DAWSON CITY, Yukon — Even the most experienced Yukon Quest 1,000-Mile International Sled Dog Race mushers need a handful of seasoned dogs on their team. When the going gets tough on the trail, veteran dogs are the ones mushers often rely on to get out of a jam.
Sometimes those veteran dogs even help mushers overcome life-and-death situations. A few hours before he left the Dawson City checkpoint for a 150-mile run to Eagle late Wednesday night, Brent Sass recalled a moment when one of his retired leaders, Silver, helped Hans Gatt’s team through a trying time on the trail.
Sass, the 2015 Quest champion from Eureka, was excited to discover blizzard conditions during the 2011 race when he and his team were heading up American Summit, the 3,420-foot peak this year’s teams will encounter as they make their way from Dawson, the final checkpoint on the Canada side of the race, to Eagle, the first stop across the Alaska border.
“We were stoked,” Sass said after Wednesday’s trail report at the Dawson City Visitor Information Centre, which is where this year’s checkpoint was located. “We were always excited to see bad weather and storms, because Silver was just an amazing dog in those conditions.”
The retired lead dog had a reputation for helping Sass, and other teams, get past adverse moments on the trail during previous races. But his biggest rescue came during that 2011 race, when Sass spotted Gatt, a four-time Quest champion from Whitehorse, hobbled by the whiteout conditions.
“We ran into Hans Gatt, and he was basically hypothermic and stuck on American Summit in a really bad storm,” Sass reflected. “He was in a bad way. My lead dog, Silver, was still charging away.”
Sass sprung into action, helping Gatt and his team get back on their feet as they tried to travel over the pass.
“(Gatt’s) hands were frozen and he was having a hard time hanging onto the sled,” he said. “I got him up and got all his dogs up and tied the front of his team to the back of my sled.”
For about 8 miles, Sass’ team helped guide Gatt’s over the summit. Silver led the charge, using his familiarity with the trail to keep both teams out of harm’s way.
“Silver was just plowing through the snow,” said Sass, who was visibly proud to be sharing the story with a small group who hadn’t heard it before. “There’s a cliff to the left, and if (Silver) goes too far to the left, we’re all going to the bottom of the valley. He led us the way, and I’m holding onto Hans’ snow hook and his dogs were following behind. It was awesome.”
That rescue, which Sass said can be found on YouTube with a simple search of “Silver American Summit 2011” earned the longtime lead dog some recognition.
“Silver got an award named after him after that, the ‘Silver Legacy Award,’ the Quest gave out that year,” he said.
Not all veteran dogs are called upon to save the day like Silver did during that snowy climb in 2011. However, all of the veteran dogs in this year’s race are playing critical roles for their teams.
Michelle Phillips, a Quest veteran from 10 Mile, Yukon, said she counts on Apollo, a 7-year-old lead dog running his fifth Quest, to whip the rest of the team into shape when they’re goofing off on the trail.
“He gets a little grouchy at them,” Phillips said of Apollo, who has also finished the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race four times. “He’ll growl at them if he doesn’t like the way they’re acting.”
Even if Phillips doesn’t always use Apollo as a lead dog, she said there have been circumstances that she did insert him at the front of the gangline when trails were rough.
“There were many times running the Iditarod on the coast, I went to him in a go-to situation,” she said. “He was confident and he had been there. He’s seen those conditions before.”
Phillips said it’s the experiences of running multiple 1,000-mile races that help set veterans apart from the rest of teams.
“They’re just your go-to leader when things get tough,” she said. “You can count on them because they’re veterans and they know what’s going on. They’re really grounded and have got that stable energy.”
Torsten Kohnert, a Quest veteran from Slussfors, Sweden, has been relying on 8-year-old Jill as a leader during this year’s race to Fairbanks. Jill, who Kohnert guessed is running her 10th 1,000-mile race, has been running in lead next to Idaho, her 5-year-old daughter.
“This is her last race,” Kohnert said Thursday morning before leaving Dawson for Eagle. “I’m pretty happy to have her here. She’s still pulling off all the crap that needs to be done, and she’s run a lot of Quests and Iditarods back-to-back.”
As with Phillips and Apollo, Kohnert said Jill also has a reputation among her teammates.
“She definitely makes her stand, and the other dogs know she’s in charge,” he said.
Sass, who said his entire team is, “Kids and grandkids and great-grandkids of Silver,” noted that solid veteran dogs will always be tough to replace.
“They’re just good mentors,” he said. “Just like a good coach, they’re out there trying to set the stage.”
Follow News-Miner sports writer Brad Joyal on Twitter at @FDNMQuest for updates from the Yukon Quest trail.