Brent Sass wins 2022 Iditarod
By Diana Haecker
Brent Sass, in his seventh running of the Iditarod, won the 2022 Iditarod Trail Sled Dog race, arriving under the burled arch on Tuesday morning at 5:38 a.m. with 11 dogs in harness, clocking a time of eight days, 14 hours, 38 minutes and 43 seconds.
Despite the early morning hour, hundreds of Nomeites, visitors and Iditarod fans lined Front Street when Sass’ dog team strutted into the finish chute. Sass kicking the sled up the ramp, came to a stop under the arch and immediately collapsed onto the seat of his sled. Race Marshal Mark Nordman congratulated him and Sass responded, “Thank you, thank you, wow, I’m tired.”
Little rest afforded the musher only a few hours sleep here and there. And in a race filled with normal trail challenges, the last stretch on the Bering Sea coast lived up to its infamous reputation. In the last 77 miles from White Mountain to Nome, mother nature dished out a proper ground storm in the hills with winds gusting up to 62 mph as Sass and Dallas Seavey went through. “It was very, very windy out there, we took a tumble and went off the trail and I thought we have to hunker down and wait and see how the cards fell,” Sass said at the finish line. “We persevered, got up, found the trail again and I don’t even know what the wind was blowing out there. I mean I couldn’t see anything, the dogs… the only reason we got out of there was ‘cause they trusted me to get them back to the trail and once we got back to the trail, they just took off 100 miles an hour again and we were able to stay on the trail and get in here. But it was a lot of work,” Sass said.
He added it was also a lot of fun and he’s got a lot of stories now to tell. But when he told the story, after a meal and a nap, it didn’t sound like fun. Sass recounted how winds progressively got worse in the Topkok Hills and that just staying on the trail turned out to be a monumental challenge. Those who were glued to the race tracker, following Sass’ progress and Seavey’s relentless pursuit, noticed that for a while Sass’ tracker stopped about eight miles away from the Topkok Shelter Cabin.
Speculation ran amuck, but here is what happened: Sass was blown off the side of the hill, as the icy trail combined with horrendous wind gusts sent him and his team tumbling down the mountain. When the team came to a stop, the dogs hunkered down and Sass turned on the light mounted on the handlebar of his sled. Visibility was zero and he set out to find the trail again. Eventually he spotted one reflective light off a trail marker and convinced his team to scramble uphill and back onto the trail. While he characterized the situation as not life threatening to him or the dogs, he said, his worst fear was that he’d see the headlight of Dallas Seavey pass by him and thus him handing the race to Seavey. But that didn’t happen. Sass got back on the trail, made it across the last mountain and down to the coast, where it was windy, but he said, at least it was flat. At the Topkok Shelter cabin, he fed the dogs a snack and then continued, still through serious winds, but at least on a flat coastal plane, to Nome and to victory.
Sass, 42, operates the Wild and Free Kennel in Eureka, Alaska, a remote homesteader paradise that produced two other Iditarod champions: the late Susan Butcher and Rick Swenson.
Sass grew up in Minnesota, graduated high school there and then came to Alaska to attend the University of Alaska at Fairbanks in 1998. “I had a dream since I was five years old, to come to Alaska,” Sass said . “My grandparents went on a cruise when I was a kid and I saw pictures and I told my parents when I was five that Alaska was the place I wanted to go. And I never literally lost that dream.”
Under the burled arch, the newly crowned champion joined the ranks of only 23 other people on earth who can lay claim to an Iditarod champion title.
Winning this race, he said, is a dream come true. “When I started mushing, my goal was to win the Yukon Quest and win the Iditarod and we checked them off the list now. It’s awesome.” He said he has raised the dogs in his team since they were puppies. “And we’ve been working towards this goal the whole time and we’re here. It’s crazy,” he said, as emotions caught up with him.
But the victory wasn’t easily handed to him.
While the other mushers still in the race on Tuesday morning were far behind and only three have just arrived in White Mountain by the time Sass pulled into Nome, there was one musher who was in hot pursuit. Dallas Seavey. Seavey, a five-time Iditarod champion, arrived an hour and eight minutes under the burled arch with seven dogs in harness and a time of eight days, 15 hours, 46 minutes. His team, he said, suffered an early race setback when the dogs wouldn’t eat and he had to slowly nurse them back. When asked about Seavey breathing down Sass’ neck, Sass said that he knew that Dallas would never ever give up and wave the white flag. “He’s the best right now,” Sass said. “Being able to keep him at bay the whole entire race and race against the best guy in the business just makes this victory even sweeter.”
The crowd stuck around to welcome Dallas Seavey into Nome. He was welcomed by his mother, daughter and grandfather Dan Seavey who raced the first Iditarod in 1973.
Sass’ kennel name and motto “Wild and Free” is based on a Hobo Jim song. “The whole premise is about a guy who goes away from home and goes off and does his own thing and he’s wild and free,” explained Sass. “When I heard that song I was like, wow, you know, that depicted what I was trying to do. When I started my dog kennel, it just seemed like the fitting name for my operation for myself.”