by Norm Miller
You must have some interest in paddling the Longest Annual Canoe Race in the World of you would not be reading this. Take it from someone who has raced the Quest, I know you probably have many important questions regarding the race. I myself became interested in the race after reading an article in Canoe & Kayak Magazine and thought it would be a great challenge. The spell of the Yukon called me! I wanted to be immersed with the feel and smell of the river, experience the rugged wilderness, and even maybe hear the ghost of the stampeaders in search of gold.
When I first decided to race in the Quest, I had a lot of questions that went through my mine. I had no idea how I was going to get to Whitehorse, who my paddling partner would be, where would I stay prior to the race, how would I train, or what to expect along the way. I have compiled some information for you in hopes that it will make your race more enjoyable and less stressful. Your goal in the race maybe just to finish, which is a great achievement in itself, or you may want to win! Whatever your goal, these tips will help save you time and worry in your planning and preparation. I have geared this more towards those that want to finish the race in under 65 hours. However most of the tips will help anyone who is a first time entrant in the Quest. I feel these helpful hints will save you time and energy in not only paddling the river but in getting yourself and gear to Whitehorse. Included below are the topics
- General Information: Flying to Whitehorse, and getting your canoe and equipment to Whitehorse.
- Where to stay and eat prior to the race?
- Pre-race preparation.
- The Race!
- Suggestions and training i.e. How not to end up in the Dawson City hospital.
- Rapids and Hazards
Whitehorse is a long ways from home for most of us, especially if you’re coming from overseas. Most of you will want to fly directly into Whitehorse. It is a very small airport with flights coming in about 2 times per day. I would suggest arriving to Whitehorse at least two days before the race just so you can relax and get organized. When I raced in the 2001 Quest, I flew from Salt Lake City to Whitehorse 3 days prior to the race. My paddling partner also flew from the States. We had made arraignments about 6 months in advance to rent a canoe from Kanoe People in downtown Whitehorse. It is nice to know that the Quest Race committee now has Jensen 18 kevlar canoes, which you can rent. This will save you a lot of expense in trying to get your personal kayak or canoe to the Yukon Territory. I would highly recommend doing this. I believe Kanoe People still rent out canoes as well as kayaks if you decide on that option. The were very helpful.
We had taken the rest of our gear on the airplane with us. We checked 4 carbon fiber paddles on the plane which we owned. I highly suggest taking your paddles to a shipping/postal packaging company prior to leaving and they will gladly make you a custom box to pack them in. If you don’t do this, I would be amazed if your paddles arrive unbroken to Whitehorse. You really donât want to start your day off with broken paddles do you? So for about $20.00 you can have your paddles boxed and well padded for the journey to Whitehorse. Most towns offer a shipping and packaging outlet.
I suggest making arraignments for lodging several months in advance as well. Whitehorse is a busy town in the summer so you will want to plan ahead We preferred to stay in a B&B rather than a motel. Whitehorse has many wonderful hotels, motels, B&B’s, and camping areas.
We brought the rest of our paddling gear, including sleeping bags, life jackets, high-energy drink mixes and misc. clothing with us from the States. We did not want to purchase these items in Whitehorse since we already owned them. If you want to buy this equipment instead of bring it with you, there are several places to purchase these items in town.
Where to Eat and Stay before the race:
I suggest making reservations at a hotel or B&B several months prior to your arrival. Whitehorse has many to choose from. Most are located right in town or within a short walking distance. If you stay in town, you do not need to rent a car. Many of the hotels and B&B’s will pick you up at the airport. This will save you a lot of money.
I would recommend staying at a B&B over a motel for several reasons. They usually have a kitchen that most owners will let you use to prepare and plan food/meals for the race. They also make you breakfast in the morning, which is one less thing for you to worry about. Some owners will be glad to drive you around town to get supplies and are helpful with information about the area too. The B&Bs are much quieter so you can get some good rest prior to the race. We were allowed to leave some items at the B&B until we returned several days later. I am not sure about with the hotels and motels. Most are right downtown and may be noisier.
As far as camping, there is a large campground a few miles south of town. It is a 40-minute walk to and from town and I have had friends get gear stolen from their tents while they were gone. So be cautious as to leaving things around your tent. I would recommend having someone stay at camp while the other ran errands.
Whitehorse has many fine and not so fine restaurants. There are all types of food. From seafood, pasta, Mexican, Asian, and vegetarian to choose from. You usually do not need reservations. All are within walking distance from anywhere in town. Prices vary from $8.00 to $25.00 for dinner. It’s all part of the adventure in finding out where to eat. We ate out every night in Whitehorse and had great food and drink.
There are several grocery stores and an organic grocery which has a large selection fo bulk foods which you can purchase for the race or to eat prior.
Pre Race Preparation:
Whatever you do, donât miss the pre race meeting/dinner put on by the race committee. It is mandatory! It will be an opportunity for you to meet the organizers as well as the paddlers you will be competing against. Itâs a good way to size up the competition and to learn a secret or two. The will inform you on the river levels and conditions of Five Finger Rapids and Lake Leberge.
As far as planning goes, the days prior to the race should be set aside for preparing your food, canoe, and your body for the long paddle to Dawson. You may want to put the canoe in the river for a short paddle upstream to get a feel for it. If you have never paddled the type of canoe or kayak you will be using, I highly recommend that you find one in your home area to practice with. Test out the spray cover to make sure it fits well. Organize your gear and food inside the canoe to make it more convenient for you to reach while paddling. We added extra padding and cushion on the seat with duct tape so our butts and legs would be more comfortable. You will want to do this a day or two before the race since you will not have much time the morning of the race unless you are accustomed to racing. But if you’re a first timer I suggest you do this if possible.
An important thing to consider is your drinking water and how you want to access it. We obtained empty gallon plastic milk jugs and drilled holes in the caps big enough for us to stick a 4-foot long drink tube into it tightly. (We purchased these plastic hoses at a hardware store in our hometown. You may not find them in Whitehorse.) Add a small strip of duck tape to the inside part (under the caps) of the tube so you can’t pull the tube back out through the hole etc. We each had two. One was filled with water and the other with high-energy replacement drink. These 4 gallons added up to a LOT of weight in our canoe. Over 30 pounds! This is the same weight as our canoe! We had wished we had brought 1/2 the amount to start with to save on weight. We also brought a PUR water filter, which pumps water very fast! One of us paddled while the other filled the water jugs with filtered water. You can drink from the river, but you may get sick or contact giardia so I do not recommend it! I recommend getting a filter system or water purification tablets. It is very important to stay hydrated. When you feel thirsty, it usually means you’re already dehydrated. You will want to avoid dehydration, which could become serious if not taken care of. I cannot over emphasize this! Drink LOTS of water! We each drank about a gallon every 8-hours or less. You may be asking the question of “You must have had to stop and urinate a lot?” We had to go, but we never stopped! We each had an empty water jug in which we relieved ourselves. Having a jug will save you a trip to shore every 30 minutes. This may be a problem for the woman. I cannot speak for them. This will save you valuable time especially if you want to compete with the top 10 boats. If that is not a worry, then getting out of the canoe/kayak will be a great reward if you have to relieve yourself.
We carried several important items, these were optional, but had we needed them they would have been well worth it. We brought lightweight sleeping bags and small tarp in case we had an emergency where we needed to get warm. Had we fallen in the river, it would have been a life and death situation. The Yukon is very cold. Be aware of this! I know many of the team’s cut the extra weight and did not bring this gear. Make sure you bring some fire starter or matches, which are in a waterproof container of some sorts. If you need to go to shore to build a fire there is plenty of wood to do so.
I bought Mike Rourkes maps of the Yukon River. You can purchase them in Whitehorse at any bookstore. They are more detailed than the topographic maps. They have excellent “mile by mile” coverage from Whitehorse all the way to Dawson. They show landmarks, side channels, rapids, and shortcuts. I made a copy for my stern paddlers. I also used a “highlighter” to color in the river and a different color to mark the shoreline. Otherwise it’s very hard to read them at a quick glance since they are black and white maps. I numbered each one, placed them in order and put them in a water proof map case. The map case was large enough to view 4 maps at a time without having to open and find them so frequently. This will save you valuable time. I kept these maps between my legs the whole way. I could easily glance down to see what was around the next bend.
Some teams (Not us.) carried a GPS. They used them to calculate their speed. This is a great way to determine your pace. If you donât know this, then it’s easy for you to slack off and paddle slower. This is an option you may want to consider, especially if you’re planning to do well in the race. Every little tip will help you shave off a few minutes or even hours of paddling. We wished we had a better idea of how fast we were paddling. We were passed the last day by 3 canoes since we had slowed our pace due to not knowing our speed.
Pre Race Training:
This was the 1st canoe race I had ever been in. My paddling partner and I had trained about 9 months prior to the race. Our intentions were to do well. We could not paddle together very often since we lived far away from one another. We each had solo canoes, which we regularly paddled. I had approximately 250 hours of paddling time prior to the race. I paddled 6 days of 10-20 hours, numerous days of 3-7 hours and a great deal of 1-3 hours. My paddling partner and I got to paddle about 60 hours together in the same canoe we used for the race. (Jensen 18 by Wenonah Canoe Co.) This was very helpful! My partner is blessed with good set of lungs and probably had 1/2 the paddling time I did. He has a well-developed cardio system. One of the racers I talked with after (that beat us) said they had only about 8 hours of paddling prior to the race. They were either trying to make me feel out of shape, or they were in excellent condition to begin with. Those that either won or were in the top 3 places have been racing for a number of years. They are efficient at paddling, food preparation, and training. I recommend biking, running, cross country skiing, and weight lifting to round out your training.
I would highly recommend getting the book “Marathon Canoe Racing” by Peter Heed. You can buy it at Amazon or Barnes & Noble. If you are unfamiliar with the marathon canoe-racing stroke, this book will teach you it. Knowing this stroke will cut your time by hours! It is designed for comfort and efficiency. Once you learn it you can easily paddle 45-75 strokes per minute for the entire race. If you don’t know it, then you’re going to be miserable the entire way due to inefficiency of your paddling stroke. This book contains a wealth of useful information on canoe racing.
You may even want to consider buying the canoe racing video from We-no-nah Canoes. This is a great video that also teaches the marathon-racing stroke.
We were able to purchase most of our food in Whitehorse except for the specialty foods, which we brought. We had planned on eating 400 calories per hour for 60+ hours. This ends up being a lot of food. We discovered that after the race we had a lot left over. You may want to take more or less depending on your bodies ability and what it demands. You may discover while paddling long hours that you donât have the desire to eat. It’s important to have enough food with you. I HIGHLY recommend buying a variety of foods. The same food gets very boring to eat if all you have is say peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. I recommend a diet high in carbohydrates and fats. We took bananas, apples, P&B sandwiches, Snack Pack Puddings and fruit cups, macaroni and cheese that we made up prior, nuts, dried fruits, and energy bars. This was plenty! We also brought high-energy drink mixes and drink supplements such as Ensure. Sometimes it’s much easier to drink your food than to eat it. We had placed our food in plastic Tupperware containers which we sat on the bottom of the canoe usually under the seat or between our feet. This made it easier to grab. I donât recommend taking any proteins such as tuna since it is very hard to digest while exercising so intensely. Stick with the carbohydrates, easy to digest foods, and things that you particularly like to eat.
Race Day/ Race
Check with the current rules and regulations regarding the start of the race and pre-check of your boats. The rules state you the race committee must look over your canoes and gear prior to the race. Allow plenty of time before the start for this. They will want to make sure your boat is “legal”, and that you have the required items with you. This is a great time to have everything ready to go. Your food should be ready and stored in your canoe at this point too. The spray covers should be on and fitting well.
By now the butterflies are filling your stomach and the crowds are milling about the start area. The race starts on Main Street, The crowds will be yelling and cheering. It takes about 5 minutes to run to your canoe. There is no need to sprint to the river. The race is going to last for two days and whether youâre the first to the river is not really going to make a world of difference, unless your expecting to win. Ten seconds wonât make that much of a difference.
The first few hours were our way of getting a feel for the river, canoe, and competition. We paddled our own speed; not being intimidated by those that passed. Once we got to Lake LeBarge we made sure the water was somewhat calm before heading off across it. You will be warned by the race committee about this lake. Its it very dangerous and can kill you! Sudden storms blow up out of nowhere causing large waves to form in minutes. It is in your best interest that you head towards shore if this is the case. Since it was fairly calm when we arrived we made a dash across it following the other canoes that we could see. If you happen to be in a pack of other canoes and kayaks, I highly recommend staying close to them for two reasons. One, its safer in case you tip over, and two, you can draft off one another saving you valuable time in getting across the lake. You will want to get off as soon as you can. It took us about 6 hours to paddle across it, and we were glad when we arrived! Once you reach the main river, you can feel the pull of the current Usually by then many of the teams have spread out and you will be paddling all alone. The time will be approaching midnight and the temperatures will be dropping. We passed a couple of teams who actually found the time to sleep. In several canoes, the bow paddler was sleeping while the stern person kept paddling allowing the front guy to sleep for an hour or two. We paddled through the night. The beauty of the Yukon River is overwhelming. You will pass mile after mile of some the most beautiful country. You may even begin to hallucinate by then and see one of the old stampeder’s panning for gold along the riverbank. The hours will go by and it’s important that you eat and drink regularly, when your done doing that, eat and drink some more.
There is a mandatory stop during the race, which the committee will discuss prior to the start. It usually is 8 hours long and may vary. This is a welcome sight. If you have been sitting in your canoe for 20-30 hours, it may be the first time you tried to stand. You will know what it’s like to be a member of the primate family. It took me over an hour to feel like my legs were attached to my body. This is a good time to stretch or even do some yoga to get your body loosened up before you try to sleep for a few hours. I happened to be in a delirious state at the layover and not just from paddling, I was notified by the RCMP that my mother had just died. Hopefully you won’t have to deal with such emergency situations like this in the far north. But if you do, you can be assured that the RCMP and the race committee will be there to help you out in any way. They were so helpful with letting me us their satellite phone to call home. You can be assured that these local people have good hearts and are willing to help.
The race committee had a large tent set up at the checkpoint for us to crawl into with our sleeping bags. It felt so good to drift off into sleep for a few hours. Don’t oversleep! I suggest getting up over an hour before you need to depart so you can eat, repack and organize the canoe, tape blisters, mend hemorrhoids, and to even stretch your tired and stiff muscles for the long pull to Dawson. It will be a relief to get back on the river. The toll of the race and my mental state began to take their toll later in the day. I remember hallucinating and seeing U.S. President Richard Nixon standing on the riverbank holding out a tin cup. “Poor guy” I thought and paddled on. Mile after mile of twisting river will eventually bring you to Dawson City. Hopefully the crowds will be there to cheer your accomplishment of having completed the Longest Annual Canoe Race in the World.
Rapids and hazards
You may encounter a few obstacles on your 750km paddle to Dawson City. The first one is Lake Leberge. This is a very large body of water that has frequent sudden storms, which can turn the calm waters into a raging sea. Be aware of the weather. Know you limits. If you have problems, seek the comforts of the shoreline. This is no place to tip over! It will take you between 5-9 hours to cross this lake.
Five Finger Rapids: These rapids are located a few hours below Carmacks. The river is divided into numerous channels by large pillars of stand rock and cliffs. Take note of your maps as you approach these rapids. Make sure you are to the far RIGHT side (east) of the river as you near them. You will hear the roar of the water and see the large pillar of rock ahead of you. You will want to go through the far right channel. Make sure you avoid the other channels! They can be very dangerous! From year to year with the changing water levels, Five Finger Rapids may be rougher than other years. As you approach the drop your canoe should be in the center of the right channel. By being in the center, this will give you the opportunity to move left or right according to what the big waves look like once they come into view. In past years, the optimum place to run the rapids was either dead center or slightly to the left of center. When we approached the drop, I was able to see that the left side had fewer standing waves than the center. (Do not mistake my comments for being on the left side of the river. We were in the left side of the far RIGHT channel.) You will feel you are riding on a seesaw as you bounce and plow through the large waves. Make sure you keep you boat straight. This would not be a fun place to tip over. There are several large waves below the rapids about 100 meters as well.
Below Five Finger Rapids you will encounter Rink Rapids. They are not a problem as you stay to the far right side of the river. If you are too far left there will be numerous rocks and ledges to worry about. It will literally take you seconds to pass this set of rapids as long as you stay to the right. We were approximately 10 meters from shore.
The rest of the Yukon River contains some fast powerful currents with boils and choppy undercurrents. Be aware of the conditions ahead and pay attention to any obstacles such as logs, trees, or animals swimming the river. There are many side channels, some of which may shave off a few minutes of your time or may cost you time. It’s best to stay with the main flow of current as much as possible.