WHITEHORSE -- Brent Sass says the next time he hooks up a dog team and steps on the runners of a sled, he'll be wearing a helmet.
The Eureka musher, who is recovering from a head injury that ended his bid for a Yukon Quest championships, said that protective headgear will be mandatory equipment if he is able to race as planned in next month's Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race.
"I can't take another hit to the head," Sass said a press conference that was at times tearful and at times light-hearted. "There's no doubt about it. I don't know if I'll be the first one, but I'll definitely be wearing a helmet this coming Iditarod.
"As long as I can find something that works well ... I'll be wearing a helmet when I dog mush for the rest of my life."
Sass, 34, said his dogs are ready for the Iditarod, which begins in less than three weeks. The X factor is whether Sass will feel up to it. He said he is still having headaches and numbness in his hands.
"I know the health of my dogs is 100 percent and they're ready to rock and roll," he said. "I'm going to go out gunning. I'm going to go out and try to win the Iditarod."
A few days ago it looked like Sass might score his first Quest victory. A veteran of the rugged, 1,000-mile race that runs between Fairbanks and Whitehorse, Sass was the first musher to reach the Dawson City halfway point and was trading the lead with eventual winner Allen Moore as the race neared its conclusion.
Sass was driving his team across frozen Coghlan Lake early Sunday morning when he fell asleep on his sled runners, tumbled off his sled and hit his head on the frozen lake. The fall resulted in what a doctor described as a "severe concussion, Sass told the Anchorage Daily News in a phone interview.
About six hours later, Sass said, he pushed the help button on his satellite tracker and was rescued by members of the Canadian Rangers on snowmobiles. Sass was taken to Braeburn, the final checkpoint before the finish line, and from there was airlifted to Whitehorse General Hospital.
"This was not any easy thing for me to do. I don't scratch," Sass told the Daily News. "But I wasn't willing to put the dogs' health and my health in jeopardy just to go finish a race."
Sass started his press conference Tuesday in Whitehorse by congratulating Moore.
"This is one of the most amazing races that I've ever run, and it was just an honor to be up there racing against him and his dog team," he said.
Sass said he and his dogs were having the race of their lives until disaster struck.
"We had 900 miles of bliss," he said. "It was like a magic carpet ride. ... I owe everything to my dog team. They were perfect.
"They were so amazing the whole way and I let them down," he said, choking back tears. "Accidents happen, but I let that dog team down and it was a really hard pill to swallow."
Sass, the owner of Wild and Free Mushing kennel, said he was physically exhausted when he fell off his sled.
"I was tired," he said. "I had been kicking and poling and working my ass off, as well as the dogs', for 900 miles. I gave my dogs the rest they needed. I did not do as good a job as I could of taking care of myself."
Sass's dog team was guided into the Braeburn checkpoint by a race official with help from Quest musher Hugh Neff, who arrived on the scene shortly after Sass was taken away by the rangers.
Sass said he wished Neff had been a little closer behind.
"I didn't know my condition, so I figured if Hugh showed up, he could have a conversation with me and I could figure out exactly what my condition was and then make a decision," he said.
"He took too long to get there," Sass said to laughter. "But thankfully, he got there right after I did go and there's no better person than Hugh, because Hugh cares as much about dogs as I do.
"The fact that he stopped his race ... means a lot to me. I owe him beer after beer after beer for sitting there and hanging out with my dogs."
In his interview with the Daily News, Sass said he has not made a final decision on running the Iditarod, which starts, at least ceremonially, in Anchorage on March 1. Sass was researching helmets -- he needs something comfortable that he can pull a hood over, he said -- and had plans to continue consulting with doctors in the meantime.
"It all depends on the next week and making sure that I'm not having any more problems or symptoms," he said. "Of course, my dog team is nearly at 100 percent. It's really me that's the question mark."
Sass admitted that he has not done anything physical, let alone run a dog sled, since the fall but said they way he's been feeling, "right now, it's a go."
The way his team ran in the Quest -- hanging with dogs that finished first in the race to Whitehorse and second for two years in a row in Nome -- Sass feels like he has a shot at a good finish in the Iditarod. He said he owes it to his dogs to make it to the end of another 1,000-mile race, especially after dropping out Saturday.
"I'm probably more motivated, because I didn't finish. That's going to eat at me forever," he said. "The dogs deserve it."
Daily News reporter Casey Grove contributed to this story.
By MARCEL VANDER WIER