Updated: This story was updated on Feb. 14 to include a 2007 dog death in the team of then rookie Quest musher Brent Sass.
For the second year in a row, Eureka’s Brent Sass has pushed a dog team beyond the pale in one of the state’s premier long distance races, and a lot of people are feeling sorry for him.
Here’s how the Alaska Dispatch News headlined the latest debacle: “Concerned about dog’s safety, Sass scratches from Yukon Quest.”
Concerned about dog’s safety? If Sass was concerned about the dog’s safety, would he really have pushed them to the point two toppled and the rest of the team struggled so badly he had to use a satellite communication device to call officials of the 1,000-mile Yukon Quest International Sled Dog Race to come to the rescue?
Were this a one-time thing, a freak misjudgment on the musher’s part, it might not be so troubling. But it’s not a one-time thing.
Flashback to the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race just last year. Sass drove a team into White Mountain in third place in Alaska biggest sled dog event, and there the team quit. After a mandatory, eight-hour rest, it refused to leave the checkpoint.
Sass ended up spending 26 hours in White Mountain before the team was willing to go. He dropped from third to 20th in the Iditarod, and most everyone got to read about how sad it was for Sass.
“He maintained a team of 13 dogs all the way to White Mountain…but that’s where Sass’s team made their own decision to stop, something that might not have happened if Sass’s team had still included his former lead dog, Basin,” Jason Sear and John Thain at KTVA.com reported.
“Sass was emotional Tuesday evening after pulling into Nome under a blanket of northern lights. He held back tears as he spoke to reporters about the dog.
“‘There were a lot of times when I was like, ‘If i just had Basin…’ You know,’ said Sass. ‘He was like a dog that rallied the whole team. I feel like my whole season would’ve been different had I not lost him.'”
Basin wasn’t there because he was dead. During a training run along the Denali Highway in the winter of 2015-2016, Sass parked his team and left it. Some dogs chewed loose from their harnesses and attacked Basin. Another musher arrived on the scene to break up the fight, but he, Sass and a lodge caretaker were unable to save the dog.
In explaining his dogs faltering in this year’s Quest, Sass suggested they had genetic weaknesses inherited from Basin. They didn’t. Basin’s death was not linked to anything genetic.
Touchy, feely, New Age guy
The 37-year-old Sass is, by all accounts, a really nice guy. He has a whole bunch of fans. He is no Rick Swenson to whom the term “gruff” was attached so many times it became the cliché description for the legendary, five-time Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race champ.
Sass is so nice that e-blogger “Beauty and Bread” was led to wonder “Why Does Everyone Love Brent Sass?” She then proceeded to answer her own question:
- “He cries at the drop of a hat.
- “He laughs just as readily at himself and at situations; he’s never without a smile.
- “He is just as genuine in person as he appears on video.
- “He acknowledges and appreciates his friends, fans and followers.”
- And etc., etc., etc.
All of this somehow made it not just OK, but a tragedy for Sass personally when in the 2011 Quest he arrived, as B&B decsribes, at the “Circle checkpoint with a story of the death of his wheel dog, Taco. Tears streaming down his face, he told the story of carrying his friend’s body in his sled bag until the dog drop at Slavens Roadhouse. That was the first time I’d seen even a photo of Brent, and he looked like a kid. I cried along with him.”
First there was a team dog named Melville, dead in 2007; then a wheel dog named Taco, dead in 2011; then Basin, a Golden Harness winning lead dog, dead in 2015; and now a couple of dogs toppled over and in such bad shape that Sass thought he had to call for rescue to keep them alive.
And the reaction to this is what?
“Eureka musher Brent Sass, whose career has been plagued with a series of mishaps, absorbed another Sunday.”
That’s how Mike Campbell, a reporter and editor at the Alaska Dispatch News and before that the Anchorage Daily News since 1980, described the latest Sass screw up.
It’s all about nice-guy Sass and his “mishaps.” Forget about the dogs.
Look, when one dog goes down and a musher has to load it in the sled bag and haul it to the next checkpoint to be dropped and sent home, that’s a mistake. When two go down and have to be hauled , that’s a bad mistake. When two go down and you call for rescue, that’s a royal screw up.
“What I am struggling with is,” Quest veteran musher Sebastian Schnuelle, the on-trail reporter for Iditarod.com during that annual race, wrote on his Facebook page Monday. “I really do not understand how any musher, who has to be hauled off the trail with 2 dogs in the sled bag, is being praised. Some go as far as calling Brent a Champion for doing that. Seriously?
“It used to be an embarrassment when you had to be picked off the tail. Where is this sport headed? What perception do the fans really have?”
Schnuelle was treading lightly and understandably so. He has the reaction of fans and mushing friends to worry about.
As another musher who shall remain nameless observed in a text exchange with craigmedred.news on Monday, “any negative reaction/criticism of races these days no matter how reasoned gets you pounced on by the Iditadefenders. Fans can be fleeced but not heard.”
I’ve spent a lot of years defending Alaska’s long-distance races against accusations they kill dogs. I did it because I’m a realist. Dogs sometimes die in these endurance races, and people sometimes die in marathons. There are risks associated with athletic activity.
Over the years, the Iditarod in particular has become better and better at minimizing the risks while the Quest, which ran from 2002 to 2007 with a dog death, possibly a little less so. The Iditarod veterinarians deserve a pat on the back. Given the statistical realities of running mileage, dog numbers, the short lifespan of canines and dog behavior, I admit to once being skeptical the race could ever be run without at least one dog dying.
It would be like the Boston Marathon being run decade after decade after decade without a human dying. The odds say it won’t happen, and it hasn’t. There have been three deaths associated with the Boston race.
Still, the Iditarod surprised many by getting through the 2010 race without a dog death and repeating that feat in 2011, 2012 and 2014. A dropped dog sadly died of suffocation in 2013 after being left outside a checkpoint and becoming buried under windblown snow. Three dogs died in 2015. And a dog died in 2016 when it was hit by a snowmachine, an Iditarod Trail danger beyond the control of mushers.
Iditarod vets have done a superb job of both monitoring the race this decade and caring for dogs. They have saved more than a few dogs that might not have survived in years past. They have even protected some mushers from their own bad judgment – and anyone can fall victim to bad judgment.
I have personally run dogs until they dropped. In neither of those cases, did the collapses come as a surprise. In one case, running in the heat, I thought an obviously failing dog could make it the rest of the way home at my pace. He couldn’t. I pushed on; he heat stroked and ended up being taken to the vet and put on an IV.
In the other case, a young dog who’d spent a long day obviously overworking himself in the field was allowed to continue until he collapsed. A seizure followed. He had to be carried a long way back to the truck and loaded for a rush to veterinary clinic more than 40 miles away. He recovered on the drive. He didn’t need the clinic and was fine the next day. He went on to live a long, happy life that involved a whole lot more exercise.
Exercise is good for dogs. It helps them lead happier, longer lives. Andy, Swenson’s legendary lead dog, lived to just a few days shy of his 20th birthday. That’s ancient for a large-breed dog.
But it’s pretty easy for people to kill dogs with bad judgment, too. It happens all the time. Thousands of dogs are believed to fall victim to heat stroke every year because their owners aren’t paying attention. Eleven of them were police dogs in the summer of 2015.
An estimated 1.2 million dogs die on U.S. roads every year because their owners refuse to put them on a leash or allow them to escape from home or otherwise fail to care for the animals. One such death became big news in Anchorage last summer when a child trying to avoid getting in trouble claimed a dog was hit while on leash, and local media hungry for a sensational story ran with the obviously shaky tale as if it was true.
Sadly, however, Scooby-Doo was hit by a truck and died because he wasn’t properly restrained. His young owner understood the mistake that led to the dog’s death well enough to try to hide from the responsibility.
Sass has been pursing a similar tactic.
Cry for me
“I often carry Basin’s collar on my sled,” Sass wrote on his Facebook page on Monday. “He’s tattooed to my chest, and his name tag is sewn to the hood of my jacket. When I saw his boys crash like that, I feared the worst. I’m thankful that they’re happy and healthy today! I don’t know what to think about what looks like some sort of genetic issue….”
Well, of course; it’s all a genetics issue: Melville, Taco, Basin, the team that hit White Mountain exhausted last year; the two dogs down this year.
Genetics! It must be genetics.
The reality is different. Dogs are a little like batteries. If you run them down too far, they might not recharge. And there’s a fine line between simply tired and plain worn out. Swenson had a tired team quit on him at Safety, the last Iditarod checkpoint, in 1987.
That team was tired, and Andy – the legendary musher’s legendary lead dog – was at home enjoying retirement. With Andy at the front, Swenson might have been able to get the team out of Safety.
Without Andy, well, Swenson went into the Safety Roadhouse, had a drink, and gave the team a few hours to recover. After that, they took off for Nome. They didn’t need to camp out for more than a day. There was no rescue. This was a tired team, not an exhausted team.
Swenson ran 36 Iditarods and 1987 was the only time he had a team quit on him, and then only for a matter of hours.
Swenson never once had to be rescued, but helped rescue others. Along with winning the Iditarod five times, he finished a total of 24 times in the Iditarod top-10 and 30 times in top-20.
Over the course of those 36 races, he had one dog die in a freak accident. It got tangled up in the towline and drowned in overflow along the Yentna River in 1996 while Swenson was struggling to get the entire team out of the water.
Sass has been in the business less than third as long as Swenson and has to his record a dead dog in his rookie Quest in 2007, a dead dog in the 2011 Quest, a prized lead dog dead in training, and a rescue summoned because he apparently thought two dogs in danger of dying this year.
Swenson won his last Iditarod in 1991 by walking his dog team through a Bering Sea storm that scared a lot of other mushers enough that they turned back. By then, the rap on him was already that he wasn’t willing to push a team hard enough to compete in a rapidly evolving Iditarod.
The late Jerry Austin, a beloved Iditarod musher from the village of St. Michael on the Yukon who ended up drinking himself to death, once described Swenson as “a stupid, old dog lover.”
Swenson could, indeed, be “gruff,” but his dogs always got top-notch care and treatment, and he never asked of them more than they were capable of delivering. That has not been true of everyone running Iditarod or the Quest in recent years.
Granted, not all Iditarod teams that quit do so because they have been run too hard. There are back of the pack teams with lack of training and poor team discipline which sometimes just tell the boss (the musher) that they’re going to take the day off.
But there are teams that quit because they can’t continue, because they’ve been asked to do too much as was the case with Sass’s Iditarod team last year and that of the team of Hugh Neff (Iditarod in-house nickname “Huge Mess”) in the 2014 Iditarod. Neff’s team quit on the ice outside of the Bering Sea coast village of Golovin.
Neff is a former Quest champion, like Sass; a rescue button pusher, like Sass; and another nice and entertaining guy with a fan base.
“He is a fantastic spokesman and has an excitement for life that is infectious to all he meets,” according to former National Education Association-Alaska president Barb Angaiak. ” I have met with him numerous times and am always impressed with his positive outlook. It is a pleasure to support such a great role model as he works to be successful with his team of superb athletes.”
Neff teamed up with NEA-Alaska to encourage kids to read, a highly commendable act. He pulled on the striped hat of Dr. Seuss’ “Cat in the Hat” to entertain children and fans at the start of the Quest and Iditarod races. Being a nice guy apparenlty buys him some protection from criticism.
It is apparently OK if bad things happen to the dogs in teams of nice guys. Then, it would appear, everyone is supposed to feel sorry for the people because they’re struggling through their “mishaps.”
As for the dogs?
Quest and Iditarod like to tell everyone the races are “all about the dogs,” but sometimes a reasonable person really has to wonder because the races don’t always act like it’s “all about the dogs.”
CORRECTION: This story was revised after the true cause of Basin’s death was discovered.