Brent Sass and his 14 dogs cruised to a decisive win in the Yukon Quest 350-mile race Tuesday morning, arriving in downtown Fairbanks at 6:09 a.m.
The Wild and Free team, led by dogs Lucy and Morello, was greeted by a small crowd of cheering onlookers.
After snacking his dogs and signing a few autographs, Sass told reporters that his team looked strong the whole race, despite breaking trail for the last 140 miles. He said his dogs especially liked the climbs over Eagle and Rosebud Summits, which the teams had to navigate twice this year on the shortened route.
“Just as we got off the steepest part I got on the sit and sat the rest of the third of the way up Eagle Summit,” he said, referring to his second time climbing the 3,700-foot pass.
Sass has won the 1,000-mile Yukon Quest three times.
His victory this year was in a unique version of the annual race that attracted a small field of teams: just seven mushers total in the 350-mile event.
The race’s board of directors decided to call off the typical 1,000-mile route because of COVID-19 concerns about the teams crossing the border into Canada. Then the shortened course got changed even further due to heavy snow and what the race director described as impassable conditions.
Sass and his dogs dominated the last half of the 350-mile route this year.
And while the dogs were in good shape when they crossed the finish line, Sass’ sled wasn’t so lucky. His handlebar got detached on one side. He said it happened during one of five moose encounters he had on team’s final run to the finish.
“I was just kind of daydreaming and sitting on my sled and all of a sudden the dog just jerked forward and I grabbed my handlebar — I guess I grabbed it a little bit too hard ‘cause ripped it right off,” he said.
This year’s Quest race was marked by generally milder-than-usual temperatures, though the 3,700-foot Eagle Summit proved a barrier for several teams.
Two of the seven teams in the 350-mile race dropped out of the competition after failing to get over the summit on Sunday and Monday.
There was also a shorter, 200-mile Quest held over the weekend. Several teams in that race also got turned around due to heavy headwinds that obscured the trail in temperatures below negative-20 degrees.
“I’d see a trail marker, go towards it. And then I wouldn’t see the next one. And then I’d look and I was going in the totally opposite direction,” said 200-mile musher Derek “DJ” Starr about his first Eagle Summit attempt on Sunday evening.
Mushers in the 350-mile race also got to try out a new rule that let them take half of their mandatory rest on the trail instead of in the checkpoints. Mushers were enthusiastic about the rule even though it meant they had to remember to write down their rest in a logbook they carried.
“My handwriting is terrible to begin with so I strived hard to write those numbers clearly so that they knew exactly what I was talking about,” said Sass.
The 350-mile Quest is Sass’ second win of the season following a win in the Copper Basin 300. Sass said he’ll take a few days off from training and focus on caring for his dogs before heading to the Yukon for a 300-mile race next week, and the 1,000-mile Iditarod in March.