Yukon North Of Ordinary

News archive for February 11, 2014

Emotional musher recalls scene of injury

Tears flowed freely down Brent Sass’s cheeks as he opened up about the injury that ended the greatest Yukon Quest run of his life.

By Marcel Vander Wier on February 11, 2014 at 3:50 pm

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Photo by Vince Fedoroff

EMOTIONAL DISCLOSURE – Brent Sass talks to the press this morning, recalling events leading up to his withdrawal from the 2014 Yukon Quest International Sled Dog Race.

Tears flowed freely down Brent Sass’s cheeks as he opened up about the injury that ended the greatest Yukon Quest run of his life.

The musher met with the media this morning at the White Pass Building in Whitehorse, giving his version of the events that occurred on the trail across Coghlan Lake into Braeburn Sunday morning.

Sass was racing only a few minutes behind eventual Quest winner Allen Moore when he fell asleep on his sled runners, tumbled off his sled and hit his head on the frozen lake.

The fall resulted in a serious concussion.

The 34-year-old from Eureka, Alaska eventually pushed the help button on his satellite tracker and was rescued by members of the Canadian Rangers who drove to the site on snowmobiles.

Sass was transported to Braeburn, the final checkpoint in the Yukon Quest, and was airlifted to Whitehorse General Hospital where he was diagnosed. He continues to suffer headaches, but has been discharged and is recovering.

Sass started his press conference by congratulating Allen Moore on a race well run.

“This is one of the most amazing races that I’ve ever run, and it was just an honour to be up there racing against him and his dog team,” he said. “We were having the race of our life.”

The two race frontrunners had been dueling for more than 800 miles, trading leads frequently in the Fairbanks-to-Whitehorse sled dog race.

Sass broke down frequently as he recounted the tale of his fall.

Sass told reporters he tried to shake off the injury in order to complete the last 12 miles into Braeburn, but soon realized he wasn’t himself.

The musher set up camp with his 13 dogs and made them a meal before hunkering down in his sleeping bag. When he awoke, however, he realized he was lying on the frozen ground and that his arm and bare hand were outside of the bag exposed to the frigid temperature of -30 Celsius.

He proceeded to hold the tracker in his hands for an hour, before pressing the button to summon emergency help.

“I was kind of in denial for a little while,” he admitted. “I made a conscious decision to hit that button, and it was not easy. It was one of the hardest decisions I’ve ever had to make.”

Sass said it will take some time to regain full health. He continues to be affected by headaches and numbness in his hands.

Sass, the owner of Wild and Free Mushing kennel, admitted being physically exhausted when the injury occurred.

“I was tired,” he said. “I had been kicking and poling and working my ass off, as well as the dogs’, for 900 miles. I gave my dogs the rest they needed. I did not do as good a job as I could of taking care of myself.”

Sass said it was his dogs’ response to him that helped him realize he was off-kilter.

“The dogs were noticing that I was not myself,” he said. “I was not being ‘Wild and Free’ anymore. I was confused and unable to really form a plan to get to Braeburn. I had never been in that state before.”

For instance, Sass said it took him three times longer than usual to feed his dog team.

“I went from being an eight-year Quest veteran to a rookie who was trying to survive out there. That was a helpless position to be in,” he stated.

“We had 900 miles of bliss. It was like a magic carpet ride. … I owe everything to my dog team. They were perfect.

“They were so amazing the whole way and I let them down,” he said, choking back tears. “Accidents happen, but I let that dog team down and it was a really hard pill to swallow.”

Sass’s dog team was guided into the Braeburn checkpoint by a race official with help from Quest musher Hugh Neff.

Sass’s dog, U-Turn, was suffering from mild dehydration and entered the checkpoint in the sled. The dog was put on IV and has fully recovered.

Sass admitted he wished Neff was a little closer behind.

“I didn’t know my condition, so I figured if Hugh showed up, he could have a conversation with me and I could figure out exactly what my condition was and then make a decision,” he said.

“He took too long to get there,” Sass said to laughter. “But thankfully, he got there right after I did go and there’s no better person than Hugh, because Hugh cares as much about dogs as I do. The fact that he stopped his race … means a lot to me. I owe him beer after beer after beer for sitting there and hanging out with my dogs.”

In addition to the injury, Sass recounted an incident with a bull moose near the Black Hills before Carmacks.

“We were flying,” he recalled. “I had seen a couple of moose and there were moose tracks everywhere. I think that was part of the reason the dogs were at a higher level at that point.”

Sass said his team rounded a corner into the path of an oncoming bull moose with just one antler.

“I got on the brakes as hard as I could and there was 13 dogs just barking and banging and excited to go,” he recalled. “I got them stopped and we were inching forward a little bit.  … At that point, it was all up to the moose.”

The beast charged the team, scattering his dogs and barreled towards the musher.

“It was one of the scariest moments I’ve ever had,” Sass said. “I whacked him with my ski pole as hard as I could and dove off to the side of the trail. He ran right on by me and kind of stopped for a split second as I looked back. I had half my pole in my hand ready to hit him again.”

In the meantime, Sass’s dog team raced ahead. The musher did catch up to them and examined them before continuing down the trail. The entire incident took about eight seconds, he recalled.

“We came out of that with a really big smile on our face, because somebody was watching over us,” he said.

The encounter had Sass believing this was his race to win.

“At that point, I was like ‘Wow, we are really going to do this. If we didn’t get taken out by that moose, there is nothing that can take us out.’ We always say if you’re going to win a race, everything’s got to go your way. And everything up until Coghlan Lake went my way.”

Sass still has his sights on running the Iditarod early next month. If he is able to get back on the sled runners, it will be with a helmet on his head.

“I can’t take another hit to the head,” he said. “There’s no doubt about it. I don’t know if I’ll be the first one, but I’ll definitely be wearing a helmet this coming Iditarod. As long as I can find something that works well … I’ll be wearing a helmet when I dog mush for the rest of my life.”

Sass said he isn’t ready to call for helmets to be required in the sport of mushing, but just knows he will need one in order to keep his season alive.

If he recovers in time, Sass said he’s going to give the Iditarod a good run.

“I know the health of my dogs is 100 per cent and they’re ready to rock and roll,” he said.  “I’m going to go out gunning. I’m going to go out and try to win the Iditarod.”

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