Martin Buser has been dropped to last place and without prize money for this year’s Kuskokwim 300. The race committee announced the decision after reviewing evidence of Buser committing two penalties: leaving the trail and receiving help feeding his dogs. But, Buser tells a different story.
Before the race, Race Marshal Nels Alexie warned the mushers that teams who veered from the trail would receive harsh penalties.
K300 Board Chairman and Race Co-Founder Myron Angstman says the committee received criticism for distributing minor penalties last year when both Buser and his son Rohn took what many considered a shortcut through Church Slough.
“Most people considered it to be too lenient, and that was pretty much across the board—local folks, racers, and out of town folks,” added Angstman.
Angstman says the board has steered away from giving penalties for most of the race’s history, even letting minor infractions go without comment.
“One of the reasons we haven’t had to [enforce penalties] is the mushers have been self-enforcing. They’ve taken care of their problems.”
But, Angstman says with the race’s status growing, the rules are tightening.
“The purse is getting bigger, the attention to the race is getting bigger, and the precedent would be that ‘yes we do take rule violations seriously,’ especially in a situation like this where it impacts safety.”
The K300 added GPS trackers to teams less than 10 years ago. Angstman says since the trackers were added the race has gotten safer, and the freedom to fudge smaller.
“It doesn’t give you a precise location at all times for every team, but it certainly gives you a reasonable location for every team at all times. So in terms of following the race trail and in terms of taking shortcuts, it’s really changed it.”
According to a press release on the committee’s decision, the primary violation occurred inbound to Kalskag on the White Fish loop. GPS tracking on the race website showed Buser taking a right onto the race’s old trail instead of following a new portion of trail created to avoid hazardous conditions including open water and thin ice. The release says the new route was well-marked and Buser was the only musher to divert at that juncture. Buser later found the Kuskokwim River and continued on to Kalskag.
According to the GPS tracking, Buser only turned around once during the incident, and besides that turnaround, he kept his speed and direction of travel consistent.
Before reaching the checkpoint, a race representative intercepted Buser, telling him he needed to return to the trail or be disqualified, which Buser said he would not do. A volunteer also set out on snow machine to find Buser but was unsuccessful. The board says this action placed the volunteer at risk from driving alone at night in treacherous conditions.
The second violation involved Buser allowing children to feed his dogs, when no assistance is allowed during the race. The committee also viewed this violation as a safety liability.
According to the press release, this isn’t the first time Buser has broken the rules. Last year the race committee penalized Buser 10 minutes and 10 percent of his winnings for taking an unmarked trail through Church Slough. A few years prior the document says he had also taken a shortcut, but no penalty occurred.
Buser offers a different account.
In an email to KYUK, other news outlets and the K300 race committee Buser writes he “was totally in the clear after taking a longer, more difficult and even more dangerous route than the race trail.” Buser goes on to say when he got off the trail he was tired with a busted sled and two dogs in the basket. He says he was following the reflective trail markers when they petered out and he realized he was lost. He said he turned around several times, looking for the correct trail, and after mushing through what he called “scary looking watery ice,” his GPS seemed to indicate where he was. He says he connected with the outgoing Kalskag trail when the race officials met him and told him to return to the marked route or be disqualified. Buser says he told them he had tried to find the trail but had gotten lost. Buser then continued on to Kalskag.
Addressing the second violation, Buser says he gave the kids salmon snacks to feed the team, writing “what better P.R. is there than letting kids, mushers and dogs interact with each other. Do you really think I would let the kids ‘feed’ the dogs if they were not safe?”
Ultimately, the race committee docked Buser from 14th place with $3,700 to last place with no money. Buser says he will never return to the K300 as a competitor.