DAWSON CITY, Yukon — No two days are the same on the Yukon Quest trail. Between the different checkpoints located hundreds of miles apart, the ever-changing weather and the various rules implemented at each spot along the trail, being involved with the Quest requires one to stay alert.
Briana Mackay knows a thing or two about working in different roles to help ensure the 1,000-mile race goes smoothly. The Montreal, Quebec, native started working for the Quest as a volunteer at the Carmacks checkpoint in 2014. She held that role for two years before eventually becoming the assistant race manager, a position she occupied from 2016-2018.
Mackay is in a new position this year — race manager — after taking over for Alex Olesen, who stepped down from the role at last year’s awards banquet, which was held in Whitehorse, Yukon.
“Honestly, it’s been awesome,” Mackay said Tuesday at the Dawson City checkpoint, the final stop for teams before they reach the Alaska border. “I can’t say enough about the crew of folks helping me this year. We’re a new team. I’ve been the assistant race manager before, but I’m stepping up into a new role and brought some people along, and they’re crushing right now.”
Mackay, who relocated from Montreal to Whitehorse in 2006, has received help from three volunteers throughout the Canada side of the trail. She said the new assistant race manager, Heather Scannell, has been working on the Alaska side to make sure everything will be in place when teams cross the border and arrive in Eagle later this week.
It’s hard to miss Mackay as she bounces around the checkpoint, which is located at the Dawson City Visitor Information Centre downtown. She’s been running around since early Tuesday morning, when 2015 Quest champion Brent Sass and his team became the first squad to reach the halfway point of the race to Fairbanks.
For much of the day, Mackay has had a cellphone glued to her ear. She’s working the phones to make sure different aspects of the race continue to go off without a hitch.
“We’re working on flights to get people across the border,” she said when asked to describe some of the calls she’s receiving. “Some of the Yukon checkpoints are shutting down, so I’ve been talking to checkpoint managers as they’re closing things, just making sure we have our pieces in place.”
Mackay said one humorous call she made was about a false alarm after a volunteer alerted her that they accidentally pressed the SOS button on a musher’s tracking device after removing it from the sled when the team reached Dawson.
“They didn’t press it in the end, but they told me they did and in the end it just ended up being the ‘OK’ button,” she said. “That was a good test run.”
Because Dawson is one of the marquee checkpoints for spectators visiting the trail, there’s also more planning that’s needed compared to other races. Among the differences is the fact Dawson is the only checkpoint between the start and finish lines that requires the Quest’s signature yellow banner propped above the chute.
“There was a couple folks that came up to Dawson on Sunday night and got the lay of the land,” she said. “We had to set up the chute over there, so the teams could come in, and we could thank our sponsors and have a good spectator area.”
Mackay said she was “knocking on wood” that this year’s race hasn’t forced her to deal with too much craziness, especially considering teams were required to truck between the first checkpoint, Braeburn, and the second, Carmacks, for the first time since 2003.
Still, even if there haven’t been any catastrophic events thrown in her lap so far, the trucking component has bunched teams together compared to past years. Because teams seem to be traveling together more this year, Mackay and her team haven’t had many chances to take a breather.
“This race has been forcing us to just be quick,” she said with a laugh. “Everybody is moving fast and they’re all coming in at once. Some years, we get to test things with just one musher and then get a break to reorganize things. But this year, it’s like, ‘We’ve got to be ready!’”
After working as the assistant race manager for the past three years, Mackay has learned a little bit more about the Quest in her first four days of the race. She said the biggest thing she’s learned, though, is that you have to embrace the hectic nature of the trail and realize some obstacles weren’t planned.
“There’s only so much planning you can do; then there’s going to be some crazy things that get thrown at you,” she said. “That’s part of the fun. I love it once the race starts. It’s always way more fun once things get going.”
Follow News-Miner sports writer Brad Joyal on Twitter at @FDNMQuest for updates from the Yukon Quest trail.