NOME, Alaska (CN) — Hundreds of fans from across the world gathered along with residents of Nome, Alaska, in the wee hours of Tuesday to watch Brent Sass and his 11-dog team cross under the burled arch marking the finish line of the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race.
“It’s a dream come true,” Sass said to assembled crowd and media. “When I started mushing, my goal was to win the Yukon Quest and win the Iditarod and — checked them both off the list now.”
Born and raised in Minnesota, Sass, 42, now lives and trains his team from his remote homestead in Eureka north of Fairbanks under the kennel name of Wild and Free Mushing. He moved to Alaska more than 20 years ago to attend the University of Alaska Fairbanks and soon after discovered dog mushing.
This is Sass’s first Iditarod victory on his seventh attempt. He has also won the 1,000-mile Yukon Quest three times, plus other mid-distance races. Sass placed 13th in his first Iditarod try in 2012, winning the Rookie of the Year award that year.
After hugging his dad and rewarding his dogs with pets and steaks, Sass said, “Every one of these dogs I’ve raised since puppies, and we’ve been working toward this goal the whole time.”
This year Sass took a big lead near the halfway point and kept it till the finish. Five-time Iditarod champion Dallas Seavey, the nearest competitor to chase for the win, pulled into Nome a little over an hour after Sass with seven dogs in harness.
Seavey, 35, had been racing for his sixth Iditarod win, which would have made him the winningest musher in the history of the race. Seavey has said he plans to take a break from racing after this year to spend more time with his daughter.
This year 49 teams started the race on March 6 in Willow, two hours north of Anchorage, to mark the 50th running of the 1,000-mile race. The route follows the historical gold rush and mail trail that winds up and over 3,000-foot mountain passes in the Alaska and Kuskokwim Ranges, over rushing rivers and along desolate stretches of Bering Sea ice.
It's dubbed "The Last Great Race on Earth" and was founded as a way to honor and revive a traditional mode of transportation between remote communities where dog power was being rapidly replaced by snow machines in the 1960s.
Race founders Dorothy Page and Joe Redington Sr. proposed a sled dog race over a historical route as one way to commemorate the centennial of Alaska's purchase from Russia to become a U.S. territory in 1867. At that time a 56-mile race was held.
Afterward, Redington dreamed of a much longer race to preserve the historical trail and save the sled dog culture. In 1973, he and others launched what is now the world famous Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race. Racers from all over the world come to compete each year.
There are two routes that racers alternate use of each year. Pre-Covid-19 the the race follows what is known as the Northern Route with 26 checkpoints on even years like 2022. On odd years the race uses the Southern Route with 27 stopover points.
In 2021, because of the pandemic, for the first time in its history the race did not finish in Nome. To protect the mostly Alaskan Native residents of the remote villages, the race set up tented checkpoints along the route and turned around at the halfway point for a finish back where it started in Willow.
Covid-19 precautions continued this year while taking the race all the way to Nome once again. Mushers had to prove they are fully vaccinated and had to test negative for the virus three times before the start of the race. They were each given another test at the McGrath checkpoint, about a third of the way into the competition.
Volunteers and race officials are being tested daily and must prove they are fully vaccinated. At this point none of the competitors have tested positive during the race. Two mushers have finished, and five have scratched from competition. Another 42 mushers remain on the trail heading for Nome.