Solstice June 2015, I embarked on the Yukon River Quest (YRQ) (http://www.yukonriverquest.com/) in a double kayak with a good friend of mine Ryan Libech. Our team name was CARO Water Quest and our boat was christened Scientia Navus. When I read about the difficulty on the Yukon River Quest website before signing up for the race, I thought that was just marketing. After the experience, everyone who I talked to about it said it was the hardest thing they have ever done. By far it was the hardest thing I have done. By 26 hours in the race, I was broken and completely convinced our race was over. I was even proud to be ending it at that point as I had already paddled longer than I thought was humanly possible.
Years prior, I had read a great article about a lady in her 60s who had done the race several times solo (http://www.trainharder.com/2010/08/30/the-yukon-river-quest-the-incredible-journey/). Incredibly, I met her by chance at the end of the race, more on that later. 25 years prior I paddled the river with my dad in 2 weeks as a 12 year boy. On a business trip a few years ago when going to visit our depot and clients we have in Whitehorse, I had the chance to see a Yukon River Quest (YRQ) start in Whitehorse. All those experiences led me to a year prior, January 2014, to try and organize a group to go down in a Voyageur canoe and have a unique shared experience.
Close your eyes and remember the hardest sustained physical activity you have done. Now remember the time you were the most sleep deprived and tired. Now pair those experiences up for 70 hours in extreme cold, extreme heat and navigate a maze of the third largest river in North America; get the picture yet? You might, but really like many first experiences in life, love, sex, death, etc… you can’t know the race until you do it, because everyone’s story is unique and their own. I have read some lists that have this race as the 2nd hardest in the world: (http://travel.cnn.com/explorations/escape/worlds-toughest-endurance-challenges-152211). Other lists have it as the 9th hardest (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/kensington-explorersinresidence/toughest-races_b_4123737.html) or another (http://www.bbc.co.uk/newsround/32205957) as one of the hardest. For entertainment, I will tell you my story of how this was my hardest race and hardest challenge ever.
The race start was a glorious day and we were generally happy with what and how we had packed the kayak. Trial packing it the day before forced us to quickly work through things we weren’t prepared for. Steering was in the front in a cramped cockpit. I had never heard of a forward steering sea kayak or been in such a cramped double kayak. I was going to steer and navigate from the front now and with the pedals all the way back and no room to rest I took the front. One fundamental premise that I had believed was going to be possible in a double kayak was that one of us could rest if necessary while the other paddled or we both floated. I had tested this theory a year prior in another double sea kayak and in that boat we could have possibly even slept in the boat. To be able to have short maintenance rests in the kayak was an essential part of my plan. Not being able to do it was almost detrimental as we had to stop if we wanted to rest. I then discovered that the seat was broken, so we removed the seats completely and jimmied some cushions/foam for seating and hoped it would work. It did work and it was one of our best decisions at least for butt comfort that we made. Sitting for that long causes many painful complications for many people. Rubbing is a constant issue everywhere for everyone. My paddle caused 16 blisters on my hands in the first 24hours, duct tape saved me from reconstructive surgery on my hands, though they were swollen like sausages and have limited sensation (mild nerve damage) for weeks after so much so that they caused me to not be able to grasp my phone, dropping it and busting the screen (another casualty of the YRQ) or play foosball at work for weeks following (I have a ritual to try and play daily with a few work mates). Ryan’s rubbing was at his waist and blister causing shoulder kinesiology tape. His shoulders haunted him through the whole race.
After all the 58 teams were introduced to the crowd, the SS Klondike whistle (http://www.pc.gc.ca/eng/lhn-nhs/yt/ssklondike/index.aspx) went off at noon on
Wednesday and we ran 400m to our boats, where Ryan and I had already explored the river launch location by ceremoniously swimming in the Yukon River the night prior (the river was cold but fresh, lively and powerful, we were going to be in for a great ride we felt). In the days before (we arrived on Monday and the race started on Wednesday), we met a few other races (http:/www.yukonriverquest.ca/yrq/app/15yrq/teams.php) Geoff & Kaydi of the team Canoeroots, a great couple racing in a double canoe, Team Yukon Do It, a voyageur canoe with a father, his sons and some other hapless souls and Erin Giesbrecht, a solo Kayaker who was looking to finish the race on her second try. All of these teams and the people we saw were great, but it looked like everyone was very busy prior to the race so we really didn’t have much interaction with anyone prior. Ryan had read the bios prior and was concerned about their significant credentials versus ours (i.e. no credentials for any water racing or padding or racing for that matter), which I dismissed as poppycock, we were two virial men in our 30s that could conquer the world if we wanted to; little did I know.
The racers were all off in a flurry of activity at the start. (Some videos here https://www.facebook.com/cbcyukon/videos/vb.707262649368682/852725548155724/?type=2&theater and https://www.facebook.com/cbcyukon/videos/vb.707262649368682/852822818145997/?type=2&theater, see if you can spot Ryan and I running in the second video :). Wow, were we really doing this. The other team’s support teams were active to help get them off to a good start. We felt good with our start, but were surprised at the initial pace and we were comfortable near the back at a slower pace (fast for us but compared to all the more seasoned paddlers). Very quickly we sensed we were outclassed. Putting aside are initial competitive spirit, we knew we would be fighting ourselves to the finish line. We were not racing anyone, but it was hard not to feel the competitive spirit. We did think that teams would be dropping off with such a fast pace off the start. We were saving ourselves for Lake Laberge anyways and happily getting to meet other teams by passing or being passed by them. The Tough Birches, Alpine Start, Team Nigor, etc… Chit chat was tough through a steady clip of 60 strokes per minute pace, but we tried to put that aside. Invariably the question came to what was your cred/training for this race and we sheepishly dodged the question a few times, but on further prodding, revealed we had little training. It was a little embarrassing in the face of the others and even in the first few hours, considering the pace and what was to come ahead, creeping worry penetrated our thoughts, how are we going to sustain this for what we thought would be at least 55 hours total, our goal was to make it by 5am on Saturday morning, 55 hours of total race time, we had actually hoped for 50 hours and had consequently booked a hotel room for Friday night as we thought we might be getting in at that time.
The boat had compartments which we further compartmentalized by having various dry bags that contained key necessary and mandatory items. We had a bag with two sets of dry warm clothes in the middle, a bag with my sleeping bag in the front, our tent and Ryan’s sleeping bag in the back, Ryan had a food bag and an essentials bag while I had just one bag for food and essentials. We packed different food, we felt would be best for each of us. I had special superfood power bars, apples, carrots, Camembert (kind of as a joke to the Canadian Senator who complained about cold Camembert on her business class flights; http://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/national/nancy-ruth-annoyed-that-auditor-general-expects-her-to-eat-airline-food/article23746508/), cans of tuna, straberry meal replacements (of all items, I wish I had brought many more of these, I bought 6 and
ended up sharing 3 with Ryan eventhough he poopooed them when I bought them), nuts, energy berries, energy gels, ginger candies, gum and several special made packages (combining 2 veggie dogs, 6 garlic packed olives, and two large pieces of havarti cheese). Before the start of the race, I loaded up all of my various pockets on my life vest and sprayskirt with various food items. When I needed to eat, I would quickly go into a pocket and get out an item or several and a quick as possible cram the food into me and either paddling between bites for something like an apple or trying to get a whole item into my mouth in one shot so that I could continue to paddle right away. This was not eating, it was consuming. The strawberry meal replacement was best as it had many necessary items while being a quick shot down the throat, easy on the stomach and also delivering necessary liquid, a constant deficiency throughout as you could not drink enough nor did you want to drink too much for needing to constantly relieve yourself, a problematic time waste. Once all items were consumed, I would then have to go into my bag and recharge all my pockets again for the next section. One of the other great items were the ginger candies which were soothing and tingling to the senses.
We got to Lake Laberge in 44th place out of 58 teams at 15:11pm. 3 hours paddling and 30 kms, already by far the longest sustained paddling either of us had done in our lives and the longest distance in a kayak on a single trip that we had traveled. We had prepared for the coming 50km Lake Laberge challenge mentally as it was famed to be a race maker or killer. A massive lake with the chance of high winds and 6 foot waves equals lots of chance to flip, etc… It was dead calm when we entered and through the race. It was long, but pleasant and surreal. We fell into a rhythm and were thankful for the good conditions. The heat did build through the afternoon to the point where heat exhaustion started to play a factor, but we powered along, slowly at first but quicker as the journey wore on and started passing teams. A brief chat and greetings and then on to the next point in the distance or trying to catch the next group of paddlers. We had maps, but I felt at the time we didn’t need them as we knew which direction we needed to go and we didn’t need to constantly be checking maps to see where we had gone. It was a long road ahead. Having no map out worked for the lake and the first part of the race, but was almost a fatal decision to our race later on.
When I had paddled the Yukon with my dad 25 years prior, we found a floating bottle of ⅓ full moonshine at one of lakeside pitstops. We resolved to save it for the end and celebrate. To my best recollection of that trip, we finished the lake in 12-16 hours of canoe paddling, my dad doing most of the work. We had already conquered 1000km Greyhound bus ride from Hinton, AB to Prince Rupert, then a two day ferry ride from Prince Rupert to Skagway, the hike from Skagway to Whitehorse tackling the golden steps (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chilkoot_Trail). The lake at that point of the trip was just another feather in our cap. We finished the lake and on the marge of Lake Laberge where we cremated that bottle of moonshine in our stomachs; making it a little more palatable by adding apricot jelly to the mixture. Wasted on moonshine and drunk with the accomplishment of finishing the lake, we danced under the midnight sun (we didn’t really dance, but our minds sure did).
Team CARO hammered out the lake in 6 hours and 45 minutes leaving the lake at 21:50pm, almost 10 hours of sustained paddling so far. We celebrated with a 2 minute food break and cheers of success. This was the high point of our race for sure. No moonshine this time as you were not allowed to bring alcohol on the YRQ. We felt we had conquered the greatest challenge of the journey and the rest was downhill from here. Wow, were we ever wrong, but at the time, we found out we were 30th off the lake and then passed 4 people just after the lake meaning we were in 26th place. Generally, were on target and on schedule, though hurting and tired, we felt the flowing river would provide reprieve. It didn’t.
Our next target was 20 mile camp, 130km into the race and 573 km from the end. We paddled into the evening on a nice but, quickly cooling twilight. Crazy long winged bugs dominated the river with bats swooping through them, feasting on the suckers. We had to keep out mouths and sometimes eyes closed. Maybe we shouldn’t have as we may have been able to use the protein, but it didn’t seem too appealing at the time. Every 30 minutes we would try to take in some liquid and every hour was our goal to take in some food. The stops were very short and usually the other person would continue to paddle. As such the person stopping would feel guilty and quickly, within a minute or two, scoff down the food with little enjoyment by this point. Ryan was much more disciplined at eating and drinking, while I had to be constantly reminded, I was just trying to get to the next point and stay on track to our goals, I knew we had long to go. By midnight the Advil came out and wouldn’t leave us until long after the race was over. We got to 20 mile camp at 1:30am and by that point Ryan had gotten cold. I have a lot more blubber on me, so I probably could have kept on going, but in retrospect, the stop was necessary as it got colder and both of us would have suffered, likely to hypothermia, had we not have stopped at that point. We changed into some of our warmer items, a couple teams passing us. I was impatient to get going again, mostly on the inside, but maybe on the outside as well, though I tried not to show it, giving Ryan the time he needed. At that stop he unfortunately experienced the first of a saga that would dominate him/us until we made it to Carmacks. More on that later.
At 20 Mile, I asked one of the volunteers, how far it was to Carmacks (a psychological halfway point, even though it was not halfway; 400km still to go after that point). He said 100km and because I did not have the map out and it was 1:30am and I was tired and cold, I didn’t think to doubt him. I had no reason not to and it was a welcome bit of news as we knew we had gone 130km and with another 100km to go and no more lakes, we thought that we could get there on schedule, our target was 10am-12pm. We got back in the boat quickly (within 30mins) warmed up and ready to go (tired and very sore already of course), we experienced a few hours of good paddling, but with an impending doom creeping into Ryan’s world. He was having shoulder issues but worse digestion problems and we were going to shoot for the next checkpoint at Little Salmon. What we didn’t know is that the checkpoint was in fact 130kms away and it was almost 200kms to Carmacks, double what we thought at the time. Our pace was completely off for accommodating that distance. We were going too fast and it felt like we were getting nowhere as we hadn’t come upon the checkpoints we were expecting. The pain, the cold, the focus, the stomach problems all were contributing to us not thinking clearly as we should have pulled out the maps. We did not and suffered immensely for this. Hours later, we were slowing from exhaustion and when a team came upon us and was passing us hours later, we asked how far it was to the next checkpoint, they said 27km and then 138km to Carmacks. We were crushed right then and there. It was around 6am, fog was starting to roll in. It was surreal and quite beautiful, but we were suffering already completely spent and Ryan’s shoulder was killing him. I had been giving it to that point in an effort to stay on pace and to our planned race schedule which I thought was reasonable. With the pain and exhaustion, steering and navigating were starting to take a psychological toll and I was feeling ill equipped and constantly reminded by my potential deficiencies by the river and Ryan. Realizing the distance at that point also put Ryan on high alert to stop and take care of business which we did promptly. I waited impatiently (I felt we could not stop as we had ~120kms still to go and that meant we were significantly off the pace we had and we were in trouble given all the other factors, pain, tired, mental, physical), Ryan finished quickly though, only one boat passing and watching him take care of business and we were off again. Islands started to form in an ever widening river that seemed to slow down as we continued. Was it that our pace was slowing due to our paddling efficiency had decreased? Maybe. Navigation seemed like the key to taking advantage of the current, but it always felt that we were never in the current and it was somewhere else. Ryan felt this and I tried to dismiss it and stay positive, but I felt it too and was not happy to be the captain of this morale sinking ship. Imodium was taken at this point, but the problems continued for Ryan. We had so far to go and we felt that this was not humanly possible to get to Carmacks. Paddling on, we started to cycle to paddling for some time and then resting, by 11am it switched to padding for 30 mins stopping for 2-3mins and then going again. We were fading fast. By 22 hours of paddling with one short 30min break to put on warm clothing, we were spent, physically and psychologically. It was starting to warm up and we almost didn’t have the energy to take off the warm clothing. We were so far away and had been paddling for so long. Our bodies were screaming for us to stop and our minds were starting to play tricks on us to stop. Micro blackouts were occurring as our bodies were shutting down and protesting the madness continuing. We got to Little Salmon around 11am and we were done. We saw some friendly volunteers though, but no bathrooms there for Ryan, he found a place to go anyways and I was queering the volunteers there how is this race even possible. I was incredulous that anyone was doing this and that we were even participating, imagine running for 24 hours straight with your arms, that is what I imagined would be comparable. We took off our warm clothes as it was heating up quick at this point and I waited for Ryan to gather himself while trying to get a can of tuna down my throat, it was so dry it was almost unpalatable. We were there for about 30mins and then off to the races. We had come 248 kms in 23 hours and only had 54 km to go to the 7 hour rest stop in Carmacks. It was a small light at the end of the long tunnel. I also took out the map for the first time. We started to track our progress, but our paddling rate had decreased significantly, as well as, our stroke efficiency was brutal. Our bodies and minds did not want to believe that we could go much further and we started to talk of this being the end of our race in Carmacks. Ryan’s problems and my complete lack of desire to continue played off of each other for hours. Talk of pulling out of the race cheered us up for a time, but we still had to get to Carmacks and the hallucinations, seeing animals where there were none, writing on the mountains in tree language (it really felt like people had written things in great big letters on the mountainsides), people talking around us when there was no one, all were messing with our minds in their weakened state. We experienced mini “winds of positivity” after we ate something or had some Advil, but then deep lows of extremely tired, sleepy, or exhaustion. At one point Ryan had taken a B vitamin to perk him up, but I was afraid of my micro blackouts becoming full blackouts and falling over and flipping the boat. At 13:30 I insisted we stop and I crawled out of the boat and fell by the side of the river and had a 30min nap while Ryan waited impatiently for my weakness to pass, he was very kind about it. I felt guilty but I had to sleep. We started up again at 14:15 but were still 1:45 hours away from Carmacks, Ryan carried us into Carmacks while I seemingly pretended to paddle, sometimes paddling air a few times, struggling immensely with every stroke. On our way in there was a small twister that formed over the river in front of us and flailed around for a while on the river and then moved up a mountain, we were unfazed and I secretly wished it would carry me to Kansas.
We limped into Carmacks at 16:00, devastated, tired and incredulous at what we had just done. It had taken us 30 hours to do 300kms with only about 2 hours total of stopping; by this point already this was the hardest thing that I had done and I was very happy to be calling it quits at this juncture. We were not prepared for this and we knew it. We were only 4 hours behind our slowest imagined pace but we were far, far beyond how we imagined we would feel at this point. We knew another 400km and at least 36 hours of paddling awaited us. I did not want Ryan to damage his shoulder or suffer from dehydration and it was a convenient rationalization for me to get me out of this crazy thing. We had no support in Carmacks, where most other teams did and people were running around helping their teams get the rest they need and then taking care of food, restocking the boat, refilling water bottles, etc… Unsupported, we had to unpack the boat and set up our tent and try to prepare for the next leg while also getting desperately needed rest. Not having any support at this juncture was a large mistake. Before the race, we were too proud and stubborn and were hoping to do the full race unsupported. Now I was envious of what I saw at the time as massive benefits of support. Support was not just good for all the things that needed to be done and taken care of, it was probably most important for the psychological support to help you get to the end of the race. We were not prepared for the psychological devastation that we felt at this point. A hug would have gone far or kind words, but we were mostly alone, observing the other teams working with their support while we were still trying to figure out what just happened. When I read about the race in advance and conceived of all the items, I dismissed, like you may be right now, how bad one could feel pushing themselves for so long and so hard. Even for me now after, it is unimaginable how bad we felt in the lead up to Carmacks and the shock we were in as most of the deep darkness experienced was either suppressed or erased from my mind to protect my sanity. It is a process that helps to keep people coming back and challenging themselves.
I was desperate for sleep even though it was almost 30 degrees in the sun without a breeze and we knew we were going to have trouble sleeping. Ryan set-up the tent while I gathered our Carmacks destined bag that had our food for the next section. I turned on my phone and to my surprise, there was cell service. I decided to give my mom a call to tell her I was thanking my lucky stars that she was spared this and lament the challenge. As I was dialing, my eyes started to well up and when she picked up I broke down sobbing, trying to find a place where no one could see me. Hiding between some cars, I fell to the ground sobbing, I couldn’t get one word out, while she tried to ask what was going on. I had to hang up. I texted instead that I simply couldn’t talk and was emotionally and physically drained. I really wanted to talk, but I had reached a low point in my life, utter exhaustion; was this the extreme challenge I was looking for? I didn’t think so. I gathered myself and contemplated what just happened, fascinated to have experienced something that has never happened to me. I never cry when dealing with anything, maybe I should, but I don’t feel the need. This was the first time since I was a little boy. I told Ryan and tried to laugh it off a bit, but I knew that after rest, if I continued to feel this way, I was not going to be able to go on. We agreed to try to get some rest and see how we felt after. I collapsed onto my sleeping bag. Pain shooting through my upper body and mind, struggling to find comfort, it was about 5:30pm when I may have fallen asleep. I remember waking up several times, the sun beating directly on us and seeing Ryan seething at the placement of the tent, I forced myself back into uncomfortable, sweaty slumber eventually waking up at 8:30pm to satiate my raging thirst. The threeish hours had cleared my mind a little and after doing a few things around camp I tried to call my mom again. My eyes welled up again, but not fully crying, I was able to talk. It was great, but I knew we were done. I felt like hell and 3 hours of rest at this point was not going to be enough with what was ahead. Normally, I don’t need a lot of sleep, but with the physical and emotional elements, 6 hours of sleep would have been necessary to get us back into this race. I thought we would get it, but our bodies, our minds and the weather were preventing it. I talked for a bit how it was over, but we would likely push on for a bit more just to show Ryan the Five Finger Rapids, an iconic place on the Yukon. I knew she would be watching the race tracker (you can see a replay of the whole race here http://www.yukonriverquest.ca/yrq/app/15yrq/replay.php; we are
team #57 CARO Water Quest) at this point we knew people might be watching, but we really didn’t care about much, hardly taking any pictures or taking stock of the beauty that we were passing by. Ryan woke up shortly thereafter and we discussed our broken down state with a few people. Erin was one of those people, very encouraging while she was getting awesome food and a message from her support crew. The whole camp had support crews running around getting everything for teams while they rested. I had gone through all of my food in the previous section; Ryan still had a fair bit of his but was already getting sick of the PBJs he had for sustenance and was still not feeling well from whatever caused his problems. We had to organize ourselves for the second part of the race with limited mental capacity, rest and worry that we were forgetting things.
I was ready to go by 10:45pm, but Ryan was not having a good time, shoulder concerns and general concerns had him dragging himself along and I was looking to take the load off of him. He had a process and was focused on what he needed to do. He needed some food from the canteen and to confirm his situation with the nurses at the camp. He had a pea soup which sparked some life into him and a very kind and compassionate nurse, Jenni helped tape him up and gave us some kind words of encouragement that the biggest battle is getting back into the boat at Carmacks. Jenni’s small gesture was amazing at the time and we really appreciated it, it helped us a lot. All of this put the spark into Ryan that he needed to get back into the boat, he had only got 2 hours of sleep and I said that we were just going to shoot for the next marker at Minto Landing, 6 hours away and that we will likely pull out there after seeing the best part of the river in the next 50kms. We had the map out now so we knew where we were and we knew we were at least 24 hours to Kirkman Creek, 250kms away and then another 150kms or 12 hours to Dawson City. It was all too much, there was no way we were going to make it. We were done. It was 11:45pm on Thursday night when we left and we had already blown the race and all of our targets and we were basically guaranteed that we were not going to make it to Dawson City. We were told that Minto was the last place we could pull out before being charged $500 for evacuation on the river as that was the last road access until Dawson so we knew we were not going to get rescued, either we were stopping or going the distance. We settled on stopping and trying to enjoy the river to the rapids and the warm evening was very serene. I had heat exhaustion, a headache, dehydration, burnt lips, totalled upper body and very little rest. Ryan, had dehydration, little rest, destroyed shoulders and back, general malaise. We were alone again on the river.
With all that, the largest challenge was mental. From Carmacks on, I asked a few people of a stronger term than “Mind F**k”, but it was eventually agreed upon during an hours long downpour, in the cold, freezing and in the middle of nowhere at 1am after racing for almost 60 hours already that this experience shall now be called the Yukon Mind F**k (YMF). Once one competes in year one as amateurs in the YMF, they can then graduate to YRQ, much like how a Skookumchuck becomes a Sourdough after one spends a winter North of Sixty. The YMF is self inflicted psychological torture, which causes many to hallucinate, black out, cry, curse and ultimately always think of quitting all the time. The first time many compete in the YRQ, they end up pulling out and not finishing. It haunts them subsequently, eventually bringing many people back. From hour 22 on I was wishing I had not done this and thinking of all the great reasons to quit and maintain my mental sanity. By that point, I knew I had accomplished an immense challenge with many small victories, Lake Laberge, paddling for almost 22 hours straight, continuing through many low points, being a part of an epic adventure, collected some research water samples, seen some of the best parts of the Yukon River and had a generally great time with Ryan. Through all the race, even at our lowest, we kept smiles on our faces and we were thankful for the ability and opportunity to do something epic like this. Interestingly, I also discovered the size of my bladder. When we bought bottles to pee in during the race, we thought 591mL was plenty, it wasn’t, as I needed 700mL, who knew. We had it pretty easy though compared to the ladies on that front. Even at that, what kind of race forces you to publicly humiliate yourself in front of others with your bodily functions. Not to mention race ending stomach/digestive problems which ended it for a French team from Quebec and almost us because Ryan fell ill and luckily I brought Imodium and he was able to “work through” the dehydration. I was increasingly concerned about his shoulder injury as time wore on and the pain increased. After the race, we found out that 9 teams did not go further than Carmacks.
I remember as a boy always seeing if I could do things I have never seen before. One particular occurrence, I wanted to see if I could steer my bike with my feet instead of my hands going down a hill. This was pre-helmet and any safety equipment days. Errors were punished severely. At the top of the hill, I put one foot on one side of the handlebars. Slowly trying to get my other foot to the other bar to replace my one hand currently steering, the bike quickly picked up speed going down the hill. I finally got my foot to the bar and I quickly removed my steering hand. For one glorious second, I was steering my bike with both feet or at least I thought I was until I tried to apply any pressure to the bar. Instantly, the bars flew to a 90 degree angle and I flew across the graveled pavement on my knees and elbows. The scars there 30 years later bear witness to that event along with the 50-100 stitches (too many to count), 6 inch scar on my butt from when I was 4, multiple facial scars, broken rib and many other injuries that have long since healed on my body. My mind has not healed though and the body torture continues.
The warm breeze setting off from Carmacks was much warmer than you would expect at midnight. I may have had heat exhaustion, you know when everything feels warm, but it was a nice night, it felt like 8pm, as we paddled by the town where one of my most favourite artists, Ted Harrison spent most of his time and shaped the artistic style that illustrated the Robert Service poems, The Cremation of Sam McGee (http://www.northernbooks.ca/books/the-cremation-of-sam-mcgee/) or The Shooting of Dan McGrew (http://freemasonry.bcy.ca/biography/service_r_w/dan_mcgrew.html). He was a teacher there and remembers his time fondly. He came to live there when looking at an ad for a teaching job which added at the end “wimps need not apply”. Like so many, the challenge often brings those to the North. Though a nice evening as we departed and we acknowledged it, in honesty, the beauty was lost on us. The pain was too great. Only the few people and their kind words resonated at this time while we paddled away, taking regular stock of how we felt. By this point I had both of my hands duct taped up and trying not to choke my paddle to death as if blaming it for not getting me farther faster. We saw eagles and fish jumping with big splashes out of the water, it was amusing. Settling in after an hour paddle the effects of sleep deprivation started to come through at 1am Friday morning. We were not going to make it very far feeling so tired like this. I could hear the yawning by Ryan at the back and knew that these early morning hours will be hard on us. I floated a proposition to Ryan, since we are not going to go the full distance, we should just enjoy the trip at this point, get through the Five Fingers and Rink Rapids, two scenic parts of the journey and then resolve to stop and camp on the side of the river. We would get a real rest in the cool early morning hours and we would be able to enjoy the trip camping and pretending to vacation. Ryan was resistant at first, but I pushed and it was not hard to convince him. We were both weak and hurting. I would have done anything or said anything at that time. I imagined this is the start of mentally breaking down a prisoner when they will say or do anything, in retrospect torture seems very useless as you really would just get whatever you want rather than actual rational information. I was generally present but with diminished mental capacity and this was only after 38 hours from the start of the race.
We paddled on approximately 2.5 hours until we started the approach to the largest rapids on the Yukon, The Five Fingers (http://sightsandsites.ca/central/site/five-finger-rapid). Racers do flip there, so we put on our rain gear and settled in for what was coming. There were rescue boats there waiting to jump into action if anything happened, but we navigated them easily and really in the end getting wet from the waves was more of a nuisance than a joy, it was 3am and it seemed like entirely the wrong time to run the rapids. We did it though and were on to the next set of rapids, the Rink Rapids about 30-45 mins away. There again we got a little wet. Both sections had been played up so much, but either because of our mental state or reality, there was little excitement for the waves, we were expecting more. Right after we/I started looking for an island that would be a good place to pitch a tent. A beaver crossed our path after about 20 mins looking and a good stop presented itself. I felt an island was the best choice considering the pungent smell I was detecting coming from our boat. Likely the leftover melted Camembert cheese from the mesh pocket of my sprayskirt. Irrespective, we didn’t need any visitors to complicate things, not that we would have really cared at this point. There was already a fire pit 10 feet from our stopping point, so it was clear this was a decent area that had been scoped out before. The main reason for stopping was to get some rest and see if we felt any better so maybe push on to Dawson. The secondary reason was to enjoy the trip now, camp on the Yukon river and experience some normalcy in a river of chaos. We resolved if we felt better after a rest, we would likely go on, if we didn’t it was assured that we were quitting in Minto. We committed to ultimately deciding in Minto, but knew we would be settled before then. With the tent set-up, we tried to get to sleep asap, it was 4:30am Friday. Being dead tired should have helped, but the pain and agony of my shoulders, back, arms and hands did not want to let me rest. Sleep came eventually and ever so quickly we were up in 3 hours. We felt like hell. Our bodies cried out for more sleep and less pain. At this point Advil seemed useless to be taking as the pain was too great to subside. We struggled to get up and get back on our way. By 8:15am we were back on our way, confident to be at the back of the pack and we were a-ok with that. We had about 3 hours to get to our pull out point and that knowledge helped, but we were still not feeling well. An hour into the morning paddle we started to feel a bit better. At two hours in, Ryan did an evaluation and in taking stock of how he felt, he said he could make it to
Dawson. “F**k you” I said, “We had a deal to end it if we weren’t feeling better after the sleep and I feel like hell and we have at least another 30 hours to go. We are not going to make it feeling like this.” I challenged his rational every which way. He said we had to individually take stock and that was what we had said and if either had to call it that the other would support, but he said he was not going to call it. I can’t remember ever quitting anything because it was too hard. I know I have wanted to many times, when running a no train marathon (on a dare done the night before) at 4 hours I had feet full of blisters and I did not want to keep on going, but I did and finished it in 5 hours. That seemed like a cake walk looking back from where I was now. Nothing I have done touched even close to the challenge I felt at this point. Nothing I could imagine was worse except to keep on going for another 30 hours at least. We had been paddling for 28 hours now and I knew there was no way I could go for 30, 10 maybe but 30 seemed like Everest. Ryan was not going to throw in the towel though, respect to him. I wanted to throw it in, but that part of my brain is missing.
Once we reached Minto Landing, we knew we were going all the way. I was trying to be pissed at Ryan, but wasn’t really. I didn’t want to go on, but I admired his drive and I knew/thought, if he was good, I was good. That being said, there were a lot of potential unknowns which I was afraid of. Things can turn quickly up North. It was 11:30am warm, sunny and clear. It was two full days since we started, 48 hours and through two full nights we had at this point around 4-6 hours of the type of sleep when you fall asleep by the pool. It was like we were in a non-stop marathon running with our arms instead of legs. There used to be a checkpoint at Minto and there were people there, but no race officials or other teams. We probably could have quit there, but maybe not, we still don’t know. We did get out, change, eat quickly and get ready to go to our next destination at Fort Selkirk.
Within an hour, the wind picked up and started to slow our progress, namely our paddles were acting like sails in the wind. Also, the wind was bringing in bad weather quickly. It had been great weather up until Minto for the whole race, but almost as if to mock us to say: “thee shall not pass”, the lightening was striking up ahead, smoke was building from burning fires in the area and dark ominous clouds filled the horizon. I did not want to concede to the coming storm, but Ryan was smarter and started to put on his wet weather gear. I was paddling and steering the boat by myself at the time and then all of a sudden the left paddle snapped forward. The rudder control was broken and we went into a clockwise spin going down the river. From the front, I had no ability to steer the boat with my paddle strokes and Ryan was not as comfortable already with paddling strokes that would properly steer the boat, we knew that and this was generally our fear. The rain started to fall and I started to frantically problem solve. We had to get to shore ASAP. We made a rough landing and I was in the water up to my waist looking into the cockpit to try and see what had happened while Ryan finished putting on his rain gear. We knew that we were not going to bring any tools, hoping we wouldn’t need them; that decision was haunting us now. I thought the pedal was broken, but on inspection the guiding rope and broken off, not a detrimental problem, but it did need to be threaded through an intricate maze of pulleys which I was really struggling with as I had already lost much of my finger dexterity. It was a struggle to get the knots undone and this was less than 2 hours since making the decision to complete the race. At this point if any one of the three things, wind, rain, or rudder control issues had happened before Minto, we would have been out of the race. Now all three had already hit and we still had 28 hours to go, WTF, YMF.
30-45mins later the problem was patched. It made it more uncomfortable in my cockpit and more of a challenge to steer, but that was small in the scale of issues. Normally, those would be 8 out of 10 issues, but my body and sleep deprivation problems were at 10 out of 10 dominating my thoughts sending everything else to 2 out of 10. Even the rain, “bring it” I said, ain’t going to stop us now, what do you have next YMF. A new problem for me emerged in that the base of my esophagus was burning making it difficult to eat anything; I was hoping it was just indigestion. About an hour later, the weather cleared up as we rolled into Fort Selkirk. We came across some paddlers whom we had not seen since we left Carmacks 16 hours prior, we felt so alone and for the longest time thought we were in last place, we really didn’t care what place we were in as just finishing was our sole focus and I certainly was not certain that was going to happen. It was Kaydi and Geoff of Canoeroots that we ran into and they were such a positive happy couple. Great to see them and hear their great energy and joy. They said they were suffering too, but they did not look it. They informed us that around 9 people had quit at Carmacks. We felt for those people and kind of wished we were them, but were also glad we had made it this far. I asked Geoff if he had any Tums and he happily obliged with a couple of his last, what a relief to take one, thank you very much Geoff (it’s the little things). We all quickly trudged around Fort Selkirk (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fort_Selkirk), took a few pictures of the old settlement and though we were offered coffee, tea, etc… we did not partake. We were off within 20mins with Kaydi and Geoff not far behind.
We started in Carmacks with our second set of maps. 23 pages would get us to Dawson and each page was taking about 1.5 hours of continuous paddling. Kms travelled did not really matter as the river would meander across the page for some maps, while others it was relatively straight with many islands to navigate and no clear path, especially when many islands and sandbars were not shown on the map. The river continued to widen until being almost 2 kms in some spots. From Carmacks we/I tried to calculate our distance traveled in an hour, proving difficult but usually in the 10-15 km/hr rate. This was done mostly to keep busy and distracted, while also giving us a bit of a sense of progress. The difficulty and inaccuracy in predicting how long it would take to go any distance was such that all I really trusted and focused on was getting through one map at a time. We would celebrate the finish of one map. It was 14 full maps to Kirkman Creek our next 3 hour mandatory rest stop. It was 5 maps to Fort Selkirk and another 9 to Kirkman Creek. I projected arrival at 3am. Ryan was hopeful for sooner as were the others whom we crossed paths with. 3 am for me meant we had to continue paddling straight through. At Fort Selkirk we were already 52 hours out of Whitehorse and had close to 30 hours to go. Considering how we felt, the distance was soul crushing, so one map at a time was a more manageable and palatable proposition to moving ahead.
On to map 6, we meander along the river gliding past islands, sandbars, and trees. The wind starts to whip up quickly all of a sudden. The earlier weather we experienced seems to have returned with vengeance. Quickly, it becomes difficult to paddle; pushing the part of the paddle not in the air against the gusting wind. I remember reading the Greek mythology story about how Hades had punished someone by damning them to try to roll a heavy rock to the top of a mountain and just as they approached the top it would get so heavy and it would roll back down the mountain and he would have to start again. I recalled this and started to empathize (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sisyphus). Pushing the paddle against the wind, head down and yielding little gains immediately halved our pace. The spray from my paddle was getting me wet, but worse, getting Ryan really wet. I knew it, but could do little. If I stopped, we would be going backwards. We wanted to stop, but were already far behind. It was starting to creep into my mind that we may not finish by the deadline of midnight Saturday not to mention feeling we couldn’t keep on doing this. After an hour of pushing against the wind I had a light bulb of feathering our paddles (changing the angles of the blades and how they go into the water). It did mean changing our wrist/paddling motion but quickly it made all the difference and we were able to at least save ourselves. We would have completely spent ourselves if we had to do this for hours. The storm was bringing rain from all directions. It started around 7 or 8 pm and at least the wind died down considerably after the rain started falling more. We were exhausted and hitting another wall. I mentioned to Ryan I had a secret weapon while he was taking an eating break. I had lost my appetite due to burning in my esophagus making it very hard to swallow. No matter all I wanted to do was drink water. The secret weapon was Bluetooth solar speakers that were charged and ready to go. Earlier we listened to an hour long podcast on how the Government was suppressing federal scientists which was distracting but not motivating. Music was needed and I let it shuffle all my music but starting on The Doors, LA Women (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JskztPPSJwY). There is a great pick-up at the end and I started singing and paddling like a maniac to it. Trying to get Ryan to follow my lead.
Mr. Mojo Risin’, Mr. Mojo Risin’
Mr. Mojo Risin’, Mr. Mojo Risin’
Got to keep on risin’
Mr. Mojo Risin’, Mr. Mojo Risin’
Mojo Risin’, gotta Mojo Risin’
Mr. Mojo Risin’, gotta keep on risin’
Gone risin’, risin’
I’m gone risin’, risin’
I gotta risin’, risin’
Well, risin’, risin’
I gotta, wooo, yeah, risin’
Whoa, oh yeah”
I shouted into the rain. The music fired me up.
We soon caught up to Team Alpine Start, Lisa and Laura with whom we exchanged pleasantries in the first hour of the race. We came upon them and I was excited to talk to anyone. It was hard to talk to Ryan as I couldn’t see him and when I was paddling, it was hard for him to hear anything I said. Coming upon another team was easier to match pace. We lamented WTF we were all doing here and I floated my YMF question to them, looking for something more severe, but Lisa thought it was a perfect description. Laura was visibly hurting and it was hard to watch, as I just wanted to help. We offered them anything. They needed nothing until I mentioned the Tum I had left. Lisa was desperate and very appreciative of it. It would have been great to keep it for later but the collective pain was visible on their faces and I was happy to give it up. Ryan and Laura were pretty quiet while Lisa and I talked for a bit. Daft Punk came on and I turned up the tunes. We were motoring along and they were definitely struggling and falling behind us. I mentioned to Ryan that maybe we should wait, but with the rain and the cold, he said we should keep up our pace. I was concerned for their safety, but they had made it this far and they had the spot tracker if they needed to call for help and Ryan was right, we were racing against ourselves. I thought we could go ahead and scope out camp and give them advice on what to do when they arrived shortly behind us. They faded into the distance as it got darker. Only their little headlamp was visible, flickering in the rain. The song Melanie by Weird Al Yankovic (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xqmApJCgqnU) came on giving us a good laugh and a thought that she was with us laughing at/with us followed by Colbert Christmas by Stephen Colbert (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lMMH_xDKE2A). Navigating those last hours in the rain and dark with sandbars appearing out of no where was unnerving, but my body was so flooded with hormones that I was afraid I would not be able to sleep. Ryan was hurting and cold and wet behind me and I wanted to get us there so he could change and warm up. Day 1 he saved me, now it was my turn to do some heavy lifting. 30 minutes out of Kirkman Creek I shut down the music and we strategized what we would each take care of when we stopped. The promise of a soup and sandwich and a prepared area to sleep under were massive enticements. We resolved to get warm, dry and eat first then we would worry about sleep. 3:01 am we finally got into Kirkman Creek. Ryan was almost catatonic while I was high as a kite, we were both hurting like hell. We were 550 kms and 63 hours into the race. We had 150kms and at least 12 hours to go.
Kirkman Creek was a very small settlement with a couple buildings. It felt like we were transported into a Duck Dynasty episode. Right away it was a very different experience from Carmacks. One guy greeting us without saying much in full camo rain gear. The landing site was wet and muddy, everything we had was going to get dirty and wet. Ryan needed to get warm and dry so we pulled out our dry clothes bag and we went up to the site to try and find out what was going on. Kaydi and Geoff had arrived a little bit ahead of us and were getting their tent ready to sleep in and we could see why. Around 20-30 people were sleeping under a large tarp on the side of a small hill. They were squeezed in like sardines to likely try and get a bit of a dry place, while getting some rest. There were people snoring and it did not look like a place to get any good rest let alone stay dry. At the top of the hill there was a small cookhouse and next to it was a picnic table with tarp over it. I got a warm soup and a sandwich for each of us while Ryan started to get into dry clothes. He was not happy about the situation and in down spirits, I was trying to lighten the mood and told him I was going to ask if they had Wifi. My jokes had no audience at 3 am in the cold rainy conditions. I said we needed to set up the tent to be able to stay dry and get some decent rest. Ryan was not enthused about that prospect, it was going to be hard to set up the tent dry and all the additional work would mean a lot of our things getting wet. I felt we had no choice as there was no room under the tarp and we needed rest. It was Saturday morning and we had only had max 4-6 hours of non-restful sleep since Tuesday night. We also had at least 12 hours more on the water paddling. I told Ryan I would do the running around to get things so that all he would have to do was set-up the tent. Ryan felt he had to change back into his wet clothes to set-up the tent as he didn’t want to get his dry stuff wet, I choose to take my wet stuff, including my shirt off and run around camp with no shirt, at least I wasn’t getting any of my dry stuff wet. On the way down to the Kayak I found a small dry shack. There were no places to hang any of our wet things as everyone else had taken up spaces, however I improvised by hanging some of our items between the cracks of 2x4s and they seemed to hold. I ran into the father of team Yukon Do It, he seemed tired and panicked, not the same man I had met in Whitehorse. Others were there, I was excited to see other racers, everyone was walking around like Zombies though, no pleasantries and no talking. Some were starting to get ready to go back out, it looked bleak at the time for all of them. I was just happy to not be paddling and forced to rest, had I not have been, I am sure I would have continued on. In the earlier years of the race there was no stop at Kirkman and many paddlers would get delusional and lost in the maze of islands on this part of the river needing many rescues.
Exactly a week after being in Kirkman, I was sitting in Vancouver General Hospital emergency room. It was a Friday night to Saturday early morning and a full moon. Stabbing wound, several fallen seniors, a man crying for hours like he had been shot. It certainly made me feel better about my life, but I was still in the same boat as them, drifting down a river of problems. That Friday a new problem manifested itself as a sharp pain in the chest and trouble breathing. I got home tired and had a couple hour sleep on the couch. It was 10pm and when I woke up, I could not breath properly, the small pain had turned into a large pain in my whole left chest cavity, I was tired and now WTF was going on. A quick webmd.com scan for heart attack symptoms was check, check, check, check so I pounded back two Aspirins and contemplated driving myself to hospital. I knew it was likely a new manifestation of my journey, taunting me that I will not so easily escape the YMF, but I was not happy at the prospect of Melanie waking up to a stiff. I had to ask Melanie to drive me to ER. We asked our neighbour Joel, great guy, to stick at the house to make sure Trystan wasn’t home alone or having to come and be scared by the ER. We arrived, I thought that a suspected heart attack would get relatively quick attention. It did not. It took 30 minutes for them to even acknowledge my existence, 2 hours to get the first test, a chest x-ray, and 6 hours to finally see the doctor all while hanging out AWAKE in the waiting room watching all the other people with problems. I even tried to write some of this story there and finished Part 2 in the waiting room. After 8 hours from 10:30 pm to 6:30am when they finally said it wasn’t a heart problem and likely just muscle problems, I resolved never to go to ER again. I was walking along Broadway looking for a Car2Go and wondering was it all worth it. What a way it was to start the weekend that was supposed to be my recovery weekend. At least it wasn’t a heart attack.
Lisa and Laura arrived at Kirkman and I tried to guide them to what was available. I offered whatever I could provide, but they were zombies as well. I admired everyone’s deeper drive that kept them going; I felt that if I was in their state, I would have quit long ago. These are the type of people a journey like this attracts, people that don’t quit, people that can keep on going through extreme hardship, those who push the limits regularly, they are looking to live life at its limits and endure Type 2 Fun (fun to think about it later but not at the time). I found the one and only outhouse. It was straight out of an episode of Worst Outhouses in the World, a wooden box with a broken latch, no seat, etc…; really, do you want me to go on? By this point of the race the dexterity in my hands was already completely gone, overall a thoroughly unpleasant experience. Running around without a shirt in the pouring rain we got our stuff sorted and we were both ready for rest. It was about 4am and they were going to wake us at 5:30am, the race volunteers there had lamented that teams wanted to stay and rest for longer but they said they should get going as there was almost not enough time to get to the finish line. The race was beating hard against the tent, lying down focused the mind on the screaming pain of the muscles. Sleep did not come quickly. There was no comfortable way to rest in the tent. Hopefully the Advils would kick in and give some reprieve. They eventually did. An hour later we were woken up and told it was time. The rain was still beating and we were beaten. We acknowledged the wake up call, but just as quickly Ryan was heavy breathing again. F it, we were dead tired. We rested for an hour more.
Around 7:15am we started to contemplate our next steps. The rain was still falling and we knew we would get everything wet. We had dry warm clothes and even in a day of rain, we could likely make it to the end, that is as long as we finished today. Likely we could not go on longer than today at this point. We packed up, Lisa and Laura were still there as were a few other people. Laura was up and getting ready but It looked like Lisa was down for the count; you could read the anguish on Laura’s face, but you had to admire her continued resolve. I offered any supplies that they may need, she politely declined. There was a team of two Hungarian doctors there in a double canoe as well getting ready to go. One of them was outright talking to himself in Hungarian, no one around. It was eerie as the talk sounded frantic, repetitive and purposeful. If I was a doctor, I would not have let them go out on the water in that condition. They departed shortly thereafter, before we left.
We were now the zombies. Walking on some mud on the way to the kayak I fully sprawl bailed, I was numb to the pain and the irony of the time, just another part of the suffering along the way to the finish line. Just as we finished packing and getting ready to launch, the rain started to lighten up. We launched at 8:15am, beaten down but ready to make a push to the finish line. We had 9 maps to go. We figured another 12 hours at least and that meant in around 8-9pm if all went ok. I had just thrown back a RedBull and a few Advils before we left. My appetite was gone, my esophagus was burnt and I could not eat anything. I needed calories but I knew I was going to run on empty to the finish line, hopefully the blubber stores would be enough.
Setting off into the last leg, we were resigned to get to the finish. Trying to continue to paddle hard, every stroke got us closer to the end. Our bodies tried to play tricks on us to get us to stop, we resisted and carried on. An hour and a half in map 15 was done, a small celebration. 8 more maps to go, maybe it won’t be 12 hours. Map 16 was an hour and a half. I tried to get some life in us at the end of Map 16 by starting up the music again. It did not have the same effect for some reason as the day before. We were dead tired and the music was kind of annoying. We kept it on anyway as at least it gave us a beat to paddle to. From classical music to dance music, it was a mishmash of my whole 2000 song iPhone list and many of the songs would have best been FF, but I didn’t have the inclination nor the desire to stop even for a few strokes, it was not worth it.
Map 17 was a disaster. We got caught in the wrong slow moving channels, getting lost and not knowing the clear direction. At certain times we felt we would have taken Lake Laberge over some of those still channels. I’m sure it was frustrating for Ryan as I was steering and leading us and at times it appeared that I may have chosen poorly as to the route we should take. He would voice his questions and perspective, but would quickly be supportive. I wanted to explain more the choices I had made to get us where we were throughout the race but I could not waste the breath and hindsight was not going to get us to Dawson. I resolved to continue to learn from any navigational mistakes I had made and do better. By map 17 or 18 I had learned the painful realization that my attempts to keep us on the shortest path on the map, may have been taking us away from the current of the river. The current was not a major help but even if it was 1 or 2 km/hour help, that was dramatic at this stage. Missing out on that was killing me mentally, I was unsure of myself, my choices, my mental capacity and my resolve. There were many times I wanted to stop navigating and give the map to Ryan, but I kept quiet. I knew he was not prepared for the change and it wouldn’t have made things any better for us at this stage even though I am sure he would have happily rendered assistance. For each of us we continued to encourage the other to take any breaks that they needed, at the same time, I know at least my inner voice was not happy with my thoughts of breaks all the time while my body was screaming for reprieve. Seeing the other paddle when we were not was painful at it felt like you were paddling a medicine ball when only one of us was paddling. Knowing how it felt was motivation to keep on paddling.
Map 17 took at least 2 hours if not 2.5 and we were dead tired. It was midday, the rain had stopped and the heat was building, we had on a fair bit of warm clothes we could not take off but we didn’t want to stop. We had to though. 6 hours in and only at Map 18 was soul crushing. we had 5 more maps to go and we had only done 3ish. We stopped at a sandbar island. Ryan collapsed at the top of the hill. For the last few hours I was consumed by a foul smell I had been smelling. I felt like it had permiated all of my clothing and equipment. While Ryan was passed out, I took off all of my clothes at the water’s edge and washed myself in the river and all of my things. The river was cool, refreshing and awakening, but the smell would not retreat. Only a day after we finished did I finally shake it and I am sure that the smell was actually a olfactory hallucination. I had not only had sight and sound hallucinations but also smell hallucinations now. The body and mind were shutting down. I tried to cleanse for 30 minutes and then Ryan rose and we were off again on the river. Map 18 meandered across the page with large islands and many mistakes. I had to use the land topography to place us often and even then I felt lost much of the time. Ryan wanted to continue to be updated on the progress, I was resistant to satiate him as I was uncertain and not wanting to inflate his hopes of false promise. Map 18 was another 2 hours with the break. Onto Map 19, would they ever stop…
The wind picked up again for sometime and we had to feather our paddles again so as to cut through the wind. We paddled through the wind, but if it kept up for long the thought crept in that we would not have the juice to finish. I steered us closer to shore, hoping that trees and shrubbery would break the wind and we would have an easier time. It didn’t help and the extra steering and taking us out of the “faster” water was weighing on me. Map 19 was our last checkpoint though at 60 Mile which was 69 kms from Dawson City. We paddled to the checkpoint and floated by calling out our number 57 to the last checkpoint. Ryan took a few minute food break. I wanted to eat but the thought of food was vomitus, I drank water and a sip of RedBull. It was 4pm and we had about 4-5 more hours to go.
Once we flipped to map 20 it felt like we were in sight of finishing the race. We did not want to get our hopes up but that meant only 3 full maps to go. It was around 5ish and I was coming out of the afternoon lethargy and mind fog. The early evening brought tempered winds and visions of finishing. I was keeping us closer to the center of the river again to try and make sure that we got the most of any current but I also kept on paddling, stopping seemed like a luxury that I could not afford, nor did I deserve. At this point, we were convinced that we were last place, seeing almost no one, we thought everyone was ahead celebrating in Dawson already and the only two behind were Lisa and Laura whom we speculated how they were doing considering the shape they appeared in when we left them in the morning. If we weren’t going to make it till 8 or 9pm, we were doubtful if they were going to make the 12pm cutoff for finishing the race and we did not know if they would be pulled off the course or maybe they had thrown in the towel as we had wanted to for much of the day. We really didn’t know, but if they felt anything like we did, we felt for them and totally would have understood if they had packed it in and mad respect for them if they were going to the end. Sadly, we struggled to care about them or much else at that time. We were tunnel visioned on the end. We needed to get there, nothing mattered more in life.
A week and a half after the race I was sitting on the banks of the Bow River in Calgary. Watching the water flow, I wondered about the attraction. The cool sound of the water hugging the rocks as it flowed through a centuries crafted channel was addictive. How could we not be attracted to the water? Water gives us life, gave life to us, feeds us, cleans us and soothes us. It also kills us, wreaks havoc on our surroundings (just over two years prior it devastated Calgary in this very spot I was sitting), it drowns us and steals fathers, mothers, sons and daughters every year on lakes and rivers across the country. Water deserves respect. Did we give the Yukon the respect that it deserved? No. Rituals of indigenous cultures often shower respect on nature’s forces, as they are powerful determinants of our humanity’s survival through our whole existence. We now force our ideals and trivialities on the nature around us altering our interaction with nature hoping that it now bends to us instead of we to it. In Calgary, nature showed it does not need to bend to us and on the Yukon, the river that has broken so many people’s dreams, would not bend to us. Laura was explaining her past training of how to deal with being trapped in a log jam after the race to another racer as I listened. It was a great metaphor as your saviour in that situation is not to fight to the river, but to let it take you under the log jam. This requires strength that not many of us have anymore as we don’t have the relationship with nature we as a people once had. The dissonance has bred us to fear nature and seek ways to alter it to allay those fears. Being broken by the Yukon, I re learnt to respect nature and all its forces once again. Was this my mission? No, I was trying to conquer the race, the river, my mind and my body. The arrogance had not served me, but it had brought me to where I needed to be.
Our mission was pure. We wanted to collect water sample data for a starting data set and it had been accomplished by Scientia Navus (Science Boat in latin); we wanted to test ourselves and we had; we wanted to finish and we were almost there. Map 21 and 22 were a fog. I remember secretly checking my cell reception to try on a call and get some final encouragement to get us over the line. No such luck, we were going to do this alone. I was paddling all the time. My motion was disconnected from all reality I knew of what I was capable of. Ryan was a valiant companion, but I am not sure that at that point he had the burning franticness that kept me paddling, no matter, I was going to get us to Whitehorse and carry him across the finish line if I had to. I did not have to. We had caught up to the Hungarians at 60 Mile checkpoint where they stopped for a break and we sailed by. They caught up to us and passed us on the channels of Map 21 or 22, watching the performance of canoes versus us, it seemed like a canoe was the better vessel, surprisingly. At full paddle for us and our boat we were often not able to catch any of the canoes. At the start of Map 23 the Hungarians had stopped for a short break again and we caught and passed them. They were close behind us and we had a full map and at least 1.25 hours to go to the finish. All of a sudden I wanted to finish the race strong, looking to beat at least one boat and not finish last. I would have been proud to finish last, but something in me motivated me to want to paddle hard to the finish. Now I think, most of it was just the desire to finish the race, get off the water and get rest. I told Ryan what I was going to do and invited him to join me if he desired, but to feel no obligation. I paddled like a madman for 45 minutes straight, around 14-18 kms, no breaks and the fastest we had done any section of the whole course. I was going to leave it all on the river, nothing was going to be left. A helicopter hovered for some time watching us head for the finish. I tried to enjoy the distinctive sight of entering Dawson City on the Yukon, but I was obsessed with paddling as hard as I had all race. The Klondike entered the Yukon just before we came to the large Paddlewheeler that signified the end of the race. Jet river boats came upon us and watched our final push to the end. A man playing a banjo played in a rocking chair on the porch of a little floating cabin on the river, a nod of acknowledgment was surreal and we could not believe that we were at the end. Cheers and congratulations started as we approached and we crossed the finish line to a horn and warm welcomes from the gathered crowd. I was incredulous. I could have kept on going with the river. Could I have gone the 2000km more till the Yukon enters the ocean in Alaska? No, not this time, I’ll save that for another race.
In retrospect, I made a lot of mistakes. Many have asked what I would do differently and below is a short list of some of the things that I did, that caused me/us to be wholly unprepared for what was to come:
We had not seen or paddled our boat till race day. You need to do at least an overnight trip in the boat you race in before. Time cost = 2 hours
Mistakes Ryan made:
We finished the race at 20:34:34 Saturday June 27. We were 7th pace of the tandem Kayaks and 42nd place in the race. This all meant nothing to the fact that we had actually finished period. Endorphins pumping through my system gave me another evening high. I did not want to feel so good. I had been wrecked by the race. My mind wanted to crawl into a ball on the side of the river and sob at the torture. Instead, we pulled up to the edge of the river and I got out unassisted, took off all my clothes, except swimming shorts and dove into the frigid waters of the Klondike mixing in the Yukon. The swim at the start of the race was innocent. Now, here, I was cleansing the demons that invaded and drove me here. I was baptised by the YMF/YRQ and curious to see what the re-birth would bring. I feared PTSD, as I had many of the signs. My mind had lost its sharpness. Externally, I was happy to finish and the warm congratulations were welcome though I did not feel deserving of them. Ryan, on the other hand, as well as, everyone else, had my utmost respect for competing, finishing and those that pulled out had an equal amount of respect from me as I felt they were sainer than those that had finished. I called Melanie and did not break down this time. We were done and hers and Trystan’s congratulations were nice, but still I felt ill placed coming my way. Trystan had been watching me finish and he thought I won. That was good enough for me, who am I to crush a little 5 year old’s belief that his dad is god.
A few handshakes, hugs and pleasantries brought us right away to getting our gear out of the boat and our items collected so that we could get to the hotel. The Hungarians finished closely behind us and immediately everyone seemed to be packing up. I inquired if anyone knew of and was watching team Alpine Start, my joy of finishing turned to worry about their status. Quickly, I was pointed to Chris who was Laura’s partner and he said they were being watched and were going to finish before the 12pm cut off, excellent, impressive. Back to collecting our things. A nice Dawsoner retired teacher volunteer offered to drive us to the hotel we had arranged. Funny story, we actually booked it for Friday night as well, as we thought it might be possible we would make it Friday night, early Saturday morning and wouldn’t have a place to stay. Wouldn’t that have been nice.
We arrived in our hotel room and it was still the light of day at 10pm. People had asked if we were going out and we seemingly agreed that we would, what was a few more hours. We quickly put our stuff aside and I got in the shower first, a glorious luxury. If for no other reason, challenging oneself certainly makes you appreciate the little things like a shower or a bed or a pillow or food. Text messages were streaming in. We thought people were watching and it was nice they were with us in spirit, but they didn’t know what we were suffering through, they could never. The little boats slowly progressing along the map, amusing some with their team names “Passing Wind” or Trystan’s favourite “MaD Kiwis” and thoughts that this was a race. Maybe for the people at the front, but I can assure you at the back, we all were just supporting getting each other to the finish. We went out to get pizza that night, I only managed a piece as the burnt esophagus was not going to let me at the food I craved. We went to the local saloon Diamond Tooth Gerties (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PiQkC5JToWU) for the midnight show of the dancers and to have a celebratory drink. Mine was a paralyzer on account of needing a drink with milk to be able to go down, Ryan had a beer. We barely finished our drinks and we were done, it was 1am and we needed rest, but also overwhelmed by the contrast of what was around us and what we had just endured. Sleep came quickly to us that night.
The next day, I woke up at 10am, Ryan was still fast asleep as I should have been, but I wanted to go and watch the award show for the race which started at 11am, since we had come all this way. Just before I was leaving I woke up Ryan and told him where I was off to. He was going to join me, but I went off ahead. Dawson is a small town and nothing is hard to find or to get to. Everyone was streaming in the same direction anyways. I lined up for the food line and as I chatted with a couple of nice older ladies, I mentioned that it was an article about an older lady that I had read that inclined me to do this race. That was me one of smaller older ladies said to me (http://www.trainharder.com/2010/08/30/the-yukon-river-quest-the-incredible-journey/). It was Ingrid Wilcox, and she was with team 8 of Hearts (http://www.yukonriverquest.ca/yrq/app/15yrq/teams.php#t41) this year. At 67 she has done 14 YRQ, 10 of them solo and 4 in voyageur canoes. I was impressed but quickly I said how I hated her for getting me to do this. We talked away about her amazing
accomplishments, I was nothing, properly humbled. Ryan joined us and met her as well. Then we saw Geoff and Kaydi and Lisa and Laura from Alpine Start in the line. They had finished and were in good spirits and looked like nothing had happened. We sat together with Laura’s partner Chris and found instant camaraderie and friends in suffering. Trading tales and traumas. The race was slowly becoming a distant memory of accomplishment for some already, I was still traumatized. A night’s rest had not sharpened the mind and I feared longer term effects. It was a great party though of
awards, stories, triumphs and true heros. Just as we were going to be called up to the stage, the childhood parents of a great childhood friend of mine Craig (smart enough not to come on this adventure with me) were calling out. Gwen and Ed were doing a once in a lifetime trip of the North and happened to be in Dawson to see us get our certificate of accomplishment and had also been in Whitehorse when we left to see the start. Most importantly for me they were there and they wished us well and that they did. Very special.
Ryan and I under the banner of CARO Water Quest were called up to the stage and friendly faces from where I grew up, as well as, all the new friends we made were there to bare witness and see it was all real and not a dream. Raising the certificate high in the air in front of the 500 people gathered and letting out a cry of success was the moment I finally felt I had really made it, we had all made it.
Honourable Mentions – People that didn’t make the story (yet) but definitely we will never forget:
Bryan Allemang – solo canoeist who did an amazing job and was a incredible person to meet.
Tom Hughes – incredible solo paddler with a great support in his lady Sophie, both from the UK
Dan & Sarah – double canoe http://paddle-faster.com/2015/07/04/yukon-river-quest-day-1/, great couple from London
Simon Reed – 54 Cockleshell Endeavour 4 – fun and great guy from the UK
Tom & Mike from Team Strokes of Genius – fun guys that we wish we had more time to talk with
https://www.facebook.com/teamcaroracing – Team CARO Water Quest Facebook page for our journey with pcitures and videos
https://www.facebook.com/groups/824203467687195/ – YRQ 2015 Facebook page with other people’s stories and pictures
https://www.facebook.com/pages/Yukon-River-Quest/186123281403836?ref=profile – YRQ Facebook page
CARO Blog (https://www.caro.ca/news/) & Website (https://www.caro.ca/) – Where follow up data will be published.
https://instagram.com/caroanalytical/ – CARO Instagram
https://www.facebook.com/tedharrisonincanadanationalgallery – Ted Harrison & Yukon Art into Canada’s National gallery Facebook group I started sometime ago and am still on a quest to see this through.