Brent Sass is the 2019 Yukon Quest winner after completing the 1,000-mile (1,600-kilometre) race in the early afternoon on Feb. 11 with a full team of 14 dogs on the line.
Sass crossed the finish line at the Morris Thompson Cultural and Visitors Center in Fairbanks, Alaska, at 12:40 p.m. local time on Feb. 11 with his lead dogs Sluice and Morello out front.
Eleven of his 14 dogs were rookies, while the other three were part of his 2015 winning team.
“They’re definitely not rookies anymore,” said Sass. “I can’t wait until next year. They’re really going to have the knowledge and the know-how. They never hesitated a bit … they just kept getting faster.”
This is the 12th year running the race for the resident of Eureka, Alaska.
“I think I really tried to just ignore my competitors and not really care about anybody,” Sass said. “I jumped off the ice on Birch Creek there and had a really solid run. I figured it was cold out, and there was very little chance of anybody blowing through Central, so I gambled. It just puts a few more miles on you before you go over Eagle Summit, which is always a test.”
Sass said this race was extra special because of his dog Jeep, who was a sprint dog for one of his good friends — Joee Redington — before Redington died.
“He was a sprint dog, and Joee always said when we were chatting and hanging out, that this dog right here could run a distance race,” said Sass. “After Joee passed away, I bought Jeep … and said, ‘you’re going to be a distance dog.’ I trained him for two season and he was phenomenal. I mean, he led over 500 miles of the race. He led over American Summit in a windstorm. … I know Joee’s spirit was out there with me the whole way smiling down on us.”
Next to finish was Whitehorse’s Hans Gatt, a four-time winner making a return to the Quest with a young team ranging in age from two to six years old.
“After 30 years of mushing, I know when a dog team is running well and they did run well,” Gatt said. “I knew I was going to pass people.”
Gatt finished the race at 2:20 p.m. with eight dogs on the line.
After leading in the early portions of the race, Gatt had some issues getting his team up Eagle Summit — one of the four infamous peaks along the trail — but started to make up ground after reaching the Mile 101 checkpoint in fourth place.
“Somehow, my dogs just decided they were afraid of the wind coming down the mountain and blowing all that snow in our faces,” said Gatt. “They just didn’t want to go up, so I had to walk a couple miles up Eagle Summit ahead of them and my leaders just followed me. When I was out front, they were fine.”
Last year’s winner, Allen Moore, was next to finish, arriving at 3:30 p.m. with 13 dogs.
“We have a really steady team this year,” said Moore. “And they were steady.”
Moore’s team was primarily composed of Quest veterans but also included some rookies.
“It’s all not easy,” said Moore. “Michelle Phillips and I were talking. She said she’s been running the Iditarod the last few years and now that she’s started running the Quest again, it’s a lot different in that you’re always doing something in the Quest.”
He said the best part of the race is the finish.
“You can see the lights of Fairbanks from the top of Rosebud (Summit), so that’s pretty cool,” said Moore.
Meeting him at the finish line was a large contingent of family, including his 81-year-old mother who made the trip from Arkansas.
“It’s always good to see mom up here,” said Moore. “She’s been up here numerous times before to watch me finish, here and in Whitehorse. It’s always good to have her.”
Moore said he didn’t have the speed to keep up with Sass as the race went on.
“Really the difference between us is probably in Circle when he rested four (hours) and I rested five (hours). That started the trend of him just being a little bit more in front,” said Moore. “It’s hard to overcome that right at the end. And his dogs were always a little bit faster than mine; it’s really hard to overcome that. So with an hour and a little bit faster dogs, it was hard to catch him.”
Moore said he was skipping on rest towards the end of the race to try to stay ahead of Gatt.
“I tried to tackle him, but I missed him,” joked Moore when asked about being passed on the last stretch. “He and Brent, as far as speed goes, they were both pretty fast — a lot faster than I was.”
Fourth into the finish was 10 Mile’s Michelle Phillips in her first Yukon Quest since 2011.
Phillips finished at 4:47 p.m. with nine dogs.
“It was great,” said Phillips. “I had a lot of memories out on the trail.”
Phillips said that while not all of her dogs are Yukon Quest veterans, all of her dogs had 1,000-mile race experience, and that the weather over the last two mountain summits — Eagle and Rosebud — wasn’t too bad.
“I had some wind on Eagle and a little bit of wind on Rosebud, but no blizzard,” said Phillips, later adding that the weather for the entire race was good to run in.
“The weather was really nice that it warmed up for sure. Overall, once it warmed up, it was great.”
Phillips said the entire Quest race experience was something she appreciated after years of only running the Iditarod.
“I really appreciated how much more intimate it was and just (how) caring … people are and the hospitality of all the people,” said Phillips. “I really appreciate all that. And yes, the Quest is definitely tough. You definitely feel like you’ve gone 1,000 miles when you finish it.”
Rounding out the top five was 2017 winner Matt Hall of Two Rivers, Alaska, who arrived at 11:44 p.m.
Six more mushers crossed the finish line on Feb. 12.
Paige Drobny finished sixth at 12:07 a.m., followed by Torsten Kohnert at 11:42 a.m. and Canadian Denis Tremblay at 11:51 a.m.
Fairbanks’ Jessie Royer was ninth, arriving at 4:06 p.m., and Yukoner Nathaniel Hamlyn rounded out the top 10 with a 7:15 p.m. finish time.
Hamlyn said he could feel the support from his friends and family while out on the trail.
“It’s pretty incredible and makes me want to keep going,” said Hamlyn.
He said he had a strong headwind getting over Eagle Summit but that the final few hours of the race might have been the worst part.
“This is like a blizzard,” said Hamlyn to laughs from the crowd. “The river is just completely overflow. There is snow on top and it’s just water. Every step, dogs are going in the water and it’s just going to get worse. No trail at all, marker to marker, zig-zagging, and it took forever.”
With so little snow in the leadup to the race, Hamlyn said dealing with fresh snow was a bit of a challenge for his team.
“This punchy amount of snow was totally new to them and it took them a bit to get into it, but they adapt,” said Hamlyn. “They’re getting better at it and it’s good to see.”
Ryne Olson rounded out the finishes in 11th place at 9:38 p.m.
As of 11:59 p.m. on Feb. 12, just two mushers were on the trail between the final checkpoint in Two Rivers and the finish — Cody Strathe and Dawson City’s Brian Wilmshurst.
Americans Dave Dalton and Martin Apayauq Reitan were both resting in Two Rivers, while Deke Naaktgeboren, Curt Perano, Dawson’s Jason Biasetti, Andrew Pace and Mount Lorne’s Rob Cooke are all at Mile 101.
A final group of mushers — Remy Leduc, Misha Wiljes, Laura Allaway, Jim Lanier, Isabelle Travadon, Hendrik Stachnau and Chase Tingle — are resting in Central.
Racing by and large stopped the latter half of Feb. 12 due to blizzard-like conditions along the trail and the added difficulty for support teams from road closures on the Steese Highway which services both Mile 101 and Central.
Contact John Hopkins-Hill at firstname.lastname@example.org