Alaska News

Moving into winner's circle means moving out -- way out -- for musher Brent Sass

If musher Brent Sass had his way, he would live completely off the grid on his remote homestead in remote Eureka. But with almost 60 dogs and a burgeoning racing career, Sass acknowledges that a few creature comforts are necessary.

An Internet connection to stay in touch with the outside world and sponsors is needed. So is running water, even though nearby Joe Bush Creek provides plenty. Sass admits it would be harder to keep handlers around without it.

"Most days I don't want running water, I just want water out of the creek," Sass said. "I don't rule out going more rustic but it is a big operation. I'm not sure I could get people to come help me."

This is the conundrum for Sass, whose desire to lead a wilderness lifestyle has increasingly conflicted with his other desire: to be a champion sled dog racer.

Sass has steadily made a name for himself as a serious contender in long-distance sled dog races. He was Iditarod rookie of the year in 2012 and has spent years improving in the Yukon Quest, beginning with a 15th-place finish as a rookie eight years ago.

This year, Sass finally achieved a longtime goal of winning the Yukon Quest, pushing past two-time champion Allen Moore to win by just over an hour. It served as a redemption in some ways for Sass, who seemed poised to challenge Moore for the title a year ago before he fell on an icy lake just outside the penultimate checkpoint of Braeburn, suffering a concussion and being forced to withdraw.

But sled dog racing has been an unexpected journey for the Excelsior, Minnesota, native who only got into mushing after a recreational dog team literally ran over his skis while he trained in the hills outside Fairbanks -- and eventually sparked an interest.

Sass' rise also marks the resurgence of a throwback style of mushing that has all but vanished in Alaska's road-accessible communities. By living off the grid in Eureka, a tiny mining community outside Manley Hot Springs, roughly 160 road miles from Fairbanks, Sass can put his full attention on the dogs.

If his training style sounds familiar, it's because it is. Eureka is the former training ground of legendary mushers Susan Butcher and Rick Swenson, who lived in the region at the peak of their mushing careers in the 1980s and early '90s, and is a nod to rural mushers who dominated in the early days of the race.

Dave Monson, Butcher's husband, helped Sass get into training by letting him use a Eureka cabin formerly occupied by the couple. Monson said living in that style allows racers to do nothing but eat, breathe and sleep dogs.

"That's one of the keys to his success," Monson said. "The only thing he thinks about in the morning is the dogs. The only thing you can think about is the dogs."

And it's a lifestyle Sass is proud to embrace.

"I want to bring championship back to Eureka," Sass said. "It's really exciting, and I'm really proud to be part of that tradition."

Heading north

For Sass, coming to Alaska fulfilled a longtime dream. When he was 9, his grandmother went on a cruise to Alaska. When she returned, he couldn't get enough of the pictures depicting mountains and wide-open expanses. Before long, he made a decision: One day he would live there.

Flash forward to Sass' senior year of high school. A competitive nordic skier, Sass didn't look much beyond Alaska when he started considering colleges. He joined the University of Alaska Fairbanks nordic ski team for the 1998-99 season and majored in geography. Sass admitted that the decision to study was "just a placeholder."

"In the end, I knew there was a higher calling for me," Sass said. "College was the right stepping stone to independence and figuring out what I wanted to do with my life."

Finishing school didn't mean leaving Fairbanks. By now, he'd settled into Goldstream Valley, where he encountered numerous dog teams on the trails he skied. One in particular left a mark on the young Sass. It belonged to Goldstream Valley recreational musher Kurt Wold, and it practically ran over him on the trails one day.

After the close call, the two neighbors got to talking. Wold owns Pingo Farms, which specializes in vegetable plant seeds, and he's maintained a small kennel of recreational dogs for decades. Those dogs kept breeding, so Wold found himself giving away plenty of dogs over the years. Why not give a few to Sass?

"It worked out," Wold said of the timing. "He needed dogs, I had extra, and he already had the mental disease of wanting dogs."

With that, Wold gave Sass 6-week-old Silver, a black-and-white husky mix whose stocky build and heavy coat made Wold assume the dog was bound for trapline -- not racing -- greatness.

But the upbeat Sass more than embraced the dog. In the early days, he took Silver everywhere with him, forging a strong bond between the two.

"That's not something all dogs have," Sass said. "I was good to him and in turn he was good to me."

Silver succeeds

When Sass got Silver, he said he had no intention of becoming a sled dog racer. He wanted the dogs to take him on expeditions, so he could expand his love of traveling in the Bush. At most, he thought the dogs would help him travel deep into the Arctic to hunt caribou.

But a competitive nature he developed as a skier in Minnesota lingered. Living in Fairbanks, he was surrounded by sled dog racers. So when he heard that Trail Breaker Kennels was looking for help, he signed up, hopeful he could learn as much as he could. That kennel is the famous kennel of four-time Iditarod champion Butcher and Yukon Quest champion Monson.

Monson said he vividly recalls Sass walking through the door of his Fairbanks kennel, ready to sign up for whatever Monson and Butcher needed, which at the time was mostly construction work. Monson said Sass was gregarious, happy and energetic, traits he still carries today.

After a few seasons of Sass' working at the kennel, Monson offered him and another handler a chance to follow part of the serum run course, running a team of dogs from Manley Hot Springs to Nome over 10 days on a similar route used by heroic mushers in 1925 to deliver life-saving diphtheria serum to the Norton Sound community gripped by the disease.

For Sass, that trip was the step he needed to make the leap into serious sled dog racing.

From there, Sass was on the fast track. He quickly acquired more dogs -- many from Monson and Butcher -- and signed up for his first race, the 2006 Yukon Quest 300.

It was a race Sass would end up winning as his team of buff huskies, led by Silver, pushed through a storm so severe that six mushers and more than 80 dogs had to be airlifted off treacherous 3,600-foot Eagle Summit.

It wasn't the only time Sass and Silver survived serious storms or aided other teams. In 2009, he helped restart the team of Quest veteran William Kleedehn, who had stalled on the summit. One year, he helped rescue a musher who had lost her team. In 2011, the team pulled four-time Quest champion Hans Gatt off another storm on American Summit. Sass' efforts so impressed Quest officials that they created the Silver Award, an honor given to any sled dog that shows outstanding bravery on the trail. So far, Silver is the only recipient.

The future

In 2012, Silver retired, though his legacy lives on. This summer was a season of sex in Sass' kennel. Breedings led to 25 puppies, nearly all of which are descendants of Silver. Sass wants a kennel made up entirely of his own dogs, which are currently a mix of genetics from Wold's animals, Lance Mackey speedsters and sprint dogs from fellow Eureka musher Joee Redington.

Sass isn't quite sure how long he'll continue racing, though he's committed to the next few years.

This year, he'll wear a helmet as he moves down the trail, concentrating on self-preservation by hydrating better and sleeping a little more along the way.

"When it comes down to it, I pushed myself to the ultimate limit and I wore myself down," Sass said. "That was the first time I was in contention to win … and I lost track of those things, and I paid the ultimate price for it."

But Sass is remaining upbeat, nothing new for the musher who has "Attitude is Everything" tattooed on his forearm. He has a strong team, with his Quest win and another victory in the Gin Gin 200 in January.

Maybe one day he'll return to just doing expeditions, something he has limited time for now that he's racing.

But that's a ways off, he says, at least at present.

"For now, the racing is where it is," he said. "I'm 100 percent focused."

Suzanna Caldwell

Suzanna Caldwell is a former reporter for Alaska Dispatch News and Alaska Dispatch. She left the ADN in 2017.