Finish and Awards Banquet brings closure to 37th Yukon Quest

Brent Sass poses with his lead dogs after crossing the finish line in Whitehorse on Feb. 11 to win his third Yukon Quest. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News file)
Swedish rookie Nora Sjalin was all smiles after finishing the 2020 Yukon Quest on Feb. 13 in Whitehorse. Sjalin crossed the finish line at 7:59 p.m. with 10 dogs on the line in seventh position. As the top finishing rookie in this year’s field, Sjalin won the Rookie of the Year Award. She also won the Challenge of the North Award. (John Hopkins-Hill/Yukon News)
Two Cody Strathe’s dogs wait impatiently to continue to the dog yard after arriving a the Dawson City checkpoint on Feb. 6 during the 2020 Yukon Quest. Strathe won the Veterinarians’ Choice Award for outstanding dog care. (John Hopkins-Hill/Yukon News)

The 37th annual Yukon Quest 1,000 Mile International Sled Dog Race wrapped up on Feb. 15 with the Finish and Awards Banquet, held at the Coast High Country Inn and Convention Centre.

Once all the opening ceremonies were over and dinner was served, mushers were introduced to the crowd in reverse order of finish and given an opportunity to share their thoughts on the race.

The 2020 winner Brent Sass thanked his sponsors, handlers and family, as well as second-place finisher Michelle Phillips of Tagish.

“Michelle, thank you so much for an awesome race. It was really a blast,” said Sass. “Definitely it’s nerve-racking when you’re out there. Our schedules were different in the second half … and I’d be camping for two hours and she’d come flying by with her dog team and I’d be like, ‘I’m going to sit here for three more hours? How in the heck am I going to do that?’”

Sass won the race, finishing at 2:51 p.m. on Feb. 11 – four hours ahead of Phillips who finished at 6:51 p.m.

Phillips, too, had kind words to say about her closest competitor in this year’s race.

“Thank you Brent for the amazing race,” said Phillips. “We had a lot of fun out there. We had two very evenly matched teams and it was great. I always had a smile when I saw him, even though my dogs were all over the trail.”

She said the trail’s solitude gives her time to reflect.

“Often when I’m out there, especially on the Yukon (River) and those long stretches, I think about all the ancestors and people who have been on the land for many years and travelled these miles with their dogs and the dogs that have been out there,” said Phillips. “It’s such a cool experience.”

In addition to recognizing the finishers and giving them a chance to thank their supporters, the banquet included the presentation of seven special awards.

Swedish musher Nora Sjalin won both the Rookie of the Year Award, as the top rookie finisher, and the Challenge of the North Award, given to the musher who exemplifies the spirit of the Quest.

For winning the Rookie of the Year Award, Sjalin won a hand-made knife, and for winning the Challenge of the North Award, she won a pair of wolverine gloves.

Olivia Webster, granddaughter of race founder LeRoy Shank, won this year’s Red Lantern Award as the last finisher in this year’s Quest. She arrived at 7:58 p.m. on Feb. 15, roughly halfway through the banquet.

Rob Cooke won the Sportsmanship Award — the second year in a row for Cooke — in large part due to his willingness to give Richie Beattie a lift into the Dawson checkpoint after Beattie fell off his sled.

“He jumped on and we set off towards Dawson,” Cooke told the banquet crowd. “The reason I’m a real fraud in accepting this is I didn’t actually do anything. It was the 14 dogs in front of me that brought my fat ass and Richie’s fat ass into the checkpoint.”

Third place finisher Cody Strathe won the Veterinarians’ Choice Award in recognition of his dog care.

“This is the award our kennel looks for,” said Strathe. “We love working with the vets. We talk about the dogs with the vets and figure out the best way to get these dogs to the finish line.”

Strathe’s wife, Paige Drobny, won the award in 2017.

The final two awards were the Joe Fellers Dawson City Award, two ounces of Klondike placer gold, won by Sass as the first musher into Dawson who also finished the race, and the Golden Harness Award, given to Morello and Woody in honour of “their loyalty, endurance and perseverance throughout the race.”

Sass’s 2019 Golden Harness winners, Jeep and Sluice, were also part of his team for this year’s race.

Contact John Hopkins-Hill at john.hopkinshill@yukon-news.com

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