How the Quest was (almost) won

Whitehorse Star Story by Michael Onesi (June 16, 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.

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.

No lights.

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.


“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.