Yukon Quest Preview
(Fairbanks, AK.) It’s only 10 a.m. but Brent Sass has already finished a 45-mile run in the White Mountains with his Wild and Free team and is back at his temporary kennel in Goldstream Valley.
He left around midnight just a few days before the Saturday start of the Yukon Quest 350.
His dogs eagerly scarf down the stewed beef served hot from a cooler, and many quickly hole up in their straw kennels for a rest. Sass, meanwhile, looks fresh eyed and energetic.
“I work on a 24 hour clock. And so there's no daylight or daytime or nighttime or anything, it's always just whenever I feel like going out or when I have the time,” he says.
He says he does pretty well on 4 hours of sleep a night, and most of the rest of his day is reserved for work: shoveling, chopping wood, hunting in the fall, and the various other duties it takes to keep his 50-dog kennel healthy and his homestead intact.
His boundless energy may be part of the reason the 3-time 1,000-mile Yukon Quest Champion has already had a hot start to his racing season already.
In January, he won the Copper Basin 300 for the first time in his career after a hectic travel day from his home base off the Steese Highway. Compared with his other responsibilities, racing is simple.
“I got there, I was like, ‘All I have to do is take care of these 12 dogs for the next 50 hours? That's easy.’” said Sass.
Indeed, Sass cruised to a 90 minute win over former Iditarod champ Joar Leifseth Ulsom, notching the fastest run times on each leg.
The early season success, along with his history with the Quest and his 3rd place Iditarod finish in 2021 – his best ever – has set him up as a clear front runner this year. It also was a chance to showcase the early season training his team has been doing on the varied trails off the Steese Highway. His team is made up of a few veterans, like his leaders Morello and Slater – plus some upstart 3-year-olds. He said it’s given him one of the strongest teams he’s had in his career.
“The wind, the snow, the rain, icy trail, fast trail, slow trail – they're just always going a real similar pace, they don't slow down,” he said.
And, he says, the 42-year-old driver is also learning as he gets older, setting him up not just for Quest success, but also success on mushing’s biggest stage: the Iditarod.
“My self discipline has gotten a lot better over the last few years,” he said. “And so I feel like if I can follow those standards, I have a really good shot at being up there in the front, at least at least with a shot at winning in the race.”
Despite the advantages that come with his experience, the last year hasn’t been a joy ride.
A month before last year’s Iditarod start, Sass broke his collarbone in a crash. After surgery two weeks before the start, he managed to finish third, behind Dallas Seavey and Aaron Burmeister.
This winter, the biggest challenge was the elements, combined with not having any handlers at his large, remote homestead off the Elliot Highway in Eureka. Snowfall in November was intense, and with multiple buildings to take care of, the shoveling was a job in itself. But he also had 30 he needed to train for the season.
“I go out, break trail for a day and a half straight, come home, do two runs and there’s another foot on top of that, so then go and do it again,” he said. “I didn't have a choice – if I wanted to keep miles on the dogs, I had to do it.
Even working 20 hours a day – which is the norm for Sass – he was feeling overwhelmed.
Luckily, the Wild and Free friends and family arrived for relief. In November, former handler from Norway showed up to lend a hand, along with a string of others like longtime handler Steve Stoller.
His latest challenge has been a bit more sentimental – moving his kennel temporarily out of his home of the last 15-years to a plot in Goldstream Valley, where he’ll be closer to racing. It’s the first time he’s had to close the homestead in 10 years.
With the help of his dad, Sass moved most of his dogs to this bare plot surrounded by spruce.. His 12-by-12 foot cabin is pretty spartan by most standards. There’s little more than a couch, a mattress and a few pots and pans.
He’s enjoying being closer to town and spending time with a few close friends, but he misses his home.
“It's great to be here and it's fun to see friends but I guy I'm meant to be out in the bush somewhere with dogs,” he said.