TWO RIVERS — Brian Wilmshurst has run the Yukon Quest 1,000-Mile International Sled Dog Race enough times to know when things are going good on the trail. He also had experienced enough Tuesday morning to recognize it was one of those not-so-good days running the race from Whitehorse, Yukon to Fairbanks.
The 37-year-old Quest veteran from Dawson City, Yukon, was still a little wobbly when he woke up from a nap at 5 p.m. Tuesday at the Two Rivers checkpoint, the final stop on the 1,000-mile trail located about 70 miles from the finish line behind the Morris Thompson Cultural and Visitors Center in downtown Fairbanks.
His shaggy brown hair looked like he had just walked through a tornado, and his cadence walking toward the checkpoint’s dog yard was shaky enough to make somebody think he had just been tackled hard on Monday Night Football.
It was just one of those days for Wilmshurst, who was disappointed to see the weather couldn’t be bothered to give him a break as he made his last preparations to leave the final checkpoint for the finish line.
“I thought I’d be waking up and it’d be done snowing,” he said as he bent down to pick up a couple containers used for mixing wet dog food. “Holy cow, it’s still snowing!”
It’s hard to blame Wilmshurst for wishing the sky would close up its valves and stop dumping snow for a while. The five-time Quest finisher had a difficult time getting to this checkpoint Tuesday morning, particularly climbing over Rosebud Summit’s 3,640-foot peak, which is the final summit teams encounter before reaching the checkpoint.
He thought Rosebud would be somewhat easy after Eagle Summit — a 3,685-foot peak located between the Central and Mile 101 Steese Highway checkpoints — tested his team Monday night.
Boy, was he wrong.
“We were moving up real nice on Rosebud and get to the top and there’s no trail. It was windy as all hell,” said Wilmshurst, who guessed his visibility ranged from 6 to 10 feet as the wind knocked the flying snowflakes every which direction.
With no designated trail in sight, Wilmshurst walked in front of his team of 11 dogs and started searching for trail markers.
“I was flailing around up there,” he said. “Sometimes the snow was so deep, it was past my waist and I was on my hands and knees crawling. I’d find a marker and then walk back to the team, then we’d run up to that marker.”
He estimates that cycle continued for three or three and a half miles. Each time he left the dogs behind to walk ahead, they’d be retreating into the snow upon his return.
“I’d stop the team and they’d all ball up because the winds were just crazy,” he said. “The winds would take your breath away. I could barely stand.”
The real icing on the cake was what Wilmshurst experienced a few checkpoints before his crawl over Rosebud.
“To top it all off, I got all wet outside of Central going into Mile 101. There was overflow and I fell in it and flailed,” he said. “I get to 101 and got all dried off with brand new socks. I was excited to have dry feet.”
But the happiness Wilmshurst felt when he stretched those socks past his ankles during a break at Mile 101 didn’t last long.
“A mile out of 101, there was another big open patch, so I got wet feet again,” he said. “My dry feet lasted about a mile, so I had wet feet for this whole nine and a half hour ordeal getting here.”
Wilmshurst was a couple hours away from the end of his eight-hour mandatory layover at Two Rivers when he shared his tales. Although he recognized the 70-mile run to the finish line wasn’t promising to be too pleasant as wind gusts continued to push snow through the cold, dark night, he did allow his mind to drift off and imagine what’s to come once he reaches Fairbanks.
“A burger and a beer sounds pretty sweet right now,” he said with a grin. “I’m sure these guys will have some steaks waiting for them at the finish line. Hoping for some Neil Young. I just can’t wait.”
The veteran musher from Dawson, which is the final checkpoint on the Canada side, didn’t have the only team that dealt with the difficult weather Tuesday.
Five teams, led by mushers Deke Naaktgeboren, Curt Perano, Jason Biasetti, Andrew Pace and Rob Cooke were resting at Mile 101 at press time after mustering their way over Eagle Summit earlier Tuesday.
Two others — 61-year-old Dave Dalton and Martin Apayauq Reitan, a 21-year-old rookie from Kaktovik —reached Two Rivers around 8:30 p.m. Tuesday after running near one another for much of the day.
Back in Fairbanks, a handful of teams continued to file into the finish line, which was missing its traditional yellow Yukon Quest banner overhead because it had fallen down in a wind gust while race officials were removing it Tuesday afternoon.
After Matt Hall, the 2017 champion from Two Rivers, captured a seventh-place finish, and Paige Drobny, of Ester, took sixth late Monday night, four other teams reached Fairbanks on Tuesday.
Torsten Kohnert, of Slussfors, Sweden, finished seventh; Denis Tremblay, of Quebec, Canada, was eighth; Jessie Royer, from Fairbanks, took ninth and Whitehorse resident Nathaniel Hamlyn, last year’s Red Lantern, rounded out the top 10.
Ryne Olson, of Two Rivers, finished in 11th around 10:15 p.m., while Cody Strathe, Drobny’s husband, was resting about 27 miles from the finish line at press time.
Follow News-Miner sports writer Brad Joyal on Twitter: @FDNMQuest for updates about the Yukon Quest.