The Yukon River Quest Race
It read, ‘The Yukon River Quest, at a distance of 740kms is the longest endurance marathon canoe & kayak race in the world’!! Now that’s impressive, this race was five and half times longer than West Australia’s Avon Descent and with only two compulsory stops, one of 7 hours and another of 3 hours it’s truly an endurance race. Here was a river that could be paddled for 24 hours, here was a place that didn’t get dark and to top it all off, here was a place that most of the river was running at a good speed through wilderness areas.
Whilst researching on the internet for a planned expedition of paddling the entire length of the Yukon River, I happened to read about the ‘Yukon River Quest’ and immediately I was captivated. I just knew that Ed Van eer my expedition partner and I had to take part in this fantastic event and with Ed needing no convincing we sent in our $300.00 entry fee.
The time to leave for Canada came so quickly that Ed and I had only managed three short training sessions in Australia together, both of us had been too busy. I had my canoe shop to run, Ed had to work long hours to get the money together for the trip.
Our main goal was to paddle the entire Yukon River from the mountains to the sea, through Canada’s Yukon Territory and the heart of Alaska, a distance of 3300kms, so the race was only a small part of our trip. We arrived in Canada early so we could complete the first leg of our journey from the mountains near the Canadian/USA border to Whitehorse just before the race started. This was a six day journey across beautiful lakes and through stunning mountain wilderness entering the Yukon River about 30kms upstream from Whitehorse. We were hoping that my past base fitness, and in Ed’s case, youth, would get us to the start line and endure the longest canoe kayak race in the world.
After completing our amazing six day journey, we arrived in Whitehorse two days prior to the start of the Yukon Quest. This gave us just enough time to buy the majority of provisions and gear for the complete journey after the race and time to prepare for the race as well.
Wed 23rd July~ WHITEHORSE Race Day
We valued our comfortable bed but today wasn’t a day that we could sleep in, today was the day that we had been waiting for, today was race day. This was probably going to be our last nights sleep in a real bed for over four weeks, so getting up wasn’t easy.
Though I wanted to dream on, we had to get our boat scrutineered between 8.00am – 10.00am, so I instead jumped out of bed, had a quick shower, which complimented the hot bath that I soaked in the night before to help loosen and relax my muscles.
We arrived at the ‘Up North’ Outfitters Store at 8.30 am. Our rented canoe was stored there, but no one was around when we arrived. ‘Up North’ was a sponsor of the event and they were storing several other canoes for competitors in the event. We had also bought a second hand canoe from them to paddle the rest of the river, once the race was over. Unfortunately due to the remoteness, this boat would have to be left at the end of the journey in a remote village on the Yukon River over 3000kms away.
As we waited for Mark from Up North to arrive I took the opportunity to write kilometre marks in large print onto our race maps so we could glance at them and see instantly how many kilometres we had done. Ed walked to the supermarket to buy some fruit for the great race. The day was already very warm and like us, other paddlers hung around anxious that their canoe was not at scrutineering yet.
Competitors getting ready
We decided to go to the start and wait for our boat there. An English couple, who were also waiting, gave us a lift for which we were very thankful as we had a lot of gear to carry. By 9.30am the canoes finally arrived at the start so we and other competitors were able to check them out and start loading. Our Wenonah 18′ Kevlar canoe was light, it felt great, but by the time we loaded it with all our gear, tent, sleeping bags, clothes, food, water, it was then very heavy to lift. Amongst all the gear I also carried two cameras and a satellite phone.
Unlike most of the other competitors, we didn’t have a support team so we had to be prepared to get through the 740km race self supported. As this was our first time in the event we really didn’t know what to expect but we had to make sure that we had all the relevant gear to survive the journey whilst trying to keep it to the minimum too.
Every other team was actively sorting their gear. The big Voyageur canoes that had 6 – 8 paddlers were the most impressive and the most difficult to organise. Many of the canoe teams looked serious racers, so we really felt like the under dogs. You could see from the gear they had and the way they packed, everything in the right place, they had done this all before and that they weren’t planning to stop!
By 10.30am we had everything in the canoe and the spray deck strapped down. Racing wasn’t allowed without the spray deck due to the potential rough crossing of Lake Laberge. We were now ready. It was time to return to the motel to collect our water bottles and cooked rice for our journey. Unfortunately the milk and sugar had been packed away so I decided to dump the rice as it wouldn’t be tasty without the ingredients. In all my big races I eat rice but now my secret weapon was thrown in the bin. We finally closed the door of the motel room leaving all the creature comforts of home. No more TV, no more showers, no more comfortable bed and no more toilets for some time. Our home for the next 42 days was now on the river.
Back at the race start we sat in the hot sun eating our sandwiches which we’d bought on the way back from the motel and watched the other competitors prepare for the race of a lifetime. A German competitor just sat on a chair quietly waiting for the start, he had competed in this race four times and had completed the Australian Murray Marathon about six times. What an impressive record and he wasn’t a young chap, in fact a lot older than me!
Just as we had finished our last bite, a local pizza parlour had their staff giving away slices of pizza, we had to decline their offer of free food because we had eaten and sadly it didn’t occur to us to take some for later.
About midday an organiser shouted, “Please walk to the start “. The start was at 12.30pm in the town centre on Main Street, a good 600 metres away. It was going to be a ‘Le Mans’ start, which meant that we had to run (that’s if you had the energy) to our boat, jump in and paddle away. Ed was raring to go but I was still fiddling around strapping my hands but by 12.06 I was ready.
The sun was beating down and the heat stifling, we had our racing gear on including our PFD and gloves, it felt as though our bodies couldn’t breathe. Upon reaching the start line we searched for a toilet and with one found we enjoyed our last relaxed pee for the next 24 hours.
A large ‘Start’ banner spanned the wide street. All competitors were sheltering in the shade of a hotel. Their clothing and footwear varied. One competitor told me, he didn’t need to wear gloves as it was too hot, I suspect he didn’t know about blisters!
At 12.15pm the organisers asked competitors to step out onto the road under the banner and into the sun where the heat intensified, what a silly idea!. Once there, all the team members were called out one by one. There were cheers for some and bigger cheers for others. We received a pretty big cheer for being competitors who had travelled the furthest to get there. We knew little about the other competitors, all we knew was that the record holders were there and many others had done it several times before. The mayor gave a speech and then it was time to go, thank god!
10, 9, 8, the countdown began 7, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1, GO. We were off and running. Along the main street, across a railway line and along a gravel path that ran parallel to the river. The competitors started to spread. I knew that I wasn’t fit, my rapid heart beat was reiterating my thoughts but I couldn’t slow down. The intense heat burnt relentlessly and my breathing hastened. Ed was 15 metres in front by now and looking like a true athlete. I was clipping at other runners heals and feeling far from comfortable but I kept running hoping that I wouldn’t collapse before reaching the canoe.
Fifty metres from our canoe some of the front runners darted down the bank and jumped into their boat. That didn’t seem fair. The boats were laid out from one to fifty five, so if you were number one it meant that you didn’t have to run or paddle as far as the higher numbers and therefore had a distinct advantage. We were number thirty, I suspect that competitors knowing the system probably entered early to get low numbers.
At the time I wasn’t concerned about others leaving the shore before us, I could feel my chest drumming and my breathing labouring. I was probably the un-fittest that I had ever been in my life. Would I reach the canoe? I had to, I couldn’t let Ed down. He was now at the canoe waiting. When I arrived we lifted the canoe off the stones and into the water. It was heavy.
When we dropped the canoe into the shallows we hopped in, I was happy that my lungs had a chance to rest. We hadn’t paddled the canoe before, we’d only looked at it and we didn’t know what to expect, however it soon became a friend.
There was no time to reflect on the frenzied start or to figure out how we were going to catch the competitors that didn’t have to run or paddle as far as we did. But time was on our side. We paddled out of the eddy and into the moving water being careful to avoid capsizing and making a spectacle of ourselves.
Like I said before, we hadn’t paddled the canoe and didn’t know how it would react. Within two hundred metres we were amongst a group of six canoes. I noticed a brother and sister team who we had seen earlier and commented that they looked an odd pair and I was a little surprised to see them level with us, just the tonic to stir us on! The British SAS team was with us as well, they must have been good runners.
After a few kilometres there were only 4 boats ahead of us. We were holding the rest at bay however minutes later a single kayak raced by. He didn’t seem to have much control of his boat, although he had a rudder. Ed and I were hanging in there and stroking well, when another canoe raced by. We let it go, they were too fast to chase at this early stage.
Quite quickly we got into a rhythm and no other boats past. Thirty kilometres into the race and we still had the leaders in sight. We were pretty proud of ourselves, to think they were professionals and the record holders. The next two place getters were jostling for second position. We could see them duelling all the time. So at this stage we were about 7th position.
Where the Takhini River entered the Yukon we saw people waving and cheering and again, just before we entered Lake Laberge at the 38km mark. We moved over to the right side following another boat around an island and across some shallows. We were hoping they knew where they were going. A kayaker was creeping up behind but stopped as we approached the lake. The lake was regarded as the most dangerous section on the course. Winds can whip a calm lake into large rollers and whitecaps and any capsize here in the cold water would be deadly, it was iced over only a couple of weeks before. We had now completed 39kms and were feeling good, the lake was a 50km crossing, a long way even if it wasn’t rough.
Our first checkpoint was on the right side of the lake so although competitors were fanned out that’s where the paddlers headed. We were lucky that the lake was calm but with another six hours of paddling to clear it, anything could happen.
We seemed to paddle for hours before sighting the checkpoint. It gave me some reference to how far the leaders were ahead. As the front runners closed formation the British pair in the double kayak stopped on shore, so we were happy to pick up a place. Race marshals at the checkpoint were sat high on a cliff, we shouted our number and they replied “Yea got you”.
There was nothing of interest ahead but the scenery along the shores was absolutely beautiful. It reminded me of Yosemite National Park in California, lots of rocky hills with open treeless patches. I was now wishing we had more time to take it all in.
Ed was starting to tire and was also being chaffed by his PFD, he was wearing a sleeveless T shirt underneath it. “I’m going to take it off and paddle without it” he said, “You can’t it’s not allowed” I replied. “I’m going to have to stop somewhere then” he responded.
I didn’t really want to stop and go to shore but as Ed’s clothes were packed away under the spray deck we had no choice, if he didn’t change the chaffing would affect his overall performance. The lake shores were far away, I steered the canoe to a point several kilometres ahead so we didn’t have to divert too far. When we finally touched the rocky shore I took the opportunity to have a pee whilst Ed changed.
We were off again but the stop had cost us dearly. One single kayak had caught up and the British mixed double kayak (K2) was level with us though further over. I silently cursed our luck. Apparently the British pair was being filmed for a TV series. The series was about a top athlete or adventurer teaming up with a non athlete, the pair would then take on an adventure or challenge and the viewer had to decide who the athlete was and who the non athlete was. In this case it was Jason Merron who was the non athlete and Charmain Gradwell was a top marathon paddler. Jason was given about four weeks to train up, now here they were paddling beside us!
Some minutes later our paths came together. We said a polite hello and paddled on. We had heard them talking for miles. I remember thinking that if they concentrated on paddling instead of talking they would be much further ahead. Every few minutes we would hear Jason say ‘come again’. They would chat on and minutes later Jason would say ‘come again’. He obviously couldn’t hear what Charmaine was saying. It was his way of saying ‘pardon me’ or ‘sorry’. Holding a conversation in a double canoe can be frustrating. When the person in the front talks they are usually facing forward so it is hard for the back person to hear. Often we guess what the other person is saying or better still, not talk at all!
We powered on and they moved over and sat on our wash. By doing so they would get a ride and we would drag them along. We weren’t that concerned at the time as they were in a different class of boat, but when we later realised that the prize money was for the first 10 boats across the line, we took them more seriously.
The scenery was exquisite and it was painful to be racing by it all. For the next few hours the British pair sat behind us. They actually were a lot quieter being there. The film crew motored beside us taking lots and lots of footage. Ed and I paddled on with vigour, dragging the pair towards the end of the lake.
It was a happy sight when I saw the hills converge, the river was back at last. When the British pair saw the river nearing they paddled off our wash and pulled away from us. I had thoughts of giving chase but they were more rested than we were and we still had a long way to go.
Two float planes that had earlier flown over us landed at the river entrance only a shore distance around the first corner. They were tied up to the bank next to the ‘Up North Adventures’ boat which was ferrying the film crew down the river.
As the banks squeezed together we could feel the river give us a lift, what a great feeling. We had now paddled 90kms, taken less than 6 hours to cross a 50km lake and so we were pretty happy.
My neck had tightened with stiffness but as the hours passed by it began to loosen up. As midnight drew close, the chill started to set in. We turned a corner and to our great delight, passed the British pair who were on shore putting more clothing on. As we slipped by we put the power on to put some distance between us, we didn’t want them passing us again. Now a boat in front, was a boat too many.
Ed began to tire. He wanted a pee so we pulled over to the side. It was then that we realised how fast the current had been pushing us. As we jumped out, a cloud of mosquitoes circled and dived for our bodies. It was hard to stay still to pee. I quickly donned a thermal top and cag, but Ed didn’t bother, I think he was too pre-occupied trying to get away from the mozzies. We moved off from the shore being chased by a cloud of insects all to keen to insert their probes, with this in mind we had thoughts of never going to shore ever again.
As the night got cooler I couldn’t understand how Ed was keeping warm wearing only a cotton T shirt. He said he was okay, but not long afterward exhaustion began to set in and he started to feel sleepy. He kept stopping trying to fight fatigue. Eventually he couldn’t take it any longer and said he wanted to stop. We paddled on trying to find the right place.
As we turned a corner two tents were erected on a flat gravel area. It looked the perfect place and our first thoughts were to pass it by so we didn’t invade their privacy but then we decided to pull over any way. The current was swift so it took some effort to ferry to shore, landing next to the camper’s food drums which they had posted 120 metres from their tents as a precautionary measure to dissuade bears from visiting.
Ed instantly hit the ground as soon as we got onto dry land. He lay with his hands and arms by his side, dead to the world, totally exhausted. I walked around the gravel bar which was part of an island, filling in time and trying to keep warm as a slight wind had chilled the air. The hills on shore were steep and high and a landslide was taking place opposite us. Every few minutes rocks would tumble and splash into the water. The valley was silent other than the rumbling and tumbling of the landslide and with the light being dim, it felt an eerie place. I didn’t like standing there getting chillier with every passing moment and watching Ed turn into an icicle and perhaps never waking up, so I prodded him. He gave a moan and then the words, “I’m freezing”. He was still in his T shirt but when he got to his feet he put on a thermal and jacket. I was pleased to see him rug up, I didn’t want him becoming hypothermic.
We hadn’t been resting for too long, but long enough for the British pair to pass by. Back in the boat Ed was shattered, he kept laying back and sleeping. He never took more than ten minutes though and mostly it was only a couple of minutes at a time.
I was getting a little concerned especially after he said “this was the hardest thing that he had ever done in his life, and he didn’t want to do another marathon race ever again”. He was tired, sleepy, stiff and exhausted, I could feel his pain, this was the first time he had paddled for 14 hours straight. Though I encouraged Ed to rest, I just wanted to keep the boat moving, I could feel my competitive nature urging me on.
Ed started paddling again and then stopped. He couldn’t keep his eyes open and said he was he was seeing things, he was hallucinating. I again encouraged him to rest, and though he didn’t want to let me down, he had no choice, his body needed rest and so he lay back with his paddle across his body and under his arm. He woke a few minutes later and continued paddling but soon lay back again and slipped into sleep. This routine went on for a while. He wanted me to have a turn at resting but I just couldn’t and strangely enough my body didn’t need it.
Between 1.00am and 4.00am it was a very lonely river, no one passed us. By early morning the air was full of smoke. It felt weird, I’d never thought about the north of Canada being a fire risk. We started to paddle through it, the smoke crept in from both sides of the river. We were in the middle of the wilderness and hadn’t seen anyone for a number of hours and now we were headed into a thick blanket of smoke. I had reservations of paddling on through it as I didn’t know how bad it was going to become, but how could we stop? What would we do, we certainly couldn’t paddle back upstream. With the paddlers before us still forging forward it meant that they were either getting through or heading into a fire trap!
The urge to get to our first rest spot was too strong and so we kept paddling. I kept a close eye out moving from one side of the river to the other trying to avoid the thickest parts of smoke, it was almost impossible.
By 7.00am, the sun was just a round glow trying to penetrate through the thick smoke. As the morning progressed we spotted Campbell Highway and a touch of civilisation. The river started to divide occasionally, creating islands. We were trying to take the fastest routes, which generally meant following the bigger volume of water. However at one sweeping corner, we followed the main stream, and a kayak competitor who took a short cut channel passed us, our lack of local knowledge was becoming evident. When the two channels joined again he was well ahead of us. I didn’t ask Ed what he was feeling but I was pretty cut up knowing that we’d picked the wrong channel. This feeling however only gave me more determination to power on.
Further along, we had another difficult decision to make. There was a short cut channel marked on our map that looked as if it would save us time. Having made the wrong decision earlier we decided to take the short cut. When the kayaker in front took the same channel, we were pretty confident we had made the right choice. The short cut was narrow and scenic, a nice change from the wider river, but the current was much slower. We made good time and we thought that we were on a winner. We tried desperately to keep the paddler in front of us in sight as he seemed to know where he was going. We turned a left hand corner and soon after met up with the main river. To our dismay another kayaker who had taken the main longer route was only 100 metres away and paddling in the centre of the river in the swift current. Within moments he passed us by as we struggled in a much slower body of water on the left hand side of the river. To catch him we needed to get across to the main current, which was well over to our right, but the speed of the current was too fast and any attempt would have pushed us onto an island of trees.
Ed Jager pushing through the smoke haze. Photo Ed Jager
I cursed. We had taken the slowest route again and now we were forced to follow the other kayak paddler in the longer, slower outside channel. We watched the kayaker who had passed disappear into the distance. The mistake had cost us dearly, but just when we had thought we had no chance of catching the kayaker, he pulled over to the shore and got out. We later learnt that he’d intended to have a few minutes rest but had overslept, allowing a few other competitors beat him into the first stopover.
We continued. Ed’s shoulder wasn’t getting any better or his fatigue easing, but we were getting closer to our first stop. We turned a corner and saw the Carmacks check point and camp on the right side of the river. What an unbelievable feeling! There were banners, campers and supporters waving to us on the opposite side of the river about 500 metres downstream. I didn’t expect it to come so soon; in fact it was a total surprise. The river was extremely wide at this point and the current was travelling at a great speed. With the canoe angled, we powered on taking full advantage of the swift current. Supporters and organisers were shouting and cheering from the jetty giving us terrific support.
We docked at the jetty with precision and were whipped out of our canoe by volunteers. They thought that we would have problems walking so they almost carried us ashore. I felt strong, as though we had only been paddling for an hour or two, but in fact we had been on the water for twenty three hours and had paddled 304kms.
Resting at Carmacks camp 1. We had a 7 hour break.
I checked the leader board and to my surprise we were in 8th position overall and 6th in the canoe section. Although we had lost a position in those last few kilometres we were stoked. We’d done little training, had minimal knowledge of the river but still we were doing okay. I instantly had thoughts of bettering our position. However Ed had other thoughts; he had a sore arm, a sore bum, blisters and his immediate plans were to rest. We erected the tent under the shade of a tree and he crawled in, but nothing could have prepared him for the near 38° Celsius temperatures that made sleeping in the middle of the day virtually impossible.
I returned to the canoe to drain the water, to clean our equipment and to prepare our gear for the next leg of our journey. A guy from one of the other support teams had bought us a 10 litre bottle of water and offered to carry some of our gear to the end. We only accepted the water. Many of the leaders were camped in mobile homes, apparently with air conditioning. For some mad reason I wasn’t at all jealous; I didn’t mind roughing it.
We had a seven hour break to enjoy on the outskirts of the town of Carmacks. Most paddlers tried sleeping; I worked around my canoe and watched other paddlers arrive. I always knew when competitors had rounded the last corner as a big cheer was given by both supporters and organisers. Many of the crews were inexperienced in moving water and misjudged the speed of the current and ended up further downstream of the jetty than they should. Most wobbled as they got out of the boats and walked up to the camping area.
I took the opportunity to have a shower; it was refreshing and absolute bliss, but that refreshed feeling was quickly lost once back in the baking sun. A food van in the car park was doing a roaring trade, so I, too, thought that a hamburger and chips would do me no harm. Waiting for the food however was quite distressing as the sun beat down scorching my head and frying my body. Standing there in the extreme heat for so long was the most difficult part of the race so far.
With all the activity around camp and my desire to miss nothing, I made no attempt to sleep and in fact I didn’t really feel tired. Organisers however kept encouraging me to sleep but it was impossible with all the cheering and the scorching temperature. Eventually about three hours after arriving I decided to try to get some rest. The lady at the leader board promised to wake me up if I overslept.
The hot sun had made my tent even hotter than before and when I crawled in Ed crawled out, he said he hadn’t yet slept so he would try sleeping in one of the big communal tents, he thought they might be cooler. I stripped off and bedded down. It was like a sauna inside. I used my clothes as a pillow which wasn’t at all comfortable. As it was day light I covered my face with my T shirt, but instead of blocking out the sun I almost smothered myself and made me sweat even more. The camp was filling, the noise increasing and the probability of sleep was nil.
Sweat continued to run down the entire length of my body, God it was hot! Here I was in the far north of Canada and sweating like a pig. I thought it was supposed to be cold up here? So with no chance of having a nap, let alone rest in the unbearably hot tent, I decided to dismantle it and forget about sleep.
Feeling hungry I wandered over the food van again and almost suffered heat exhaustion whilst waiting in line. The seven hour break had slipped by pretty quickly. With no sleep and another 275kms to paddle before our next rest, I could sense that the next leg wasn’t going to be fun!
Other competitors were getting ready and it was time to wake Ed. Ed was resting in the communal tent but it seemed that he didn’t get much rest there either, due to all the noise. His shoulder was worse and giving him pain. The British team had their support crew and film crew running around. Joe, in the kayak, who came in just before us had his beautiful partner fill his water bottles and tape his hands, it seemed that everyone had some sort of support except Ed and I. We were orphans! Never mind, success is greater when you have achieved it by yourself. Mind you, on second thoughts, having a beautiful looking woman to make life easier wouldn’t be bad!
We were ready. I was a little concerned about Ed’s condition, but youth is strong and he gave no indication of giving up. Joe paddled off a few minutes before us and after the count down, 3-2-1 we took off after him. The water pushed us quickly towards the Carmack’s Township and under the first road bridge in 304kms. It felt good.
As we powered by the swirling currents of the bridge pylons and around a number of sweeping corners at a swift speed, our thoughts were of our next obstacle, the Five Finger Rapids some 38kms away. These rapids were the only real hazard along our route apart from the lake. Five Finger Rapid apparently splits into several channels, the safest being the right one. I had seen pictures of it on the internet, a wide river with several high cliffy islands across the river. As we closed in on the rapids the adrenalin began to pump, and although very confident with our skills we were not going to take any unnecessary chances to get an extra thrill. The water was too swift and far too cold.
We turned a corner and there it was. We could hear the roar and see the water funnel down the channels between the high cliffs. We couldn’t capsize, we couldn’t capsize. We just couldn’t capsize!!! Two towering cliffs, one from an island the other from the right shore, channelled the water into a funnel. We looked beyond it to see the water join together and create large standing waves to bound downstream and then swirl and bounce into a frenzy. The power in the water looked awesome.
I focussed beyond Ed’s shoulders and suggested that we keep the boat straight, didn’t change paddling sides, follow the tongue and try to miss the highest waves. We suddenly slipped down the drop at a great speed following the large volume of water to the base of the large V. The rapid was actually bigger than it looked from the top and when we hit the collection of big waves I just concentrated in getting through. No fancy tricks. Ed’s end of the canoe sky rocketed as it bounced off the first big wave. I could tell from the yell he gave that he loved the thrill and the experience. Wow! “This rapid is not to be messed with, just keep the canoe straight Terry”, I said to myself. What a ride! Although the rapid wasn’t technical, the waves were big. One slip up and we could capsize. How would I live it down if we did?
The British team at Five Finger Rapids
We were on a roll when we conquered the worst of it, nothing could trip us up now we thought. We moved between the shoreline and an island where a rescue crew boat was based. The water was still fast as it funnelled further but without the roller coaster of rapids. We moved around a right hand corner and away from the main danger, the current still pushing us on. I thought about all the poor inexperienced souls behind us who would have to paddle it in the middle of a cool dim lit night. We heard later that some competitors had capsized and had difficulties getting ashore, and that the rescue boat failed to start and got swept downstream whilst attending to a rescue.
Relieved not to be swimming we pushed on a few kilometres further towards the Rink Rapids. Apparently if the correct route was taken, this rapid was not classed as difficult. As we closed in we could see Joe well ahead of us taking the correct line without incident. When it was our turn it was tempting to take the left and more exciting side of the river, but we chickened out and paddled the safe way. What a boring pair we were!
Our excitement heightened as the British pair, who had beaten us to Carmack’s by fifteen minutes, were now ahead, drifting with the current and nibbling on food. We crept up on them like mischievous kids and excitedly powered past them with cheeky grins on our faces. It was a fantastic feeling and now, we were in 7th place.
The British pair seemed to be tiring which gave us a good chance to stay in front and put a few hundred metres between us. With a big bend and short cut coming up it was an ideal opportunity for us to widen the gap. We were really eager to leave them behind so after a quick debate and the fact that we were feeling cocky and confident we decided to take the short cut. It was a risky option but one worth trying.
At first the channel seemed to have a good current, so I thought the gamble was working, but the further we went the more we were being sucked into a slower channel. Our triumph soon changed to concern. Shit! Damn! We were now in trouble. With butterflies in my stomach and a frantic feeling of despair, I just hoped that Ed would keep powering on to get us back on track.
Then when we saw Joe far across the other side of the river accelerate around the sweeping corner at a swift speed, we thought “oh bugger, what have we done?” No matter how hard we paddled our speed was slow and getting slower as we moved into shallower water. The route we had taken looked quite short on the map but in reality it meandered for kilometres. When we saw the British team, way over to our right, catch the sweeping fast current as well and start to overtake us it was enough to make a grown man cry!
We kept up a solid pace but our spirits were very much dampened. The British team were flying with the swift water leaving us trailing. It was disheartening but the race was not yet over, and I was sure that they were looking much more tired than us. At last, but well behind, we joined the main channel where our speed increased considerably and we were a much happier pair. There would be no more short cuts for us!
As the kilometres rolled on we could see another canoe ahead. It was just the tonic we needed to lift our spirits. They were stroking quickly, and changing sides every few strokes, which caused them to wander back and forth across the river like a snake. We started to gain on them and although their paddles were the super light tear drop carbon fibre ones, they didn’t seem to be of particular benefit to them at this time. It was time to overtake. God it was a good feeling passing Team 42. We powered by, stroking long and strong, pretending that we were actually relaxed and that we weren’t putting in any effort at all. We were now back in 7th place.
We distanced ourselves fairly quickly and I hoped that we had destroyed their confidence as we left them in our wake. I looked behind to see them zig zag and then slow. Ed and I were able to keep the canoe relatively straight because we paddled on opposite sides and I only changed over in the rear when it was needed. I usually did a steering stroke called the ‘J’ stroke but in our rented canoe it was difficult to do it efficiently due to the expensive spray deck. When I do a ‘J’ stroke I pull the paddle against the gunwales, but if I did it in this canoe I would damage the spray deck.
We rounded a corner and entered a straight and there way ahead was the British pair. My heart almost burst with excitement as the adrenalin pulsed through my body. Every so often the pair would slow, which was brilliant, – it gave us another opportunity to catch up. I asked Ed to pick up the pace. Stroking in time and feeling strong and powerful, we quickly gained on them and the beauty was, they didn’t even notice. By the time they could hear us breathing it was too late, we were on a roll and nothing could stop us passing. We just kept up the pressure long enough to appear not to be hurting. However, when we were out of sight we eased a little.
It was such an amazing feeling, we had paddled by as if they were standing still. We were so quick that they couldn’t climb onto our wash and take a ride. They looked too tired to get by us again, unless of course, we took another wrong channel! I looked behind a few minutes later to see them slowing even more. Yes, we were now back in the race and in 6th place!
Ed was stroking well and we felt confident and in control, all we needed now was to get past Joe. That would certainly lift our spirits. He was always several hundred metres in front. We would get closer to him and then he would surge away to be lost in the haze. We thought that if we kept him in sight we could follow him down the right channel but that rarely happened. He would lose us at the critical time. Joe was our leader, our judge of speed, our inspiration to power on. Joe actually became our friend, though he didn’t know it and at that particular time we didn’t even know his name, – he was just the kayaker in front.
At one point, probably at Minto, we saw campers and support crew on the right hand shore. It was late in the night yet cheers from the bank echoed across the water to give us a lift. The hours passed and Joe was still up ahead fading in and out of the smoke haze. If we didn’t see him for a while we fretted.
The night was now cool, the river wide and we just kept paddling stroke after stroke, hour after hour. On the left side of the river we could see a settlement of small houses. A handful of people were cheering from the bank, one shouted out for our number. My reply echoed across the vast river plain, it was a shame to make a noise in such a peaceful place. At the time we didn’t really know where we were but later it dawned on us that it was the checkpoint at Fort Selkirk. The time was 2.50am. We found out at the end of the race that Joe had passed by at 2.47am only 3 minutes ahead. Team 42 crossed the checkpoint at 2.58am and the British team went through at 3.02am, so the two teams that we had passed hadn’t been that far behind us.
It had been a long night and in the early hours of the morning I turned to see Team 42 creeping up from behind. Oh shit! Ed was feeling the strain and resting, lying back dead to the world. I was hoping that he wouldn’t rest for too long. There was no way I wanted to let them pass. I drove the paddle in the water powering even harder than before, surging the boat forward in leaps and bounds and watching Team 42 slowly catch up. It was agony to see the gap closing, our canoe just didn’t skim along with one person paddling. Fortunately the erratic motion of the canoe stirred Ed and he came back to life giving us the boost we needed to draw away from them once more. I was much happier, but later that hour Ed slept for a few minutes again. I let him be, knowing that he had to run his own race. If I pushed him on and he injured himself, it could ruin our chances of completing the entire Yukon River as planned.
Throughout the night Joe had been in and out of our distant vision and because of this I hadn’t kept track of where we were on the map. Now the hours had passed by and Joe was lost from sight and the kilometres and the landscape had all but blended into one another. I didn’t want to waste time stopping and without my glasses I had little hope of finding our position on the small A4 map sheets. To make matters worse the smoke haze had been fairly thick and I started having niggling thoughts that we may have passed the check point without knowing it. I was pretty sure we hadn’t, but the niggling doubts persisted. We had used a GPS at the beginning of our journey to track our distance but the batteries hadn’t lasted long. We didn’t bother to change them and instead put it away.
Although the smoke haze blanketed most of the defining features on shore, I looked up at some hazy hills, glanced at my basic river maps and thought I had found our position. Although not admitting to not knowing exactly where we were, I told Ed that we must be getting close to our rest stop. This woke him up and spurred him on. He fired on all six cylinders and just powered along showing no signs of giving up. It was great, life had returned to the young dog and we were back out of the doldrums. I looked behind to see our opposition fade in the distance. Yes, oh yes, I loved it!
The right bank was full of rock bluffs and cliffs, but the beauty of it all was spoiled by the smoke. I just wished our river maps had contours that indicated the mountains, – I might have been able to pin point our position, but the maps were only pen drawings and didn’t show the terrain. We paddled on and on becoming more and more concerned that we hadn’t reached our destination. Just the fact that I told Ed that we were close had kept him alive, but as the kilometres dragged on our spirits began to wane.
Just when I thought all was lost, I saw a kayaker in the haze ahead paddling very slowly. I imagined it was an official paddling out to meet us so we didn’t pass the checkpoint. But as we got closer the kayaker started to pull away. Then Ed filled me in, it was actually Joe who had stopped and we had caught him up. It was then I realised I wasn’t quite as alert as I had thought.
Joe slowed considerably and when we were next to him we asked him if he knew where we were, “Not exactly” he said checking his map. Was he just saying that as a ploy or did he really not know! By now I accepted that if we had passed our checkpoint, due to the smoke, we just had to keep going. Somehow that made me feel better but I don’t think Ed had the same thoughts, he just wanted to rest.
We passed Joe and a little further on I could see two male canoeists camped on an island. I just had to know if we had passed the check point so I steered the canoe across the current, jumped out of the canoe and then ran 50 metres across the island to where they were sitting. “Have you seen any canoeists come this way”, I asked. “Yes we’ve seen a few go by,” they replied. With no time to explain I ran back to the boat jumped in and sped off once again chasing Joe. I was now a happy chappie, at least I knew that we hadn’t missed the checkpoint but the campers must have thought I was a real idiot.
With the checkpoint being close and the thick smoke haze cutting visibility we stayed to the right of the islands to ensure we didn’t miss it. At last we saw a sign on the end of an island saying Kirkman Creek, yes our checkpoint. I can’t begin to describe how happy we were. It wasn’t far now.
It seemed that in this wild land where smoke had engulfed the sky and penetrated the forests, that the world was void of life. Would there be life at the checkpoint, we wondered! Only Joe, just ahead of us, was experiencing the same world as us. Although we had only spoken a few words to Joe, he was becoming an important person in our challenge.
We finally saw Joe paddle to shore and be greeted by a figure. Great the check point was just ahead! At 11.16am we pulled in at Kirkman Creek ready for our 3 hour stopover and very pleased to be there. Joe had pulled in 2 minutes earlier but we were 12 minutes ahead of the other canoe team of Curt Kelly and Tammy Green (Team 42), who had been chasing us, and 62 minutes ahead of the British team. We were now in 6th place overall.
About four officials were on the river bank to greet us at this isolated place. The only way here was either by boat or float plane, so there were no support crews waiting. The muddy banks with long grass and sloping shores allowed little room for us to drag our canoe away from the water. However space wasn’t an issue as the field was so spread we would be gone before many other paddlers arrived. I walked over the bank to see an old cabin, a rotunda and two large canvas tents that the locals had erected. The tents were held up by tree branches cut down from the forest, a practice that would be frowned upon in Australia but very useful out here. With no tent poles to carry, it was certainly one way to cut down the weight when transporting the huge tents.
Ed was soon at the rotunda devouring sandwiches, soup, cake and coffee supplied by the organisers. As I entered the cabin, a lady gave me a bag full of goodies; it was like Christmas. I then joined Ed in the mosquito proofed rotunda. The soup was only luke warm but it was one of the most delicious and appreciated snacks that I have ever eaten. Just shows you what a bit of paddling can do for your appetite! As Ed left to go for a lie down in one of the big tents, the guys in the canoe behind us had arrived, so I sat talking to them for a while. It was then time to find the outside loo to have a good sit. Once that was done I went on to empty our canoe of water and get things ready to go again. After completing these jobs, there was nothing more to do except stand around getting bitten by mosquitos so I retreated to one of the tents to attempt a sleep. Although it was the middle of the day and the heat was quite intense, I found a camp bed to lie on and eventually I drifted off to sleep.
I think I managed to grab an hour of disturbed sleep before getting back on my feet to prepare for the next part of the race. The smoke hadn’t lifted at all. Visibility was only 300 metres and it seemed as though the world had come to an end. There was little happening, the camp was quiet, apart from a few murmurs from the people in the cabin giving out snacks, and the officials clocking competitors in and out. The few competitors who had arrived were either trying to sleep or quietly getting ready to move off.
We stood on the shores preparing our boat when an incoming canoe was seen on the far side of the river, the canoeists paddling awkwardly out of the smoke haze. They were obviously confused as to where they were. Shouts from the officials managed to grab their attention and they frantically paddled across the wide current to cast ashore. They were totally shattered.
Readying to leave Kirkman Creek checkpoint
The expressions on people’s faces of anguish, distress and suffering, showed the immense physical challenge that they had taken on. When we reached Kirkman Creek we had been paddling for nearly 40 hours, with a 7 hour rest period where it had been impossible to sleep. I wasn’t physically fit when we arrived in Canada but all my previous challenges held me in good stead for this event. Now I was in my element and I loved it. Seeing paddlers struggle, when I felt relatively good was testament to my own physical and mental well being. At 53 I was still feeling that life was just beginning.
We had well over two thirds of the race completed so I was eager to get back on the water. The next stage was just like an encore. Well ahead of our departure time, Ed and I were readying ourselves for the homeward journey. Our hands were strapped, our water bottles filled, our spray deck secured, it was time to go. We lined up with Joe whose start time was two minutes ahead of ours. Up to that point we had barely spoken to each other; in fact we hadn’t spoken much to any of our competitors.
At 2.14pm on Friday afternoon Joe sped off, fading into the haze and at 2.16pm we were right behind him stroking hard in the hope of catching up and passing him. The river was still full of islands, although the main route was quite obvious. There were few shortcuts, which actually pleased us after our several failed attempts to take one that benefited us.
After only a few kilometres we were 100 metres behind Joe and reeling him in. As he moved to the left of an island, we saw a moose grazing on it. Suddenly it lifted its head and then charged into the water after Joe. We were stunned, – I mean a moose chasing a kayaker, is that normal? Is that what moose do for fun in Canada? We had no idea! But very soon we realised that this moose was pretty serious in his venture to get Joe. The large head was now the only visible part of the moose. Although it was swimming at a great pace, much faster than Australian swimming superstar Ian Thorpe, he was still no match for our Joe who was slipping away from it pretty quickly.
I had seen crocodiles chase kayakers, I had seen sharks chase kayakers but this was the first time I had seen a moose chase a kayaker. Although potentially dangerous, it was amazing and I thrived on watching the experience, but for Joe it must have been frightening. That’s the fantastic thing about life, – you never know what encounters lie ahead!
We were caught up in all the excitement when to our surprise the moose gave up the chase and turned to face us. Oops! The current was swift but it seemed to have little effect on the moose’s upstream swimming ability. This moose looked a serious contender for the Yukon Upstream Swimming Championships. The formidable head with eyes now focused on us looked decidedly threatening, – this powerful animal was like a battleship powering off to war. The water was piling up around its head and neck as the current came into conflict with the opposing forces of its body.
For a moment danger was stalking us and Ed and I quickly discussed tactics. We would head straight towards it and when we got close we’d veer way over to the left quickly and pass it by, well that was the theory anyway! We closed in but then to my disappointment it turned and started swimming towards shore allowing us to pass without a fight. We were safe and the encounter was over. I wanted to take a photo but hesitated and by the time I fumbled to get a camera the current had swept us well beyond it. I then realized I had missed an opportunity of a lifetime as I watched the moose rise from the water and walk back onto the island.
The disappointment of not taking a photo ate away at me. Joe paddled on, probably oblivious to what had happened. A little further on, we saw another moose standing in the water. I thought another chase would be on but it was not to be – the moose walked to shore and then hurried into the trees.
With the wildlife encounters now behind us, we heard the sound of the rota blades of a helicopter echoing throughout the river valley. Something about the sound of the chopper excited me and my adrenalin started to pump, I became strong and powerful and my paddle rating lifted as I just wanted to charge down the river. The noise came closer and suddenly a helicopter appeared out of the smoke haze.
The haze had lifted enough to allow us to see smoke and flames rising from several places along the river and to our south, on the Dawson Range. The chopper, which was probably monitoring the fire, was a welcome visitor as we had seen little of civilisation along the way. We were now about sixty kilometres from the nearest road but to get there, there were several mountains to cross. In an emergency the river was still the quickest and safest way out.
As we headed straight north we caught up to Joe again. He looked pretty uncomfortable in his kayak. He would stop and stretch, which helped us to pull away from him. He would then come alive, make a break, catch up and pass us again before fading out once more. He was surely hurting and did we mind? No way, we’d love to leave him behind!
A large break in the mountains on our southern side let the mighty White River enter the Yukon. The river mouth was wide and intersected by several islands that had noticeable amounts of debris of fallen trees stacked on them. The erosion and flood devastation was an astonishing and somewhat disturbing sight. Many channels looked shallow and it wasn’t until after the two rivers merged that we realised that the White River had an enormous amount of water flowing from it. Fed by glacial rivers and streams the colour of the water suddenly changed to a milky appearance.
Cliffs near the White River
A few minutes later Joe headed across to a left-hand channel but we could see no reason why he headed over there for our route on the right looked okay. Within minutes he was lost behind islands as the two channels moved hundreds of metres apart. Later, as both channels bled into one, we could see Joe way over to our left flying with a swift current. We could also see a canoe ahead of us, and at first I thought it was one of our competitors, which brought glee to my heart but as we closed in we realised it was just social paddlers. What a pity! I would have loved to have passed another team!
I could see that our paths would join again where a vertical cliff dropped into the river, however Joe seemed to be accelerating even faster than before and we were hoping that he wouldn’t beat us there. It was extremely frustrating pushing hard and seeing Joe fly. What we didn’t realise though, was that from Joe’s perspective, we too were travelling at great speed.
Joe managed to be 100 metres in front when our paths crossed near the cliff, so in effect the routes were even in time. Our paths then spread again as we took a more direct route and Joe took a longer route following the fastest current way over to the right. Joe’s route looked quick, but proved no faster. Over the next few kilometres his performance waxed and waned as he fought fatigue. Then as we pulled away from him, he disappeared from the main channel into another on the right side. What’s he up to now we wondered? Joe was hidden by islands for a while, but at the first opportunity we took the next channel and crossed over and joined him. When we met, he was just in front of us again but we soon caught him when his energy ran out. Our battle with Joe was becoming a game – instead of ‘Where’s Wally’ it was a fascinating game of ‘Where’s Joe’.
For the next 15kms we followed cliffs on the right side of the river with imposing scenery. Joe’s paddling was erratic; he would slow, stop and then take off again. We stopped paddling when we took the lead so we could take photos of the cliffs. As I bent over to retrieve my camera from inside the spray deck, I heard a strange sizzling sound coming from the hull of our canoe. It was such a strange phenomenon, apparently caused by glacial silt particles brushing against the canoe.
As we levelled with the north end of Dead Man Island Joe took off again, this time moving across to the left side of the wide river. We kept our course and let him go. Small channels on our right were full of stranded trees so we naturally moved over to the main channel. Joe was way over to the far left flying with the current but we didn’t give chase, instead we took a more direct route in a slightly less speedy current.
I could see a short cut on our map and Joe was in a very good position to take it, but would he? It looked much quicker, however I was hoping the current would be slow. From afar we saw Joe hesitate but then take the channel.
We were now racing to stay in touch. The main route was long but swift and it was an agonising wait to see if he would come out on top. We just kept powering on, sweeping around the long corner going hell for leather. I checked ahead and could see nothing of Joe. He was gone with the wind. “Shit he’s done it, he got away from us” were the words that echoed through my head. I was pretty annoyed, he knows the river and we should have followed. Now, I began to think about the team behind, they may also know all the short cuts and catch us.
When all seemed lost, God must have been on our side, I saw Joe exit the short cut channel and join the channel that we were in. Although a few hundred metres apart we were about level. A new chapter had begun; it meant that our competitors behind us would gain nothing if they took the same short cut. I was happy again.
Since the junction of White River, the river had widened significantly, making our route choice a lot more difficult. Should we iron out our line and take the more direct but slower route or follow the long sweeping corners where there is a faster current. For most, we chose to take the line between the more direct line and the sweeping corners, and judging from Joe’s wide line in the faster current we generally ended up taking the same time.
With only 70kms to go, I was feeling exceptionally fit, focused and ready to fly. I felt that it was now time to step it up a gear. The river was wide with sweeping corners and currents that accelerated at great speeds around them. Islands of all sizes divided the flow into several channels challenging our decisions. The country was forested, isolated and a wilderness of great beauty. Steep rocky cliffs, some which were several kilometres long, intermingled with the wooded shores.
Our extra speed had left Joe languishing but he’d probably be back, he was proving resilient. I turned to see him on the other side of the river taking it wide again. My hope though was that he wouldn’t rebound and that we would power away leaving him to follow our tail. My competitive instinct was at the fore and my enthusiasm running high. We were now in 5th place.
A low island stood before us. I guessed the shortest route was to the right and followed my instinct. A canoeist was camping on the island and as we passed him by the canoe suddenly started dragging deeper into shallow water. We had paddled too far into the shallows to turn back, so we continued on, the canoe slowing with every paddle stroke forward. I quietly cursed, we were losing time and were virtually at a halt, damn, damn, damn, and wondered where the heck was Joe?
Fortunately Joe was still well behind but as we crawled out of the shallows he had taken another route and was catching up. Our speed increased as the water deepened and we were soon back to full power. Though Ed was still suffering from aches and pains on this leg of the race, he was paddling particularly well. No rests, no quick naps. This was the biggest challenge that he had ever taken in his young life and he had now grasped it with heart and soul.
In the meantime I had lifted my own pace and with about 25kms to go I felt that I could ask Ed to lift his pace even higher. Ed responded and at that instant I could feel the canoe lift and take off. It was such an amazing feeling, to experience the speed of our canoe rapidly accelerate down the river. No one would pass us now. But to our alarm Joe somehow found the strength to catch us, keep up and ride our wash. He knew though that if he stopped paddling we would get away from him forever, so he just hung on.
We powered and powered, it was absolutely magical to be paddling like the wind. We were on fire and I was enjoying the wild ride. We checked the time and realised that if we increased our pace even further we could make it to Dawson before midnight. We dug in deep. It was as if I was floating, the adrenalin must have been pumping as no matter how hard I paddled I felt no pain, just a desire to paddle even harder. If there was any time in my canoeing career that I felt that I could go on forever, this was the time. To think that we have only had one hour of disturbed sleep in 60 hours, we had been paddling for 49 hours and were nearing our 740km goal.
Joe was now struggling to keep up, but to our dismay he did. I was sure that we were going to run him into the ground but we couldn’t. Time was getting on, would we reach the finish before him and before the stroke of midnight? It would be close but we weren’t going to give in.
There was still a dense smoke haze in the valley, it was silent and the light was dim as we pushed on. Towards 11.45pm we approached the outskirts of Dawson and civilisation, although there was no one to be seen. One last burst and we would be there. Feeling proud of our achievement we approached the last corner with such speed and energy it was alarming. Our enthusiasm was beyond belief and Ed, who was carrying an injury, was beating an incredible rhythm. I thought of the song, “We are one, we are Australian” and nearly burst into tears with pride and happiness. It was a moving moment and one that I will never forget.
Joe was still on our wash and had managed to wash ride us for kilometres, but as we gave it one last surge, he peeled off and moved over towards the right side of the river. Somehow he had found his own power surge and started to pull away from us. I must be dreaming, – it’s a nightmare, this can’t be happening. He had been behind us for so long, now he has taken off and I really thought that we had sapped him dry. Instead he had rested and was about to have the last laugh. Sugar but I really meant Shit! Shit! Shit!
We turned a corner and all of a sudden we entered a section of incredibly clean water. It had drained from the Klondike River into the silty waters of the Yukon River. A perfect separating line down the middle between the two waters had been created. The amazing sight momentarily slowed us, but cheering from people on the bank spurred us on, this encouragement gave us the inspiration to power over the line.
Just before midnight and in 49 hours 27 minutes and 15 seconds we crossed the finish line. Joe crossed the line 20 seconds before us, how close was that! We paddled further to a pull out point next to a jetty where a tourist boat was tied up. With the realisation that this adventure was at an end an overwhelming and deep sense of melancholy overcame me. I found it hard to stop, I had loved every single minute, every emotion, the sense of power, the enjoyment and an unwavering enthusiasm and now it had all come to an end. With that moment of realisation I began to lose a feeling so grand, so magnificent that my mood began to slide.
We cross the line just behind Joe
I thought back to when I finished my 24,000km paddle, cycle and walk around Australia, taking a year to complete, I had felt so fit and the activity had become such a part of my life, that at that time too, I didn’t want to stop, I just wanted to keep going.
Despite it being late at night the local ferry was still carrying cars across the river. There were no bridges here. A few people were waiting on shore, Joe’s partner Tracy helped him from his kayak. At least being in a canoe we could wiggle around and keep the circulation going. We lifted our canoe from the water and the scrutineers immediately wanted to check our safety gear. “Did it really matter now I thought,” We were safe, let us enjoy the moment.
In the final results, we had crossed the line in 6th place overall (collecting $700.00 for our effort) and 4th in the canoe section, only 20 seconds behind Joe in 5th place and 33 minutes behind Francois Latour & Roy Jean in overall 4th place.
To our surprise we ended up being the second fastest canoe team on that last leg. We were only 41 minutes behind the record holders and super team of Bruce Barton and Steve Landick from the USA. Considering that we carried our tent, sleeping bags and other necessary gear to camp out, and the fact that we trained together for only two hours back in Perth, and five days in Canada before the race, we didn’t do too badly. And when we found out what legends Steve and Bruce were, we felt even prouder.
We milled around at the finish wondering where we would sleep that night. The night was light and the smoke haze added to the surreal nature of the scene. People were cheering from the bank and every shout echoed across town. The camp site was on the other side of the river but we had no transport to get there. It was 1.30am and a grassed area opposite the main line of shops was looking good, but we were told camping wasn’t allowed on it. Joe’s partner Tracy came to the rescue by suggesting that they would drive to find some accommodation and come back for us. Being so late or should I say so early in the morning I wasn’t at all confident that anyone would be up at this time of night.
A big part of me didn’t want to sleep but stay up and watch the other competitors arrive, though I knew I had to go to bed sometime. When Tracy returned she’d found some accommodation 1.5kms down the road. We jammed all our gear into the back of her car and sped away.
The room had a double bed and two singles, a shower and toilet. Joe handed us a beer to celebrate our achievement and even Ed, who is a non drinker, swilled it down. What a beautiful taste it was at 2.00am in the morning. With all the excitement over we could now sleep and dream, we had only slept for one hour in last sixty hours. I laid my head on the pillow and floated away……
Saturday 26th June. Day 11
We were up at 8.00am feeling refreshed and ready to start a day without paddling. As the accommodation was booked up we had to move out. Tracey kindly drove us to the Bunkhouse in the town centre where we were able to secure a very small room just big enough to get us both in. As soon as we dropped our packs we walked to Klondike Kate’s, which was famous for good food. We had a huge but cheap fried breakfast with some of the other competitors. It was great to catch up with the other paddlers and talk about the race; there was a lot to talk about, especially with Joe who had nearly become our blood brother. The British team were eating at another table with all their film crew. We had been duelling with them at the early stages, so I couldn’t resist having a chat to them when breakfast was over. With all the talk, time had slipped by and by the time we left Klondike Kate’s in an over excited mood, it was nearly lunch time.
We walked around town and then to the finish line where paddlers, looking like death warmed up, were still getting off the water. One crew had rigged up speakers in their canoe and were playing music on the way down, which must have been a blast.
Dawson City foreshore
The day was warm and the air hazy with smoke. Although Dawson was very touristy it was a unique town as it had retained the character and charm of all its buildings. If it wasn’t for the cars you could mistake it for a Hollywood cowboy movie set, I loved its sense of atmosphere.
By 7.30pm exhausted paddlers were still finishing the race twenty hours after we had arrived. We had almost forgotten the pain of paddling and were relaxing at a restaurant close to the finish line with beer in hand, eating the best fish, chips and salad that I had tasted for a long time. As a crew stumbled by us, their hands covered in blisters, their bodies bent like bananas I felt their anguish, suffering and pain. So, not to get too sentimental I ordered another beer, Ed a coke, and we tucked into our meal, just relishing our own few hours of rest.
At 11.15pm after taking 72 hours and 45 minutes, 70 year old Ed Jaeger, paddling a double kayak with his son Jim, arrived at the finish line. It was quite an emotional scene as I watched Ed, his two sons and friends greet each other. I thought to myself I just hope that I am as fit as he is when I reach that age. His other son, Jeff, and partner had capsized at Five Finger Rapid and decided to pull out. Many crews including two British teams got no further than the first stop at Carmacks and even one of the best kayakers pulled out long before that. I was in bed and sound asleep when the last canoe team of John Little and Bill Butler arrived at 5.47am Sunday morning taking 79 hours 17 minutes. They were in 35th position, and although they were the last team to paddle over the line, 16 other teams never made it.
Safety gear is checked at the end of the race
Sunday 27th June. Day 12
By Sunday morning most of the weary paddlers who had finished the race were now relaxing or dead to the world. A barbeque presentation was held around the finish line just before lunch. It was good to see the record holders and winners, Bruce Barton and Steve Landick, still there for the presentation and receive their winner’s cheque of three thousand dollars.
Bruce has been in canoe and kayak racing for thirty five years and in 1976 and 1980 was in the US Olympic Team. He is also a kayak winner of Le Classique race in Quebec. Steven paddled 28,000 miles in a canoe in 1980-3, what a feat! He is also the Unlimited and Solo record holder of Texas Water Safari. They are both the record holders of the Yukon River Quest. Until they stepped forward to receive the cheque I had no idea who they were, they looked too normal. I regret not taking the opportunity to talk with them but being a little shy, the opportunity was lost.
Bruce Barton and Steve Landick win the race
The prizes were given out in an overall position – canoe, kayak or double kayak, it didn’t matter what class you were in. Our fourth canoe position didn’t receive a prize but for our sixth overall position we received $700.00 between us which just paid for our entry fee. It was good to have been the second fastest canoe on the last leg, which meant that we were either getting better the further we went or the other crews were tiring.
Prize or no prize it was such an amazing event, one that I will never forget and one that I will probably return to one day! If you’re looking for a challenge this is a great one to consider.
Soon after presentation most of the competitors were headed home, our race canoe was put on a trailer and gone and our sturdy expedition canoe had been transported from Whitehorse and stored outside our accommodation waiting to continue its trip. Seeing everyone leave was quite a sad moment; the race had been such an extraordinary experience, and one I didn’t really want to let go of so soon.
The day was hot, the smoke haze was still around and tourists were flitting in and out of the tourist shops, so we joined them looking for those last bits and pieces that we might want to take on our adventure downstream. By afternoon’s end we were sitting by the river eating ice creams and writing on postcards. The reality was, tomorrow we would be moving on back into the wilderness.
Monday 28th June. Dawson. Day 13
This time it was really our last night in a bed. The night started off a bit stuffy and a mosquito kept buzzing around my head, I kept trying to frighten it away with my underpants, which were being used to block out the light but somehow this repellent didn’t work!
As soon as I was awake I got up to shower and then walked to the public phone to ring Jenny. I then met Ed at Klondike Kate’s café for another cheap breakfast. The specials board said, two eggs, bacon, home made fries and toast for $4.99. You couldn’t beat that price in this tourist town. We didn’t hang around after we had eaten though as all the competitors we’d befriended had left. Their journey had finished and our real journey was about to begin. Besides, I also needed to send an email at an internet café and be out of our accommodation by 11.00am. It took me over an hour to type my article and when I tried to hurry, my concentration slipped. This was only the second time that I had used an internet café and I really wasn’t confident with what I was doing.
I was late back to the bunkhouse but it didn’t matter, Ed had moved all my gear out of our room. He was on the grass outside, sorting things next to our canoe. Behind him was an old large traditional canoe, big enough for ten paddlers, just waiting for someone to give it some attention. It was an inspiring sight, and I would have loved to have known and been part of its history.
We had bought the majority of our food from Whitehorse but we needed to top it up in Dawson, especially fruit, vegetables and bread. We thought Dawson would have little choice and be a lot more expensive. It was more expensive but surprisingly the selection was good. Fortunately the supermarket was only a short distance away. We left our gear spread around our canoe and for the last time searched the shelves of the supermarket for more food, knowing that if we didn’t buy it here it would be hard to get it on our remote journey. We had our list but we just couldn’t resist adding a few more goodies. By the time we got to the counter we had several bags full of groceries, much more than we expected to buy.
I wrote a few postcards and posted them before carrying our gear across the road to the river, a distance of 150 metres. It wasn’t an easy task, especially when we climbed down a steep, slippery gravel embankment that intersected our route. Apart from the bears this was probably the most dangerous part of our journey!!
Our drums, crates and dry bags, full of five weeks supply of food, personal items and camping gear, were laid out on the ground next to the canoe. With so much gear and food we didn’t know whether it would all fit in; it had when we paddled from the lakes on the first part of our journey, but then we only carried one week’s supply, now we had five weeks. Luckily with a little bit of pushing and shoving it all squeezed in.
About 3.00pm we dragged and pushed our extremely heavy canoe into the Yukon River. It sat low in the water but it was well balanced. The clear water, which was coming from the Klondike River, a little up-stream from this point, was extremely cold. It was so perfect it would have been great to paddle in it for the entire length of the Yukon. But it wasn’t to be, within a few hundred metres this 15 metre wide channel of crystal clear water that ran along the edge of the mighty milky glacial Yukon River, blended into one and became murky.
The gold mining town of Dawson had been an interesting and very pleasant town and I could have easily stayed there another day to relax and explore, but we were eager to get going. With a few dozen paddle strokes we were in the main current, heading downstream at a fast pace, passing the ferry, the campground and an old boat left abandoned and rotting on the river bank. We turned and took photos, the shore was deserted and the town was engulfed by a smoke haze. As we were whisked away by the current we soon passed the Mossehide Indian Village on the town outskirts. Now there was no turning back. This was the real start of our exciting wilderness journey. Over the next 2500kms of river we would only pass through native villages and paddle under one Road Bridge.
We paddled on with the current, feeling pretty good, moving fast without working hard. At this pace it wouldn’t take us long to reach the end. Just as we were getting into the swing of it, we noticed a canoe further downstream with paddlers in red life jackets. There was no movement in the canoe, the paddlers looked dead or at least paralysed. I said to Ed, it might be two girls, a 19 year old and a 29 year old needing our help! It’s amazing what fantasies you have when you are out in the wilderness. We paddled on with vigour trying to get to these maidens in distress. Ed didn’t quite share the same spirit as me, he probably thought that I was a dirty old man!
As we closed in we finally saw movement from the person in the back, it was a guy tying a spinner to his fishing line. The girl in the front, still sitting like a statue, was reading. Ed and I were so looking forward to rescuing a couple of girls. Now we couldn’t be heroes!
We pulled up beside the couple who turned out to be Germans paddling a collapsible Norwegian canoe on their way to the small town of Circle. They were taking about two weeks to get there, which meant that at the speed they were drifting they wouldn’t have to paddle at all. The current was moving a good 10km an hour. They had little luggage, only two medium sized backpacks. We drifted along with them for a while, past beautiful cliffs, talking and listening to the sound of the water breaking over rocks near the shore. We then said our goodbyes and powered on to leave them to drift and relax. For a moment I felt envious of the slow relaxed journey they had planned.
By 5.30pm Ed suggested we camp. We had only been paddling for two and a half hours sharing vistas of both mountains and cliffs and it felt too early to stop but we had already done 32kms so why not relax. We wanted to average 80kms a day, and at this rate we would have no problem.
Downstream of Dawson was pretty special
We found a good spot on an island. The water had gone down a few metres over the last few days leaving the slightly sloping banks wet and slippery. It didn’t matter as there was still a good patch of fine dry sand to camp on. We erected our tents in the evening sun, sat, talked and read the paper. Life was good.
I had brought the local Dawson newspaper with me, it read that the fires throughout the Yukon were getting out of hand. The hot weather had now become an official heat wave, the hottest 30 day spell in decades. The hot weather had also caused a frenzied buying spree of cooling fans, all the big stores had sold out and hundreds were being shipped in urgently. How perfect it was for us to be relaxing on the riverbank with a hillside of beautiful mauve wildflowers behind us.
From out of the quiet evening we heard a drumming, humming noise in the distance getting closer and closer. It could only be a plane we thought, but then a big tourist boat, the ‘Yukon Queen’, came into sight. It was travelling at one hell of a speed causing a huge amount of water spray to shoot from the stern and rear sides. It would have been a great wave to surf. The skipper blew the boat’s horn when he spotted us sitting like royalty on the sandbar. We waved and as quick as it had come, it was gone.
We paddled on down the Yukon River for another 27 days and finished our trip at the ocean.
Sunday 25th July. Day 40
We reach the ocean after 40 days on the river