Most of the remaining mushers in the 1,000-mile Yukon Quest International Sled Dog Race were on the trail north from the historic mining town of Dawson, Yukon Territory, Canada on Friday with one big exception.
A thoroughly gutted Olivia Shank Neff, the granddaughter of one of the Quest’s founders, was reported to be headed west by dog team along the summer-only, Top of the World Highway along with husband Hugh Neff.
Officially, the Quest was saying Olivia “scratched” from Alaska’s second biggest sled-dog marathon. Scratched is the sled-dog word for someonehttps://www.cnbc.com/2018/12/03/millennials-are-killing-canned-tuna-but-the-industry-is-fighting-back.html who voluntarily gives up and quits.
Neff said Thursday that isn’t what happened. She claims she was booted out of the race, and in a telephone interview she voiced the opinion that it all ties back to a feud between the Quest and her husband, Hugh Neff.
The race was Friday night being led by Brent Sass from Eureka who has had two dogs die in 11 Quests, had to be rescued after one of his dogs collapsed in the 2017 race, lied about the death of a prized lead dog in training, and became semi-famous in the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race by driving a team so hard going into the Bering Sea Coast checkpoint of White Mountain in 2016 that the team refused to leave the village after an eight-hour rest.
Alaska reporters sympathized after the latter incident.
“In a tearful interview with media, Sass said he was grateful to make it to Nome and proud of his dog team,” the Anchorage Daily News’ Tegan Hanlon wrote after Sass dropped from third in White Mountain, the penultimate checkpoint, to 20th in Nome.
A two-time Quest champion, Hugh said in an interview last year he was baffled as to why he got bashed in the media while Sass, the winner of the 2015 race, appeared beloved.
On Facebook Friday, the 51-year-old musher appeared even more baffled as to why his 31-year-old wife – who is listed in Quest standings as Olivia Webster – had been kicked out of the race.
The Shank Neff-Webster confusion is tied to Olivia’s maiden name, which is still shown on her passport. Quest mushers need a passport because the race runs from Whitehorse, Yukon Territory, Canada to Fairbanks and vice versa in alternating years.
Though the U.S. and Canada are very friendly countries – they haven’t fought a war since the 1700s – they today have more border security than France and Germany which fought bloody battles in the 1940s.
“This is TOTAL BS,” Hugh posted on Facebook Thursday. “Olivia Shank Neff was forced to drop eight-time Yukon Quest finisher Mojito due to a minor frostbit flank, a recurring issue that he’s had for years. (Golden Harness winner.)
“She was then forced to scratch after returning to the dog lot to drop Emily, (a) leader in heat. The dogs are fine. Mojito and company will be mushing back to Tok in two hours. We’ll be running two small teams. My wife and our dogs didn’t deserve this. The vets have been harassing us all and need to be investigated! LeRoy Shank’s dream has been destroyed by greed, power hungry people and overall corruption.”
Real life on the trail
Olivia herself painted a somewhat more complicated picture in a late Thursday telephone interview from Dawson.
Sounding tired and irritated, she largely reiterated what her husband said about Mojito, a seven-year Quest veteran and a vital part of her team. The dog had a cold injury on his flank, she said.
Whether it was serious or merely significant is a judgment call. Hugh matter-of-factly rated it five on a scale 10 and said he’d seen the dog worse. Dogs, like people, become more vulnerable to frostbite injuries after first suffering one.
Short-haired dogs are most susceptible where harnesses rub. Some appear sensitive to such injuries; others appear immune to any discomfort.
Whatever the case with Mojito, Olivia said veterinarians advised she leave him behind in Dawson to spare him further rigors of the trail, and so she did. She did not realize it at the time, but that was the beginning of the end of her rookie Quest run.
A dog team lacking a really good leader at the front has a bad habit of quickly becoming a scrum. The problem only becomes worse – much, much worse – if there are females in heat harnessed up with males in the team.
Olivia left Dawson Thursday evening with 11 dogs. Two of them happened to be females in heat. She didn’t get far out of town before she realized she had a problem.
“All the boys are trying to get at them,” she said. Going the 150 miles to the Eagle checkpoint in Alaska with the sometimes-difficult American Summit crossing along the way with a team more interested in making babies than making time didn’t seem to make much sense.
So, she stopped and turned around, thinking she’d go back to Dawson, drop the two females in heat, and be done with that problem, she said.
But even returning to Dawson became problematic. Her sex-crazed team kept wanting to stop along the trail, and at one point a fight broke out, a not uncommon occurrence in this situation.
While she was breaking up the fight, a snowmachine stopped along the trail, and the driver got off to help, she said. This is not unusual. On the winter trails of Alaska and the Yukon there is a code, and the code says you help anyone in trouble.
Olivia admitted she appreciated the help. She didn’t think it was a big deal until she got back to Dawson.
“They said I had too much Outside assistance,” she said. “They told me they’re forcing me to scratch.”
“No planned help is allowed throughout the race, with the exception of Dawson City,” the Quest rules say. “No musher may receive outside assistance between or at checkpoints unless an emergency has been declared by the race marshal. The intended spirit of this race dictates that the musher be self-sufficient and therefore able to help other mushers in case of real need. No assistance which would result in competitive advantage may be accepted or solicited.”
The rule has been interpreted in various ways over the years. After Sass put out a satellite distress call in 2017 reporting two of his dogs were injured and in need of help, the official race report said this:
“The Yukon Quest responded to this call, sending a trailbreaker, race veterinarian and official out to the location. As per trail procedure rule #13 he would have been allowed to continue the race but made the decision to scratch once the two dogs were brought to Central for a vet check.
“The biggest issue I have with the Sass situation is the can of worms that the Yukon Quest has opened with its interpretation of Rule 13, allowing mushers to press their Spot (Rescue) button, hand dogs off to the officials while on the trail and continue racing,” Iditarod veteran Jake Berkowtiz wrote in the ADN after that incident. “I have no issue with pushing your button and having dogs taken to a veterinarian if needed, but your race needs to be over at that point.”
Olivia said she was baffled by the 180-degree flip-flop on the rule this year.
“I wasn’t cheating,” she said. “My dogs looked amazing. I just wanted to drop the two dogs in heat.
“I don’t think they have it out for me,” she added. “I think it’s all about Hugh.”
He has refused to waver from his position that the death of Boppy, the dog that died during the 2018 Quest, was not his fault. He, and some others, believe that if the Quest had sent a veterinarian on a snowmachine out to Clinton Creek, where Neff was holed up in a heated cabin with Boppy, that the dog might have survived.
Eric Jayne, a veterinarian who worked with the Neffs and who reviewed the medical report on Boppy, believes the Quest dumped on Hugh to cover its own blunders.
“Boppy could have been treated and probably would be alive now,” he emailed last year. “It’s a veterinary screw up.”
Jayne was equally unhappy with a secret, three-person tribunal the Quest set up to review the case. Jayne believes the review should have been done by a team of competent, veterinary pathologists capable of forming a professional consensus on what might have caused Boppy’s death
‘The (Quest) tribunal was clearly biased and just done for show,” Jayne said.
Olivia believes she has become but the latest victim in the dispute the Quest and Hugh. How much truth there is to that belief is absolutely impossible to determine. But it is what she and her husband adamantly believe.