The bells of the historic Immaculate Conception Cathedral in downtown Fairbanks rang in honor of legendary musher George Attla who died this week as Eureka musher Brent Sass cruised across the finish line to win this year’s Yukon Quest.
Sass has been trying to win the Quest for years. This year, he gave up a 10-hour lead to two-time defending champion Allen Moore, who refused to give up easily.
When Allen Moore blew through the Mile 101 checkpoint, he claimed the lead and gained nearly a half an hour on Brent Sass. After Sass left the checkpoint, he says his team made up much of that time.
“It was funny the way I gauged it, I was watching the poop in the trail,” Sass said. “When I first started, the poop was all frozen and then as I got down the trail a little bit farther, I’d stick my ski pole in the poop every time when I’d go by and it got softer and softer and I knew then I was on his trail before I even saw the headlamp.”
After the two crossed over Rosebud Summit, they ran for more than 40 miles within two minutes of each other all the way to the Two Rivers checkpoint, where they bedded down their teams for a mandatory 8-hour layover. Allen Moore says he was positioned right where he wanted to be.
“As I have told you all along, I just wanted to get to Two Rivers and be close and I am close,” Moore said. “I couldn’t ask for me and now the dogs just have to perform. We’re in the perfect position. We’re in our home turf. They know where the finish line is. If they feel good, we will win.”
With a race as close, both mushers knew they’d have to run behind their sleds and use ski poles to help their teams along. Moore is 57. He joked about what it would be like to race against 35-year-old Sass.
“You’ll see an old guy and a young guy and a young guy really running to the finish line. ‘I’m going to kick your butt you old guys.’ ‘No you’re not you old guy,’” Moore said.
Joking aside, Moore knew the 70-mile run to Fairbanks would be tough.
“If you stop to untangle a tangle the other person will be a quarter mile ahead of you, just to untangle a tangle, the other person will be a quarter of a mile ahead of you, so that’s what it’s going to play down to,” he said.
The two teams left within two minutes of each other. Twenty miles later, Brent Sass caught Moore’s team.
“A plan came together,” he said.
Sass says he took advantage of a road crossing, where spectators gathered to cheer on his dogs. Allen Moore’s kennel is not too far from the trail, so that also worked to Sass’s advantage.
“The dogs, it was just amazing,” Sass said. “I called them up and we flew all the way through two rivers and I had to make sure I toned it back a little bit because I realized we still had like 50 miles to go.”
Sass credits his lead dog Basin, who ran in lead for all but 25 miles of the race.
“He’s an amazing dog, he just defies the odds,” he said.
Sass drove a young team of two-, three- and five-year-olds this year.
“Yeah, the future is real bright,” Sass said. “I got 25 puppies at home that my handlers are training up, so the future is real bright for Wild and Free.”
Allen Moore crossed the finish line just over an hour later. Brent Sass was there to greet him.
“Dogs look good,” Sass told Moore. “Nice race. It’s always a pleasure racing against you.”
Moore seemed a little down his team’s performance.
“I thought it could have been just like it was two years ago, where they really rocked, like Brent’s team did this year,” Moore said. “I thought my team would be that team again, but they just didn’t have it this year.”
There are still 14 teams spread out across nearly 200 miles of trail. They’ll continue to cross the finish line throughout the week.