At this year’s Yukon River Quest, stand up paddleboarders will be competing for prize money for the first time.

The 2016 race introduced the stand up paddleboard category as an experiment.

“Stand up paddleboards are hugely popular now and we had been pushed by both local groups and internationally to allow it maybe for a year,” says Jeff Brady, spokesperson for the 715-km river race from Whitehorse to Dawson City. “They just wanted to be able to prove themselves and we said ‘We’ll let you do it was long as you can do what we require of any team.’”

That includes carrying the appropriate food and survival gear to weather potential emergencies, such as being stranded on shore for 24 hours, in temperatures that can fluctuate from zero to 30 degrees.

“They passed the test,” says Brady.

Nine of the 11 registered stand up paddleboards crossed the finish line last year, so it was a no-brainer for the River Quest board to make it official this year.

Brady says Bart de Zwart, the Hawaiian stand up paddleboard competitor who crossed the finish line in under 55 hours (the cut-off for prize money for the top three finishers in each race class) will return to defend his title.

The inclusion of stand up paddleboards as an official category is just one of many firsts for the Quest this year.

The race is also now allowing four-person canoes.

The four-person canoe teams are a staple of most races, says Brady. They’ll join the Voyageur canoe class this summer, bringing the total number of teams in that category to 17.

In other categories, there are six solo canoes, 18 solo kayaks, 10 stand up paddleboards, 33 tandem canoes and 12 tandem kayaks.

That brings the total number of teams to 96 – a record for the Yukon River Quest. Brady says the race holds a particular attraction for paddlers because of the unique conditions on the Yukon River.

“I think it’s the allure of the race to the midnight sun,” he says. “If you’re on the river you’re going to see the sun set three or four times. There’s nowhere else in the world you can keep going like this.”

Being able to paddle through the night makes the Quest a serious test of endurance, which appeals to a lot of people, he says.

This year, the race has drawn 234 paddlers from 12 countries including Australia, Canada, Hong Kong, France, Germany, Japan, the Netherlands, New Zealand, the United Kingdom, the United States, Belgium, and – in another first – Togo.

Brady says some of the teams to watch include the Whitehorse Voyageur team and Yukon Wide Adventures.

The tandem kayak team of Shaun Thrower and Steve King is another one to keep an eye on. So too is women’s stand up paddleboard competitor and British National Champion, Joanne Hamilton-Vale, from Banbury, United Kingdom.

Defending solo kayak champ Dave Hutchison will also be on the river this year.

“And everybody will pretty much be chasing him,” Brady laughs of Montana-based Hutchison, who placed first in that category last year, finishing in just over 47 hours.

This year, because of low water levels, Brady says he only expects about 10 teams to finish in under 50 hours.

“There won’t be any records broken as far as time goes,” he says. “It seems like the big melt that we’re having right now, up higher, is a little late this year. So maybe that will push river levels by a bit by the time the race starts, but it’s still going to be what we consider a low water year.”

However, high water levels are not necessary for the River Quest to take place.

“As long as there’s water in the river, it’s going to be a great race.”

The 2017 Yukon River Quest begins at 12 p.m. on Wednesday June 28, at Rotary Peace Park. Anyone interested in volunteering for the race is encouraged to visit the River Quest website, as the race is in need of volunteers, especially in Carmacks.

For more information go to www.YukonRiverQuest.com.