Scratching & Clawing

Neff upset after "forced withdrawal" from Yukon Quest at Dawson City

By Andrew Cremata and Whitehorse Star reports


Skagway musher Hugh Neff was forced to withdraw from this year’s Yukon Quest under protest due to what he considers questionable and controversial circumstances.
This years race has been one of the most difficult in its 23 year history due to warmer than usual conditions, a blizzard on Eagle summit that trapped some teams and resulted in injury to both dogs and mushers, and the changing of the final 250 miles of the trail due to treacherous conditions from Pelly Crossing to Whitehorse.
“It was definitely a freak show,” said Neff by telephone on Tuesday from his kennel near Whitehorse. “I didn’t respect the way we were dealt with in Dawson.”
Neff entered Dawson on Feb. 17 in eighth place, and was informed by race officials, “‘You have some stuff to work out,’” said Neff.
After resting for 34 of the required 36 hours at the checkpoint, Neff was preparing his dogs to get back on the trail. He described his dogs as “perky and ready to roll,” and he was looking forward to the last 400 miles of the 1,000 mile race.
It was then that Neff describes being approached by two race officials who said, “We need to talk to you. I have a withdrawal form with your name on it.”
The officials gave Neff the option of waiting an additional 18 hours to rest the dogs, which would then be reassessed by race veterinarians to see if they could continue.
Neff was not happy, and felt he was forced into withdrawing from the race. Race officials maintain that it was Neff’s decision to scratch instead of waiting another 18 hours.
Race Marshall Mike McCowan claims that four options were given to Neff, but has not said what the other two might have been. Neff claims that he was given only the ultimatum.
Problems began for Neff in Eagle when he had to drop three dogs and was required by veterinarians to rest an additional six hours. Neff said that the two vets in Eagle disagreed about the condition of the dogs, with the older, more experienced of the two saying that they were fine. Neff said he had no problem with the decision, and was able to make up two hours on the leaders during the next leg of the race to Dawson because he still had the majority of his veteran dogs in the lineup.
“I had faster, more experienced dogs,” he said.
Neff claims that veterinarians in Dawson were biased against him, and said that he and the head veterinarian Kathleen McGill have had a “personality conflict” since he was disqualified from the race 2001 Quest because of the condition of his dogs’ feet.
Neff said there were three vets in Dawson. One was a local man, another not well known, and the last was the boyfriend of head veterinarian McGill and not on the Quest’s official vet staff. In fact, Neff claims that this man was actually a handler for another team at the start of the race.
Neff said that this man “refused to listen,” and that McGill refused to even talk to him about the issue. He also wished that there were more local vets involved in the race as many are brought in from places like “Florida,” and may not have the experience to be adept at making race related decisions.

One of Neff's dogs at his kennel before the race. Andrew Cremata

In an interview with the Star, McGill said, “(The team) had not responded to treatment in a way that would allow the dogs to continue down the trail.” She added that the condition being treated on Neff’s dogs was not something that could have been resolved with just an extra four hours’ rest, but could not comment on the exact nature of the problem due to doctor-patient privilege.
Neff compared the role of veterinarians in the Quest to the Iditirod, saying that in the Iditirod vets are more “behind the scenes,” but in the Quest they are “too involved” and adversely affect the outcome of the race.
Neff was also critical of other aspects of the race including trail conditions and general disorganization by race coordinators and officials. Other mushers have been disparaging of the race in recent years, mostly due to poorly marked and maintained trails and allegedly weak decisions being made by race officials.
Musher Paul Geoffrion told the Star, “It was not a trail... It was a deadly trap for dogs.”
He added that the trail was poorly routed and rather than setting up the trail to navigate around dangers they had set up a “death trap.” He said that permanent markers should at least be set up on the dangerous Eagle Summit.
Geoffrion had one of his dogs severely injured while navigating the trail last week and another musher complained that at one point her dogs were up to their bellies in water.
“We don’t know what to believe,” said Neff about the mushers’ reactions to apparent irregularities concerning dog safety during the Quest.
Lance Mackey of Kasilof won his second straight Quest at the revised finish line in Dawson at 8:29 p.m. on Tuesday. He was followed over an hour later by Hans Gatt of Atlin and William Kleedehn of Carcross. Whitehorse musher Sebastian Schnuelle, whose dogs are leased to tour operator Alaska Excursions in Dyea in the summer, finished in sixth place at about 3:15 p.m. Wednesday.
Since the controversy in Dawson, Neff has been preparing himself and his dogs for his upcoming run in the Iditarod and the Kobuk 440 soon after that.
“I’m happy to be back home and preparing for the Iditirod,” he said. “I’ve been on the sled every day this last week.”
Neff said he races with “honor and integrity,” and added, “I love mushing.”
Concerning the aftermath of this year’s Quest he said, “I used to think I wasn’t right for the Quest. Maybe the Quest isn’t right for me.
“This story isn’t over yet.”

See final results and more about the race at www.yukonquest.org