Fairbanks storytellers find eager audience for 'Dark Winter Nights'

FAIRBANKS -- Long before Brent Sass had the words tattooed on his left forearm, he figured that "Attitude is Everything."

As the Norman Vincent Peale of dog mushing, equally at home with overflow on the Yukon or an overflow crowd in the Pioneer Park civic center, he says that the right attitude is critical even when a good adventure goes bad.

Sass was one of eight speakers in a storytelling session Saturday in Fairbanks. The others addressed topics as varied as driving with wolves on the Steese Highway and finding love and family in Nome.

Inspired in part by the growing popularity of radio shows such as "This American Life" and "The Moth" or live appearances such as "Arctic Entries" in Anchorage, it was a communal gathering put together by Robert Prince and others in the University of Alaska Fairbanks Journalism Department.

For the Fairbanks storytelling session, titled "Dark Winter Nights," Sass told the story of "how I got started in Alaska," a funny and illuminating tale likely to end up in the broadcast version of the event.

While the form encourages embellishment, Sass, 34, delivered a plausible account of his inaugural Alaska adventure. If he enjoyed telling it, the audience enjoyed hearing it.

He said when he moved here from Minnesota to attend UAF in 1998, his goal was to become an Alaskan. That means you must do more that stick around long enough to collect a Permanent Fund dividend. It requires participation.

"You have to start somewhere," said the former geography student.

He started by joining two buddies, Josh Horst and Matt Fraver, on a caribou hunting trip to the North Slope.

"We didn't really have any idea what we were doing, but we were going to try," Sass said.

They acquired a Skanoe, a flat-sterned cross between a skiff and a canoe, unaware that the vessel was better suited to a lesser load and a quiet lake.

They loaded their truck with everything they thought they might need, added extra supplies and drove 300 miles. Soon they found themselves in the northern foothills of the Brooks Range along the Sagavanirktok River, dutifully overloading the boat.

"We were just going to motor up the Sag River. Someone said it was a big river, but we figured we can make it in the Skanoe," Sass said.

"We unload all of our stuff and we put it in there, and we're like, 'OK, where are we fitting?'"

Horst found room in the bow, Sass held down the stern and Fraver sat high atop a pile of stuff in the middle.

"We've got about an inch of freeboard, maybe an inch. These guys are like, 'Oh God, what are we doing, Brent?'

"Don't look at me. I'm not the leader here; we're doing this together," Sass said he told them. It made no sense to quit without trying, they agreed.

Horst and Fraver got out of the Skanoe to lighten the load, opting to walk on the riverbank. Horst carried a gun and Fraver packed a can of bear spray.

Sass said he hit the gas on the 5-horsepower motor and saw that he couldn't keep up with the pedestrians and he was crawling against the current. But at least he wasn't being pushed downstream.

As it happened, he was the first one to spot the grizzly bear. He yelled, "Bear," but Horst and Fraver thought he was shouting with excitement. They shouted back, "Yeah! Let's do this!"

Sass kept yelling and waving until they understood. The mood of the hunters changed quickly and Sass got the boat to shore to make a plan. In the excitement, Fraver grabbed the rope on the Skanoe and as he did, he blasted Sass with a mild dose of bear spray.

Fraver kept saying "I'm sorry" and Horst kept saying, "What are we going to do?" Sass kept trying to see.

Horst and Fraver decided to keep walking on the bank, with Sass remaining in the boat. By then his eyes had cleared a bit and he watched as Fraver, who was still holding the bear spray, pushed the Skanoe out.

As Fraver did so, he accidentally unloaded the rest of the bear spray in Sass' direction, causing the Skanoeist to fall to the floor with stinging eyes.

The bear, meanwhile, stood up on its hind legs about 35 yards from the adventurers, shook its head and sauntered off. "This is God's honest truth," Sass said.

At this point, the hunters decided to pack it up and go home, lining the Skanoe back to their starting point as Sass' eyes watered.

In their long drive south on the Dalton and Elliott highways, they recounted what went wrong and replayed the moments in their minds. It was the "biggest train wreck" even before they left Fairbanks, Sass said, but it was important to try to keep the right attitude.

Fraver said they should never tell anyone what happened, but Sass said he didn't care if people knew about their mistakes. "It's the beginning of a huge epic adventure for all three of us," he told his friends.

In the years since his eyes stopped stinging, Sass has run the Yukon Quest International Sled Dog Race eight times and competed in many other races. He was rookie of the year the 2012 Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race and has signed up for the Yukon Quest and the Iditarod this winter.

Last year, his mushing season ended when he fell asleep on his sled and hit his head on the ice, costing him a chance to win the Quest.

That's a tale for another day, but the bungled episode of a young trio in their early 20s ranks as another central moment in his personal history.

"The moral of the story is you've got to have a beginning somewhere, right? And you've got to take chances and you've got to go adventure. That's what Alaska is for."