How to not blow the Race

A canoe team approaches 5 Finger Rapids, lining up with the middle of the far right channel. Photo by Harry Kern

10 tips from race veteran Yvonne Harris and other YRMPA board members

1. Train four to five days a week well in advance of the race, including a 12 to 14-hour paddle before heading North, or preferably, arrive two weeks early so you can go overnight under the midnight sun. Contact the local paddlers through the River Quest for local advice and paddling companions.

For your paddling training, do long paddling sessions twice a week with a mix of speed and distance work. Work on general fitness too. You should be doing some running/cycling/whatever as well as the paddling. This will make a big difference to your stamina and help you manage the long, long race. Beware of over-training and damaging your shoulders, elbows and back.

2. Organize your boat so that every item is within easy reach. Bruce Barton, on the 2004 winning team, attaches different colored strings to small storage bags that can be quickly retrieved by pulling the proper string. I affix plastic containers to the boat to hold small items like sport jells, sun tan lotion and pain killers and attach a bike bottle-holder for my sport drink.

3. Agree on your agenda in advance, including a schedule for snack and rest breaks. Work out you food and drink strategy. You need to take on fuel to be able to succeed in this race. But bear in mind that your metabolism drops in the small hours of the morning. Expect not to be able to eat much during the night.

4. Use a hydration system (water jug and tube, or camel) and drink regularly.
Start with at least two liters of fresh water, and drink plenty of water, even at night. Drinking water and keeping yourself hydrated is important during the day to keep you cool, but also important during the night to keep your skin hydrated for insulation value. Water also helps digest your food, which allows the body to distribute the required energy throughout your muscles.

Northern Beverages supplies the race with a 1-liter bottle of Aquafina water for each racer at the start, and again at Carmacks, but it is advisable that you carry a water treatment system, with tablets or premixed solutions ready to drop into bottles of river water, alternating the bottles so you are treating one bottle while drinking the ready water.

5. Arrange for a support team to put up your tent and get you ready to go back on the river after the seven hour rest stop in Carmacks. If you cannot bring a support team, consider renting a hotel room and arrange a shuttle to your room, or hire a driver and rent a camper.

6. Enter waypoints and the distance to the finish in a GPS and have a supply of batteries and a map handy. This way you know where you are on the river at all times. There are many islands and channels, especially late in the race, so tired paddlers need their bearings.

7. Wear roomy comfortable clothes and loose fitting quick-dry pants. For the cold, wet, windy times, wear fleecy tops and bottoms, bring warm foot wear, take light rain gear and bring changes and a bulky, warm jacket that fits over your PFD so that you are dry and warm during the night. During the extreme heat, I wore a white hat and a light shirt and dipped them in the water when I suffered mild heat stroke. Change to warm clothing before the first hint of cooler temperatures as hypothermia is a major cause of scratches in the River Quest.

Cotton garments are not advisable, because they don’t dry well and when they get sweaty at night can cool down a paddler when he/she needs to be warm. A number of wick-dry synthetic, fleece or even wool garments are preferable.

Again, always change into warm clothes for overnight. You aren’t thinking properly when you are tired. Think out these things ahead of time. You need more clothes overnight than you expect: it gets cold and your metabolism is at low ebb.

8. Take the far-right channel at Five Finger Rapids and stay right to avoid Rink Rapids. Your spray deck is now required in this section, as well as on Lake Laberge. If you are unsure of the location of these well-defined rapids, consult your map. Be prepared for them and enjoy the ride.

9. Be mentally prepared for the last leg. This is when racers meet their worst demons, when competitors hallucinate or fall asleep with the paddle in their hands. My partner imagined she saw bleeding trees and pulsating rocks and, even though sound asleep, continued to try and paddle.

Work out your rest strategy: can you nap in the boat? Will you be stopping? The top 10 teams won’t be stopping to rest, but other finishers will need to stop.

10. Enjoy the journey. This is a unique event where you paddle 740 km of unspoiled wilderness on the historic route of the Klondike gold seekers. With the midnight sun shedding its faint light, you will experience the exhilaration of paddling from dusk to dawn.