Sup Race to the Midnight Sun: The Yukon River Quest
It was over half a year ago that my friend, Stu Knaack, from SUP Yukon in Whitehorse contacted me and said that the Yukon River Quest had just opened registration to a select number of paddle boarders for the first time. It was going to be an experimental year which meant we would not be part of the prize money and that race organizers would be looking to see if sup could be a viable category in this historic canoe and kayak river race. The Yukon River Quest is a wilderness adventure paddling race that follows the rich history of the wild and remote Yukon River from Whitehorse to Dawson City, some 715kms. I signed up immediately as I had always wanted to go to the Yukon and to experience the place and people and thought this would be an incredible way to do that. I knew it was going to be a massive challenge and I was motivated to prove that sup was legitimate in a race like this. It’s not too often in life where you have the opportunity and timing to do something so unique for the first time. There were a lot of unknowns, which made this appealing and with that, training and race preparations began for the Race to the Midnight sun.
There were eleven paddle boarders who found ourselves in Whitehorse prior to the race making final preparations, and trying to answer many questions people had about sup in the river quest. We were the talk of the town and a new energy had been injected into the Quest. There was a lot of skepticism as to how effective we could but but I was confident in my abilities and I knew was in good company with Bart De Zwart, Starboard athlete and distance legend, world champion Lina Augaitis who was the first to paddle this river by sup in 2011 and Deep Cove athlete, Jason Bennett who was well prepared and had been a great training partner in the months leading up to the race. Our crew was rounded out by Whitehorse locals Stu Knaack, Michelle Esheter, Stephen Waterreus, europeans Tony Bain, Joanne Hamilton Vale, Andre Le Geyt and Tofino paddle surfer and adventurer Glen Pearson.
Our race began in downtown Whitehorse at noon and started with a 400m run down to the rivers edge. We jumped on our boards and with that the race had begun and the mighty Yukon River was taking us north towards the midnight sun and on our way to Dawson City. After all of the details, planning, travel and training it felt really good to be finally on the water. We had two mandatory stops on this race, a seven hour supported stop in Carmacks and a three hour rest at Coffee Creek. Bart charged out quickly and I wasn’t about to let him have the race so soon so I broke out with him with Jason not far behind. A three hour river sprint took us to our first check point at the start of Lake Laberge. If there was one physical attribute of this race that would provide the biggest challenge and was met with many warnings by the locals, it was Lake Laberge. It was massive, beautiful and at times unpredictable. In a way I was looking forward to this section since most of my training and expeditions take place on the ocean in challenging and windy conditions and the big water would allow me the opportunity to open up my stroke a bit more and to use my comfort on big water to grind through the miles. Bart and I continued on together with Jason and Stephen not far behind, all of us at times using Voyageur canoes and C2’s for drafting and efficiency. We finished the last couple of hours on the lake with a tail wind that blew us to our Lower Laberge checkpoint. We ripped off one of the most challenging sections of the course and with the initial river section, we raced 89 kms in in 9.5 hrs.
One of the most unique aspects of the race is the midnight sun, which dips slightly below the horizon so it never gets dark here at this time of the year. Bart and I were moving into the midnight hours as we connected with the fast currents of the river leaving the lake. It was a beautiful section of river that kept us entertained for hours as we searched for the faster currents on the outer bends and throughout the main flows which in the end would save us a lot of time. Stu Knaack said the locals called it the “silver lining”, the most efficient and fastest line in the river. We spent our whole race looking for this lining. Another challenge of the race was sleep deprivation as the course would see us paddle through three consecutive nights and for a lot of competitors would be the x factor they had to deal with. I had only limited experience with sleep deprivation but my two year old son Kiel certainly has taught me that I could operate on very little sleep but that was a far cry from racing for three straight days on minimal sleep. The toughest hours, seemed to be between three and five which was the coolest hours with the least amount of light. Bart and I would talk to each other to keep each other up and we would stop periodically to eat to help keep the sleep monsters at bay. A key survival technique on this race that I anticipated prior to the race was to team up and paddle with someone of equal ability. Although you were racing against each other it was critical to share hours together and help each other during down times which would inevitably come. I was really excited to be paddling with Bart, he is a true paddling legend and a great person with a ton of experience. He had crushed all of the longest races in the world and had done some epic crossings, including a four day open ocean crossing from Tahiti to Bora Bora.
Hour after hour we paddled down this remote section of the Yukon and as we got into the early morning hours we were joined for a while by local Whitehorse paddler Stephen who displayed some great endurance this deep into the race and not only passed Jason who was minutes behind but caught up to us as well. Bart and I were both surprised to see Steven charging up from behind, using the river currents well. I began to affectionately call Stephen “the phantom”, for his ability to sneak up on you out of nowhere with his strong paddling and then, just as quickly, disappear. Jason was not far behind either and having both Jason and Stephen pushing from behind kept Bart and I on our toes and kept us paddling at a good pace.
As morning turned into lunch time we approached our first mandatory stop at Carmacks. It’s really amazing how the final hours leading into a rest or even the finish of an endurance race seem to drag on, time moves much more slowly and this is where you begin to tap into your mental toughness. After a few more bends in the river, and with muscles aching we landed at Carmacks. I looked at my watch, 24.5 hrs and 305 km. It was so good to see Carmen, Nikki and Mark. I pretty much fell into Nikki’s arms as my legs were having difficulty adjusting to movement after being pretty much in the same spot for the last full day. She brought me up to the rest area where I devoured food and got my legs up to help the fluids drain. I had not given much thought initially in my planning to the importance of the support. Nikki Rekman, Werner and Kokatat rep, and her partner Mark had graciously offered to help me and I now realized how critical this seven hour layover would be. My partner, Jen, who has adventure raced and run ultra marathons all over the world for the last fifteen years provided incredible support to Nikki in terms of advice on what would be most effective for me during this stop. After a 45 minute feed I got to the tent for some much needed rest. Thankfully I managed to sleep, which allowed my body time to recover. I woke up an hour prior to departure to eat more and warm up. Nikki and Mark were amazing in their support and I felt grateful to have such incredible people around me.
Bart, Stephen and I pretty much departed together just after 7:30pm and paddled strongly into the early evening and towards 5 Finger Rapids. Three hours later we made our way to Five Finger Rapids, the only section of whitewater and the halfway point of the race. Five Finger Rapids is a beautiful section of river with a few options through the rock wall portals and as advised we stayed far to river right. Bart and I made it through without much problem and again moved into another night of paddling but with the rest at Carmacks I did not struggle as much with sleep deprivation.
We both remarked that it seemed lighter than the previous night but we realized that we were another 300 plus km’s north. We passed the site of Sam McGee’s ashes, made made famous by Robert Service’s poem about a prospector who froze to death on Lake Laberge. I think everyone in the Yukon can recite this word for word. We passed check points in Minto and Fort Selkirk and paddled past stunning sections of river lined with volcanic basalt walls while keeping company with a Voyageur canoe full of ladies who sang and called out paddling cadences. Earlier into the morning we partnered up with Jason who had made up some time while Bart and I stopped on the hour for quick food breaks. From here Jason and I would be together until the end. The grey, cool and foggy early morning broke into a warm beautiful day as we made our way to our second mandatory stop at Coffee Creek. I struggled with the last few hours of paddling leading up to the stop with the heat of the day and the fact that we were pushing into 40 hours. I was really starting to feel the wear and tear on my legs and my feet and so it was good that our next mandatory stop appeared on the horizon. We were met with happy and surprised faces and I fumbled around like a drunk sailor once I hit land again. We were all thankful for the soup and sandwich that was provided by the volunteers and a for the short rest. I felt horrible after waking from the two hour nap, I was stiff and groggy and it took a little while to wake up. My hands were showing the wear of two straight days of paddling and I threw down some Advil to help. In contrast, Bart was feeling great after the break and minutes into our last leg he decided to push hard and to break from Jason and I. With a gentleman’s agreement to leave the safety of the group Bart pushed off ahead. I did think about chasing after him but considering how I felt at the time and knowing we still had another 12-14 hrs of paddling, Jason and I decided to continue on together, not giving up on Bart but not being foolish in our chase. This is where I saw Bart’s experience take over. He had been in this position before, he had done these long races and understood what he could demand from his body. I just wanted to make sure I had enough left to finish. Bart was really focused on breaking the 55 hr mark and although Jason and I wanted the same we both wanted to make sure we got the got to Dawson City.
The last section of the Yukon River to Dawson City widens and becomes much more braided with countless creeks and large rivers like the White, Stewart and Klondike that dump into the main flow. There are some stunning sections of shoreline on this bottom end and if you were not seeing faces in the rocks earlier into the race after two nights without sleep, well every rock and tree seemed to take human form. Our minds began to play tricks and stumps looked like animals, trees looked like canoes and the river began to take on a bit more of an eerie feel to it. I did not have any full on hallucinations but the mind was starting to walk that fine line. This is where having someone to paddle with makes all the difference. Jason would help me and I would help Jason, like Bart and I did earlier in the race, we both worked to keep each other moving forward. Paddling through our third evening we were trying to find anything that had caffeine in it as we watched the pages of Mike Rouke’s river map slowly move by. Our pace diminished in the headwind and a number of canoes had passed us providing encouragement as they went by. We kept our mind focused on getting under 55 hours ourselves but our speed was slow and it wasn’t until Team 7th Chakra, a voyageur canoe went by with reports of the Phantom aka Army of Darkness (Stephen’s team name) in the area that snapped us out of our of slog and inspired us to shift gears as we started to build some momentum to the finish. I can attribute the success of our finish to this team. Thank you 7th Chakra. Basic math at this point in the race seemed futile but Jason managed to do some rough calculations and had figured that if we could keep a higher pace we might be able to get in under 55 hrs. We were finally within striking distance of the finish and although I still wasn’t sure what I had left in the tank I thought we should really give it go. With an hour and a half left I began my sprint for the finish with Jason tucked in behind. I kept the (voyageur) in sight and charged to catch them and then use their draft. I was moving full speed and I had no idea where the reserve of power had come from. Maybe my body was adapting and getting stronger, maybe it was adrenalin. Regardless we were gunning hard for Dawson City and Jason was calling out our speeds which at times, in the right current, was hitting 18kms an hour. Soon we could see Moose Hide slide, a prominent land mark above Dawson City and finally, finally Dawson City came into view. Month’s earlier Stu had sent me Mike Rouke’s river map and graciously marked check points but the one thing he marked on the map right at the finish at Dawson City were the words “Winner Winner Chicken Dinner.” Those words stuck in my head the whole race and I guess became my mantra for moving forward! So I have to thank Stu for that motivation! We could hear the hollering from shore, we could see Nikki and Carmen on the shorelines screaming with signs that said Go Norm! Go Jason! and with that added bit of energy and support I pushed into a full speed sprint to get across the finish line with Jason not far behind. Then, the horn went and I crossed the finish line. Just like that, it was over, we were done and we had made it. Winner Winner Chicken Dinner. My time, 54:56:47, we had made it under the cutoff. The 55 hrs was significant because that was the cutoff time for canoes and kayaks to receive prize money. Although we did not receive any prize money this year, we wanted to prove a point that SUP’s could do it. Bart came in first, 15 minutes ahead of us and with that we had three paddleboards to go under 55 hrs. I did not think i would be sprinting to the finish line but it is amazing what reserves the body has when called upon. Just before hitting the beach the body relaxed and I felt a well of emotion arise in me as I waited for Jason so we could hit the beach together, it was a team effort. We were by met with hugs and kisses from Nikki and Carmen and with the exertion of the last couple hours Jason literally passed out on the shoreline. I think he needed a Sour Toe Cocktail to revive him!!
What an absolutely incredible feeling to finish this epic, inaugural race, and hard to describe the range of emotions but I was quickly rewarded with a full Pizza, a coke and a bag of Miss Vickies chips. I called my family and headed to the hotel for a sleep. After waking up I headed back to the beach a few hours later to wait for the rest of the paddle boarders to come in. I did not get a chance to see Steven come across but I was there for Andre, Michelle, Stu and Glen. I was so incredibly proud of everyone. Few words were needed, everything you important to know was reflected in the eyes of our fellow paddlers. And with that it was over, we had done it and although I did not have the infamous Sour Toe Cocktail I did enjoy a glass of Yukon Brewing’s Ice Fog IPA at the historic Downtown Hotel. A beer never tasted so good.
This race affected me in so many ways. It was beyond what I thought it would be. It was a powerful, special experience that imprinted on me and left me very, very satisfied. It was incredibly challenging and long, there were ups and downs, it made me question what I was made of, what mattered and what motivated me. Although my physical tank had been emptied and the race had stripped away everything that was unnecessary, other parts of me were completely full and overflowing. Sharing the experience with Bart, Jason and the other racers, along with my support crew Nikki and Mark brought depth and understanding to the experience. Paddling through the remote and pristine Yukon wilderness, being part of the First Nations and gold rush history on the river and being part of the first crew of paddle boarders to race to the midnight sun was one of the most amazing experiences of my life.
Many thanks go out. Thanks to my partner Jen and my son Kiel for giving me strength when I needed it. Thanks to Jen as well for helping me to train for this race and for putting my nutrition plan together. Thanks to my parents and all those people who provided support throughout the race, you do not know what that means to us when we are out there. Thank you! A massive thanks goes to Mark and Nikki for providing such incredible support, sponsorship and love throughout the whole race. Thanks to Carmen, your an amazing women and I appreciated your support and encouragement and smile. A special thanks to Stu Knaack for getting me to sign up for the race, for hosting me while I was here and for being the Original Northerner here in Whitehorse. I will not forget the look of pride you carried in your eyes.
A really big thanks to all the volunteers at the race and for the Yukon Quest organizing committee. Peter Coates, you did an amazing job with the race tracking and I have heard from so many people how much they enjoyed following the race.
Thanks to my sponsors Boardworks Surf, the Eradicator was awesome, Kokatat, Vaikobi and Galileo Coffee. Thank you to Bart and Jason for paddling with me for so long and helping me to get through the race successfully. Finally congrats to all my teammates Stephen, Andre, Michelle, Stu, Glen, Tony and Jo, it was an honour to share such a powerful experience with you all and we are all Winner Winner Chicken Dinners!!