YUKON QUEST: TOUGH WEATHER: INTERVIEW WITH MIKE MCCOWAN
Tough weather in this year’s Quest forces tough decisions for long time veteran Race Marshall Mike McCowan.No one said it was going to be easy, yet no one thought it would be this hard. This was a tough year to be the man in charge of the Yukon Quest. A “Perfect Storm” on Eagle Summit, the most notorious part of the race tore through the middle of the pack, forcing an airlift evacuation. Some mushers complained about the evacuation and subsequently wanted their entry fees back. Two different time penalties for dog care, prompted a withdrawal from a veteran musher who vowed, “I’ll never race the Quest again” Bad trails forced a re-route of the race, and although maintaining roughly the same mileage, racers had to travel through a very hilly section twice. Situations of this magnitude can send any event into a chaotic spiral. Through it all, Mike McCowan was calling the shots. I sat down with Mike shortly after the race ended, to discuss his responsibilities to all the parties involved, and gained a little insight into how some very difficult decisions were made. Readers can draw their own conclusions, and they will, but what I came away from this interview feeling is that if I were a sled dog in the Yukon Quest, I would want, without a doubt, to have Mike McCowan as Race Marshall.SDS: Mike, I know that the title “Race Marshall” has different meanings at different race venues, what exactly does it mean to be Race Marshall of the Yukon Quest, the world’s toughest sled dog race?MM: The Quest specifically states what the responsibilities of the Race Marshall are. Basically the Race Marshall is in charge of all facets of the race. From the driver’s meeting to the post race banquet.SDS: So, you are the last decision on all matters?MM: I am the only decision.SDS: Obviously in a race as big and complex as the Quest, there has to be a lot of delegation of responsibility and authority. You have all these people in different areas of expertise and authority, they all report to you?MM: Right.SDS: In a normal year at the Quest, a year more non-eventful than this one, what does your job typically entail?MM: I’m involved with the race on a year-round basis. Starting once the last race ends, through the next race. I work very closely with the Race Manager, and his responsibility is for anything dealing with the logistics of the race to be in place prior to the start of the race. Things like straw, stove fuel, dog drops, aircraft fuel, all the way to making sure the outhouses are in place at checkpoints. Making sure each checkpoint manager has the things they need to run their checkpoint. That is the Race Manager’s job, but I work real closely with him to make sure everything is in place.SDS: This is the biggest race you Race Marshall for?MM: It is the longest race.SDS: Are you involved with inspecting the trail?MM: I’ve inspected some parts of the trail, and last year the Race Manager and I decided that the best thing to be able to do is run the whole trail a week before the race on snowmachines, ending up in the starting town about a week before the race.SDS: Once the race starts, how do you travel from checkpoint to checkpoint?MM: It depends on where the checkpoint is. Mostly we are vehicle based. A unique thing about the Quest is that all the checkpoints are vehicle accessible except for Eagle, and some of the dog drops. We do have aircraft available to us, and we also use snowmachines to get in and out of places when necessary. SDS: Who provides the aircraft?MM: It is all volunteer based, but we pay their expenses such as fuel.SDS: How many aircraft are involved?MM: This year we had six planes. That is a normal amount. We use Cessna 170’s, 172’s 185’s and such. There were two Navajo, nothing special, all but the Navajo are equipped with skis for landing gear. It gives you more options on where to land, more options are good.SDS: In a normal year, how much is race rules enforcement a part of your job?MM: At the pre-race driver’s mtg, I go through the rules that concern me the most, and answer any questions the drivers may have. Things like mandatory gear rules, use of necklines, things like that. We do require that necklines be carried for each dog, but don’t mandate their use unless we feel it is necessary due to special circumstances.SDS: Such as?MM: It could be trail conditions, or it could be dog behavior.SDS: This year was pretty dramatic with the Eagle storm and all that. The storm moved in really fast and caught some mushers out, so to speak. Yet I was at the pre-race meeting, and you talked quite a bit about how bad the wind and conditions can be on Eagle Summit. Did you have any warning that you could have relayed to the mushers at 101? (101, named after mile 101 on the Steese Highway is the last dog drop before mushers depart for the ascent and descent over Eagle Summit, then on into Central checkpoint)MM: Yes, we had the NOAA storm warning early in the morning and posted it immediately. That was pretty much the talk of the 101 dog drop. It was also discussed at the pre-race driver’s mtg, pre-race handler’s mtg, and the pre-race rookies mtg. We made it a point to talk about the dangers of crossing this particular summit. Just driving vehicles over this route, the basic rule is you NEVER do it at night even if the weather is good. You never do it while it is windy or snowing either.When it comes down to the musher who has to make a decision, it comes down to their choice to go or not to go. That’s their choice, it is not our choice.I’ve always said that we are slaves to nature. When Mother Nature decides to do her thing, you have to be aware and prepared for it. In the Quest, sometimes the greater risk brings you the greater reward, but you still have to be realistic. Eagle Summit isnt the only place you don’t want to be in a snow and wind storm; the Yukon River is another one. The Yukon river giveth and it also taketh away. You could be going 168 miles dead into a 40 mph wind the whole way, blowing snow and all. Anybody that signs up for the Quest and doesn’t have a healthy respect for these things just simply hasn’t done their homework.SDS: Would you say some teams weren’t prepared for it? It seems as though the front runners saw it coming and got over before the s*** hit the fan? MM: Everybody basically had the same information, the front runners pulled out of 101 somewhere around 2:30, 3:00pm, approximately. Standing at 101 you could see the weather changing. It is only about a 30-35 mile run up and over into Central. The key is to get over that summit. 101 to the Summit is not that far. It is one thing when the storm is just starting and it is still daylight. Sunset wasn’t until 5pm. Mushers had two hours to get over in daylight which is totally do-able. Now after daylight is gone and it is snowing at 101, is it the best choice to make? Well, I can’t make choices for the drivers, they have to make their own.SDS: Do you think the front runners experience helped them make the decision to get out and try to beat the worst part of the storm over Eagle Summit?MM: Sure. A lot of years the mushers are standing at 101, looking at each other and asking each other if they are going to go. SDS: In talking to several of the mushers involved, they said the trail markers on the top and backside were completely gone, non existent. How do you get musher progress, and that kind of trail information back to you, as you are in transit, or in checkpoints for most of the race?MM: Basically all we know is when someone has left a checkpoint and when they arrive at the next checkpoint, thus average run times. Other than that you really don’t know.SDS: What information did you have about the the mushers caught in the storm, and what was the basis of your decision to send out planes?MM: A couple of things that haven’t been made straight or have been blown over by the media: I was in Circle, and we got a HAM radio message that we had two dog teams, but three drivers arrive in Central. Which meant that we had a dog team up there on their own, without a driver. That is when I had one of my judges move forward to cover the front runners in Circle, and I moved back because my only desire at that point was to find that dog team. I have a priority list for me as Race Marshall. Number one is the dogs, number two is the race, number three is the driver. SDS: Really? The driver, the human, is third?MM: The driver’s wishes, desires, yes, absolutely, number three. I’m not going to make decisions because a musher might have invested their last penny in getting to the starting line of this race, or something emotional like that. The dogs are first priority, what is best for the dogs, is going to be best for the race, and most likely is best for the driver. We haven’t lost a dog in four years. When I found out that the dog team was up there alone, in obviously bad conditions, my first concern was for that dog team. When I got back to Central, we sent snowmachines out to search, but they came back unable to get through. I started pulling aside other drivers that had made it over and asked them if they had seen or heard anybody, dog teams barking, people yelling anything, but they had seen or heard nothing. At that point I knew that we had at least 4, and possibly 6 drivers and teams unaccounted for. When I launched the actual search, and I want to emphasize that at that point it was not an actual rescue, just a search, we wanted to #1, find that lost team, #2 I wanted to find these missing drivers and teams. Plus we also started working backwards from 101 towards Angel Creek to see if we could find the three drivers that had left Angel Creek, but had not yet arrived in 101. We had a whole bunch of concerns going.When the snowmachiners got back, having gotten bogged down in blizzard conditions and didn’t even get above tree line, I knew I would have to make a decision. I knew sunset was at about 5pm the storm had not abated, the road was shut, and we were told that the road would not be opened until the next morning at the earliest.SDS: That is a long time not to know where people are.MM: Yes, but it is another thing to have them unaccounted for on Eagle Summit, in what we now realize is a really, really bad storm. This is the worst possible scenario I can have as a Race Marshall. I had a dog team up their without its driver in bad conditions, not knowing anything about it. At about 11:35 I said, ok, let’s make the calls.SDS: Obviously this is a back up plan you know you have at your avail in case of emergency, or as you said worst case scenario. How does one call up a Blackhawk helicopter rescue? I mean where do you start?MM: Any search and rescue in Alaska begins with a 911 call to the troopers. When they don’t have the ability to handle it they call in people with bigger and better capabilities and assets. When I was on the phone with the troopers, I was talking with someone I’ve known real well for about 25 years, and he knows that I just don’t call because I’m having a bad day, he knew it was serious. At that point we all started working together. SDS: The way I understand it, there were fixed wing aircraft who located the coordinates of the teams, then helicopters were sent out to get them.MM: Basically 4 aircraft were involved. A fixed wing and a helicopter from the troopers, and a HC 130 and a HH 60 helicopter from the 210th rescue squadron of the Alaska Air Guard. The HC 130 is equipped with forward looking infrared radar. What that means is if there is a heat signature on the ground, they are going to see you. It is very accurate, if you have a heat signature that is different from the surroundings, they will find you. When I first saw the HC 130 come over, I immediately knew that we would find them. We were making guesses on where they might be, based on wind direction and where the trail was.SDS: Were you able to see a printout or something on a screen that showed you where they were?MM: No, one of my judges, is an ex navy fighter pilot, currently a 747 pilot, and has also raced the Quest twice. He was perfect to show them where to look. We were in VHF contact with the overhead aircraft, and we had HAM radios going also. The communications, although not perfect, were pretty darn good. The first word we got from the aircraft was that we have 6 for medi-vac.SDS: What exactly does that mean?MM: Medi-vac is short for medical evacuation. It means you have bodies that are not in operable shape, you have someone hurt. As soon as I heard that, I started a process to round up dog drivers to go out on snowmachines because I thought there might be even more dog teams without drivers up there. From that radio report we could have had up to 6 more teams up there on the side of Eagle Summit. I was looking at the possibility of having to get 7 full teams without drivers off the mountain, and do it quickly. At this time it was 3:30 in the afternoon or so.SDS: What did they base the report of “6 drivers needing medi-vac” on? We now know in hindsight that wasn’t the case.MM: I don’t know. Remember we are getting communications from a helicopter to another aircraft, and down to us. The terminology may have been changed or whatever. Search and rescue means one thing to me, medi-vac means something else. We continued trying to organize the snowmachiners to carry any experienced dog drivers we could find in Central, out to find the teams. I thought we would have up to 7 teams needing to get down off the mountain in the dark, in a storm that was still raging. The next thing I hear over the radio, is that we have two drivers and their dogs airlifted back to 101. That was the first word I got that in fact the helicopters were pulling teams off the mountain. I then requested the names of the mushers and the conditions of them and their teams. The HH 60 had in air refueling capabilities, from the HC 130. The helicopter just kept going back and getting dog teams.SDS: How did they get the teams into the helicopters, I’ve heard reports that they didn’t even land?MM: They definitely landed. There was one where they could only set down one ski on the side of the mountain and used the blade lift to keep the copter horizontal while they loaded, but the rest of the time they landed.SDS: It sounds like they made the decision to evacuate the mushers before you could….MM: My judge had the authority. We had people who had been out there for 17hrs or more. My judge came out of the copter and talked to the drivers. Some of them came up and said, “I’m so glad to see you,” others said, “do you have any water”. The judge asked them: “why aren’t you moving, what are your plans to travel?” None of them could give an answer. SDS: No one had a plan?MM: Not at that time, if they did they didn’t answer him. I’m not trying to say anyone is not telling the truth, but I debriefed the judge and he is very trustworthy. At the post race driver’s mtg, the drivers were asked if they remembered their conversations with him, and they didn’t remember any of it. I know there are at least really 6 disappointed drivers. At the same time, I have no problem whatsoever about getting them off that mountain at all. There was a time when, during the whole ordeal, and I never said this to anyone until recently, that I thought we would be pulling dead dogs off the mountain. SDS: I know that hindsight can be 20/20, but is there anything that you would have done differently given another look at the situation?MM: Given those circumstances, the weather, the factors, and the time constraints, absolutely not. One thing I do want to stress: people and the media keep talking about the mushers. The local, regional, and national media all were talking about the mushers. I never once heard a peep about the dogs. Nothing about the dog teams, not once. The whole situation started, the whole thing came down because we knew we had a 12 dog team on the mountain stuck somewhere, without anyone to care for them. It was the worst case scenario. That aspect wasn’t talked about.SDS: But yet, the irony is that if a dog, or dogs would have been hurt, or worse, died, there probably would have been a media storm like no other.MM: As the day went on, as the day progressed, and we kept on getting more information about more mushers being rescued, I kept on going back to the radio and asking if they found Randy’s team. All they were talking about were the teams with the drivers. I kept on pushing for information about Randy’s team. I had been with Randy for hours now, and he was utterly despondent, like anyone would be. Finally I got a call from someone in 101 and they said we have Chappel’s dogs. I asked how many, and they couldn’t tell me. I said, man you have to tell me if they are all there.Later on, it was dark, almost everyone was accounted for but we still didn’t know the status of all of Randy’s dogs. I was sitting with Randy and Allen Moore (owner of some of Randy’s team), and I got this handed to me. SDS: Mike hands me a barely legible note, hastily written in pencil on a scrap of paper, it reads: “All 12 of Chappel’s dogs in 101, all ok.” MM: I said Randy, here read this. There were a lot of wet eyes there at that moment.We pulled 88 dogs and 6 people off the mountain. We located 3 more mushers and 36 dogs on the trail out of 101. Was it pretty? No. Were there some disappointed mushers? You bet. Did everything come out ok? I think so. You have to be alive to be bummed out.SDS: A lot of times in bad experiences like this, we can learn from it. Is there anything the Quest organization has learned from this ordeal? Or is it just something that can happen during a 1000 mile dog sled race in some of the most challenging terrain in the world?MM: A little of both. We had already talked about putting more permanent markers on the summit. We have made the decision to do that. That still is no substitute for driver judgment.