AROUND THE BEND
Fuel to finish the
“Look at you, Madonna.” The sled dog was
standing up, looking back at her master,
rousing herself from the rest she got on the
warm straw. The dog next to her stood up too.
They were ready to run.
Their eyes followed Brent Sass, the 27-year-old
rookie, taking cues from his actions, waiting
for a command. Sass was walking back and forth
on the crunchy snow. It was around 4:30 a.m.
and 45-below-zero at Circle City, which is a village of
roughly 500 on the Yukon River.
Sass unhooked a dog and moved it to a different
part of the tug-line. Soon, every dog was
“Man, you guys are ready to go,” the
photographer from his kennel support team said.
“You guys know the drill, don’t ya,” Sass’s dad
said, looking over the team.
Different mushers run the Yukon Quest for different reasons.
Sometimes the reason for running the race
changes during the 1000-mile journey, sometimes
the reason becomes bigger. Twenty-one mushers
were on their way to Fairbanks in the early morning
hours of Feb. 19, spanning six checkpoints or
re-supply stations. On that night, 500 miles
separated the eventual winner, Lance Mackey from the Red Lantern
holder, Bob McAlpin.
Brent Sass was in the middle of the pack.
Having won the Quest 300 the previous year,
Sass’s reason for racing in 2007 was to take
his team down the full distance on the whole
Yukon Quest trail. What started out as a
let’s-do-this-and-have-fun trip eventually
turned into a tribute to a fellow companion.
“He went 700 miles with me and did a really
good job,” Sass said of Melville, a dog who
died before reaching Slaven’s Cabin, the
checkpoint 60 miles before Circle City. “He
gave it his all.”
No longer snug on Melville’s neck, his old
collar hung on the sled. It gave motivation to
a musher who was still dealing with emotional
“Melville’s death was definitely the hardest,
worst thing that happened along the way,” Sass
said while getting his team ready. “These guys
deserve to finish, and I do too,” he added.
This was reason enough to keep Sass going.
Twenty-one mushers were either on the trail or
at a checkpoint like Sass, in this last chapter
of the 1,000-mile race. For him, there was
roughly 300 miles to go.
For Russ Bybee, a 40-year-old
rookie from Willow, simply seeing what’s around the
bend kept him moving down the trail to the
“We only went to the top of Eagle Summit,”
Bybee said of last year’s race. “Went and
looked over the edge and said ‘No, I’m not
Bybee was one of seven mushers airlifted by
helicopters from Eagle Summit during a
snowstorm in the 2006 Yukon Quest. This year
marked his second attempt.
Just finishing the race this year was his major
“Let’s get ‘er done,” Bybee said while checking
his dogs’ feet before leaving Circle City.
“Let’s get up and over it.”
Bybee successfully made it over Eagle Summit
and eventually finished in the prize money,
pocketing $5,000. He crossed the finish line on
the Chena River in Fairbanks in 13th place out
of the 21 finishers.
Farther down the trail, Michelle Phillips, a mother and
veteran Quest musher from Whitehorse, Yukon had a rough
crossing at the same place Bybee left the race
last year. The struggle over the 3,650-foot
mountain made her all the more relieved to
arrive at the Chena Hot Springs checkpoint. As the night
grew longer and the temperature hovered around
40-below-zero, she expressed appreciation for
the simple things in life.
“I’m just happy I’m alive. I’m not dead. I’m
not starving. I don’t have cancer. I have a
great family. I have a good life and I’m just
happy to be alive,” said Phillips at midnight
as she got her sled and dogs ready for the
departure on the 100-mile sprint into the
Fairbanks finish. For her, it seemed being
alive was reason enough to keep moving.
Bob McAlpin, a rookie, wanted to finish the
race with a strong team. Like Sass, McAlpin ran
the Yukon Quest 300 and wanted to see the rest
of the 1,000-mile trail.
Being a seasoned backcountry traveler with more
than 30 years of experience driving dogs in the
north, McAlpin wasn’t overly concerned being in
the back of the pack. By his reckoning, he was
doing fine. He hadn’t dropped a single dog from
his team; a claim no other musher in the 2007
Quest could still make. No, tackling the Yukon
alone while not preferrable, didn’t intimidate
the driver firmly positioned to claim the Red
Lantern awaiting the 2007 Quest’s last-place
“You start thinking about the whole thing and
it gets overwhelming. You just have to look at
it a little bit at a time,” he explained later.
“You say, ‘OK, I’m going another two hours.’
You don’t look past the next place you’re going
Then there’s the two-time defending champion,
Mackey knew people thought he got lucky winning
back-to-back Quests. Winning the 2007 Yukon
Quest showed the skeptics that he had the
drive, skill and determination to win. Not just
“I like to prove those people wrong,” he said.
That thought has become a theme in his life. In
2001, Mackey was diagnosed with cancer and he
said the doctors told him he would never race
again. He proved them wrong too. Mackey not
only races -- he became the first musher to win
the Yukon Quest and the Iditarod in the same year.
In that spirit, Mackey proclaimed that in the
next few years, he will strive to become the
first musher to win five Yukon Quests in row.
Again, the skeptics can say what they want.
Their words seem to be the fuel in Mackey’s
Mackey also said the purse was a major
motivation for the race. Last year, he won
$30,000 for being the first to finish in
Whitehorse, Yukon. This year, the purse for the
first place was $40,000. The father of four
said most mushers don’t have a real job or
major sponsors, so the extra $10,000 was a huge
reason to work hard.
“I love this race and I love the dogs,” Mackey
said. That reason is one shared by most.
Extreme reporters Rosie Milligan, Brian O’Donoghue
contributed to this story.