Surprising Scratch

Sunrise over the Yukon. Photo Credit: J. Westrich

This morning dawned beautiful and brisk in Kaltag. It was -14 degrees and the sun poked over the trees illuminating the river in a glorious pastel light. All was peaceful, calm, serene. Back at the bunk house there was a flurry of activity; bacon, egg, and cheese breakfast sandwiches cooking, coffee poured, conversation and good-natured laughter. Then the bomb dropped – Brent Sass, 2022 Iditarod Champion and current leader, scratched at Eagle Island. 

I am a huge Brent Sass fan. He’s a friend to Iditarod education and he was generous with his time, meeting with me by zoom this past summer. In fact, my Teacher on the Trail journal celebrated “All Sass September” to discuss the ways he inspires Iditarod lessons!  From the start of the Race he was in the mix of favorites; I had high hopes he would repeat.

Sass on the Yukon between Grayling and Eagle Island. Photo Credit: J. Westrich

Last night, as I flew into Kaltag, the pilot caught sight of a musher on the Yukon and circled around so I could grab a picture. I knew it was Brent Sass from his giant orange parka. Hooray! He was on the river between Grayling and Eagle Island, and looking good (at least from the sky). So, what happened?

Brent Sass was all smiles meeting fans at the Ceremonial Start. Photo Credit: J. Westrich

From all accounts Brent Sass made a responsible decision. He’s battling an infection which compromised his ability to care for himself, and more importantly his dogs. The terms “scratch” and “quit” are very different things. Quitting is giving up, and sometimes a musher may decide the conditions, or the struggle is more difficult than expected. More often a musher scratch is a responsible decision, one made in the best interest of their dogs. Earlier in this race Jennifer LaBar scratched at Rainy Pass because she severely injured her hand during a difficult part of the trail. This injury made it so she couldn’t boot her dogs effectively, or drive her sled safely – she scratched because her injury would cause her to sacrifice the care and safety of her dogs in order to stay in the race.

Health and safety of the dogs is top priority!  A return dog waiting for a ride home from Iditarod Air Force. Photo Credit: J. Westrich

This is a huge lesson for students, and all of us, to take from this Iditarod.  Sometimes we must scratch from our dreams, but there is a significant distinction between giving up and choosing wisely. Prioritizing health and safety means the dream is delayed, but opens the possibility to try again. I hope to see Sass and LaBar, healthy and ready to tackle Iditarod, again next year.