TWO RIVERS — Wes Brightman figured the last Yukon Quest teams would make their way through the final checkpoint by the end of Thursday, but Mother Nature said, “Not so fast, my friend.”
Brightman is the manager for the Two Rivers checkpoint, located about 70 miles away from the finish line in downtown Fairbanks. He grows peonies and lives in Two Rivers, the small community located about 30 miles from the checkpoint of the same name.
On Tuesday evening, he and a few of his volunteers were making the rounds and seeing what needed to be done. They had plenty of tasks to tend to, and Brightman was spending a few minutes unloading a pile of firewood that was donated from town and brought out to the makeshift checkpoint.
After the car’s trunk was clear and the wood was stacked on the snowy, frozen ground, the first-year checkpoint manager took a breather to describe what he likes about running a stop on the Yukon Quest 1,000-Mile International Sled Dog Race trail.
“I like planning things,” Brightman said. “I like rolling with the punches. Well, maybe punches isn’t the right word. Curveballs. We’ve had a couple of them today. Weather is one of them, firewood was another.”
One of Brightman’s main duties is to make sure there’s enough wood to supply the woodstove in the nearby cabin that mushers use for sleep during their mandatory eight-hour layover at the checkpoint.
Even more wood is used near the dog yard, where two barrels of water are propped up over a fire so the mushers will have hot water when they arrive from Mile 101 Steese Highway, the previous checkpoint located about 40 miles away.
Firewood might have been the task at hand for Brightman on Tuesday evening, but it was hardly the first undertaking that has taken place at the Two Rivers checkpoint since the 1,000-mile race to Fairbanks began Feb. 2 in Whitehorse, Yukon.
For starters, the whole checkpoint had to be an idea before it could become a reality. As of Saturday afternoon, the area the checkpoint is located was a snow-covered pit. The transformation to a race checkpoint happened swiftly, or as Brightman put it, “It happened very quickly, all in one go.”
Two volunteers arrived with snowplows and opened up the whole area. That was the first sign of progress, though the remaining steps followed quickly.
“As soon as that was done, the two ATCO units were dropped off and we went from zero to 100 very, very quickly,” Brightman said, describing two portable ATCO units placed between the dog yard and Chena Hot Springs Road. “In about three hours, we went from a snow-filled lot to a functioning checkpoint with electricity and light and heat and generators. The logistical side of it was actually very impressive.”
One of the ATCO units is for race officials and vets. Brightman said it’s a place for them to plan, strategize and rest and treat dogs, if necessary. The other unit, which is located perpendicular with a generator providing light in between, is the hospitality unit.
“It has custom food for the mushers and a lot of other food that’s donated by the good people of Two Rivers,” Brightman said. “That pretty much feeds everyone who comes in here and wants something. We have an abundance of community-provided food this year.”
Pleasant Valley Store, which is back down the road closer to the Two Rivers community, was the hub where people volunteered to make food and then drop it off at a certain time each day. Brightman said every food delivery has been a surprise for him and his three volunteer cooks, as well as the 10 other volunteers who have worked on communications, in addition to helping in the dog yard and checking in teams as they come.
Tuesday’s menu included lasagna rolls or scrambled eggs, bacon and tater tots for the mushers. There’s also hot dogs and chili, as well as muffins, bananas and cookies for whoever might stop by to see the teams in action.
Everybody is staying hydrated, too, as there’s enough water, soda, coffee, hot chocolate and tea for people to grab a refill.
It’s normal for the Two Rivers checkpoint to stay open longer than the other stops along the trail when the race is heading toward Fairbanks because it’s the last one, meaning there’s a bigger gap between teams as they work their way to the finish line. The snowy, windy conditions that swept through Fairbanks the past 24 hours have made life more difficult for the mushers, so Brightman isn’t sure when the checkpoint will close for the year.
“Not being here when the last team comes through is not an option,” he said. “A lot of that has to do with the officials, how long they’re willing to let the race continue. We support them and whatever their decisions are.”
Only one musher, Brian Wilmshurst, a Quest veteran from Dawson City, was there as Brightman handled chores around the checkpoint.
Fierce gusts of wind tossed snowflakes around the sky, while the revving generator keeping the whole operation going wasn’t enough to wake Wilmshurst, who was resting in the nearby cabin before his 5 p.m. wake-up call.
Brightman had thought the checkpoint would be cleared out by the weekend, but he’s happy to wait it out and make sure teams are taken care of before they make one final run to the finish line.
“Our guess had been that we’d have everybody through Thursday, then the big weather hit and that led to plan B,” Brightman said. “Plan B is kind of to be ready for everything — that’s kind of mushing in general. If you’re not ready for plan B, you shouldn’t be mushing.”
Follow News-Miner sports writer Brad Joyal on Twitter: @FDNMQuest for updates about the Yukon Quest.