The Yukon River Quest goes virtual

It’s hard to imagine a summer without the Yukon River Quest.

For 21 years, the annual event brought paddlers from around the world to “race to the midnight sun.” For participating Yukoners, it meant hours of commitment leading up to the race. Non-paddlers lost their paddling friends to their training schedules. Support crews and volunteers were recruited. 

Once the out-town teams arrived, the excitement would start to build. On the day of the race, the Yukon Visitor Centre in Whitehorse was a gathering place for teams assembling their gear. And the throngs of spectators and supporters would descend to the river to watch the 12 pm start. Similar to the Yukon Quest in winter, downtown Whitehorse was temporarily transformed as spectators thronged to see the racers off. 

None of this will be happening this year. On March 20, the Yukon River Quest made the call to cancel the 2020 race due to the COVID-19 pandemic. It must have been a wrenching decision. When registration opened last November, the race roster filled in less than three hours. Organizers and racers were anticipating a fast race due to probable high-water based on this year’s snowpack.

The board really had no other choice, given travel restrictions for international travelers and non-Yukon residents. The race would also pose challenges for physical distancing, and compromise safety in communities along the river.

All is not lost, however. In an effort to salvage something from this summer of cancellations, a virtual version of the Yukon River Quest is being held. Yukon River Marathon Paddling Association President Peter Coates is the person spearheading the virtual format. 

Coates designed the software used to track the progress of the Yukon River Quest. This year, he’s using that same technology, some modifications, and some new software to simulate races from Whitehorse to Dawson (the Yukon Pretend Quest or YPQ) and Whitehorse to Carmacks (the Yukon Half Pretend Quest or YHPQ). In the actual race, distances are 704 km and 301.5 km respectively. For the virtual race, racers are required to paddle half of the usual distances, 352 km for the full Quest and 150 km for the half. Those distances will be multiplied by 2 when applied to the Yukon River map. The Pretend Quest needs to be completed in four days, the Half Quest in two days.

Ironically, and in spite of the race name, participants will not and cannot complete their mileage paddling the Yukon River, or any other river for that matter. The paddling must be done in loops on a lake, rather than on a river. According to the race instructions, “not having the river to help you makes 704 km a bit more arduous.” Once the GPS tracks are loaded onto the software, it will appear as though the race is taking place on the Yukon River.

Racers sign up any time this summer, and Coates will call the race most likely some time in September. The actual live tracking of the race began at noon on June 24, which would have been the start date for the actual River Quest. Once GPS tracks are loaded, participants can follow their progress and that of other racers. Not being a water person, the act of paddling around a lake for two or four days seemed a bit Sisyphean to me, so I asked Coates what the purpose of the virtual race was.

“Part of the point of the exercise is to maintain the YRQ brand, and to give people some sort of focus for their training.”

Perhaps even more appealing is the idea of being part of an international paddling community and being able to imagine how the race might have played out. As Coates said, “you will be paddling against people who might be on the other side of the world.”

At the time of writing, two solo kayakers from Germany and a solo canoeist from Switzerland had registered for the full Pretend Quest. Two paddle boarders have signed up for the half. There’s lots of time to register, and Coates said there is lots of excitement about the virtual Quest.

“There has been a lot of buzz, but few entries so far,” said Coates. “I suspect that people see little point in entering until they have a GPS track ready to upload.”

There is also a good chance that folks are in no hurry to sign up. With low entry fees, no entry deadline and no need to make travel plans, the Yukon Pretend Quest loans itself to spontaneous registrations all summer long.

And hopefully next year, the race will be for real again.

Just keep paddling