Everyone knows Robin Judkins, the eccentric, unemployable rogue who created the Speight’s Coast to Coast. And everyone knows Steve Gurney, the equally eccentric endurance junky who won the 243k world multisport championship no less than nine times. But not many people know Sam McLeod, the quiet possum hunter and hands-on environmentalist who has helped ensure the Speight’s Coast to Coast benefits the Southern Alps as much as it does the 1000s of endurance athletes who have completed the race across the South Island’s Main Divide.
Finding Sam McLeod can take longer than the slowest finisher in the Speight’s Coast to Coast, which is fitting, because McLeod plays a part in making New Zealand’s favourite race as inspiring for the winner as it is for the last person across the line. In fact, McLeod has played a part in ensuring that the Speight’s Coast to Coast continues to exist at all.
McLeod is a professional possum hunter and predator controller. If he’s not up in the mountains setting traps and collecting carcases, he’s at home in Wanaka skinning carcases, preparing traps, packing gear and collecting consent forms. This might sounds like a world away from the bright, buzzing thrum of the Speight’s Coast to Coast, but every year McLeod is standing on Goat Pass, often beside Judkins, watching almost 1000 athletes from a dozen countries racing from the Tasman Sea over the Southern Alps to the Pacific Ocean.
McLeod and Judkins go way back, to before the Speight’s Coast to Coast was even a twinkle in Judkin’s eye.
In the late-70s Judkins operated a kayak touring business in the Southern Lakes area. Searching for a promotional angle and inspired by a Playboy article he conceived the Alpine Ironman, a ski, run and kayak event that was totally unique in New Zealand at the time. Sam McLeod, an accountant by trade but ski-bum come possum hunter by choice, thought it might be his kind of race.
Turned out it was. McLeod finished fifth in the Alpine Ironman, which was the event that inspired the Speight’s Coast to Coast and the creation of multisport. The race was won by John Howard, who would become a worldwide legend of the sport, but McLeod, who only lost thanks to a sieve of a kayak borrowed from Judkins, might have become a legend himself but for a skiing accident in the United States shortly after.
“I fell of the North Face of Crested Butte,” shrugs the 50-year more than a quarter of a century after the fact.
The result, however, was a little more than a shrug. McLeod shattered his left femur and knee, and effectively ending any prospects in this new-fangled world of multisport and adventure racing.
“I can laugh about it now,” he grins wryly. “These days the North Face of Crested Butte is where they hold one of the world’s premier extreme skiing competitions... so it was a pretty impressive fall.”
Impressive enough, in fact, to stop McLeod running or skiing for several years, which of course coincided with the rise of the Speight’s Coast to Coast and multisport. Despite having been at the grass roots when the sport was conceived, McLeod had never raced in multisport’s premier event.
“I’d like to do the race one day,” he says. “Not seriously, but just to do it. I know what I’d be in for because I’m up there all the time and watch the race every year,” says the man who despite never racing the Speight’s Coast, has managed to have a major impact on the event.
“Impact” and the Speight’s Coast to Coast have been a hot topic over the years. Self appointed conservation groups have at times called for the race to be banned from crossing Goat Pass because of a perceived environmental impact on both flora and fauna. But McLeod, who is of New Zealand’s most active environmentalists and pest controllers, argues otherwise.
“The effect of the Coast to Coast on the area is very minimal,” says McLeod. “And to be frank, the area is probably better off because of the Coast to Coast.”
McLeod should know; he has been monitoring and liaising with the Department of Conservation since 2005, when following protests from conservation groups Judkins provided funding for him to do a D.O.C. approved study.
The environmental protests revolved around the impact on almost extinct Blue Duck populations in the area. But after monitoring the route that the race takes up the Deception River, over Goat Pass and down the Mingha River, McLeod and D.O.C. agreed that the biggest risk to the Blue Duck wasn’t the Speight’s Coast to Coast.
“The main problem they had on the Deception, Goat Pass and Mingha was the same problem they have everywhere – Predators,” says McLeod, who has forged a living as a pest controller and possum hunter for the past 25 years but says the problem predator on the Speight’s Coast to Coast route is the stoat.
This is where Robin Judkins came in. Rather than saying ‘I told you so,’ he worked with D.O.C. and McLeod to establish a predictor-control program that runs to this day.
“In 2004,” says McLeod, D.O.C. identified only three Blue Duck in the whole Deception, Mingha and Edwards Valley area. Now we think there are 30 to 40 Blue Duck and we know for certain that there are eight breeding pairs with 17 new chicks and perhaps another 10 or 15 yet to be verified.”
McLeod freely admits that it isn’t all Judkins. “Robin pays for the predator controls, which is essentially me liaising and working with D.O.C. They have been instrumental; they provide the consents and observation any other support they can, like helping fly in 220 predator traps this year alone.”
Personally, McLeod is happy to be part of something that is obviously working. As a possum hunter all of his life he has been a pest controller by default. But thanks to Judkins and the Speight’s Coast to Coast he says, “I have had an opportunity to be involved in a program that is documented as being significant and successful.”
“It’s not just the Blue Duck, either,” he adds. “The Coast to Coast has provided all sorts of improvement and promotion that have benefited this area financially and environmentally. God knows how much board walk and track work Robin has paid for, and the Blue Duck program benefits all bird life in the area.”
“Back in 2004 the birdlife was pretty minimal. But now there are significant population of not just Blue Duck, but also Tui and Falcon and Kiwi. A D.O.C. ranger was telling me the other day he was walking up the Mingha at dusk and saw what he first thought was a possum foraging beside the river. But when he stopped and looked properly it was actually a Kiwi.”
“To see a Kiwi at all is rare, but to see one before pitch dark is almost unheard of, and it shows that the birdlife don’t feel under the same threat from predators. If that continues then in five or 10 years people walking and running through this area might see birds like Kiwis just wandering around as they pass by...
“And you know, everybody who enters the Coast to Coast, part of their entry fee goes to this bird recovery program... Every participant has a hand in this.”