and sat down with him to discuss the change.

“Because we didn’t have to,” was the reply.

The rules committee, responsible for making the rules and hiring the race marshal, is not an elected body.

“They decide who they want on the committee and decisions are made based on majority votes.”

“We are the Yukon Quest,” a committee member once told McCowan.

Before the 2007 race, McCowan told the committee he would like to be marshal for the ‘07, ‘08 and ‘09 races.

And he’d do it without pay.

The marshal usually gets a $1,500 stipend.

“I was hoping that would free up almost $5,000 for trail work,” he said.

He wasn’t given a response.

“They just hemmed and hawed,” said McCowan.

“I knew they were looking for another marshal for the ‘07 race too; they just couldn’t find anybody.”

It wasn’t much easier in 2008.

In August, the Quest announced Dave Munson would be the new race marshal.

Not long after, McCowan got a call. Munson had some questions about what the job entailed.

The husband of deceased Iditarod champ Susan Butcher realized it was too much to take on with two little girls to care for, and he stepped down.

So, the Quest went to musher Joe May.

“He’d been burnt by the Quest in 2003/04,” said McCowan.

“He didn’t want anything to do with the race because of the politics.”

Nevertheless, May agreed to be race marshal.

“It’s really an ego thing when you’re asked to be marshal,” said McCowan.

But one month before the 2008 race start, May quit.

“I think Joe wanted to be race marshal but didn’t like the way the organization was trying to micro-manage the job,” said McCowan.

From the start of the pre-race mushers’ meeting until the end of the finish banquet, the race marshal carries the full brunt of responsibility, he said.

“That’s where the buck stops.

“Only a fool goes into a situation like that without any idea what will happen.

“It’s not a fun job.”

But McCowan loves it.

He used to be an air-traffic controller.

“I’ve watched people melt and die right in front of me because they didn’t do what I said,” he said.

“So, I’m used to making decisions that may mean life or death.”

When McCowan was marshal, he worked closely with the race manager.

“It’s essential for a race like this,” he said.

“I have no trouble taking on absolute responsibility, as long as I have a say in it.”

But the board isn’t used to having such an active race marshal, said McCowan.

The board and rules committee don’t include the marshal in decision-making.

“It’s like, here, go walk through this minefield that someone else laid,” he said.

“And do I get a map? No.

“But when things start hitting the fan, you want a say.”

Because when something goes wrong out on the trail, nobody looks to board members or the rules committee to ask the hard questions, said McCowan.

“They come to the race marshal.”

During the 2004 race, McCowan remembers sending the two frontrunners into “a black hole.”

It wasn’t until after the mushers had left the Eagle checkpoint that McCowan discovered a huge section of trail before the Canadian border had never been broken.

The next year, McCowan told the Alaska board he wanted to take off from Dawson City and run the 492-kilometre stretch of trail to Circle, Alaska a couple weeks before the race.

The board nixed it.

“There have always been problems between Eagle and Circle,” said McCowan.

This year was no exception.

Reigning champ Lance Mackey actually got ahead of the trailbreakers at one point and several dogs and mushers were hurt in the jumble ice.

“Look at the number of dogs that left Circle this year, and then the number of dogs that left Eagle (after the jumble ice),” said McCowan.

“Almost 24 per cent of the dogs were lost.

“That’s unacceptable.”

For the last five years that section of trail has not been broken or prepared prior to the race, said McCowan.

The Quest is breaking its own rules.

Race rule No. 3 states, “The trail will be broken and marked prior to the race.”

It wasn’t.

Mushers are required to agree to the rules and sign them, said McCowan.

And the Quest isn’t holding up its side of the bargain.

“It’s just flat wrong to make a promise, a contract and then not fulfill it,” he said.

“For a good dog race you need a couple of things,” said McCowan.

“You need two people who think their dogs are better than the other drivers. And you need a trail.”

It’s the responsibility of the race organization to level the trail, he said.

“Weeks before the race, (the organization) knew the trail was sucking eggs,” said McCowan.

“And they could have put some money and effort toward it.

“They said they didn’t have the money.

“But anything becomes a priority if you make it a priority.”

The guys who run the trail on snowmachines ahead of the mushers aren’t the trailbreakers, added McCowan.

They’re trail-proofers.

“They’re supposed to be looking for last-minute black holes.”

The trailbreakers should be out there weeks in advance.

It’s hard work, said McCowan.

“And what’s wrong with paying people who beat the crap out of themselves and their machines.”

The Quest covers their gas, he said. But they don’t even offer the volunteers money for food.

“There’s a time when we can’t ask volunteers to do this stuff.”

At the last minute, musher Doug Grilliot stepped up as 2008 race marshal.

“I brought Doug on board as a judge in 2006,” said McCowan.

The next time McCowan ran into the rules committee chair, she gave him a new reason for sacking him.

“It had to do with how I dealt with the media at Circle when the second dog died in 2007,” said McCowan.

Thing is, McCowan wasn’t even in Circle when he heard about the dog death.

The media following the Quest were still in Eagle, waiting for a plane. And the media briefing took place in Central later in the day.

“The whole thing was nothing but a set-up,” said McCowan.

“Lots of folks in the Yukon knew it was a screw job.”

The Yukon board is out of the loop.

When May quit, the Alaska board didn’t let the Yukon crew know for a good two weeks.

“It’s not about Alaska versus the Yukon, and ‘Our side did this, etc.,’” said McCowan.

“It’s about the race — the same dream and the same goal.

“It’s exasperating, why can’t we just quit this pettiness and do what’s in the best interest of the race.

“It’s nuts.”

The Alaskan government does not directly fund the Yukon Quest on an annual basis.

It does occasionally provide gas money, about $2,000, said Stephen Reynolds, the Quest board’s Yukon executive director.

“But it has no contribution agreement” like the Yukon government’s, he said.

Yukon’s Tourism and Culture gives the Quest $150,000 in yearly funding.

And in 2007 and 2008 it gave the Quest an extra $50,000 to increase the purse.

In 2008, Economic Development granted an additional $30,000 through its Community Development Fund and the Strategic Industries Fund.

The money is for trail safety and upgrades, the production and distribution of an educational video, a historical images catalogue recording the Yukon Quest history, and improvements to the Yukon Quest brochure, website and historical research.