BETHEL — Martin Buser, one of Alaska's elite mushers and a four-time Iditarod champion, is being penalized for two missteps in this year's Kuskokwim 300 sled dog race and will end up in last place and out of the money. It's the second year in a row that Buser ran afoul of race rules, a factor in the decision announced Thursday by the Kuskokwim 300 Race Committee.
The 12-hour penalty for going off course and allowing children in a village checkpoint to feed his dogs adds a bitter note — once again — to a race celebrated in Bethel. Hometown favorite and Bethel-born Pete Kaiser was a repeat winner Sunday morning before a jubilant crowd, and the Kusko 300, along with other races under its banner, draw locals with tiny kennels as well as elite Iditarod stars financed by sponsors.
Buser, reached by phone Thursday afternoon, said he was learning of the Kusko 300 race committee decision for the first time. He said he hadn't been notified of the penalty by the race committee, which met Wednesday evening on the matter.
Zach Fansler, Kuskokwim 300 race manager, said Buser was supposed to have been notified first as "common courtesy." An assistant mistakenly emailed a press release about the penalty to news reporters before Fansler, a math professor who was in class much of Thursday, had a chance to talk it over with Buser.
Buser said he got lost during the race, and it cost him time, but that wasn't reason for such a harsh penalty.
"I thought I was totally in the clear after taking a longer, more difficult and even more dangerous route than the race trail, but here we go," Buser said in an email explaining what happened to race officials before the penalty was decided.
'Vendetta against me'
He said he is being unfairly singled out by the Kuskokwim 300 Race Committee.
"Quite frankly I feel that there is an underlying personal matter driving this 'investigation' and would like to know if there is a person that is willing to have a conversation to iron out real, perceived or imagined issues," he said in an email to race officials explaining how he got off course.
In an interview, Buser suggested that Kusko 300 founder and organizer Myron Angstman might be targeting him for his role working on the other side of a case involving a Nome musher in a lawsuit over kennel noise. Angstman, a Bethel attorney, represented the musher, Diane Haecker, who won the case. She competed in the Kuskokwim 300 and was one of four who scratched on an icy, bumpy, wind-whipped course.
"I would like to find out who has it out for me, who has a vendetta against me," Buser said. In the court case, he said he traveled to Nome to check out the situation and determined that Haecker's neighbors fighting the kennel probably didn't have a winning argument. But he came up with suggestions and thought he might be able to serve as a mediator, he said.
Angstman said it's nothing personal and that some members of the all-volunteer race committee wanted Buser to face an even harsher penalty. Two race officials and seven board members — one who also served as the deputy race marshal — determined the penalty. Buser could have been disqualified or permanently banned from the Kuskokwim 300 under race rules. As to the kennel court case, Buser didn't end up testifying and, at any rate, Angstman said, his side won.
The rules say "racers must follow the designated trail. Leaving the designated race trail is not allowed." The rules also specify that "racers may not accept help in the care of feeding of their dogs."
Buser was particularly incensed that the committee took issue with how he allowed children to hand a bit of salmon to his dogs in the checkpoint of Tuluksak, about 50 miles from Bethel. In an email to reporters, he called it "bull****."
"What better situation can you have than little kids wanting to interact with the dogs," he said in the interview. He said he took extra time in Tuluksak to let the children feed his dogs, so what happened didn't amount to help. "That write-up is more ridiculous, ludicrous, infuriating and petty than any other accusation. That alone is absolutely unbelievable."
The race committee found that it was a violation of the rules and also "placed the race at risk of liability with children providing snacks to dogs at close range."
Another musher complained that children then tried to feed his dogs with snacks they'd gotten from Buser, Angstman said. Even if most dogs are friendly and eager for a quick pet and snack, one dog may snap to get at a piece of salmon, Angstman said.
"The primary violation was leaving the race trail and making an insufficient effort to return to the trail," the committee said in a written statement.
That happened early Sunday after Buser left the Aniak checkpoint and was traveling on a rough stretch, a loop toward Whitefish Lake. It was pitch black. He was on glare ice. And the wind was howling. A GPS tracking device showed that Buser and his dog team missed a recently marked new trail.
"Instead he took a right turn despite a large number of markers showing the correct route," the race committee said. Buser was following an old trail but it had been rerouted to avoid thin ice and open water. No other mushers made that wrong turn, though Paul Gebhardt of Kasilof got lost earlier in the race. Unlike Buser, Gebhardt returned to the same spot on the trail, Angstman said. A couple of other mushers got off slightly, but within 5 to 10 minutes were back on the defined trail, Angstman said.
Buser followed the old trail and made several wrong turns, but didn't retrace his steps to return to that part of the marked trail. He eventually found the Kuskokwim River and made it to Kalskag.
A race representative met him before he got to Kalskag and told him to return to the trail, but Buser said he wouldn't do so. A volunteer on a snowmachine also had gone looking for Buser, because of the danger of the wrong trail, but couldn't find him, putting himself at risk, the race committee said.
Buser said he didn't turn around because he had already looked for the trail, and couldn't find it.
"The difference between being lost and being off the trail is that even after you turn around a couple of times looking for the trail, you are still lost," Buser said.
He said his sled was broken, he was carrying two dogs in the basket, and that he was following a defined, marked trail until the markers petered out.
He told race officials in his email that he " ended up near and along scary-looking watery ice." He said he thought about camping to avoid open water in the dark but pushed on to Kalskag.
The penalty drops Buser from 14th place to 21st, behind Kristin Bacon. He loses $3,700 in prize money.
Last year, Buser and son Rohn separately made wrong turns onto a shortcut approaching the Bethel finish but weren't severely penalized. Race officials were criticized for that, Angstman noted. This year at the pre-race mushers meeting, race marshal Nels Alexie told racers that wrong turns would be taken seriously and that racers needed to return to the trail.
Buser, who twice has won the Kusko 300, said he had decided before the race not to compete in it again after this year. The penalty cements that, he said.
Contact Lisa Demer at firstname.lastname@example.org