PELLY CROSSING, Yukon -- Brent Sass received an unexpected surprise upon his arrival here Friday night.
The 34-year-old musher from Eureka was shocked to see his mother and grandmother -- who live in Minnesota -- among the crowd of supporters on hand to welcome him into the small Yukon community.
It took several minutes for the focused musher to notice, but when he did, it was an emotional moment for all involved.
Sass paused from the frantic packing of his sled to share hugs with his family members. There was no time to tarry -- Sass, the race leader at the Dawson City halfway point, was passed by defending champion Allen Moore on the run to Pelly Crossing. He thanked his family for coming before jumping aboard his sled runners and gliding out into the darkness of the night.
"It was so worth it," his grandmother Millie Petersen told him.
While Petersen and Sass's mother, Chris, made the trek from Minnesota to the Yukon, Sass's father, Mark, has been handling dogs for his son since the beginning.
The trio recalled Sass's unexpected entry into the world of mushing.
When Brent turned 12, he told his parents he wanted to move to Alaska.
Growing up in Excelsior, Minn., as the oldest in a family of three, Sass was introduced to outdoor living at an early age. The hunting and fishing came courtesy of his grandfather, Tom Minnich. The survival skills were passed down by his father via the Boys Scouts program. The cross-country skiing was a family event with his younger siblings, Nick and Melissa.
Shortly after he graduated from high school, Sass made good on his pre-teen promise and enrolled at UAF, where he skied competitively for the Nanooks. A few years later, a chance meeting with a recreational dog musher prompted Sass to change sports.
Today, Sass is one of the top competitive mushers in the North.
"He just loved it; I could just see it," Mark Sass said. "He totally, unequivocally loves this business."
Or, as Petersen puts it: "He's married to his dogs."
As a junior at UAF, Sass bought a piece of land in Goldstream Valley. A year later, he built a cabin there. Later, he would build four more. All the while, Sass watched with fascination as a team of sled dogs was mushed past his property. On the runners was his neighbor, Kurt Wold.
A dream was sparked, and a friendship formed. Wold gave Sass a husky named Silver, and the rest is history.
Sass began building a recreational dog team around Silver, but it wasn't until he began working at a kennel owned by Dave Monson and Susan Butcher that he realized he wanted to race competitively. His Wild and Free kennel has swelled to 55 huskies, more than 20 of them race ready.
In 2007 Sass ran his first Quest, finishing 15th. Over the next seven years, his lead dog Silver gained a reputation for heroic deeds by leading several mushers to safe passage over the treacherous terrain of Eagle and American summits.
In 2012, race organizers created the Silver Legacy Award in honor of Sass's now-retired lead dog, an award handed out to Quest canines that complete exemplary feats of bravery on the trail.
Sass, meanwhile, is a three-time recipient of the race's Sportsmanship Award, an honor voted upon by mushers themselves. Last year, he finished third in the Quest, his top showing to date.
By MARCEL VANDER WIER