BY GEORGE MARATOS

Jean-Francois Latour has seen his fair share of strange things while participating in the Yukon River Quest.

From an oversized can of Campbell’s soup, floating in the woods, to a giant moose just standing right smack in the middle of the river.

(As it turns out there was no can of soup and the moose was actually just a stump.)

Latour, who has been involved in the Yukon River Quest since 2004, admits the hallucinations are part of the fun associated with racing to the Midnight Sun, and par for the course considering the sleep deprivation competitors face.

“Everyone has a different story when it comes to hallucinations,” says Latour, president of the Yukon River Marathon Paddling Association.

“There was a fellow from France who kept seeing the faces of First Nations elders in the mountains. He was fascinated by the history up here, so that probably had a lot to do with it.”

In 2009, there will be no hallucinations for Latour.

After several years of competing, he has taken on the role of organizer.

And while it doesn’t involve paddling the 740 kilometres from Whitehorse to Dawson City, it does still come with its challenges, including co-ordinating the 78 teams and 178 paddlers who range from former Olympians to breast cancer survivors.

“It’s very exciting,” explains the exuberant Latour over the phone. “Obviously it’s quite a different perspective, but there always seems to be something to do and I’m fortunate that there is such good ground work in place from past races.”

On June 24, at noon sharp, the epic race to Dawson will begin.

Already having the distinction of being easily the longest paddling race in the world (second-longest is less than 400 kilometres), the Yukon River Quest continues to garner interest from around the globe.

This year alone, there are participants from Australia, Latvia, Japan, Netherlands, Great Britain and Austria.

“We even have someone from Dubai,” says Latour. “The reputation is definitely building and that has a lot to do with the growing media interest.”

In 2004, the BBC followed the race and, more recently, NBC profiled the event just three weeks ago.

“There is so much appeal with this race,” explains Latour. “For one, you are racing to the Midnight Sun and there is practically no night. Plus the fact it’s in the Yukon, which is very appealing in its own right.”

Latour says this year there are a few changes to the event, with the biggest being the new start area.

Rather than the traditional sprint down Main Street to the awaiting canoes and kayaks, instead, competitors will begin just steps from their boats at the Rotary Peace Park.

The change was based primarily on safety.

“In the past there have been a few minor accidents,” says Latour. “Main Street is always busy this time of year, so the move just made sense.”

The other big change is the increased prize pot with $36,000 now up for grabs.

“We’re in good financial health.”

The Yukon River Quest begins at noon on June 24 with the first paddlers expected in to the Klondike early Friday.

Fans are encouraged to welcome the paddlers in Dawson or follow the race online at www. yukonriverquest.com.