This racing season, Brent Sass and his dog team claimed the third Yukon Quest victory and a fourth place finish in the Iditarod. Sass, 40, operates the Wild and Free Kennel consisting of 60 dogs in the wilderness of Alaska.
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.”
Sass bought some property in the Goldstream Valley outside of Fairbanks and built log cabins for several years.
One day, while skijoring on a trail, this dog team came up behind him. He got off the trail and while he had seen dog teams before, there was something about this encounter that hit a cord. “I just looked at that dog team and was like, I want to do that, you know?”
Sass connected with the musher who told him to come back in a week. “And so I came back in a week and he handed me a puppy and he was like, ‘Here’s your first puppy.’ I named that dog Silver and Silver is the dog that basically all my kennel is based off of now. That’s how Wild and Free was born,” said Sass.
The name “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, for myself.”
With his loyal dog Silver (see related story in the Famous Feet section in this edition) Sass began breeding his own dogs in 2000, adding Lance Mackey, Joee Redington and Jeff King bloodlines to his kennel. He said, though, he only bought four or five dogs in his career. He mostly bred his own dogs with Silver and a Lance Mackey dog called Chicken as the foundation parents. Just recently he added a prized dog of the late Joee Redington to his kennel. While Redington bred sprint dogs, he was convinced that his favorite dog, Jeep, would do well in a distance team. But since it was Redington’s favorite, he was not going to let him go. After Redington passed away, Sass went to Pam Redington and bought Jeep. “I wanted to give Jeep a chance because Joee was pretty adamant about it and I don’t know anyone who knew dogs better than Joee. So I got Jeep, I trained him for a year.” In the following year, in 2019, Jeep went on the Yukon Quest and received the Golden Harness award.
Sass’ kennel is located about eight miles off the road system in Eureka, near Manley Hot Springs, about 150 miles northwest of Fairbanks, in an area where Rick Swenson and Susan Butcher trained and lived. When he started out mushing, Sass worked for the late Susan Butcher and her husband Dave Munson.
Seven years ago Sass had the opportunity to buy a nearby five-acre property from homesteaders. In the summer, the kennel can be reached by truck, but in the winter, Sass snowmachines to the road and from there uses the truck to get to Fairbanks to resupply. “The logistics are huge,” says Sass. “We have to haul all the dog food, all the supplies, fuel, everything in over the road. In the summertime we can drive all the way to the place. So, a lot of the logistics happen in the summer and fall. I put hundreds, thousands of miles on my truck in the fall time hauling in all the gear and supplies and everything we can stock up on, because once the snow flies, we’re cut off. We still bring stuff in with snow machines, but the least amount of things you can bring with snow machine is best.”
Being so far away from town also means that veterinarian care is not easily accessible and that’s why Sass places big emphasis on preventative care and impeccable kennel hygiene.
The nearest neighbor is eight miles away and Sass can hook up in the yard and cannot even imagine to load dogs in a truck to go somewhere for a training run. “The downside to it is that I have to maintain all the trails,” he said. “Me and my crew maintain 200 miles of trail and we do tons of work opening up new trails every year.” His extensive trail system hooks into the trail system at Manley Hot Springs and then further to Tanana and Nenana. “I can do 500-mile trip right out of my yard,” Sass said.
On the compound live 60 dogs, two to three handlers, Sass and his girlfriend Ida. “Finding handlers for out there is also a difficult thing because you’re off the beaten path. There’s no social life. You have to be completely into the dog thing. 100 percent,” Sass said. Although he has handlers in his employ, Sass said he does 99 percent of the training and feeding of the race team himself. “I’m a firm believer in that bonding connection that you get with the dogs.”
He decides on the breeding program, is there when the pups are born and is there every day for their entire lives. He said he knows the dogs’ tempers, quirks and characteristics over generations as he has owned and raced their parents and grandparents. “I know the way my dogs think, I know the way they act, I know the way they’re supposed to act just because they’re so genetically connected that there’s so much cohesion in the team,” he explained. Also, the kennel is big on giving the dogs freedom and during the winter, he said, it’s not an uncommon to have 16 dogs in the house. “For me, that’s the whole point of it. You know, building that team that can get along and love each other,” he said.
Sass’ hook-up routine includes a practice of letting his dogs run free for a while. “When I go to hookup, I let all the dogs loose and they run around for awhile and then I bring them over and put them in the harness and we take off, we come back from a run, let the dogs loose, they run around,” he said. “It is not only just happy and fun for the dogs, but you’re able to pinpoint injuries, you’re able to pinpoint a lot of things that you maybe don’t see when they’re just coming straight from the line and walking into their house.”
Asked how he finances the mushing lifestyle, Sass said in April he usually sets up a big base camp north of the Brooks Range and leads guided tours for clients from all over the world. This year, due to the coronavirus pandemic, the tours were canceled. He also works for a small nearby gold mine as a heavy equipment operator.
A dog musher for 20 years, Sass has started in 13 Yukon Quest races, won three in 2015, 2019 and 2020; has run five Iditarods, earning Rookie of the Year honors in 2012. After a series of disappointing runs (one DQ for having an iPod on the trail in the 2015 Iditarod, a fall during the Yukon Quest that ended in a concussion, dog issues in a subsequent Yukon Quest and difficulty to proceed to the finish line in the 2016 Iditarod), Sass took a couple of years off to re-evaluate his life as a dog musher and then came to the conclusion: “Yes, I still want to do this.”
The pressure of living an off-the-grid lifestyle combined with ambitious goals to competitively run the biggest long distance dog races in the world can get to a musher. Sass found a solution for himself. “I just needed to logistically get my life under control so that I’m not going 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year,” Sass said. He streamlined the homestead operations to make things easier for him and his helpers. “I mean, you can only live like a barbarian for so long, you know,” he said. After improvements of the accommodations, things started to flow easier. It worked out, evidenced by 2019 and 2020 Yukon Quest victories and the fourth place in this year’s Iditarod.