Silver the sled dog has created quite a legacy for himself, replete with rescues, trail-breaking tales, T-shirts and a tattoo.
The longtime leader of Brent Sass' Wild and Free Kennel is also the inspiration for the Silver Legacy Award given annually to a heroic Yukon Quest dog.
But Silver, a virtual grandpa at age 9 and relative behemoth at 75 pounds, is reaching the end of his racing days. This year's Iditarod, which Sass is running for the first time, will be Silver's swan song.
"I think this is his last shot at any sort of racing," Sass said of the 2011-12 season.
In February Sass set off on the Yukon Quest trail for the sixth straight year, his first without Silver at the helm. For the Iditarod, he is taking a lower-key approach and therefore plans to have Silver lead his team from Anchorage to Nome.
While Silver is not making the trip from Fairbanks to Whitehorse, there is a silver lining. About 10 of his direct descendents are running on Quest teams for Sass and handler Kyla Durham. To them he has passed on skills such as an uncanny knack for finding obscured trail, an ability to plow through deep snow and a willingness to soldier on in high winds, extreme overflow and relentless cold.
"Silver is the heart and soul of my team," said Sass, 32, who trains out of Eureka but otherwise lives in Fairbanks. "His best quality is he never gives up."
Sass, a Minnesota native and former nordic skier at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, obtained Silver -- his first sled dog -- from Goldstream Valley recreational musher Kurt Wold.
Sass calls the black-and-white Silver a "quintessential Alaskan husky" with his wolf-like qualities, ears that stick straight up and handsome, stoic stature.
Silver began making a name for himself in his first race, the Yukon Quest 300 in 2006. That year a handful of mushers spent a night on Eagle Summit during a vicious storm before being picked up by helicopter.
Sass, with a young Silver in lead, said he "didn't know any better and went into the storm." Along with another musher, he helped Texan Randy Chappel, who had become separated from his team, get to safer ground. Later Sass lost the way and wound up in the wrong valley. Silver broke trail for 10 hours in three to four feet of snow until the team finally reconnected with the Quest trail after mushing around the mountain. Sass ended up winning the 300-mile race.
"The snow was so deep at times you couldn't see the wheel dogs," Sass said. "It was just pure determination that made that dog go. ... That was the start of the specialness of Silver."
The next year Sass entered the full 1,000-mile Quest and Silver led another rescue mission, this time to retrieve Yuka Honda's runaway team.
In 2009, Sass and Silver helped William Kleedehn, who had stalled out, scale Eagle Summit when otherwise he would have been forced to scratch.
And last year on the flanks of American Summit near Eagle, Silver led his most dramatic rescue.
Amid high winds and drifting snow, Hans Gatt, a four-time champion, was unable to clear the summit (due to the conditions, not the dogs' desire, he said). Exhausted and on the verge of hypothermia, Gatt hunkered down in a sleeping bag for 4 1/2 hours.
The first musher to come along was Sass, who said he'd never mushed in such extreme wind.
"The wind was blowing so hard in our faces and you had to totally rely on your lead dog," Sass told KUAC Radio.
Gatt attached his sled to the back of Sass's sled and Silver guided both teams over the summit and to safety.
"Silver didn't bat an eye and pulled us right through it," Sass said.
The now-retired Gatt, interviewed in early February from his home near Carcross, Yukon, said he knew nothing about Silver until that day.
"His dog did a great job. There wasn't really anything (trail-wise) to find for a dog," Gatt said.
In part for that deed, the Quest created the Silver Legacy Award and honored the dog at the 2011 finish banquet. A surprised Sass calls the moment his proudest in mushing.
"I was bawling my head off," he said.
Though Silver still sleeps outdoors with the rest of the kennel, he and Sass are virtually inseparable. Be it a neighborhood gathering or a trip to the Lower 48, Silver almost always comes along. When Sass left Silver home during January's Copper Basin 300 -- he wanted to test out some other dogs -- Silver whined and groaned almost nonstop during their separation, Sass said.
"We have a connection that is hard to explain," he said.
Sass recently began selling T-shirts with a likeness of Silver, and they are vastly outselling gear adorned with his "Wild and Free" motto. At the Quest's start banquet Feb. 1, he unveiled a tattoo on his right shoulder of Silver's face.
And soon on the historic Iditarod Trail, Silver will make his final voyage.
For Sass, running the Iditarod is a long time coming. In 2005, he mushed from Manley to Nome with a team belonging to David Monson and the late Iditarod champion Susan Butcher; in 2009 he signed up for the race but withdrew due to lack of finances; in 2010 he followed much of the trail via snowmachine.
"This year I bit the bullet and made it happen," he said.
And there's no dog he'd rather have leading the way than his sidekick Silver.
"He deserves to see a new trail," Sass said.
Matias Saari is former sports reporter for the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner and covered the Yukon Quest for the paper three times. He now now lives in Anchorage.
By MATIAS SAARI
Daily News correspondent