Wednesday, June 30, 2010
Overcast and rainy all AM,
Morning Temps (F): 40-mid 40s

I was out of bed before six o’clock. Rain was falling and it looked gloomy. I was supposed to be in Whitehorse at 7 AM. I had shuffled to the kitchen, got a pot of coffee going and turned on the computer to log in for the regional weather check. Hmmmm. . . .what was this? A “Rainfall Warning? ” Predicting up to 15mm of rain!?!? That means a deluge of just over a half an inch to those of you metric phobes out there. Is that an ark I see the worried neighbors building? Why back at Basecamp in Minnesota, a half-inch of rain is generally praised in platitudes rather than deemed a “warning.”

Perhaps in this part of the Yukon, that is officially deemed arid or semi-arid, such warnings are necessary. Visitors are surprised by the dryness found here. No cacti or hump-bearing moose mind you, but plenty of sand and stunted and sparse vegetation.

Watersheds are fed by numerous creeks and freshets and they will rise when a rainfall occurs. The mighty Yukon River is fed by a whole landscape of gurgling and rushing circulation. And on this day, this mighty river provided a speedway for the start of the “Yukon River Quest, the Longest, annual canoe and kayak marathon.” The 460 mile race starts in Whitehorse, the territorial capital and goes to Dawson City. . . .a city built during the famed Klondike gold rush back in 1898.

Though I fantasize about paddling this race, I am reluctant to subject myself to hours and hours of sitting, going without sleep, enduring rain, winds or scorching sun and then continuing for more hours and hours. It’s not that I mind a bit of suffering in a competition, as I have endured running marathons, short sprint canoe races, cross country skiing for over 50 km and more recently cycling a leg of the Chilkat International Bike Relay over the Coastal Mountains from the Yukon to Alaska. I have likely paddled thousands of miles on various remote canoe trips and not-so-remote canoe excursions, but for some reason I have a block on paddling the Yukon River Quest. If I ever do it, it will be simply to do it and not compete in it.

So one way to participate in the event is to volunteer. I did so and so I was there helping with equipment checks on the paddler’s boats. With clipboard in hand, I went down a list of gear that each boat must have. The needed equipment included things like a spare paddle, spray skirt, a throw bag or heaving line for rescue purposes, a navigation light for nighttime paddling, river maps, adequate food as there will be no stores to buy food while enroute, sleeping bags that are rated for 20 degrees F or colder, a proper first aid kit with a minimum of listed items and so on. We had done our first equipment check the day before so that any missing items could be secured for the final pre-race equipment check on race morning.

Before leaving the Outpost I downed a cup and a half of hot coffee, chewed down a bowl of cold cereal and made a sandwich out of leftover salmon cakes before I suited up in stout rain gear and headed out the door.

In a little over a half an hour I pulled into the Yukon Visitor Center parking lot, grabbed my umbrella and made my way through steady rain to the starting area. A green tarp was strung up for the volunteers to gather under and get final instructions. We donned our orange mesh volunteer vests and began greeting arriving racers.

It was a dismal morning and as we did equipment checks it was clear that there were two distinct schools of thought on the weather. One was “It’s quite perfect and lovely.” And the other was “Yuck. . .it’s cold and miserable.”

Teams like the tandem Seattle young men and voyageur team of British fellows actually wanted more wind and chop so as to replicate their respective home training waters. Another paddler, Rod Price, a veteran of several paddling competitions, including the Great River Amazon Rafting Race in Peru. He is the author of a recently published book, Racing to the Yukon. Rod was mixing up a gallon jug of a Hammer energy drink under the Volunteer Tarp. Home for him was Florida, yet he thought the conditions for the race were good and he wouldn’t mind more wind as it would quickly separate the competition. He clearly came here to compete. In fact he was on the winning tandem canoeing team for last year’s inaugural Yukon 1000 Mile Canoe Race down the Yukon River.

Then there are the teams who will measure victory by simply finishing the race downriver in Dawson City. There was the father/daughter team from Cleveland, Ohio. They were easy to check in as they were so organized. With an indelible Sharpie, the twenty eight year old daughter had neatly printed the number of calories contained in each sandwich or snack bag.

Another pair of paddlers, two young men, dressed as a pirate and an accompanying parrot were trying to use humor to relax themselves and other paddlers. Secretly I hoped they would kick ass and win but you know they won’t.

Then there are the teams of voyageur canoes. These boats hold 6-8 paddlers and one of them will most certainly complete the 460 miles in the fastest time. . . .likely around 40 hours. There is the team from Texas, plus one Californian, who barely lost to a team of Canadians two years ago. They created a stir with complaints about the high tech, all carbon canoe that the Canadians used. The Texans came back to win it last year, in a carbon boat, and are here to defend their title.

Looked to me that there were three lightweight carbon voyageur boats in this year’s race. The prize of “most beautiful” arguably went to a team of middle-aged British men. The boat, not unlike several of the entries that have sailed in the highly prestigious America’s Cup sailing race, was kept under wraps most of the morning. In recent years, several of the Cup entries have been cloaked so the competition cannot see design innovations in the boat’s hull. The group of British paddlers, were so properly polite and looked fit. Indeed, it turns out that several had experience in rowing the Atlantic. Their all-black wardrobe of rain gear and head gear matched the canoe color and marked them as the team to be reckoned with. Hardly villains, but why not start the race psychologically before you even get in the canoe? I heard a competing paddler mumble in reverence something about “Men in Black.” Clearly he had already thrown in the towel.

Temperatures not much above freezing had the a pair of paddlers from South Africa concerned. It appears they assumed that a race across the land of the midnight sun, means eternal summer. I suspect the team from Finland and maybe Austria and France were better equipped.

This year marked the tenth anniversary of a Yukon voyageur team of women breast cancer survivors. A dear Yukon neighbor, Claire, who lives about two and a half miles upriver from us, was paddling sixth race for the Paddlers Abreast team. About four years ago a wonderfully moving film was produced by the National Film Board of Canada < > called the River of Life. It is a documentary that tells the story of this amazing group of women.

Two years ago a group of Australian women, all breast cancer survivors, watched the film and were so moved that they have made the long trip to North America and with their husbands or family as support teammates, they are entered in this race. Several of the women have dragonboating experience and all of them have completed a 24 hour paddle challenge. Out of respect and solidarity the Aussies have chosen the team name: “Yukon Buddies.” At 10:30 AM the two cancer surviving teams gathered at the river’s edge and tossed pink carnations into the river’s current. Clearly they are all winners and they hadn’t even shoved their boats into the current.

Finally, chilled to the core, we completed the equipment checks on all the canoes and kayaks. We helped the teams carry their loaded boats to the river’s edge. It was quite a scene looking up and down the river and seeing all the colorful craft with their bows floating in the river and the stern still tucked on shore.

All the racers gathered about one city block away for introductions and comments from race dignitaries. And at noon, the loud horn signaled “Go!” This dash would be the last exercise their legs would have for many hours and even days. Most of them will have to be helped from their craft at the first mandatory seven hour layover in Carmacks, some 200 miles downriver.

I stood watching the last of the paddlers disappear around the distant curve of the river. This wasn’t a day suited for even a leisurely paddle, not to mention a nearly 500 mile outing. I quickly shed my volunteer vest and with water dripping off my wide-brimmed hat, I shivered and hurried for my truck for the ride back to the Outpost. I couldn’t wait for a hot shower and a piping hot cup of hot chocolate. And maybe a mid-afternoon nap under a heap of blankets might be in order.

Filed under: Uncategorized