UNALAKLEET — For the first time in this Iditarod, Eureka musher Brent Sass voluntarily elected to rest his team at a checkpoint late Saturday night. He stopped his 14-dog team in Unalakleet at 11:43 p.m. Saturday and collected his first Iditarod prize, the Wells Fargo Gold Coast Award.
Until now, the longest Sass stayed in any checkpoint where he didn’t complete a required layover was 12 minutes back in Skwentna, just 80 miles into the race. In Unalakleet, Sass stayed nearly six hours, checking out at 5:29 a.m. in third place behind Mitch and Dallas Seavey. The elder Seavey vaulted into the race lead Sunday morning by blowing through the checkpoint in 12 minutes. Dallas was 11 minutes behind, and Sass was on the trail four minutes later.
Sass ate pizza with his dad and took a nap inside the checkpoint where sourdough pancakes and bacon were being fried for mushers and fans alike.
“I really want to get some information about the trail ahead and the coast,” Sass said, explaining why he’s suddenly staying in a checkpoint. “It’s the biggest unfamiliar place for me on the trail, and that’s the one thing you lack when you blow through all the checkpoints. You don’t really get any information.”
Sass has seen this section of trail twice — once when he received rookie of the year honors in 2012 for finishing 13th and once in 2013 when he was 22nd. A Yukon Quest champion, Sass wanted to know what the weather and the trail has in store for the upcoming days.
Sass also said he wanted to stay to appreciate the atmosphere of a checkpoint. Being the first to arrive in Unalakleet he said, “I think it would have been sorta anticlimactic if I would have come here with my focus, throwing stuff around, loading the sled and say ‘see ya later,’” Sass said. “That’s the one thing I don’t like about blowing through the checkpoints. I miss…visiting with people.”
And visit he did. Roughly 125 people were on the river ice shortly before midnight to greet the first musher to the coast. “Any time you can get somewhere first and win an award and have all these people around to greet you, it’s pretty awesome,” Sass said after being told his name would go on a trophy and he’d receive $3,500 worth of gold nuggets. “This is awesome. It’s a great award. There’s 300 more miles to go in this race, but yeah, it’s awesome,” he said.
Earlier in the day on Saturday, Sass made a 62-mile run from Nulato, where he elected to take his mandatory eight-hour layover on the Yukon River, to the Tripod Cabin. There, he and his dogs rested during the heat of the day in which temperatures reached 30 degrees.
Sass spoke of difficult runs leading up to his “unexplainable” one to the coast. “I’ve had a rollercoaster couple of days,” Sass said. “I made a pretty bad mistake the other day running in through the heat of the day. And (it) kinda took a little off the dog team and lost some speed. I was still confident they were gonna come around.”
And come around they did. Sass said the last four hours into Unalakleet proved to him his dogs still have it.
“It got cool and it was amazing,” he said with tears in his eyes. “It was some of the best mushing I’ve ever had in my life the last four or five hours being real proud of the dog team.”
Sass said the dogs really picked up the pace and their pep when passing the Old Woman Cabin.
“I think the ghost of Susan Butcher was with us,” he said. Some of the ashes of the late four-time Iditarod champion were spread at one of Butcher’s favorite spots on the Iditarod Trail.
Sass explained Susan and her husband Dave Monson had a huge impact on Sass and his mushing career.
“I mean I thought about going there (Old Woman) and resting there just, you know, to pay tribute to Susan,” Sass said. “But that was too far to run. I couldn’t get there in the heat.”
So he traveled past the cabin where Unalakleet residents tend to congregate to greet mushers before their arrival to the coast. On Saturday, people cheered “and the dogs took off, like I mean, bar break style,” he said with a big smile. “The dogs just took off and there was this new sense of excitement.”
Sass said it’s time to get into race mode.
“I think my time of carrying more than I need to in the sled is over,” he said. Race fans can expect Sass won’t be camping on the trail as much as he had the first three-quarters of the race. And he said, “I’m always focused (on) the finish line to be perfectly honest with you.”