Steely Determination: Racing the Yukon River Quest

There is a strong current heading north towards Dawson and it is not just that of the Yukon River. Sixty-nine teams are registered in this year’s Yukon River Quest with a voltage of energy in those paddling arms that will make that river sizzle.

The mission statement of the Yukon River Paddling Association is “To challenge paddlers in a world class wilderness event—a race to the midnight sun”, and believe me, this race is a challenge.

From the initial spring training—hauling the boat over ice and paddling back and forth on either side of what little water is open in April, to the long practices over the rolling waves of Lake Laberge in June, this race requires preparation.

Serious teams aim for 60 to 80 hours of paddling time before the Le Mans start in Rotary Peace Park at high noon on June 27.

Tandem canoe, solo canoe, tandem kayak, solo kayak and voyageur crew boats with teams from all over the world will vie for cash prizes in each class. Just doing the race will ensure bragging rights for the rest of your life.

Leaving Whitehorse fresh and excited and heading downriver to hit the first check at Policeman’s Point, teams are just warming up.

Lake Laberge can be a real slog with wind and big waves coming in from all directions. Some racers experience seasickness from the unpredictable rollers. Hitting Thirty Mile late that night is a welcome relief as the speed of the river current seriously ramps up race pace.

Through the long first night, into the rhythm, strong and steady, feeling the ebb and flow of energy in the cadence of the stroke and the river underneath you. It is critical to hydrate and eat, stay warm and positive as the hours get longer.

Midnight at Hootalinqua, passing by a mighty Big Salmon and a raucous 4th of July Bend, then the Old Gold Dredge at Henderson’s Slough as the warmth of the sun comes full and eventually arriving into Carmacks—tired and stiff, and so glad to have the mandatory seven-hour rest stop.

Volunteers—over 200 of them—are the support and strength of this race. Not only are they the vigilant eyes in the safety motor boats, they pull weary and sore paddlers out of racing boats, feed them and tuck them into their sleeping bags, then clean out the messy canoes and kayaks that hold the debris of the past 24 hours.

While designer pee pots are de rigueur in most boats, there can sometimes be big messes. Don’t ask.

After resting and re-fueling, back into the boat and off into the teeming Five Finger Rapids, through the myriad maze of the Minto Islands, alongside historic Ft. Selkirk in the now pink alpenglow light.

Paddling past Isaac Creek, Britannia Creek, Ballerat Creek, Coffee Creek and eventually pulling into Kirkman Creek for a mandatory three-hour break. Regulated by SPOT device, the racers this year will be continually tracked by satellite to make sure they are still on the river and still heading north.

The last 100-kilometre stretch to Dawson is often the hardest. Racers are really tired by now, having paddled through two consecutive nights.

Cramped and stiff from being in the same position, fighting fatigue and hallucinations, the predominant thought is “Are we getting close?”.

A GPS helps and will indicate how much further as well as monitor speed of travel. It is a great morale booster when you can confirm just how many of those 715 km you have gone so far.

Singing, telling stories and playing word games all help to pass the time and keep the mind focused. Wildlife along the river can appear at the most unexpected times.

Hallucinations can be both entertaining and lethal (some racers succumb to the fatigue and dump). The river changes dramatically along the way with spectacular views and some extremely big water with powerful forces to negotiate.

Crossing the finish line into Dawson City is both a welcome relief and a bittersweet reality. While anxious to be out of the boat from the many, many hours of paddling, a little bit of life’s magic is now over.

Why do I race this race? Believe me, racers ask this question, especially around the Wreck of the Casca, Hells Gate Slough and Cripple Creek Bend.

It is an event in which steely determination along with the adventure of racing to the land of the midnight sun by sheer arm power alone can bring great joy. A few tears might result too, but hopefully mostly tears of sweat.

For the record, the fastest team (Kisseynew Voyageur in 2008) made it in 39 hours, 32 minutes and still holds the course record. Some teams will take over 65 hours to complete but still make it for the awards BBQ in Dawson by noon Sunday.

Pat McKenna is a marathon paddler who is racing her sixth YRQ this year with Mia Lee in TEAM MIAPAT, C-2 class. She raced with Yvonne Harris, Elizabeth Bosely and Paddlers Abreast in previous YRQs.

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