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Yukon Quest

02-07-20 Midday Quest Update

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Lex Treinen
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KUAC

02-07-20 Midday Quest Update

By Lex Treinen, KUAC (Dawson City, Yukon) In Dawson City mushers are required to take a 36-hour layover, a much-needed break after the first 530 miles of racing. They get across the finish line, have their passports checked, answer media questions and then get ready to head off to the dog yard.

Friday morning, in the middle of a media interview, rookie Nora Sjalin is called to from just outside the fencing by a man wearing a Wild and Free jacket. She runs over for a hug. It’s Mark Sass, Brent Sass’s father, who is a constant presence at the checkpoint in between all of his other duties. Sjalin is borrowing some of Sass’s dogs, so the two have paid close attention to each other’s progress and the dogs’ health. "All the kids are doing good, huh ?" he asks. "Yeah, no they're doing great," she says.

But Mark Sass has plenty of other duties as well. After driving over thirty hours from Circle to Dawson City, you’d think he’d be tired, but immediately after Sjalin’s finish, he offers to drive me across the Yukon to visit Sass’s dogs. He describes what he’s been up to : it’s not much in the way of resting. “I clean the dog sled out, took it to the RMC, thanks to them, they give us a heated provided place where we can dry things out, so I dry out all the stuff and then I service the whole sled,”he says. Reliable handlers are a must have, and they take their jobs seriously. Making sure the sled is properly maintained is one of Mark Sass’s most important tasks.

As we cross the ice bridge over the Yukon River on our way to the dogyard, Mark Sass tells me how just how thorough he is. “Checked every bolt and nut, changed a piece on the brakes, one of the brakes broke and just make sure that it’s okay and then check the tool kit to make sure everything is there so if it did break, he's got enough stuff with him to fix or at least get by so he can carry on,” he says as he drives his truck across the ice bridge on the Yukon River. As much as his job is, Mark Sass is just an extra hand though. Official handlers stay out at the dogyard while he gets to sleep in a cushy hotel. “They have an Arctic Oven tent which is a heated tent and they stay out there and then they've been rotating back and forth,” he said.

Mark Sass unloads two heavy buckets of warm water for the dogs, taken from the checkpoint. He puts them on a sled and starts his trek past the other mushers’ camps that are set up along the way. It’s a decent walk, but Mark Sass is jovial throughout, stopping to chat with other mushers and their handlers. When we arrive at Brent Sass’s camp, the musher hard at work packing his sled. He’s intense about it and a bit snappy, but as he explains once he’s done, the next section of trail is one of the trickiest to pack for. “ It's a long trip over to Pelly, a couple hundred miles so there's a lot of dog food and a lot of gear. and you gotta pack for every situation you could possibly have, so you just gotta make sure you got what you need, you're all along out there for the next two hundred or so,” he says.

While almost all of the work in Dawson City is done by the handlers, packing a sled is something mushers tend to like to do themselves, just in case. Brent Sass says he has super reliable handlers in Mike Ellis and Steve Stoller, longtime friends and aids, but he still isn’t willing to give up all that trust. 1:00 “I trust em but it's better for me to see it go into the sled, and I think they want me to see it go in. Mike Ellis: it doesn't matter what I want” But he doesn’t want them to leave, either. “It's super nice for these guys to be here and watch it, especially Mike who's run many Yukon Quests. He kind of knows what I need, so it's nice for him to be watching and be like hey, do you have this, this would be a good thing to have, you know, double checking everything, and he's obviously watching me put everything in to see what I got too, so that's really handy and nice to have and you know, that kind of knowledge in a handler.”

And the handlers aren’t just watching over equipment, they’re also up at all hours taking care of dogs, and even protecting the mushers from themselves. Brent Sass says he’s slept almost 20 hours in the time he’s been in Dawson, thanks to them. “ Steve you know my personal assistant and making sure I fall asleep and taking my phone away and making sure I just get sleep here is super important and food, so I've had a really good stop I'm gonna get one more nap here I'm gotta few more hours and we'll be ready to go,” he says. With a 230-mile unbroken stretch of trail before him, that extra sleep will come in handy over in the next 24 hours. ###

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Credit Lex Treinen / KUAC
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KUAC
Rookie Nora Sjalin upon arrival in Dawson.