20th Anniversary Stories
20th Anniversary Stories
20th Anniversary Stories
Paddling the Yukon River Quest
by Harry Kern, Roger Hanberg, and Guy Chan
Early Race Headlines 1998-2000
Race Stories 1999-2018
Memorable moments throughout the YRQ history
Downloads & Article Links
How The Quest was (Almost) Won 1999
Canoeing isn’t known as a painful sport.
You wouldn’t know it from the injury report of myself and partner Jason Murphy last week after completing the world’s longest canoe race — the 700-kilometre Yukon River Quest. You’d think we just played a triple-overtime Game Seven of a Stanley Cup final.
Here is my medical report: 13 blisters on my two hands that were so swollen I couldn’t make a fist 24 hours after the race; a rash where the sun doesn’t shine after spending more than 60 hours sitting on a wet canoe seat; three fingernails partially torn from my fingers after smashing my hand along the side of the canoe several times while paddling, and shoulder muscles so stiff, my back could be used as a dart board.
And I’m the healthy one.
After a visit to the doctor on Monday, Jason discovered that he tore muscle tissue in his biceps, causing internal bleeding and bruising. He also strained shoulder and rotator cuff muscles. He must now go for physiotherapy and there is a risk that he may permanently lose some mobility in his arm.
That’s what 66 hours of canoe racing does to your body.
Yet, despite the intense pain, almost being attacked by a moose and a lack of sleep that created more hallucinations than a hippy at Woodstock, Jason and I can say we had fun.
Fun? You may think all that time canoeing under the Midnight Sun fried what’s left of our brains. Some say we never had brains in the first place, based on the fact we decided to enter this masochistic race.
The way we look at it — pain and sore muscles heal. The title of being the third-place finishers in the world’s longest canoe race is something we get to keep for the rest of our lives.
The starting pistol goes off and 32 racers (16 teams of two) sprint down Main Street, heading toward the canoes which are lined along the shores of the Yukon River at Rotary Peace Park in Whitehorse.
With cheers from the several hundred people watching the LeMans-style start, Jason and I are running side by side. After the quick four-block sprint, we are the quickest to make the translation from foot power to paddle power.
“We’re in first place!” l jokingly holler to Jason. We have only paddled two metres, and it’s a cheap thrill to be in first.
Klondike pride fuels our quick start. Our tiny Yukon flag flying from our canoe brings out lots of cries of “Go Yukon” from the spectators lining the river.
Our hopes for a shocking canoe victory sink after only two minutes of being at the head of the pack.
Former world champion canoeist Soloman Carriere of Saskatchewan and Alaskan partner Jim Lokken paddle past us as if they had a 20-horsepower engine on their canoe.
They are in a pack with Dan Solie (Alaska) & Frank Thompson (Michigan) and Mark Bayard (B.C.) & John Roberts (Alberta).
So much for the thrill of winning. Time to focus on the agony of defeat.
It’s 20 minutes past noon, Wednesday, June 9. Jason and I settle into our paddling rhythm. For the next three days, our 17-foot Kevlar canoe will be our home. With the exception of an eight-hour mandatory stop in Minto, the canoe is where we’ll sleep, eat, talk and go to the bathroom.
The banks of the Yukon River are a “No trespassing zone” in my mind. Any time spent on the shore is time wasted. The canoe isn’t getting any closer to Dawson unless it’s in the river.
WHITEHORSE TO CARMACKS (320 kilometres)
The race is only 30 minutes old and Jason and I take a look over our shoulders and see nothing but cliffs and water. No canoes.
There are three teams ahead of us, and one canoe racing along side us — Alaska’s Larry Seethaler and Greg Tibbetts.
“Where is everybody? Can you see them yet?” I ask Jason, who is just as surprised as I am.
Our goal for the race was simply to not finish last. Although we are both in good shape, neither of us have much canoeing experience. We went on two hour training runs, twice a week for a month up to the race. Before race day, I said I’d be thrilled to finish in the top half of the field. Early on in the race, we were in the top five.
After 3 I/2 hours, we’re at the beginning of the most dangerous part of the 700-kilometre race — Lake Laberge.
The 50-kilometre-long lake is famous for its nasty temper. It can change from a glass-smooth surface to five-foot waves and high winds within minutes. Never take this lake lightly. Race officials have boats patrolling to rescue any capsized canoeists.
We hit the lake at 4 p.m. in fourth place. Mother Nature is smiling on the racers — no wind and shining sun. Not wanting to wait around for any possible storms, Jason and I paddle hard.
With one eye on the water and one on the sky looking for storm clouds, the weather cooperates and we cross Laberge in an incredible seven hours. Other teams behind us take as long as 10.
At the end of the lake, the water funnels back into the narrow, winding Yukon River. The leaders have pulled away from us and are out of sight and our competition behind are nowhere to be seen.
We are racing alone.
As Wednesday night turns into Thursday morning, our bodies are finally depleted of paddle power; we become tired. Jason and I are groggy but refuse to stop and sleep. Short 15-minute naps in the canoe give us incredible bursts of energy.
As the sun comes up over the horizon, our second wind kicks in.
Unfortunately, the sun wasn’t the only thing coming up — Jason vomits. In a high-energy race like the River Quest, It is essential to be eating constantly. So not being able to hold down your food means having to drop out of the race.
Jason takes a nice 30-minute rest, which seems to help. Soon, he’s back to eating bacon, power bars, dried fruits and nuts.
At 10 a.m., we get our first sign of civilization — power lines and the Klondike Highway. Carmacks, 320 kilometres down the river from Whitehorse, is surely just around the next bend.
What I think is a short 20-minute ride turns into a frustrating three-hour foray through switchbacks and turns.
“Where the hell is this damn town?” I yell at Jason after several hours of paddling. “Are we close yet?”
“My guess is we still have about another hour to go,” he says, looking down at his map book.
We finally turn a corner and see the iron bridge that takes the North Klondike Highway over the river — we are about to arrive at Carmacks.
It’s a relief but I’m pretty frustrated. We have been paddling for 25 hours, and I’m a little cranky. I wanted to pass this town of 478 people at 10 a.m., not 1 p.m.
With little drinking water left in the canoe and not wanting to resort to chugging river water mixed with iodine, we decide to pull ashore at the Tantalus Campground in Carmacks to fill up.
Stopping is risky, it went against our pre-race plan. But the risk turns into a jackpot because on shore, we discover an unexpected surprise that dramatically changes our race…
CARMACKS TO MINTO (80 kilometres)
“We’re in third?!” I repeat with astonishment to the official on shore.
A team ahead of us, Solie and Thompson, scratched at Carmacks because Solie suffered from heat exhaustion. The temperature of the race is in the 25° C-range, and with 21 hours of Yukon summer sunshine per day, it takes a lot of sunscreen to keep racers healthy. They were one of four teams to drop out of the race.
A top-three finish means we are in the money. Third place in the men’s division is only worth $150 US, but is enough to turn us casual canoeists into serious racers.
Suddenly, we two amateur athletes decide the Yukon River Quest is our Super Bowl, Stanley Cup and World Series. No matter how much pain we are in, we’re going to hold our top-three spot.
Our stop in Carmacks is only one minute, but the news rejuvenates our bodies. So does the thought of impending sleep. Minto, another eight-hour mandatory stop for all racers, is 80 kilometres away. The harder we paddle, the quicker we get to lie down.
Jason’s rejuvenation turns into determination. His shoulder hurts, but we don’t stop paddling. He pops several Motrin and numbs the pain.
“Jason, you know what a good cure for a sore shoulder is?” I ask. “Third place! Keep paddling!” We laugh.
As Thursday night approaches, so does Minto Landing, and our first opportunity to get some sleep. The big problem is we can’t find Minto.
Before the race, organizers told competitors they will put several lights on nearby islands to correctly guide racers to Minto. All we can see is sun in our eyes — the low sun and the reflection off the water blinds us.
“The lights should be just around this island,” Jason says, checking his map.
No lights. After more paddling, he corrects himself.
“Oh, I think I read the map wrong; it must be around this island,” Jason says.
Instead of being calm and rational, I’m starting to panic because of our lightless journey. I worry we missed the lights because the sun blinded our eyes and Minto is really a few kilometres behind us.
Suddenly we see the Minto Resort between two islands. I see someone on shore and yell if this is the checkpoint. but be can’t hear me.
We paddle around the island and upstream a bit and onto the shore to try to talk to the guy.
I haven’t stood up in over 32 hours, so my run onto shore and up to the resort is more like a stumble. I m really angry. We’re lost. The poor guy on shore probably thinks I’m some crazy, drunk canoeist.
“IS THIS THE RIVER QUEST CHECKPOINT?! WHERE’S THE RIVER QUEST CHECKPOINT!” I yell at him.
“Uh, check with somebody in the office,” he says.
I stumble around until someone else tells me the checkpoint is at Minto Landing, about 500 metres down the river.
I rush back into the canoe, having wasted five minutes running around the Minto Resort, only to paddle around the corner and see the checkpoint two minutes downstream.
We pull into the halfway point of the race at 10:23 p.m. Thursday, after 34 hours of continuous canoeing.
As we climb out of our boat, I ask race organizer John Firth where the signal lights were. There were four of them, and all four burned out.
We’re burned out too. Jason and I both need help walking over to our camper. Bobbing up and down in a canoe for a day and a half screws up your equilibrium — the body has to adjust to walking on land. It’s like spinning around in circles for 34 hours, then trying to walk a straight line.
We eat, shower off several layers of sweat, river water and sunscreen and fall asleep. Our support team (my wife and Jason’s father and father-in-law) take over cleaning out the canoe and restocking it with food.
Our wake-up call comes at 5:45 Friday morning. Steak, eggs, hash browns and orange juice are on our breakfast menu.
I slept for about six hours, yet my body feels like it’s been laying in bed for 24. Jason, on the other hand, is in bad shape — he can’t lift his arm over his head.
A one-armed canoeist isn’t good enough to hold onto third place.
MINTO TO DAWSON (315 Kilometres)
At 6:28 a.m. Friday, it’s back into the murky waters of the Yukon River. The finish line in Dawson is 315 kilometres and about 24 hours away.
The race leaders, Carriere and Lokken, left at 12:43 am., followed by Bayard and Roberts an hour later.
Unless they burn out like the Solie/Thompson team, our paddles aren’t fast enough to catch them.
My concern is with the people behind us. There’s a 2 1/2-hour lead over the fourth-place team of Seethaler and Tibbetts.
But my one-armed partner surprises me.
“You know, Mike, my shoulder feels fine now,” Jason says after an hour of paddling. “I guess it took a while to loosen up but it feels like it’s 100 per cent. How do you feel?”
“I feel great; I’m ready to paddle for another 24 hours,” I happily respond.
With our confidence up, we start to paddle strongly again.
The only thing that slows us down is the weather. After two days of sunshine, the miserable weather comes out for two hours Friday afternoon. Thunder clouds roar and echo through the mountains and winds gust up along the river.
Fortunately, the only rain to come from the clouds is a light sprinkle, and soon we are full-steam ahead to Dawson City.
As Friday evening turns to night, our sleep-deprived brains hallucinate.
Jason sees an old man in a plaid shirt on a gravel bar staring at us. “What is he doing out there without a boat?” Jason asks me. Later on, he spots a kangaroo.
My brain isn’t functioning much better. I look up at some cliffs and see a giant wall of Aztec carvings. And I often mistake shadows and different rock faces on mountains for graffiti and drawings.
The good news is were not having any conversations with a little green midgets running alongside the canoe. We are in rough shape, but still healthy enough to keep paddling.
We both see lots of imaginary animals along the Yukon River, but as we turn a comer at 1 a.m. Saturday, there is one real-life beast we don’t want to see. A moose stands in the middle of a narrow and shallow portion of the river.
Jason blows his whistle to hopefully scare it away. The moose isn’t budging. We’re not stopping so we hug the shore and paddle beside it.
We’re 10 metres away and it’s not very happy. Tho beast goes into pre-attack mode, tilting the antlers down and tilting up its hump.
We paddle quickly, and fortunately, the antlers didn’t come any closer.
Seethaler and Tibbetts aren’t as lucky as us. A few hours later, the fourth-place pair found themselves between a mother moose and her calf.
Mom went crazy, chasing the canoeists up the shore. The moose dove into the water and swam after them. After a hundred metres of furious paddling, the moose gave up the chase.
Seethaler and Tibbetts won the race with the moose, but lost their chase with us by over four hours.
At 6 a.m. Saturday, Jason and I turn our final corner and see the slide on the mountain overlooking Dawson. Eight minutes later, we pull up to a dock along the Yukon River. There is little fanfare for the third-place finishers. The only people greeting us at 6:08 a.m. are our wives, Mabel and Katherine, and race organizer, Firth.
Surprisingly, our finish is pretty uneventful and unemotional for me. Before the race, I thought after finishing I’d climb on shore and weep tears of joy over completing the world’s longest canoe race.
Jason and I share a handshake and a smile, but the only emotion we show is sleepiness.
We’re too sore and exhausted to be excited.
King Solomon’s Relativity 2002
@ Daniel J. Solie
PO. Box 82293
Fairbanks, Alaska 99708
King Solomon’s Relativity
By Daniel Solie
At 460 miles with only two breaks, the Yukon River Quest is the world’s longest marathon canoe race. Winners take nearly 60 hours and a quarter-million strokes to paddle from Whitehorse to Dawson in Canada’s Yukon Territory. It’s a sport that originated with the Voyageurs of the fur trade era. Today it is an amalgam of 21st century equipment, the latest in biomechanics and Stone Age grit. The subculture is fanatical: hull design, the nuances of stroke, food delivery systems and ultra-light everything. During the season, non-paddling wives of the devout refer to themselves as “paddling widows.”
Ultra paddling on the Yukon River could claim its genesis in 1851 when Robert Campbell, on a hunch and a prayer threw his canoe in the river at Fort Selkirk and headed down stream into the unknown. Seventy hours and 516 miles later he and his Voyageurs reached Fort Yukon in Russian Alaska, proving amid much consternation, that this great river was none other than the well-known Yukon. Enduro boating enjoyed a brief resurgence in 1898 during the Klondike Gold Rush but the modern sport has just crept north in the last few years. I discovered it in 1998 when I picked up a carbon fiber bent-shaft paddle and was taken by its seductive black curves. The egg-beater stroke (60-80/minute) was another matter, but my motivation that year was the Dyea to Dawson Race (a 600-mile reenactment of the Gold Rush of 1898), and the following year it was the first Yukon River Quest.
The truth is, however, I had yet to finish officially. In 1998 my partner developed serious tendonitis (common to the sport) two-thirds of the way into the race and pulled out at Carmacks. In 1999, 22 hours into the race, I overheated and popped my thermostat—heat exhaustion. It was 95 F on the river and I quit sweating. Hot to the touch and shaking from chills, I scratched at Carmacks again.
June 21 2000, race morning
June 21, 2000, race morning in Whitehorse and I am back a third time. My goal is to finish. My partner, Solomon Carriére, is on the phone long distance with his teenage son while I am dropping cheese, nuts and all forms of carbohydrates into Ziploc bags on the floor. 60 hours of continuous paddling burns a lot of calories.
“Dan,” he calls, “Réal has a question about physics.” I glance at my watch as I take the phone. Two and a half hours ‘til the start and still packing.
“It’s about Relativity,” the voice on the phone says. I could loose grip of time with this one, I think. But then he asks, “What would the world look like if you were sitting on a light beam traveling the speed of light?” It is exactly the question Albert Einstein had asked when he too was 16 and when he answered it a few years later he changed the world.
“Imagine,” I said, “You and your Dad are in a canoe—a very fast canoe—and I am standing on the shore. I watch your clock—your stroke. The faster you go, the slower you paddle, and your boat shrinks in length, becoming shorter and shorter. But here’s the paradox: for you in your canoe, your stroke is normal: same rate, same length. What you see on shore, however, is all motion slowing—as if moving in an ever-thickening syrup. And the universe for you, both ahead and behind, compresses to a timeless sheet…”
Solomon is from Cumberland House, Saskatchewan, and hauling freight by canoe has been in his blood for generations. His great uncle was the last of the Voyageurs. He is Metis—Cree Indian and French Canadian. His father taught him to hunt, trap and also to paddle. Solomon and his wife and three kids live thirty miles from the nearest phone, at “Big Eddy Camp” on the Saskatchewan River. He guides hunting, fishing and eco trips in the spring and fall, traps in the winter and races canoes in the summer. He won the1998 Dyea to Dawson Race, the 1999 Yukon River Quest and for over two decades he’s been a dominant force in canoe racing. In marathon racing circles they call him “King Solomon.”
Lest I get heady about who I was racing with, my close friend (and original partner in the 1998 Dyea to Dawson Race) Matthew’s pithy response when I asked to borrow his canoe for the race was, “The only credentials you have as a marathon canoe racer are two DNFs. Looks to me like having a canoe is pretty high on Solomon’s criteria for a race partner—and that you have to borrow.” After Solomon had called in the spring, my wife simply said, “You better start paddling.”
In this race a support crew is critical. Their job is to resupply you with food and fluids and put you down for a nap at the checkpoints. Camp setup, breakdown, hundreds of miles of driving between check points, complicated by the uncertainty of when you will arrive—it’s a high patience, no glory and no sleep job. I convinced my father and his best friend Brian (up in Alaska for a fishing trip) that this would be a good retirement diversion.
I drove down to Whitehorse from Fairbanks with the canoe and support crew. Solomon arrived by plane from Saskatchewan with his paddles and little else. Sleeping bag, water bottles, jacket—borrowed; raincoat—superfluous. His quartet of paddles were another matter: new, black and weightless. “Who makes these?” I had asked, “Bob Zaverell,” he said, carefully checking each blade in the light, “I take his labels off to save weight.” It was a glimmer of the Solomon enigma: relaxed—unconcerned even about the periphery—but totally focused on what matters.
Whitehorse is what Fairbanks would be like, had the Alaska pipeline never been built. It’s a wilderness city with Gold Rush vaudeville and a Web connection in the Pizzaria—a place where eco-tourism and gold mining co-exist in a symbiotic truce. Today, thirteen canoes with spray covers and two kayaks are lined up on the gravel bar at the river’s edge in the middle of town. Our canoe is the one with the sunflower yellow spray cover. Food and gear are strewn around the canoes. Racers and support crews pack with a wary eye on the stray dogs attracted to the smell of high-calorie goodies. Race officials, with a penchant for being sidetracked by curious tourists milling about, run the checklist on each boat (food, fluids and survival gear). The local media and camcorders from who knows where record the event.
A TV reporter is with Solomon. His quick smile and thoughtful responses have made him favorite with the media here—and with everyone else for that matter. While we were packing our canoe, though constantly interrupted, he never showed a hint of irritation, just genuine openness. Good camera feed too: with short-cropped black hair, dark shades and a white t-shirt over his smooth muscled frame, he is ready to race. Meanwhile, the sun is getting hot and I am fretting over which shirt to wear. White for sure—everything white this year—learned that lesson last year. I feel like the Pillsbury Doughboy. But one last trip to the porta-potty, a final application of diaper cream and I too am ready.
At noon we line up on Main Street, most with lifevests already on, and prepare to sprint to the boats. Patrons from the nearby saloon spill out into the street. They offer a round for the competitors and a couple teams take it. A radio reporter is interviewing Solomon. The field is small but the paddlers come from all parts of North America and also Europe. My eyes wander over the bare shoulders of the competition milling about. Most are racing for fun, so to speak, but a few teams are after the money, and though muscle definition doesn’t usually equate to endurance, I am trying to pick them out.
The gun goes off at 12:15. Sol and I run easy, and a number of teams have launched already when we reach the gravel bar. Sol’s strategy for us is to start slow. Put in perspective, a 20-second lead in a 60-hour race is about one part in 10,000. When you are nearly falling out of the boat from delirium about 50 hours into it—it could take 20 seconds to remember your name.
Dad, in hip boots, is in the river holding the canoe. I climb in the bow, settle my rear, and pick up my paddle (one of Solomon’s).
“Start easy,” Sol said, “Just keep it smooth.” We quickly slip past a number of boats. “Nice,” I think.
Any paddle stroke other than forward—be it a rudder or a draw—shaves speed, steering is done by switching sides, generally simultaneously. The stern calls switches with a sharp “Hut.” Without the usual control strokes, tracking a clean line requires finesse. Solomon gives pointers to other paddlers as we pass.
The three boats still ahead of us reel in more slowly than the others. Maybe we should have run a little harder, I think.
Two of the canoes, a father-son team and a mixed team—marathoners from Ontario, are paddling together. By the time we catch them the third has pulled a ways ahead. Paddling in a pack is not trivial. Drafting requires precision and hydraulic forces come into play when running side by side. The wake from an adjacent boat can be ridden or it can throw you out of the pack. But it’s also a social time and most importantly, a pack can run down a lone boat.
We had just pulled even with the leaders when we see our bank crew on the shore. They have thermoses of hot soup and coffee for the long night ahead. When we pull in and climb out the other teams are surprised. The canoes are quickly out of sight and two other boats pass also. Dad and Brian want us back on the water. “Let’m go,” Sol says, “We’ll catch’m later.” He slips on a dry t-shirt and I savor a few sips of coffee.
We are barely settled back in the boat when the banks part and the Yukon empties into Lake Laberge. The lake is four miles wide and 31 miles long and the compass needle on our bow points straight down it. “That night on the marge of Lake Laberge I cremated Sam McGee…” Sol starts, bellowing Robert Service for the entire lake to hear. Then I hit sand with my paddle. Running aground here is a very real and time-consuming possibility. The river splays in a labyrinth of deep channels and fingers of sand. We pick a line, watch the depth, then punch it to clear shoals. Focused on the nuances of the water’s surface and what lies just beneath, land recedes unnoticed. The water color deepens to azure and the shores on either side are now thin white lines in the distance. We are in the middle of a great sea that extends beyond the curve of the horizon to the north and I feel very very frail. The water temperature is just above freezing and fierce winds come up suddenly. Capsize and the swim is most likely terminal. This lake is the reason spray covers are required in the race. But remarkably, thankfully, the lake is smooth with only a slight breeze. I pray for six more hours of calm.
The west shore is forested with numerous bays and inlets. The east shore parallels a long line of rounded peaks scoured smooth by Pleistocene ice. Much of the shore is cliff face but it is the shortest line. Sol adjusts our trajectory, bringing us nearer to the eastern shore. The other canoes are clearly visible but distant.
A while later Sol reminds me to eat. He has been eating and hasn’t broken stroke. I glance back and he is paddling with one arm and rummaging in his food basket with the other. The breeze has stilled and we are now cutting through a sheet of slowly undulating glass.
Hours later we hear a low drone like a bee as a powerboat approaches from behind. There are now only two canoes ahead of us. I glance at my watch as the boat passes by and continues on to the lead canoe. When the boat pulls abreast of the lead boat he cuts the engine and I check the watch again. “How long?” Sol asks. “Just over fifteen minutes.” “Let’s pick it up,” he says.
A light wind is now at our backs and quickly lifts waves. We surf them. We pass the mixed team hugging the shore, but the leaders have picked it up also. Tom Feil and Jeff Mettler from Washington State are in the lead canoe. They kept a low profile in Whitehorse but we had been tipped off earlier that they would be contenders.
As we near the end of the lake, Feil and Mettler’s white canoe disappears into the trees ahead. The cobbled lakebed soon rises to meet us. Shortly the cobbles blur as they slip beneath the canoe and we are in the “Thirty Mile.” The swift current and numerous riffles made running this section notoriously tricky for the old-time sternwheelers, but in a canoe it is a delight. It is evening now and here and there we see the canoes of more travelers pulled up on shore. Sol passes a cup of warm coffee forward on the blade of his paddle and then a bannock sandwich filled with moose meat. “So tell me about Relativity,” he then says. “We got time now.”
The river is the color of sapphire gin and it swan necks around hoodoos on high bluffs. Then the Tezlin River joins from the east. Running high and muddy, it roils the water and ends the Thirty Mile. We pass Shipyard Island at Hootalinqua and the sternwheeler Evelyn’s rotting carcass poking up through the trees. The place has a spiritual presence.
Paddling into the Zone
We have been paddling 13 hours. The light drizzle that had been falling is now a steady rain. Though it is not dark, the dull gray of the sky merges with the water so that the river ahead is an endless gray tunnel. A forest fire swept through a few years back and along both banks charred skeletons poke skyward. I have lost track of where we are on the map and time is only numbers on my watch. For a long while Solomon had been chronicling the fall in the price of beaver pelts and the demise of trapping as a way of life from his youth ‘til today, but now only the dip of the paddles punctuated with sharp “Huts” disturb the silence.
We are entering the Zone: an altered state where the conscious and subconscious mingle, where time and space, mind and muscle, illusion and resolve all meld, and acute awareness is awash in deadened fatigue. There are several levels. In the first, lucid conversation on topics of the soul bud, flower and evaporate seemingly at random: relativity, theology and long-legged women tangle like quantum threads. Then comes quiet introspection. Then the mind wants to quit. Shut down—Sleep. At every moment you must will yourself awake with the force necessary to bend spoons.
When the Big Salmon River comes in, I locate us on the map again and am reassured we aren’t endlessly circling in an eddy of time on some side slough. We talk little and any pause is for fuel or piss. The mission is singular: catch the white canoe.
Then, sometime after 4:00 AM we round a corner and ahead is a long white shape on the water. We are thinking the same. “That’s them!” Sol says finally. I too clearly see the flash of a paddle. I feel our boat surge as if an outboard just kicked in gear. “All right Dan! Lets GO! We got’em—We got’em!” I feel adrenaline hit my heart. The purl of our wake increases. The rain on the water masks our coming until we are only fifty meters behind. Feil turns and sees us. They pick it up but we are closing fast. Sol’s whole character has changed and like a leopard he pounces.
He drives our bow right on their stern—so close I think we are going to hit them. But I just paddle and switch when told. Soaked to the skin with rain running down my neck—it’s the most fun I’ve had in a long long time. We sit on their tail just long enough for them to feel the suck and then the King cuts wide and we hammer.
Water is dripping off his hat and Mettler looks in severe need of fuel. I truly know how he feels and even empathize. But I am grinning so hard my cheeks hurt and blurt out, “Great morning isn’t it!” They give chase but we’ve broken contact and pull steadily away. At the end of the next straightaway I glance back. The white canoe is way behind and sideways. Both are digging for food.
The Carmacks Demon
Every tributary coming in is full and brown and we feel the extra push as the currents merge. At this pace it is less than four hours to Carmacks, and we are now in the lead. But apprehension keeps rising inside. And not without reason: twice before I had been here, on this section of the river, feeling good, and the unexpected had happened.
Not more than an hour later Sol spots something swimming the river. It wasn’t a beaver or a muskrat. “Marten!” he says as it swims closer. They are shy hunters. I had never seen one in the wild and Solomon had never seen one swimming. This is a big one—nearly three feet long with a rich coat that floats the big weasel like a cork snake. It is also clear that we are on a collision course. It thinks we are a log and is hoping to hop aboard for a break. Fear flashes—once aboard, scared and angry, it’ll attack. True, it only weighs a few pounds but it has razor teeth and is quick as lightening. As clubs, our paddles are about as formidable as a feather. My imagination races. The local headline will read: “Numerous Lacerations Force Leaders To Pull Out At Carmacks After Attack By Swimming Marten.” It’s the Carmacks Demon in Fur—here to take me out again!
The marten is almost within paddle range when it realizes we aren’t a log. It rears like a cobra, opens its mouth wide and hisses. The front half of its body is completely out of the water and supported by the buoyancy of its tail. Its black eyes met mine, then it pivots and hisses at Sol. It is a standoff. I hold my weightless weapon menacingly. To my great relief it backs down and quickly circles around us. Hand combat with a sore tempered marten is part of trapping and Solomon, meanwhile, had been rummaging for his camera.
The Klondike Highway crosses the Yukon at Carmacks and the checkpoint is just below the bridge on the left bank. The river is high and swift, and with no obstructions we have simply ridden it like a giant conveyor belt. Now, though, as it slammed into the bridge pilings its power is obvious and the roar unsettling. We drop well below the back swirl behind the abutment and hit shore.
Dad’s in waders again and guides the boat into a little eddy. The leaders have arrived in Carmacks, I think. I hop out and nearly land butt first in the mud. I only thought hop out. Dad catches my lifevest and lifts me to very unsteady feet. Wobbling back and forth in my puffy white garb, arrival of the Doughboy is more accurate. I stared at the seat I just extracted myself from. It had been twenty-two hours. But the clock was still ticking until the gear check is done. Paddles? Check. PFD’s? Check. Whistles? Toot! Promotional package? Got it. Rescue rope and flares? Check, check. She finished the list. “Your out time is 11:52 a.m.”
Instead of a wet tent, Dad and Brian had found a room with two queen-size beds and a shower for the night. Now it was ours—thought of the hot shower has Solomon in near nirvana.
For an hour I lay spread-eagle on a bed, immobile, heart pounding, trying now, to will sleep, and not listen to the cleaning lady in the hall complain about her roommate’s slob of a boyfriend. Then we are back at the canoe. We have 35 minutes on the Washington team, but Solomon doesn’t like the speed of our boat.
“We got too much junk in this boat,” Sol exclaims, pulling extra food and still-full water bottles out. I reluctantly part with a key culprit: my extra bag of optional gear. Brian refills my bowl of noodles. I pour them down and they dribble on my white jacket. Gear check. One minute. Settle in the seat again, more noodles.
Three, two, one and we are off. The current sweeps us from shore and we are paddling again. Except for the noodles on my jacket, Carmacks was a dream. The boat feels lighter. That spurs our cadence and trees on the bank sweep by.
- Five Finger Rapids
I am watching the map carefully now—Five Finger Rapids is not far ahead. There, the river constricts and four basalt pillars jut from the river and pinch it into five channels. Ledges and submerged boulders generate fearsome hydraulics. These rapids are the only place in the race where navigation is crucial and a key reason for the two-hour layover at Carmacks. Get them out of the boats and clear their heads—misjudgment in Five Finger could prove fatal. During the Gold Rush, the RCMP strung a net below these rapids to catch the bodies. The rapids were a severe problem for the sternwheelers also, so rocks were blasted out of the far right channel. Today that’s the only channel for a canoe to be in.
We see the rock islands ahead and move right. At the meeting the night before the race, we were warned that in high water Five Fingers is big. I tighten the spray skirt around my waist. Nasty eddies boil on either side and a line of waves kicked up by the bounce current extends far out from both walls. “Keep it in the middle,” I holler over the roar. “Just paddle,” Sol hollers back. In his world speed is stability.
We hit the waves in the center paddling hard. The bow pierces the first wave and water hits me in the chest. I instinctively slap the water in a brace. The bow lifts and then plunges into the next trough and I brace again. “HUT!” comes sharply from the stern. It is a command to paddle as much as switch. We buck through the wave train then cut to avoid a hole. I am grateful for the spraycover and then we relax.
The afternoon sun reflects off a couple metal roofs and we see the pole with a windsock atop it. The Minto checkpoint is at the boat landing below the windsock. Sleep! A small inlet protects the boat ramp from the current and a sharp eddy line guards the entrance. I lean hard as we cut in. Dad wades in and pulls us ashore. No strokes for six hours.
Later, dad sees me get out of the tent and walks over. Seven teams are in now. None had trouble in Five Fingers, but two flipped in the eddy here at the boat landing. When I ask about the Washington team his tone of voice catches my attention. “They picked up three minutes on you,” he says quietly. “They made up the 13 you had gained on them between Carmacks and Five Fingers and cut your overall lead to 32 minutes—They’re still in the race.” I nod. Yuck, I think, There goes any hope for more breaks. Take a wrong channel or have to go to shore, and our lead evaporates. With 20 hours of paddling left to Dawson our lead is tenuous.
The support crews and a couple racers are cooking in the small picnic area nearby. Solomon had gotten up a few minutes before me and is already eating when I walk up. “Eat a good dinner, Dan,” he says with a wry smile. “We’re going to need it.” It is still a race and he likes that. Brian hands me a cup of coffee. He has soup, cold juice, and a big pot of macaroni and cheese. Gourmet.
Out time is in 10 minutes. I grab food bags, fill a ziplock with noodles, and hustle down to load the boat. Solomon is there already and busy trying on jackets. At the moment he has Brian’s Green Bay Packers windbreaker on and both Dad and Brian are urging him to wear it. He does.
11:22 p.m. in 10 seconds. Countdown. One last gulp of coffee and I pick up my paddle. The bow cuts the eddy line and the current whips us downstream. Speed. In moments I was again part of the rhythm of the stroke and the layover vanished like vapor.
Solomon lays out our strategy. “We’ll warm up easy for a few minutes,” he says, “Then hit it hard till we get tired.” Basic. A full belly and a couple hours of actual sleep—for the moment I am energized. Features on the map appear and then slip by. We pass Devils Lookout and through Hells Gate.
We are almost two hundred miles north of where we were last night and it is noticeably brighter tonight. It is past midnight, one day after the solstice and the sun is just below the northern horizon. The underside of the clouds glow in warm pastel and paint the river pink.
My mind, loosened by the cadence, drifts like a raven to a vantage high above. Below me, the river winds like a luminous ribbon through the dark mountains. On the surface, our canoe cuts the water like a yellow javelin. It is at the apex of a large V formed by the wake. The synchronized flash of our white-gloved hands marks time as we re-cock and punch the water again and again. The dual strokes dimple the surface and form equally spaced pairs of circular wavelets that grow ever larger the further they recede from the boat. Delicate shifts of color create visual music as the track line of ripples expand, overlap and superpose on the patterns of the river surface. I am in the Zone…
The V of our wake behind us is Einstein’s space-time of past history on the river where all cause propagates at the speed of a water wave. All that we have known and all that we have affected is within this V. Flip it over in the direction we move and everything within the opening angle becomes all that we can know and all that can effect us on the water. The crossing point—where we stroke—is the eternal now…
“HEY—There’s the Pelly!” Ahead a high basalt bluff ramparts a river valley opening to the north and forces the Yukon west. “Huh?” I answer. “Where were you?” Sol laughs. “That’s the third time I hollered.”
Campbell had come down the Pelly in 1843 when he “discovered” the Yukon (the Lewes he called it). We pass Fort Selkirk a few miles down stream on the west bank. Campbell had established that post with high hopes of trade in the area, however, others thought differently. In 1852 the Chilkat Indians from the Coast, who had traded in that region for the past millennia or so, did a little corporate raiding and burned him out. Recently restored, the fort with its steepled log church and cluster of cabins is an enchanting place, but tonight it is just another mark on the map—181 miles to Dawson.
Victoria Rock, Three Way Channel, Push Button Bend—they simply pass. Paddling. This is all there is to life. The nose of the boat surges with each stroke—one a second. Set the paddle, pull the boat, re-cock, entry, rhythm, repeat, switch. I am deep in the Zone—the Dead Zone.
“Have a little more coffee before you fall out of the boat,” Sol calls from the back. A little break, my devious mind thinks. He passes it forward on his paddle and then continues stroking. I rummage for a chocolate bar, then shake out my arms, then lift my butt off the seat and stretch. Oh my that feels good. Then I rotate my head in a big circle on my shoulders. Then I stretch my back. Now Solomon is patient (he is paddling all this time), but he’s counting. When he and five others set the record in the Texas Canoe Safari he says they allowed each other only 17 strokes of break time.
Eventually Sol politely suggests, “Dan, why don’t you try stretching with that paddle in your hand.”
Sol’s Hut’s are sharp and they keep us awake. Periodically we pass cozy looking tents on the bank and he barks even louder. Sometimes he raises a shout from a tent and we laugh. We have gone adolescent.
The sun finally hits us and I try to soak its energy through my eyeballs. Some of the early risers in the camps we pass are up now and wave as we pass. A woman is brushing out her long auburn hair down by the water and it catches the light.
Dan Man Creek. Nine hours from Minto—97 miles to go. I think…. Navigational control has been a bit sketchy for a few hours. Sol doesn’t seem to mind—paddling’s the same regardless. Feil and Mettler are back there somewhere, and periodically at the end of the long stretches we search for the white canoe.
The hills on the west bank part and a wide braided river extends as far as I can see to the west. On the horizon are the white peaks of the Logan Mountains and St. Elias Range. Several large channels of creamy tan glacial water from a delta over a mile wide, pour into the Yukon. From first glance it is hard to tell which river is larger. The White River—75 miles to Dawson. Volcanic eruptions, near the river’s headwaters, blanketed the region in a layer of white ash roughly 1000 years ago and it still colors the water. The Yukon, silty because of the high water, now looks clear compared to the White and we slow to fill our water bottles. As the two rivers merge, plumes of glacial water well to the surface and mix like cream in coffee.
Jack London once worked diggings on the Stewart River, but all I care is it marks another 10 miles further. The sun has become oppressive. We want to believe that with the addition of the White and the Stewart, the current increased. However, the river has now swelled to over a half mile wide, and from mid-river where we paddle, there is little sense of motion. Each bend, by which we mark time, may take a half an hour to reach. Time and distance stretch like a rubber sheet and even reverse. In my mind we are paddling upstream. At this point in the race, nothing flows for free.
My right shoulder burns as if a torch is held to it and both arms lift like lead from lactic acid and fatigue. I make up strokes. Long stretch strokes where I reach to the bow, and sharp harpoon strokes like stabbing an imaginary beluga whale, over and over. Anything for relief. Everything I do, Sol matches and keeps the boat smooth and tracks it straight down river.
Fifty miles to Dawson. Finally, for the first time since we left Minto (save a bank stop to relieve an intestinal emergency), we both put down our paddles at the same time. We can look back upstream to the end of a five mile straight stretch. No white boat, thank God. So we eat.
Dawson was not far now. For the better part of three days I had been racing with the master but had yet to see him paddle. “You know, Sol,” I said after a particularly quiet period, “I’d really like to pick up some pointers. You wouldn’t take it wrong, would you, if I just turned around and watched for a while?” I glanced back. He had that wry smile on his face. “I’d probably take it wrong,” he said. A little while later he commented, “I’ve never had a bowman who paddled too much.”
Finally! The scarp on the mountain above Dawson comes into view. Four miles to go. We were dragging the last few hours but now feel a flush of energy. It’s just after 5 p.m. and we are hours ahead of our ETA. The high water has been a blessing, but I worry that my wife and son, who are driving from Fairbanks for the finish today won’t make it in time. I am never early.
Dawson fronts the river just below the mouth of the Klondike River. We cut in and run along the bank. Three folks in long dreadlocks are swaying to a Rasta rhythm on the dike along the bank. We are stroking hard and grinning. The finish has been moved because of the high water. Then we see a cluster of people down by the water ahead. Drawing closer, we finally see the race banner draped over some driftwood, and I pick out my son’s blond head. I look carefully to make sure that the white canoe is not there and then realize in the long moment as we drift to shore—that we have won. Dad holds the bow and I climb out—carefully. I turn to Sol as he wades out of the river. With a wide grin he grabs my hand. The gear check stopped the clock at 53 hours 35 minutes.
Feil and Mettler would arrive an hour later. Six hours behind them were the Ontario teams. They had paddled together for much of the race but after 60 hours and still an hour out of Dawson, one of them decided to go and they both sprinted to the finish line. Experience edged out youth and the mixed team hit the shore a nose ahead.
The race marshal John Firth jokes with me, “It’s about time you finish.” “I’m happy” I laugh, and glance over at my wife. The reggae beat drifts down to the water and I don’t have to paddle anymore.
Such moments don’t last forever. It had been a long time since the emergency stop up river. “I need a toilet,” I said. The closest one was in the Cultural Center overlooking the river. The woman in charge looked askance at me as she pointed to the bathroom and when I came out she confronts me. “You feel better?” She asks. “Wulll…Yeah,” I reply, thinking that was rather personal of her, “as a matter of fact I do—I feel much better.” “Good,” she continued, “Now you can go back and clean my toilet.” She shoved a spray bottle of Fantastic! into my hand. I stood there for a moment, and stared at the bottle in my hand. At another time I might have questioned whether this is always requisite, but at the moment I was rather numb. My father came to my defense. “He’s been paddling for three days—he won the race—and now he has to clean the toilet?” he protested. “Exactly,” she said, “All that time on the river–he’s filthy.” She had a point. I dutifully I returned to the bathroom and wiped the porcelain clean. Glory is fleeting.
Team WHOA 2003
2003 was year 5 of the Yukon River Quest.
It was also the first time Patricia (Patty) Clune travelled to Whitehorse from Toronto to take part in the YRQ as part of a tandem kayak team with her sister Elizabeth (Beth) – that’s me!
Patty and I were joined in our first YRQ by friends Jessica Reynolds and David Nash (who went on to win the red lantern with a time of 93:36.) As it happened, I dropped out at Carmacks and Patty went on to finish unofficially with another paddler. We were all enthralled by the beauty of the Yukon, the magic of the river and the friendliness and camaraderie of the paddlers and volunteers. During our time on the river, we caught glimpses of larger canoes with many paddlers, singing and paddling hard and looking like they were having a wonderful time. Both of us thought it looked like a great way to experience the river – and that is how Team WHOA was born!
Team WHOA (Women Having Outrageous Adventures) made their first YRQ appearance in 2005 – year seven of the YRQ. The team included eight women – all from Toronto… and we did have an outrageous adventure! Among the highlights was seeing Fort Selkirk (yes, we stopped and went up!) and taking shelter from an electrical storm when we were within sight of Dawson City. We even made and served hot drinks on the boar. This trip marked the beginning of an enduring friendship with the Paddlers Abreast team who generously shared their food and their river expertise.
There has been a Team WHOA entry every year since 2005 – that is 13 straight years with a planned entry for 2018 – and Patty has been on every boat. The team composition has changed over the years from being paddlers from Toronto, to half Whitehorse / half Ontario paddlers to mostly Whitehorse paddlers with plenty of guests along the way. Whitehorse’s Shelley Gellatly was the first to join in 2007 – and she led the way for a wonderful group of talented knowledgeable women from Whitehorse, including Lynda Campbell, Tunde Fulop, Sylvia Anderson, Noreen Schaefer, Julia Gerlach and others, who bolstered the Team WHOA team in every way.
Along the journey, we morphed from inexperienced greenhorns who made a sleeping pit in the centre of the canoe – we had mountains of gear! –into a team that posts respectable times and has learned to use the river to our advantage. One memorable year we ran the centre of Rink Rapids in the rain — I’m not so sure that was fun! We usually sing ‘O Canada’ in English and French, recite or listen to ‘The Cremation of Sam McGee’ and enjoy all kinds (and I mean all!) of music along the route.
We have been lucky to have wonderful support crews every year, from Whitehorse, Toronto, Nova Scotia and more – they are as much a part of the team as we are. Thank you Jim, Gary and everyone! We look forward every year to seeing the race volunteers and have always appreciated their professionalism and friendliness.
One of our most consistent supporters has been our mother Anne Clune. Now 85, she has been there for at least 8 YRQs – waving the team off in Whitehorse, supplying cinnamon buns in Carmacks and greeting us at the dock in Dawson City. She loves being in the Yukon and is a great Yukon ambassador. Anne had a double knee joint replacement in October 2017 and is making a remarkable recovery – there is no reason she shouldn’t be in Dawson City for YRQ 2018.
Over the years Team WHOA boat has been filled with friendship, laughter, love and yes, lipstick (always applied just before arrival in Dawson City). For us, it is the very best way to start the summer, and remind ourselves how lucky we are to be able to spend time on the Yukon River and be in the company of good friends in a magnificent setting.
The Team WHOA tradition continues in YRQ 2018 – this time in the 4-person Canoe Open class. Team WHOA alumni will also be on the river this year to help celebrate the 20th anniversary of the YRQ – Margo Millette (Love of Paddling – Solo) and Tunde Fulop, Sylvia Anderson, Yvonne Kinsey and me (Team Horny Women of the Yukon).
Yukon River Quest - A Search from Within 2009
YUKON RIVER QUEST – A SEARCH FROM WITHIN
And so it all began, with cabin fever setting in along about late February, and the endless mountains of snow starting to block the view from our living room windows on the West Road in Bowdoin, Maine. Whitewater canoe racing season was on the horizon as we began gearing up for the short, but much anticipated, annual spring time event. The traditional reunion with our paddling friends on the St. George and Passy Rivers continued as the Rite of Passage into Spring, and the next few months were typically mapped out for similar outings. But something was different this year, something was missing. Little did we know, while surfing the web one evening for upcoming race dates, that the missing element would be yet another canoe race. However, as time would prove otherwise, “The Yukon River Quest-A Race to the Midnight Sun” was far from just another canoe race. It would become an experience of a lifetime.
With the decision made to enter the 11th running of the YRQ, planning and preparation began in hope to be ready when the horn sounded at noon, June 24th. The course, winding its way from Whitehorse to Dawson in the Yukon Territory, Canada, offered countless majestic views of nature’s grandeur but mountains of details lie in the way. Registration, boat rental, required gear, transportation, accommodations, passports, insurance, the list seemed endless as the project board filled up fast with post-its. Phone calls and emails were the order of business at the end of each workday, with physical training, home maintenance, and dinner worked in as the days and hours passed. With the initial entry deadline of April 15th come and gone, the countdown began.
As the weeks passed, order arose from chaos as the project board came together like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle. The vision of racing the Yukon River began to take on a sense of reality. Our first major hurdle was how to get a canoe to Whitehorse in one piece and on time. With no other New England teams driving to the Yukon, the logistics of transporting a personal craft was unrealistic. Fortunately, the Yukon River Marathon Paddling Association (YRMPA) had ten worthy canoes in their fleet and we were lucky enough to get one of the last ones available. The remainder of our gear we chose to ship by air with a great deal of faith in the airline industry for on-time and safe delivery.
Thirty days to the horn and much behind us, our focus began to shift toward race strategy. How would we fare best on a course we had never seen, racing through the night with little or no sleep, competing against some of the world’s finest paddlers. Weeks of discussion followed, hoping to identify the best approach to a world of unknowns. For us, eight hours of paddling on the Susquehanna’s “General Clinton 70” seemed an eternity, far from the twenty to twenty-five it would take to get to Carmacks – the first mandatory stop 200 miles downriver from Whitehorse and yet less than halfway to Dawson and the finish line. The Yukon River, with its sea of channels encompassing the miles of islands that dotted the maps, would require an acute awareness that seemed quite contrary to where we imagined our mental state would be thirty to forty hours from the start. And what of those paddlers converging on Whitehorse from all directions for a chance to showcase their talent at this year’s YRQ. What were their goals and to what degree were they willing to go to accomplish them? Time would tell as the clock continued to tick.
One last check on transportation proved critical as we soon realized the post-race shuttle from Dawson opted out without warning. Along with eight others abandoned at the last minute, we scrambled to find an alternative. With a barrage of e-mails and a bit of lady luck, we were back in business thanks to the services of a tour company out of Fairbanks, Alaska.
Last minute changes in race attire were prompted by updates in weather reports. Lighter polypropylene undergarments would suffice with the temperatures starting to climb. Quality rain gear would be worth its weight in gold, as the threat of rain was ever present. Unaware of the availability of these items on arrival, we were forced to pack and ship or the price for being ill-prepared would be too high.
With the checklist complete, tickets in hand, and the car packed to the hilt, we struck off for the Jetport early Saturday morning. Not even the lengthy layovers in Seattle and Vancouver could dampen our spirits at this point. The excitement was building, compounded by the recent interest stirring among our friends, family, and co-workers as they connected online to monitor our every move.
Arriving in Whitehorse early Saturday morning, we settled in at the Westmark for some much- needed R&R before embarking on our first Canadian trek. Checking out the river, thereafter, was our plan for the day as we wandered through the city attempting to get our bearings. Quick water with an aqua tint, the Yukon River was a beautiful sight as it made its way around the bend by Rotary Park and past the local outfitters where we hoped to find our race boat. Little doubt remained as to which one it was, being the only bright yellow canoe on the YRMPA trailer. Good, bad, or otherwise, our progress would be easy to assess this time around as the contrast in colors was striking. A couple of signatures and we were on our way for a test run down to the Takhini River. The short stint proved valuable in assessing the craft and some competition that we, coincidentally, met along the way.
The next few days were hectic as we organized our supplies, attended the “Meet & Greet” and pre-race briefs, completed the registration process, and survived the onslaught of mandatory gear inspections. As the flurry of activities wound to a close, we stopped for a moment to reflect and realize the effort that it took to get to this point. It was time to sleep.
Now with the first light from a sun that barely set, race day was upon us! Early to rise, we opted for a full breakfast with a light lunch to follow if time permit. Next stop was Rotary Park to the pre-race staging area for mandatory gear inspections and last-minute equipment modification. As our boat number was called to align with other crafts at river’s edge, we quietly discussed our plan for a quick but safe start. With paddlers assembling behind the start line, the field was announced, and with no time to spare the horn went off at exactly noon, the 24th day of June.
From there it seemed a blur as we jockeyed for position and before we knew it we were on Lake Laberge, scouting the field as it lay before us. As anticipated, the Mixed team from Whitehorse were tandem frontrunners setting the pace for those that followed. Our plan was to identify those we could match up with, in hope to establish a mutually beneficial pack. The top two women’s teams were strong candidates and proved every bit as good as we imagined beforehand. So the bond was formed, with both teams strong, consistent, and highly skilled at reading the river. With time and miles passing, we
had the good fortune to become acquainted with each…their likes and dislikes, their interests and passions. Through the night we paddled into late morning, and with Carmacks in sight, the race was on for the dock and some much-needed rest, setting the stage for the second leg to Kirkman Creek later that day. A quick look at the leader board had us nestled between the top two women’s teams and third in the Mixed Tandem. The excitement was short lived, however, when we learned our supply bag from Whitehorse was missing. Fortunately, with the assistance of several support personnel, the highly coveted bag and food supplies turned up and the quest for sleep became our primary concern for the race was still on. Despite the fatigue factor, sleep never came, nonetheless, as the temperature climbed rapidly inside the humble nylon abode. In the near background, the sounds of the cheerful recognition that came with each arriving boat, was soon sending us on our way down the river once again.
Thirty hours in, we made our way under the bridge and around the bend leaving the Coal Mine Campground and the prospect of sleep behind. Five Finger Rapids, infamous for its silent but powerful wave trains, had our attention hours before the turn. As the prominent columns of stone appeared, our hearts raced with anticipation. Often the case, pictures did not do it justice, as the bow of the boat rose and plunged time and again. We had missed the line but, safe all the same, we chalked that one up to experience and picked up the pace.
As the night moved on, the fair skies diminished with the sky darkening around us. The mountains were swallowed up by a sea of clouds, eliminating the formations as navigational aids. Within moments, the heavens erupted as we struggled to don our rain gear. Cold driving pellets brought pain with our progress. With visibility near nil, our spirits were dropping as quickly as the temperature. Deprived of sleep for nearly two days, we struggled to focus on the task at hand. Our eyes laden from toil, we closed them but for a moment or two. Simple acts turned difficult and our patience grew thin. The harsh realization of our situation fell upon us. We were alone and our skills would surely be tested this night. Minutes turned to hours as the waypoints passed slowly. Then through the fog, we caught a glimpse of another team crossing from afar. The joy of companionship brought overwhelming relief, but the union was brief for the cold night had taken its toll on the men’s team as they opted to stop for dry clothes and a fire. Our minds filled with doubt, we checked the maps time and again. When Fort Selkirk appeared, our bearings were set and we knew 300 miles would soon be near. An air of confidence embraced us but the fear of the unknown kept us aware of the dangers about. And so it went to Kirkman Creek, with the promise of hospitality, a flat spot to lay our head, and the hope of closure 100 miles out that kept us in the game.
The final leg began with our goal in sight. Dawson by midnight rang loud and clear. But the race was not over and many had fallen these two days past. The river had grown with a myriad of channels to pick and choose. With time running short and real estate a premium, we took a shot to close the gap on our competition. It was not in the cards this day, as the move through the cut cost valuable time and energy. But all was not lost for we closed that day with our fastest leg over 47 miles, crossing the line 51 seconds past midnight and our goal of 50 hours. As had been the case from our first day in Whitehorse, we were greeted by the finest people we could imagine. Congratulations and offers for assistance were abound. As they lifted us gently and wrapped us in blankets, we thanked them for their support and words of praise for these strangers were now friends and Dawson was home.
Humbled by the experience, we collected ourselves and our gear and thought long through the night of the River Quest and its meaning. For some it was truly a race, for others a thing of beauty and for us it was a search for identity and an opportunity to live out our dreams in a place called “The Yukon”.
Brad & Dawn Krog YRQ 2009
Adam Yukon River Quest 2010
Yukon River Quest
Team 28 Experimental Curry Powder
It was quite a journey just trying to get to Whitehorse as it was, but neither Chris nor myself really knew what this race was all about. We did know that it was 740kms down the river, and that we were trying to finish in under 60 hours.
It all started about 2 days before the actual start of the race, Chris and I hopped in a canoe together for a training run down the river, this being the 3rd time we actually paddled together. We began meeting some amazing people and shooting the breeze with them. My old man was suppose to fly in that evening to be our support team, of course he missed his flight, so, it got pushed back to the next night.
When my father finally got into Whitehorse and we got back to the hotel it was 2am on race day, and we had to be up around 7am to begin getting ready for the race. Needless to say my father was up at nearly 6am, thus not allowing Chris or myself a whole lot of sleep to prepare for the race. The day started cold, wet and semi-miserable.
We got our boat all ready, required gear checked out, and went to Subway for a final meal before the start of the race. I must have been a bit nervous about the race on account I couldn’t eat my whole sandwich, so I took the second half with me (which in the end was a brilliant idea).
The race began at noon sharp with a 300 meter mass start dash to the boats. Quickly jumping in and begin paddling more to simply warm up, than to get out ahead of the other crews. Pushing incredibly hard for the first few hours was desperately needed to help maintain a lead and get on the 50km lake just about 2 hours down the river.
We wanted to get this lake out of the way so that we could get back into flowing water. Thankfully behind us was a tailwind which created 2 meter swells. While this was a God send it did make keeping the boat straight incredibly difficult. Chris at the front of the boat was loving life while I struggled. Every time a wave came in, Chris paddled hard to try and surf, I got nervous about getting pushed sideways and swamping.
We had a system down, every hour on the hour one person stops paddling for food and a pee break (don’t ask). A pact had been made that at no time on the water would there not be a paddle in the water, we simply had to keep moving. This system would play a vital roll in the race.
At the end of the lake it had been 9 hours since we started paddling, and it was time for some real food other than just cliff bars and goo. I broke out the subway sandwich I kept, cut it in half, and for the first and only time during the whole race, our boat was in the water, but no one was paddling. That sandwich was the best food in the entire world.
While all the other groups stopped to change clothes for the first night paddle, Chris and I pushed on, and turns out, gave us a tremendous lead. All the way across the lake we were only 2 hours behind the leaders, and of course we didn’t know this.
Down this next portion of the river we ended up catching and passing a team that would cause us much grief in the second half of the race. The race committee decided a few years ago it would be a good idea to have safety camps after the lake, they had a fire and coffee for anyone that wanted to stop. It was very tempting but we had an agenda to keep to, needless to say, it was nice to see these people cheering for us.
Around 3am (15 hours into the race) we came across Gatesy, a solo canoeist looking to break the record that had been held for nearly 12 years. He had fallen asleep in his canoe and could not be more grateful that we came along when we did. He reminded St Jack of a jackrabbit on steroids. Gatesy ended up paddling with us for much of this evening and again the next evening when the exact same situation arose. This was his 3rd time in the quest but his first in a solo canoe, typically he paddled in a tandem.
As our two boats paddled together we saw a tandem sea kayak a fair distance ahead of us, so we started paddling harder. The thing about the Yukon River is there are many short cuts. Sheerly by accident we took a channel around a group of islands and ended up being nearly 500 meters ahead the sea kayak that was in front of us. Needless to say this would not last too long as they ended up doing the exact same thing to us, but gained nearly a kilometre.
Chris and I found out the hard way when tiredness would start winning the battle. That magic hour came for us at 5am. I was in the back of the boat and would fall asleep while still paddling. The only way Chris knew is when he would hear me talking and ask me a question, and I came to for only a few seconds. Finally, I noticed Chris’ stroke rate falling off, so I said “you want some sleep?” He agreed and laid his head down on his knees for a few minutes while I continued to paddle. When he awoke, he asked me I wanted to take a snooze. My response was simple “I did, back there when I was still paddling.”
Finally we hit another check point, and for the first time in more than 18 hours we stopped and stretched our legs, stayed for maybe 5 minutes and jumped back in the boat for the final 4 hours of this first leg of the race. It was in this next section that Chris and I both started seeing things on the shore and in the trees. I looked on shore and I saw this beautiful girl bathing in the river, Chris saw faces in the cut bank, and we both saw a giant bear in the tree. It was also where we both started biting our tongues. In races like these its inevitable that your going to get cranky with your team mates, and you have to push those negative thoughts out of your head. Oddly enough, this was the same time that “the burps” started acting on me.
24 and a half hours from starting the race, we were at the first of two mandatory stops. At this stop we were required to stop for 7 hours, and it was much needed. My father had set up the tent, and began making food for us. It took many discussions with my father to get him to understand the food that we wanted to eat, was not the food he was suggesting. Needless to say, because of “the burps” I didn’t exactly feel like eating. Chris and I laid down to sleep and my father prepped our boat, refilled our water and got food ready for our departure.
After sleeping, we ate, got our gear rechecked, and shoved off as soon as we could. We came into the stop in 20th place and left in 19th, as we were able to pass that damn tandem sea kayak that eluded us.
On this next section of the river we joked about getting first place, talked of girls, and paddled in silence from time to time. Feeling fresh from the sleep we had just had, and pushing on hard, we hit the 1st of 2 rapids. On a normal year this first rapid would have been challenging, but this year, it was really more of a joke. “The Burps” were getting worse and more frequent, and Chris was, rightfully so, getting annoyed with them, as it started sounding more and more like I was going to die.
Keeping our stroke rate up, and trying not to get annoyed with “the burps” we trucked along until we again ran into our old friend Gatesy. He fell asleep while paddling, again. So, we continued to shoot the breeze with him, and tried very hard to remember who had the count of paddle strokes for when we would switch sides. We had developed a system that at every 30 strokes we would switch. Now and again, we would miss the count and either one of us would just say switch. It did take us awhile to come up with this magic number.
After sometime, Gatesy would again push well ahead of us and we would be left alone. “The burps” were getting to me something fierce, so, we pulled over for a minute. This was a great chance for us to clear our systems. All the while looking behind us searching for the team that was gunning hard for us. Fortunately, they were nowhere in site, but we did see a lot of “things” that looked like paddlers. And we paddled on.
We came across a couple in a canoe simply paddling the river for scenic reason, but they were part of the race for emergency reasons. We would see this couple again, and they would share great news with us.
Shortly after seeing this couple, we looked over our shoulders and we saw our enemy coming up from behind. This gave us a hard drive to paddle harder and increase our lead on them. For about 20 or so minutes we paddled harder in that race than ever. Finally, we saw the sign we were hoping for, our next layover point. From this point we thought it was only about 7 hours to Dawson City. At this layover we would stay for 3 hours before pushing on for home.
When we were ready to leave this last layover, we found out it was between 10 and 12 hours to the finish and that we were a mere 17 minutes ahead of our competitors. As soon as the officials said “go” we dug in and paddled for as hard as we could.
Paddling for nearly 2 hours we crossed a small lake and back into the current of the river. Just as we entered the river we began seeing lightening, and the wind began to pick up into our faces. A storm hit us just at the same time we saw the couple on the river from a few hours earlier, and in this storm they yelled out “3rd place, your in 3rd place for C2.” Not being able to respond we paddled into the wind, and got blown sideways. The river going one direction, the wind going the opposite, we just barely kept the gunnels above the water line to tuck in behind an island for protection. This little storm gave us a tremendous lead on the boat behind us. And we continued.
After moving about 16 kilometres per hour for about 7 hours, and “the burps” causing me more hassle than I’d like to admit, my stomach gave up the battle and I threw up. I mentioned to Chris that we needed to pull over for a minute. Just as I stepped out of the boat I was on my knees dry heaving. Our plan had changed, Chris would paddle, and I would rest, while trying to rudder. After an hour of this, I looked around and stupidly said “we haven’t gone anywhere.” This was a terrible statement. Finally I said to Chris “if I vomit again, I vomit, I have to paddle, cause we aren’t moving.”
I began to lily dip for a few minutes trying not to burp, then we just started to dig in hard for the end. Being sick and tired Chris took the map and guided us in the last 20 miles.
5 miles from the city you can see one of its main defining features, a massive rock slide. This gave that little bit of extra hope, and we pushed in. We gave it our all for the last bit and came into Dawson with style. After pulling up people came up saying “congrats, you got first in men’s tandem canoe.” Neither Chris nor myself believed them, we took a nap, and a shower, and checked the internet. Sure enough, we had won. 54 hours 50 minutes of paddling paid off.
We started the race looking to finish in under 60 hours, and we did it. Everyone bagged us for having wooden paddles, but they worked. I ended up getting cranky that I couldn’t eat any food or drink any water that I had to go to the nursing station and got put on a drip. I’m not really sure on what Chris did, but I reckon it was to call Jessie.
Cant wait to do it all over again next year, and look for all those other races that happen.
How It Happened For Us YRQ 2013
First day is 12 hours of driving, 9 the next, and 6 or 7 the third with a couple nights at provincial campsites in between. The whole round trip will take 7000 kms and 78 hours on the engine, so not including gas and eating stops and waiting for construction delays. It occurs to me that this will be a long drive home if we don’t finish this race. We’ll see seven moose, a deer, five black bears, two grizzlies, sheep, and a lot of bison on the way up and back. The wildest thing we encounter is paying $1.999 per litre for diesel in Muncho Lake, 120 bucks for almost half a tank. We get into Whitehorse late Sunday afternoon.
Monday afternoon we take a 1.75 hr training run on the Yukon River, from Whitehorse to the Takhini River, the first part of the race. Some other rookie entries are doing the same, and there is a race-organized pick-up at the take-out. Rita and Richelle pick us up. A mixed voyageur team catches up to us during the run, but we keep up to them for a while, so I feel a little better about our ability. That will change pretty quick at the gear check tomorrow.
That evening we go to the meet and greet at the museum and talk to some of the other entries. Just our luck, we sit across from a men’s tandem kayak team, the 2 Papas, and one of them is getting over a cold or the flu. Katrina and I try to avoid the coughs, but we can’t avoid the handshakes, so on the way out we hit the washrooms to wash our hands. Please, we can’t get sick, not after all the preparation. They’re nice guys, but I’m not sure they know what they’re in for. While we’re there the wind really starts to blow and it rains. Get it over now, before we get on the lake, thank you very much.
Tuesday morning is registration, boat measurement and gear check. Three of the four boats around us on the lawn at the visitor centre are entries in our division. All three are racing canoes. One is a black custom Savage River carbon fibre boat that they proceed to unwrap from the full cover it’s in. Hmmmmm. Looks fast just sitting on the grass. Another is a brand new Clipper lightweight kevlar boat, a special order. Mega light. Ours is kevlar, but nothing as fast as these three. Ours is a tripping canoe, something you can fish out of. Now I’m wondering if we really will finish dead last. Just about every other canoe looks like a racing boat. When I asked one of the volunteers about getting measured, she comes back and tells us the race official didn’t have to check on ours, he could tell just by looking at it we weren’t illegal (too fast). Greeaaat. We meet the team with the lightweight kevlar (Team Currently Confused-Still), they’re returning from last year and will be this years eventual winners in our division. Nice couple. They tell us more about their boat and how their friends ordered an almost identical one. They’re also in our division. Greeaaat.
After loading the truck back up we wait around for the racer briefing, and that’s when we really get to size up the other paddlers. Holy mackerel, each one of these guys has more muscle than me and Katrina put together. No exaggeration. There are two 70 yr. old guys in our division, so how bad can that be? Then I find out one of them (Larry, on Team 15 X 0) has done every single Yukon River Quest since they started, all 15 of them, and has won before. And his female partner is solid. The other 70 yr. old (Jim, Team Boydes of a Feather)..…. he used to be on the Canadian Olympic team for cross country or something like that. They’ve done a bunch of YRQ’s also, and I think may have won too. Oh well, we’re here to finish I keep telling myself. Like that helps. And are you kidding me?? The 2 Papas sit down beside us at the briefing. No handshakes today, but we talk. I see the maps they’ve made for the race, printouts of Google satellite images, two to a page and laminated. I don’t think they’ll be able to tell where they are with those.
Go to bed early and actually sleep well. And it doesn’t even get dark. Funny, not nervous.
We drop off at the river at 9:00am Wednesday (scheduled by team numbers) and get all the gear, food, fluids, maps and gps’s organized in the boat. We’ll find out during the race we could have been better at placing things so they’re easier to reach, or not in the way. We’re lined up on the riverbank by entry number and get to scope out the boats near us. Two guys in a tandem, one from Edmonton, are right near us, and they actually have to same canoe as us. Nice!! We actually don’t have the slowest boat in the race, at least there’s someone else like us. But the two guys are young, and very strong upper body-wise. One’s a triathlete. We’ll end up finishing ahead of them by over 6 hrs.
Time for a last sandwich at Tim Horton’s and fill up the Thermos’s with black coffee for me and French Vanilla for Katrina. As we eat I see Team Boydes of a Feather at a nearby table. Quiet and reserved, they don’t look like they want to say hi. Not like Larry and Brenda from Team 15 X 0, whom we met at gear check. Guess who we meet in line and leaves as we do……….. yep, sick Dan from 2 Papas. We break out the hand sanitizer big time after handling the door. Normally I don’t worry about it, but no chances taken today!
We gather at the park nearby for introductions and a few speeches, then wait for the horn at noon. I can see Larry twenty feet away sitting on a bench under the canopy near the speakers’ microphone. He sizes us up for quite awhile. I come to the conclusion he’s thinking we’re never gonna make it, and has probably written us off as competition. Katrina tapes her hands. There’s a countdown to the horn. We’re off, and running!! Man, the sprint to the boats almost does me in. I almost can’t keep up with Katrina. We get to the canoe and our friend from Whitehorse, Gary, is there to help us launch. We actually get on the water with only 8 boats in front of us!! Whoo Hoo!! Then I look down and notice our SPOT gps isn’t on, and therefore not tracking. Rats! Take some valuable strokes off to get it going as Katrina wonders what the hell I’m doing. Everyone paddles like holy heck at the beginning, like it’s a sprint. Kinda mayhem. It seems like everyone is passing us. There go Steve and Karla in Currently Confused-Still. Just givin’ ‘er, very synchronized strokes and switches. Wow, they’re movin’. Talking to Karla after the race she tells me about their paddling coach, no wonder they look so good. And there goes 15 X 0, looking exceptionally fast and smooth for a 70 yr. old, great racing stroke. It’s obvious they’ve paddled a lot together. A women’s voyageur and us dodge each other, and they joke about not hitting the Chins. Gary, always the joker, made a sticker for our boat that says “Double Chin Racing”, but many know who we are already…. the Whitehorse newspaper did interviews with us a couple weeks ago for a half page article in the supplement they put out for the race. So much for being anonymous in case we don’t finish.
Pretty quick everyone settles into some semblance of position. It feels like we must be near the back of the pack, but we don’t look behind us. A women’s tandem canoe gives us a bump as they try to figure out the current. The women’s voyageur that Richelle was on last year, Team WHOA (Women Having Outrageous Adventures) passes us, but we pass them back as we start to find our stroke. We take the wrong way around some islands and end up behind them. Crap, won’t do that again. Pass ’em another time and save some face. When we get to the Takhini River we can’t see Richelle or Rita, so they must be late getting to the viewpoint, the highway up above the cutbank. We see Richelle jump over the concrete guardrail just in time to see us go by. They’re cheering us on later at the first checkpoint though, Policeman’s Point, which we hit a little over 3 hrs into it. There’s some high cloud cover, so it’s taking a bit of the edge off the heat. We drink and eat every hour, and drink more as needed. The heat will eventually take out a number of the teams. The lake comes up quite soon after Policeman’s, so we quickly eat some sandwiches to get loaded up before starting out on it.
The lake is one of the things that weighed on my mind. It can get nasty. It’s 50 kms long, and seems to go forever. It can get rough really fast. But this year we get lucky. It’s the second year in a row that it ends up being calm. We don’t get the tailwind that they had last year, but it stays calm almost to the end, where we pick up a headwind and a few waves for the last hour or so. That cloud cover helps a lot, but not enough for Boydes of a Feather. I think he ends up with heat stroke. They withdraw in Carmacks, site of the first mandatory stop. I can feel the heat giving me a hint of a headache, so I soak my hat in the water and put it back on. It helps. I want to get across the lake in 8hrs, with decent conditions, so we don’t use up too much gas. Looking at the gps we start the lake at a good 7.5 – 8 kph, so there must be a bit of a current as I’d hoped. We normally do about 6.5 without current or wind, so this looks promising. We grind it up the lake, staying within the distance from shore mandated by the race organizers. The only hint that we’re actually getting anywhere is the speed reading on the gps. It gets down to 6.5 – 7 kph closer to midway, but we’re still doing OK. One men’s tandem canoe catches and passes us, although we manage to keep it in sight for quite awhile. We gain a bit of ground on them when they take short breaks. No one else passes us on the lake, and we seem to be creating some distance between us and the nearest boats behind us, one of which is Team WHOA. They all look kinda tiny in the distance back there. We gradually catch and pass a solo men’s kayak. We’re doin’ OK!! We hit the checkpoint at the end of the lake at 22:32, about 7 hrs after we got on it, and it’s getting a bit dark.
The next stretch of river is called The Thirty Mile. It’s great to get back into the current, but it doesn’t mean we can slack off. Doesn’t matter if we’re in still or moving water, still have to paddle. We can’t finish by just riding the current. Gotta be into and out of Carmacks by the deadline. And not letting the boats behind catch up acts as motivation. We change out of our sweaty upper clothes without pulling over. We’d already decided to never stop unless we absolutely have to, wastes too much time. Food breaks are less than a minute, stuff it into our mouths and paddle while we chew. Maybe an extra minute to pee. For us, the challenge to being in the current is to find the fast water. The gps is reading 14 or 15 kph when we do get into it, occasionally 16 or 17. The fastest we ever get during the race is 18. We’re expecting it to get really cold at night, that’s why we change out of the damp shirts. Richelle got too cold last year, when it got down to freezing on the river at night. Surprisingly, we just don’t get cold. Maybe it’s the exertion, or that we’re eating a bunch of calories, but I go the whole night with just a short sleeve dry fit shirt, under a long sleeve one. I put on a fleece maybe around 4 or 5am, for an hour or two. (In Carmacks, I’ll talk to a men’s voyageur member who tells me they had one with hypothermia during the first night.) By now we’ve really spaced out. Except for one safety boat and some tourists camped along the banks we don’t see another boat until a women’s voyageur finally catches up to us. They pass us, but we get into some faster water and end up passing them. They seem to like our choice of water and end up following our path for awhile. Eventually though we leave them. We reach Carmacks at 13:38, 25 1/2 hrs into it, with a white kayak in the distance just starting to gain ground on us.
Katrina’s upper back is sore, otherwise we feel good coming into Carmacks. There’s no feeling on the top of my right thumb. It’s hot. The thermometer on Katrina’s safety whistle says 35 degrees. We made great time, for us, and we can even walk when they get us out of the boat and onto the dock. Hugs from Rita and Richelle. We have 7 hrs to do the washroom, eat, sleep, gear check, repack and get going again. Burger and fries for me. Poutine for Katrina. Rita and Richelle have our tent and sleeping bags ready for us in the quiet area that is set aside for the racers at the campground where the layover is. I just lie on top of the bag it’s so hot. Earplugs in. I wake up to see Katrina leaving the tent, presumably to use the can, but when I wake up again after about 4 hrs she’s not there. Pretty groggy getting dressed, it’s hot. Amble over and check out the results board before looking for Rita. Hmmmm…… the mixed team with the Savage River racing boat (Team Looking 4 Jamaica) has scratched. Second time in two years. They finished in 2011, but withdrew last year. Bad luck again. Must have been something sudden because I saw both of them just before the start and they looked good. Still quite a few boats to come in. The 2 Papas scratch.
I catch up to Rita and Richelle at the truck in the parking area. Our poor sheltie Harley is under it trying to stay cool. Katrina was way too hot in the tent, so they sprayed her down with bug dope and she’s sleeping on the grass under the trees. A lot of the other racers are doing the same. They miss a spot on Katrina with the dope and a mosquito gets her right between the eyes. While she sleeps we refill the food bins that fit under our seats. I try to reorganize the boat after going through the gear check (they make sure we still have all the mandatory gear and haven’t dumped any to shed weight). Rita tells me one of the racers is not feeling well after drinking river water. We had planned to drink it if we ran out of fluids, but now we change plans. Means taking more water and Gatorade, but it’s a pain trying to place it in the boat. I still don’t get it right and it ends up getting in Katrina’s way while getting to other stuff and when moving her seat. We never do drink it all, but it’s a good thing we have it. Later the river is really silty and the water will be undrinkable for us further downstream.
Rita and Richelle tell me about a solo men’s kayak racer (Wayne, Team Akita) that we met at registration. He is from Calgary and doesn’t have a support team. At the time, I introduced him to Rita and Richelle and tell him not to hesitate to ask for help from them in Carmacks. He dumps before getting there. Had a bad night and I think he fell asleep on the water. Anyways, he loses his maps. He’s asleep now, but we take our extra maps, our map case and carabiners and strap it to his kayak for him when he wakes up.
As I’m setting up the boat, the two guys beside me are getting their tandem kayak ready. They’re the ones that came in a few minutes behind us. One of them is from Port Moody. He tells me he trains up Indian Arm also. We’re both surprised to have not met already given how much time we’ve spent on the Arm. Both look pretty strong and ready to go, and one’s wife is helping them load up. We keep an eye out for them when we’re back out on the river expecting them to overtake us, but they never catch up. Later we find out they scratched in Carmacks and don’t get back on the river.
We make a vital mistake. Rita doesn’t realize there’s a line up to order food. It takes them 15 minutes to get a burger ready ’cause they don’t start cooking it until it’s ordered. We don’t get the food in time before we have to leave. I don’t even get to finish the black coffee I’m trying to guzzle down. We’re in the boat and pushing off while they’re off getting the food. Kinda feels good to be back in the canoe with the cooler air on the river moving past us, but as we start paddling I realize I’m actually hungry. Not a good way to start out again. We eat our sandwiches early, about a half hour after leaving Carmacks, but it’s no substitute for a full meal. Food will be a problem for me later. Rita and Richelle make a mad dash in the truck to cheer us on as we pass under the bridge a few minutes downriver.
Three hours after Carmacks is the other tricky part, Five Finger Rapids. They tell us in the briefing exactly where to go, but every year two or three boats capsize going through. This year two boats dump. We want to get into our rain gear before hitting them, but the river gets rough upriver already. Katrina gets her rain gear on, but I have to wait for a calmer spot to do mine. The water in the river is actually the highest it’s been for as long as some remember. So much for the pre-race reports about it being low. The waves are pretty high when we get there. Katrina takes a bunch of water at the bow, despite us having the deflector rigged on the spray deck. Good move with the rain gear. The safety boat gives us a cheer and we can hear the hollers from the onlookers on the cliffs above. I’m sure Rita and Richelle are there, but we don’t dare look up. A good dousing for Katrina and we’re through!!
Rink Rapids further up are no problem as we stay way right as told. It’s about midnight, but it’s amazing to be able to see the waves so well. We hear later about another team that doesn’t realize how far right they need to be and hit some big waves.
Now it’s time to just grind it out again. I heard people talking that said the water was faster once we left Carmacks. But it seems to be the same. We pass Minto, the last viewing point where Rita and Richelle can see us. But it’s late at night/early morning, probably around 3:00am, and the mosquitoes are so fierce Rita and Richelle have to hide in the truck. They can’t even set up the stove and make something for themselves to eat, or maybe a coffee. As we pass we can see the truck parked, they’re asleep in the front seats, not knowing exactly when we’ll come through. I give a whistle with my fingers, but I know they’re out. I can see some other vehicles around, and they’re all asleep too. Minto is the last place to pull out without losing our evacuation deposit, but there is never any thought of quitting and it never comes up between us throughout the race.
Further downriver Team WHOA catches us. We stay ahead for a bit, but we still have to eat and pee. The voyageurs don’t have to stop at all. As Team WHOA goes by us there’s actually one or two of them not paddling at a time, they can take breaks without losing ground. The voyageurs have dominated for the last number of years. We keep Team WHOA is our sights, but they are gradually getting ahead. We’re definitely a little tired. I see them take a hard left towards shore, then I see a campfire on the bank. It’s a couple guys in a tandem kayak entry that have dumped. I ask them if they need anything when we go by. The main thing we do is activate the HELP button on our SPOT to let people know there is a problem here, then activate our OK button to let them know it’s not us needing help, as instructed. They say they have lost a paddle and their maps. We’ve already given up our spare maps, so I don’t offer up either our bow or stern set. We will have enough trouble navigating later on with both of us looking at the maps, and it will ultimately cost us a position. Shortly after, we pass the checkpoint at Fort Selkirk and report on their situation. The team is made up of two UK soldiers. I’m wondering why they wouldn’t have their maps strapped down, or have an extra set strapped securely in the boat. I can’t worry about it though, we still have a long way to go. It’s will be another nine and a half hours before we reach the next checkpoint, the second mandatory stop at Kirkman Creek. It’s about 6:00am
Later we get rain. Then we get lightning. Not on top of us, but close enough to make us hug the river bank. Hopefully any lightning will hit the trees on the bank above us. Some of the teams closer to the lead and in the thick of the thunderstorm have to make the decision to pull off, after some heated discussion about losing time. We’re all waving carbon fibre paddles around, and they’re in a carbon fibre voyageur. They end up pulling off for awhile. Katrina is in pain. Later we’ll find out all the muscle she has developed is pulling one of her ribs out of place and a nerve is getting pressure on it (none of her clothes fit anymore). A big part of her upper back is numb. I tell her to have a break and she lies back on the spray deck. I think she’s just resting but she later tells me she was asleep for 15 minutes. Other than an extra minute here and there, that’s all she took off during the race. I’m pain free except for my heels. They’re getting sore from resting on the bottom of the boat.
Then we hit the smoke from a forest fire. Luckily, Gary’s girlfriend Shelley, who has done the race a bunch of times, warned us about fires. We tie on bandanas soaked in water and breathe through them. It helps a lot. We’ve been told it doesn’t take long to be hacking away after breathing forest fire smoke on the river, so we get them on early.
By late morning it’s clear, and getting hot again. This is absolutely the toughest part of the race for me. I’m hydrated, I’m pretty sure. Peeing enough. But I’m really having trouble forcing myself to eat. Nothing tastes right. I gulp down a bottle of Ensure, but it’s not very filling. I guess it’s giving me the calories, but I’m running out of gas. Everything tastes real weird. I have to choke it down. Energy bars, chocolate, it’s all awful. Sometimes I slurp peaches out of the plastic cup after pulling the top back. At least that’s OK. Toss in some Oreo cookies, they’re OK too but I’m running out of those. I ditched the trail mix in Carmacks ’cause it takes too long to eat. Later, try a piece of landjaeger, it goes down with some water or Gatorade. A couple hours out from Kirkman and I just don’t feel like eating. I just want to get there. They have a sandwich and soup waiting for us, and a couple hours sleep. I know I’ll be OK after that, but I gotta get there first. And it’s hot. (The Whitehorse Star will later report that the temperature in Kirkman will hit 43 deg. C today.) I’m starting to lose pace with Katrina and she lets me know it. But pretty quick she realizes I can’t keep up and doesn’t bark at me or give me a look when I’m out of stroke. I’m grunting, just trying to gut it out now for the last few kms. I’ve almost hit the wall. Haven’t been eating enough. Katrina tells me to take a break, but I know the sooner I get to Kirkman the better. I gotta get there before I shut down.
When we started training I told Katrina all she had to do was help me get across the lake and I’d make sure we finished this thing. Nothing except injury or accident was gonna to keep us from finishing. She held up her part and then some. Now here she was, dragging me the last half hour. When we finally get to Kirkman there isn’t really anyone helping us land, so with the current being pretty strong we make a hard turn in, and I barely have the strength to make the upstream strokes to bring us in. There’s one volunteer to help hold the boat while we get out, but I’m not going to wait for another one to help lift the canoe out of the water. I just want the break so I grab the stern and we get the thing onshore. Because there’s no support team in Kirkman to help us we have to get the dry bag unpacked ourselves to get at our other clothes, sleeping bags and ponchos (to lay them on). Manage to do that and climb the stairs that are cut into the bank without falling over. See two of the Team WHOA members while we make our way to the outhouses. I must look even worse than I feel, I can see it in their faces. But I’m starting to feel better just knowing that I have a chance to rest.
Kirkman Creek is an out of the way place, only accessible by boat. No facilities. Katrina goes in one outhouse and comes out pretty quick, saying she lost the urge. Funny, she had to go pretty urgently before we got there. I don’t have a problem. We change out of our sweaty clothes, completely, off to the side. There’s no room for modesty here, time is the key. We go and get our food. Ham sandwich and turkey rice soup for me. Katrina knows she won’t eat the sandwich, so with her soup she gets a turkey sandwich for me. We eat in a screened canopy set up over a picnic table. A reporter from the Whitehorse paper comes by and introduces himself. Thanks us for doing the previous interviews. Maybe he wants to talk, but maybe changes his mind when he sees me. I say you’re welcome and try to keep a smile on my face. The sandwiches are not great, but it’s what I need. My hand is shaking as I eat my soup, but it’s not too hot so I just end up slurping it out of the bowl to wash the sandwich down. Katrina’s concerned as she sees my hand shake, but I tell her I’ll be OK after this, and I mean it. I manage a few bites out of Katrina’s sandwich, but it’s even worse than mine, so I give up on it after trying to chase it down with some of the coffee. Maybe my taste is still screwed up. There’s also a small piece of cake each, but we both only take a bite.
There’s an open tarped area for shade set up for the racers. It’s pretty crowded there with those that have beat us in, so we find some shade on the grass under a tree and lay out our ponchos and sleeping bags. As soon as we get the bags out they are covered in flies. They seem to go away as we flop ourselves down. Katrina drapes a shirt over her face and I put my hat over mine. Bug spray and the hat seem to be keeping everything away and I manage to fall asleep. Katrina eventually goes to use the other outhouse which turns out to be better than the first. We both sleep until a volunteer gives me a gentle nudge at our wake up call a half hour before we are due to leave. It’s only a three hour layover, but we’ve managed two hours of sleep. Looking around, most of the other racers are gone. Feels kinda lonely, but one of the volunteers chats to us a bit as we stuff our bags back in the sacks. They were worried about the earlier lightning and the racers. We still have to pack the boat ourselves, but volunteers lift it into the water, and we’re off again!! It’s 18:25 Friday night.
A men’s tandem canoe (Team 20:3 Highlanders) catches us sometime after Kirkman. They’re paddling pretty hard, and I’m surprised it has taken this long in the race to catch us. (They actually beat us into Kirkman, but they spend over five hours there. No wonder they have energy). They pass, but then take a different channel around some islands. We made up great maps before the race and decide to take a different route. Without paddling too hard we end up in front of their boat. I think they are a little embarrassed and they pick up the stroke and pass us again. Katrina turns back to me with a smile and we have a quiet laugh about it, but it’s the same gaffe we made in the beginning. Soon we lose them around the bends in the river.
A few hours later, not long after we pass the White River, things get pretty wide and it’s almost like being on a lake. It’s windy. The water is very silty, can’t see through it at all. When we stop paddling there’s an eerie hiss of the water as it passes along the boat, almost sounds like there’s acid eating the hull. When I dip my paddle blade in it hisses too, and I almost expect it to be eaten away when I pull it out. It’s the sound of the silt as it rubs along the surfaces. We know we’re supposed to cross to the other side of the river according to our maps, and that’s where some fast water should be, so we start cutting across. Katrina is the first to hit her paddle……. on the rocks. What the hell…. !! My paddle hits, than the boat grinds to a halt on the bottom. We’re in the middle of the river!! And we’ve ground out on a gravel bar. Maybe with lower or clearer water we would have seen it better, but here we are. Crap. We get out. Pull the boat into deeper water and Katrina gets in. Now, I don’t know if it’s because the bottom is a bit soft under my boot, or the current is pushing the boat into my outboard and downriver leg, but as I step into the canoe I………….. fall over. Now I’m soaked, with a sprained thumb. Grrreeeaaat. Katrina’s calm about it all, but now we gotta get to somewhere we can beach it and get me changed. A couple hundred yards down we get to a big sandbar and land. Quick as we can, we get the dry bag unstrapped and get out my last dry clothes. Luckily I had put a small towel in with each change of clothes, just for such occasion. I could put on my sweaty clothes from Kirkman, but they’re the last resort now. Back in the boat!! Without getting wet. Probably cost us a good 20 minutes, maybe a bit more.
So now I really don’t wanna dump it because it’s getting towards midnight and I don’t have any good clothes left. There are a lot of islands to navigate around and channels here and there. And logs sitting in the middle of the river, in the faded light, everywhere in the distance. We know we need to stay away from those areas now for sure. So this slows us down, a lot. We’re picking our way down the river instead of getting into the fastest water. The wind has died down, but it brings out the mosquitos and we have to put on more dope. I’m a bit chilled so I have my toque on, but my sweater is too hot so I take it off and only have my rain jacket over a couple shirts. Katrina’s warm enough, but I get her to put on her rain jacket over the fleece she’s already wearing just to make sure. It’s in the wee hours of the morning, 2:00 – 4:00am and I’ve got no more coffee. So I break out the music, iPod and some cheap little speakers. It’s kinda serene, listening to the music and watching the dusky scenery go by, my daughter paddling away in the bow. There’s nowhere I’d rather be right now. Funny….. no pain, no blisters, not cold….. just some tired muscles. It’s not so much a grind right now. Just make it to the end without hitting something. It’s hard to eat again, but I force myself to do it on schedule, just choke down something. I’m not making that mistake again. It’s cloudy, so there’s no sun coming up.
Katrina sees them first. A tandem canoe in our division, behind us and way over to the right. The river is wide and they’re heading for the other side and cutting the corner. It’s the line we’d be on too if we weren’t avoiding shallows. They’ve caught us. We left these two behind before we even got to the lake. We were an hour ahead of them out of Carmacks, and I learn later we were an hour and a half ahead out of Kirkman. But we’ve wasted way too much time worrying about grounding again. Awww crap, now here comes the women’s voyageur we left on the Thirty Mile. They’re on the same line as the canoe and going by us. Too much lollygagging on our part! Now… we can just let them go, or for fun we can try to catch them. Ah well, what the heck. Music off. Time to toss the recreational stroke and go full on marathon race stroke mode. We didn’t do it the whole race because no way I’m switching sides so many times, for maybe two and a half days. But now we do for the last hour.
We vector across the river to intercept the voyageur. They’re a bit ahead, but we catch them and keep it up, passing and saying hi to each other. The canoe is up ahead, with a seemingly unsurmountable lead. But hold on………. they’re following the main channel, around the islands in the second to last bend before we get to Dawson. According to our maps we should have plenty of room and water to cut the corner. Oooh baby, let’s go. About 12kms to the finish line. We’re in what we call full Five-O mode. Like the paddlers at the end credits of the original Hawaii Five-O series, in the canoe riding the surf. We joked about it during training, going Five-O when we sprinted. Well the theme song’s in my head now. We’re moving pretty good, but Katrina yells back she can’t keep this up ’till the end, so I tell her to just do her best. She doesn’t seem to let up much.
It’s already started to rain, but as we come out of the bend it’s really starting to pour. Hard. As hard as it can. I have to squint my eyes every 10 seconds to get the water out and see, I don’t have my hat on. Where the heck are those two…. ahead, but a lot closer. It’s a torrential downpour, and it’s filling the boat. We don’t want to stop to cinch up our spray deck aprons. Katrina starts to worry about how much water we’re taking on ’cause the boat will get really tippy if we let it get too deep. She yells back she doesn’t want to tip. I quickly try to bail a bit but it’s a waste of time. We finally do up the aprons as we round the last bend about 3kms from the end. We’re just soaking. No rain pants on. Dawson is really socked in with clouds. We can’t even see Moose Hide Slide, the mountainside behind Dawson that would tell us we’re almost there. It’s no good, they cross the line 3 minutes ahead of us. Too bad, we tried, it was fun. Hey, wait a sec. ……. my gps says it’s 06:57……let’s try to make 07:00 I tell Katrina. She doesn’t even answer and we go hard to the line with everything we have left. 06:58…… 06:59……. 07:00……. and we get the horn!!! 07:00:27. 57 hours and 27 seconds of paddling. All is good.
We coast a few yards down to the paddle wheeler docked by the take out and make a turn around it. We’ve been told they used to have the racers go between the paddle wheeler instead of around it, until a voyageur missed the turn and the current folded the boat in half up against the paddle wheel. The only real scare we had during the whole time was once midrace when we were cutting over to take what we thought would be a faster channel, and we had to paddle like hell before the current took us into a log jam separating the channels. Rita, Richelle and Gary are there to greet us, in the pouring rain. They thought we would be about an hour earlier, and now they’re pretty wet too but happy to see us. Patti and her sister Beth of Team WHOA have waited around since they landed to see us come in, real nice of them. The canoe that beat us in is getting their hugs and help. Here come the women in the voyageur (Team Modern Dwellers), 9 minutes behind us. They’re all smiles. We met their bow paddler, Zoe, at the meet and greet, along with her father. He’s here with his wife and congratulates us. Nice guy, I like him. It’s a totally different feeling at the finish, tired but happy. Not a feeling of relief, just contentment. There won’t be another boat come in for over four and a half hours.
So now we empty out the boat and get the spray deck off. It stinks, just like the boat Richelle was in last year. There are wet clothes lying in the bottom, along with the empty bottles and food wrappers we’ve just thrown there. Rita brings the truck around and we load up. I cringe when I see the bottom of the boat and the butt ugly, full length scratches, souvenirs from running aground at full steam. There are other boats around, but it’s only us three teams and our respective support getting things loaded up right now. Not many spectators at this time in the morning, not in this weather, although a tour group is unloading their bus and getting on the paddle wheeler. Katrina walks up to the cabins at Klondike Kate’s with Richelle, 5 minutes away. I’m so wet I ride in the back of the truck sitting on the tool box. We leave most of the wet stuff outside the room on the porch. It’s let up, but it’s still raining.
A really hot shower and a few hour nap, I wake up to find all three of them out shopping. Katrina’s already slept a bit. I take Harley for a stroll and run into them, then go with Rita to check out the results board at the finish line. Dinner with Team WHOA at Klondike Kate’s restaurant. They’re also staying here as they do every year. Another hour nap and then three of us are out for an evening at Diamond Tooth Gertie’s with Gary and Shelley for a couple beers and the show. Katrina goes to bed after dinner and skips Gertie’s. Too bad, Richelle wins money on a quarter slot machine (over forty bucks) but splits her winnings with Katrina later anyways.
The next day is the wind up BBQ at 11:00am. Steaks, mmmmmmm. I talk to Wayne, the solo kayak (Team Akita) that we gave our maps to. Rita had told me at the finish line that he never made it out of Carmacks. The kayak he rented in Whitehorse for the race had rubbed his back raw, literally, and he had to scratch. I feel bad for him, but think it’s great he still came to the BBQ (he’s flying home out of Dawson). He says he’ll put his bib on the wall of his office as motivation and vows he’s coming back next year, with his own boat. I’m sure he will, and I hope he finishes. I make a mental note to watch out for him on the website. Also talk to the German couple that were in our class. They finished 11 hours after us, but they say they want to come back sometime and do it again. We get our certificates and our pins, by class. A year ago I watched Richelle get hers, and wondered how anybody does this race, especially in a tandem or solo.
So, of the 67 entries, 5 didn’t start. Of the 62 starters, 13 scratched, most at Carmacks. We came in 32nd, with a respectable time. We’re both really happy with our effort and result. I’m pretty sure there were a bunch of the other entries that didn’t think we’d make it. We certainly didn’t look like a lot of the others, seasoned paddlers. The thing I’m most satisfied with is that of the 12 men’s tandem canoes that finish, we came in ahead of 5 of them. The old guy and his little girl. And of the ones we didn’t, two of them place first and second overall in the whole race. The first time since 2006 that it’s not a voyageur, and the first time since 2004 that it’s a tandem canoe. We finish ahead of all the tandem kayaks except three, and two of those we’re only four hours behind (two more of the boats with UK soldiers). I find this surprising because the kayaks move so fast, but perhaps they’re harder to paddle. We’re about two and a half hours off the time Richelle did with Team WHOA last year, a time I didn’t think we would even come close to. We finished. We survived.
So that’s that. We drive back to Whitehorse that afternoon, start home the next morning, another three days back to Kamloops, then back to North Van. Just about hit an oncoming truck with a big travel trailer that pulls onto the road from the shoulder and abruptly turns left directly in front of us at the junction to Carcross. It was like they didn’t even see us. Hard on the brakes and can feel the tent trailer wanting to come around. Wouldn’t that be ironic to get through everything and then pile it up on the highway.
Katrina’s back is still numb, but the feeling is almost back in my thumb. Still a bit sprained. After nine days. Whoo Hoo! Sign me up for next year………
Arnaud Togo 2017 YRQ
I was for the first time in the Yukon at Whithorse in July 2016. I wanted to visit Whithorse after reading a book about the Yukon Quest with sled dogs in winter. And because of course remembering the Jack London stories I read when I was a teenager. I love to paddle and I used to do it into the see, climbing big waves. So, I paddled alone from Whithorse to Carmack in three days sleeping in my tent one the river bank. After this trip, I saw some pictures of the Yukon River Quest in the Kanoe people shop and I said to me: “I want to do this race”! And I did it.
I`m very proud and happy to finish this great race.
My best memories are the incredible nights.
After more than twenty hours of paddling without rest in this grey no night my mind was flying and I felt like being in another world or in a parallel one. Some time I fall asleep for seconds and waked up quickly, in this moments I never know if I been awake or in a dream. With the tiredness, my brain, my eyes were making visions. I saw a lot of animals, monsters, people. The trees are moving, they ran after me or tried to speak to me. Some time I saw paddlers stopped in sand banks but after being closer I realized that it was just some wood, rocks and vegetal. Around me the mountains are painted with a lot of faces, the cliffs are made of big characters, pirates, cowboys, monsters, Incas warriors, lovers, shepherds and mystics animals.
This race is yes, a great sport challenge but over that it is really a travel across another world, an odyssey in the wilderness with a heavy spiritual environment. The Yukon River is living, you can meet some wild and dangerous animals, make some strange dreams in the middle of a beautiful nature surrounded by clouds, sun, rain, grey night, forest fires…. Little people in little boats inside a “no country for humans”.
And out of the race rules, it was a beautiful human meeting with paddlers from all the world, the volunteers and the staff of the YRQ.
Thanks for this beautiful days, and I’ll never forget the proverb:
“If once you drink the Yukon River water, you will come back”!
And I drank a lot of it….