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The Yukon – a different type of race

blast from the past issue 213

 

It was billed as the longest canoe and kayak race in the world. The Yukon 1000 is certainly not for the faint-hearted. The start of the race is in Whitehorse, Yukon Territory, Canada and the finish is the truck stop amortised by the TV show Ice Road Truckers” on the Dalton Highway, Alaska where it crosses the Yukon River. There is a hint in the title, but when you hunt that out on the map you will realise just, how far that is.

The first nation name for the Yukon River is chųų gąįį han, meaning white water river and the name refers to the pale white colour of the waters carrying sediment from glacial runoff.  At 1980 miles the river traverses such a massive part of Canada’s northwestern territories that it has in the past provided a natural highway for the local first nation tribes, logging industry, gold miners of the 1890’s Klondike gold rush, fur trappers and settling farmers. It was regularly plied by flat bottom paddle steamers until the early 1950’s when the Dawson highway was opened and the streamers were no longer needed.

The Yukon and Whitehorse have always held my attention, ever since I was a teenager I have fascinated the 1000 mile dog sledge race held there annually. It was one of my biggest dreams to one day complete that event. I never in my life thought that dream might come true.

But in 2016 I lined up to participate in the Yukon River Quest with the first people in the world to attempt the Yukon River Quest event on Stand Up Paddleboards. Clearly I had woken up to the fact that, sled race meant it was going to be in snow, and snow meant cold!!! So sled versus SUP, Yeah you bet, I went for Stand Up Paddleboard as that meant summer, 1000 miles on a SUP down the Yukon River in the warmer weather.

But this is a race you have to do as a pair, the race takes you 100’s of miles from your nearest road, town and or settlement. You have to carry all your own food, clothes, shelter, and cooking, sleeping, first aid kit, everything for the whole journey. Travelling through the wilderness alone could be pretty risky when potentially you could end up sleeping on a beach with a grizzly, brown or polar bear, wolves and other wilderness creatures.

So whilst I was dead keen to do it, I still had to find a partner. I approached the event organisers after reading the event website to find out more about what you needed to do to pass their selection process. I told them a little about my paddling background, where I came from, what I had done and the training I was doing. To my delight they messaged me back and said that they had checked my background, the paddles I had done and that I had passed selection.

Well, that was just dandy, But I still needed that other elusive, sufficient other person or extremely insane paddle partner. To my delight and surprise they also informed me that they had a guy from The Netherlands that had already passed the selection process as a team and his teammate had pulled out and was looking for a replacement. Wow that was it. Was this really going to happen? I was sent Alex’s contact details and within a very short time Alex and I were chatting to each other about why we wanted to do this, how we were going to do it and what we were going to do it on.

It was clear to me that Alex a Naish supported/sponsored paddler may have a few more connections in the SUP world, and paddled a lot more flat water distance race meets than I had. But you can call me big-headed if you want. But I had been paddling rivers a long time, usually alone, with full expedition kit. I knew what I was up against, I had been there, done it, got the tee shirt.

A 1000 miles is a long way and I believed that efficiency was the answer. I set about tuning my paddle technique to allow an efficient stroke, a balance between stroke cadences and maximising the boards glide between strokes.

Farrel O’Shea and I had designed a 17’ 4”board for my attempt to become the first person to nonstop circumnavigate the Isle of Anglesey on a SUP in one go. We believed this board was more than capable after it proving itself In June 2017 when the weather cleared for my attempt. The O’Shea GTOcean was more than adequate for the tide races of Anglesey and I completed the paddle in 18 hrs and 25mins. I knew the GTO would be more than suitable for the Yukon 1000.

Our boards had to be big enough to carry all our kit, we had been advised to take bear barrels to protect our food at nights from bear, the sealed barrels restricted the smell of our foods escaping, attracting bears and other wild animals to our location. Tying on a barrel to your board can be quite a task, and trying to get the rest of your kit into bags that will stay balanced and secure to your board was pretty hard.

But come race day, all the teams where set and ready to go, 4 Kayak, 7 Canoe and 3 SUP teams stood and waited in the cool morning air. Massive smiles all over our faces and as the sun rose higher in the sky we were set on our way. The day was warm and the sky clear we were set for a week of good weather.

The biggest challenge for us was how we were going to get enough clean drinking water. After the first 400 miles the river was going to be filling of sediments from ancient volcanic eruptions and natural soil erosion.  Clearly we need to be prepared to either carry amounts of water or have the ability to clean and treat water for our daily needs. All the different teams had different plans and strategies for this.

The first section of the Yukon 1000 is the 33km river to the start of Lake Laberge, the river sweeps you along and it wasn’t long before we started losing sight of dwellings and signs of human occupation. There were roads down to the river in this section so some interested locals and the Yukon 1000 organisers had came down to the river’s edge to cheer us on. It was a great feeling to see this support for the task we were undertaking. Many people had told me that I was completely insane to be undertaking this length of paddle.

As we passed the last river checkpoint, Lake Laberge opens up before you. The far end is only 55kms away. It’s so far away you can’t see the other end. We were so lucky that the weather was on our side. As if we had been subjected to a headwind, this part of the lake would’ve been producing waves of around 2 to 3 feet. Instead, we had light tail breezes and the water surface was slight. As we moved on into the afternoon and on into the twilight of the evening the water took on a magical glassy appearance. It was like paddling on glass.

We reached the end of the lake around 9.30pm and instantly set about powering our way down the river, we still had 1.5 hrs before we had to stop for the night. That 1.5 hrs went so quickly, we found ourselves with a steep river bank to the water’s edge on river right and on river left we had a very flat narrow grassy margin to some low scrub. The terrain hadn’t changed in a while and it didn’t look like changing either. So rather than incur penalties points Alex and I decided to pull up for the night. It wasn’t a great choice of site as the grass margin was basically a waterlogged bog. But we set about making our first hot meal for the day, setting our tents and getting some sleep.

It was morning when we went to bed and 3hrs later when we woke up it was still morning, race rules says that you have to stop at 11pm and you aren’t allowed to move again till 5am. Breakfast was a pre packaged bag of, fruit and fibre, crushed oats and topical granola with a sachet of dole peach slices in sauce. No time for a leisurely sit on the beach to eat your breakfast. You packed your kit on the boards as you made your breakfast, you set off on the river and ate your breakfast as you went.

18hrs of paddle time was in front of us, the mornings were cool. Alex liked the idea of a fire and coffee to help him wake up and to start the day, but no time for that. This was a race and we were already the 14th team. Yeah that meant last place. But for us this was about completing the event. We had never paddled together before. Neither of us had paddled this distance in this limit of time before.

As this was a race re-enacting the early gold mining days, it was about being as quick as you could. If you got to the gold fields before others you got the best land to set up your diggings on. If you were to slow, you missed out. Our Gold was the Yukon 1000 medal at the end of the race, but if we didn’t get there before the end of the 10th day. We wouldn’t get it. We would find ourselves arriving on an empty beach, the organisers having gone home. There was clearly and incentive to getting a move on.

The days were warming as we raced down the river with bald eagles perched on branches, following our progress with a discerning eye.  Mother Moose feeding their young at the water edges chewing river grasses trying to ignore 2 guys floating down the river. Every now and then you would come across a past sign of habitation. For today there isn’t that much happening along the length of the Yukon River, but in the past there have been logging operations, gold mining, government forts and other settlements. Hidden in the trees near the river there is the occasional derelict river paddle steamer sadly falling to bits in its secluded wilderness resting place.

The end of day 2 was looming again; it seemed like ages that we had been on the river. But we loved every moment. The river was keeping you on your toes, different channels breaking in and out so we had to be careful not to get pulled into a channels filtering off to the side. Night 2 came and went. Campsite was much better; we were quicker at setting up our tents and getting our one hot meal of the day.  At the end of the end of day 3 we had arrived in Dawson city.  We set camp just the other side of Dawson. We could still see the lights and hear the river ferry carrying its loads across the river through the twilight of the night, for as further north we pushed towards the Arctic Circle the longer and lighter were the nights were.

After leaving Dawson city we were heading away from civilisation again, now we really were on our own, with in the day we wouldn’t see or be near another road access for days. We were heading into the mountains and they were majestic, from tall bluffs towering above the river, painted with amazing earthy tones in natural swirling flowing patterns of the earth’s compiled layers, to a patchwork of green trees covering steep broken granite rocky peaks vertically reaching for the sky.

As the event started in Canada and end in Alaska that meant we had to deal with a border crossings, ESTA’s need to be arranged prior to the race so we could enter the USA. Once we arrived at Eagle the border crossing point in the USA we had to report to the border authorities. We ditched our boards and headed for the town, more a small village as we saw it. But hidden in town on the side of a building was a yellow phone that put you in touch with the US border control, this was the first time in my life I had never had to queue to get through border control.

It was late in the day as we left Eagle we had about 1hr before we had to stop. We found a lovely flat campsite with plenty of wood for a fire. So far we had managed a fire every night except the first. A fire helps to keep animals away, but most of all it dries your clothes, body and sooths your soul. This was where we were heading for the flatter parts of the route, the notorious flats where ahead of us.

 

Crossing the Arctic Circle and heading into the flatlands brought Long days of paddling and the slower river speed was having an effect. But when the winds hit us on day 6 we had to box clever at times to make headway. After giving Alex a quick lesson on how to track his board down a riverbank we were off again. The winds were to strong in the middle of the river to paddle against, even with a strong downhill water flow we were not moving forward. So we needed to employ these other techniques to move ahead. It times tracking was a good option, at times paddling was the only way to battle the headwinds as the banks of the river had now turned to cliffs of silty soil and muddy foreshores.

The evenings now where much colder and the light stayed most of the night. We pulled up one night thinking that we had found a great place to camp only to find as we landed a set of distinctive paw prints in the soft muddy riverbank. The one Bear that we really didn’t want to meet on this trip had passed that way. Usually, this big white bear is found much further north but these days the search for food has brought the polar bears much further south. We paddled on in search of our night’s campsite in a pink Alaskan twilight.

The flats seemed to drag on for day, a few scatted settlements appeared and then disappeared, clearly we were getting somewhere, more mountains appeared in the distance and we realised that we were in the final stretch. As the river became more defined again, just one big flow the speed picked up. The last 30kms didn’t seem to take long to pass. In fact it went to quick, floating past bears and their cubs feeding on the river banks, camping in the article circle, and paddling down a massive river through forest fires, the Yukon 1000 adventure had past so quick that I didn’t want it to end.

But round the bend it came, sweeping down from the left bank down to the right bank a large steel girder bridge. That was it, the finish. We had made it, we paddled on to the end, not really wanting to, it wasn’t as if we could stop it happening as if we had stopped paddling the river would just carry us on. I didn’t want to stop but the cheers from the other 2 SUP teams and the Yukon 1000 organisers brought us back to reality. The End was here, it’s time to rest, eat and sleep well. And the time to ponder on the next great SUP adventure.

Results of the 2018 Yukon1000 Race

A huge congratulations to the 14 teams who completed the 2018 #Yukon1000 Race.

The 2018 final race standings:

  1. Kiwis (Kayak) 6days 14hours 55 mins
  2. Kokorua (Kayak) 7days 3hours 45mins
  3. Hobo (Canoe) 7days 4 hours 50mins
  4. Ind Poland (Canoe) 7days 9hours 30mins – 2 hour time penalty for race rule violation
  5. 10thlifekayakining (Kayak) 7days 9hours 45mins
  6. RP (Kayak) 7days 14hours – 1 hour added for night stop, 2 hours time penalty for race rule violation
  7. Harlin Chancers (Canoe) 7days 15hours 50mins – 6 hours added for missed night stop, 2 hours time penalty for race rule violation
  8. Team Essence (Canoe) 7 days 17hours 35mins
  9. ISLAGIATT (Canoe) 7 days 19hours 47 mins – 6 hours added for missed night stop, 2 hours time penalty for race rule violation, 2 hours subtracted for coming to the aid of another team in distress.
  10. Yukon not be serious (Canoe) 8 days 0hours 54 min
  11. Team Starboard (SUP) 8 days 1hour 42 mins
  12. Cocoplum Navy (SUP) 8 days 20hours 9 min
  13. Extremely Insane SUPMADKIWI (SUP) 9 days 12hours 30mins
  14. Team Savage (Canoe) Did not finish

 

 

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