No one was happier to see the blinking red beacon than I was, it signified the end of the mind numbing long journey along the shores of Lake Lebarge through waves and high winds. I was well behind my self-imposed schedule and turned into the checkpoint at Lower Lebarge around midnight, twelve full hours of sitting in my kayak without a breather or a chance to stand up erect. The mood at the rest stop was quiet, almost somber as those paddlers gathered there either sitting on the worn rounded stones or staggering about the beach carried the same exhausted expression. It was not over yet. Not by a long shot. I saw my new friend Glen sitting after standing for the same amount of time and distance on his paddle board as I had in my wooden kayak. We smiled at each other in that knowing way. We had braved the storms and the seemingly endless unchanging vista of the lake view together, though he had dashed ahead of me in the final kilometers.
I changed into my overnight paddling clothing. It was no easy feat to get undressed and redressed on that sloping shore with its cold round stones to add to my unsteady atrophied legs. I resorted to sit and wiggle my legs into my tights and waterproof pants. Nothing, and any long time paddler will tell you the same that there is nothing better after a long paddle than changing into fresh dry warm clothing. Usually, it is when the tent is up, the kayaks are put away for the night and dinner is simmering on the camp stove. Changing this time was in preparation of the next section of the over 300 kms to the first lengthy sleep break at a campground at a place between here and there called Carmacks named for the famous prospector who found gold sparking the gold rush.
I left before Glen and some of the others that had arrived before me. Call it a second wind, or just the stoic realization that the only way to get home was to just keep paddling. If I had any notion to pack it in, feeling the sharp twinges in my shoulder and under the weight of knowledge that I was venturing on in the way back of the race pack it would have been then and there. I got back in my seat, tugged my spray skirt back on around the cockpit, swung my paddle blade into the water and got a good push backwards off the stones by a very cheerful volunteer.
I set my GPS for the next waypoint, always this unit was my carrot on a stick. Planning my waypoints to set nice small bites of the river at a time because the mental drain of thinking about the daunting distances would have done me in. Instead it was smaller 20 – 50 km chunks that allowed my to not think about the next stop or checkpoint for hours. Just paddle. I did that, into the dusky overnight hours and in the winding faster moving narrow slot of the 30 Mile River section as the width of the lake closes into at times barely 50 feet from shore to shore. I could tell what was ahead and make out features along the shoreline as it was light enough even at 1:30 in the morning to paddle comfortably. My mandatory headlamp shining but was more an indicator to on lookers that I was there than means to illuminate any hazards. I was starting to be gifted with the midnight sun.
This part of the river was like a gift as well after the slog on the lake. The flow was swift and at times curled into riffles and small rapids. Gravel bars were something to be watchful for as was the pinpoints of other headlamps coming from behind me. I felt comforted to see them and as the wee hours of dusky night grew into early morning I could make out the spires of tree tops and aimed for those places far ahead now and then glowing brighter than the surroundings. That sun glimpse would be short lived as rain would greet me by mid-morning, but for now it was a pleasant paddle with the current on my side. I glided with my paddle up to have a snack after about an hour from Lower Lebarge of gummy bears and a full can of Red Bull that I slugged back rapidly. I looked around. I was very much the only one in sight as the bends in the river blocked my views forward and back. It was a strange mingle of daylight and dark that played tricks on the eyes. Small whirl pools spun at my bow and swirled as I paddled by them. Things on shore were not what they seemed. I was on the constant look out for wildlife, bears, wolves, moose and the beavers that frequently came to swim with me.
I had heard rumours of the racers in the past who in fits of tired paddle-weary moments fell into various stages of hallucinating. I pushed those thoughts aside when preparing for the Quest. Stories of paddlers seeing burning trees, wildlife that was more tree stump than bear and one story of seeing a Voyageur in full vintage regalia standing on the shore holding his canoe paddle. Nonsense! And with my last fistful of gummy bears I saw a white deer walking on the steep sandy river bank. I slowed my paddling to watch it and cursed the low light from letting me get a photo. A white deer! It pranced at my approach and scrambled up the bank kicking a spray of dark sand from its hooves. Then, it disappeared. I thought my eyes were playing tricks in the dusk then it reappeared but then with one more leap it evaporated completely. I looked at the time, it was only 14 hours into the race and I was already seeing things? It must have been the combination of gelatinous bruins and whatever evil resides in a tall can of Red Bull.
I don’t know what September is like where you are, where ever you are, sitting reading my blog post. And thank you by the way for stopping by. Here on my island home of Salt Spring on the evening of August 31st the climate changes. The air is cooler, damper and has a taste of something intangible. The light is different the morning of September 1st. How does it know when to change? Is there a meter, or a counter that click click clicks through the months until it reaches those sad last gasps of summer and then clicks one last time and Fall arrives. Labour Day weekend being a weather crap shoot every year. Will it rain? Will it shine? All our hopes wrapped in the last desperate hours of that final weekend of freedom before it all comes crashing down like a Berlin wall of winter. Yes, to my mind there are only two seasons on the west coast. Summer and that other thing. Not winter per say but a thing, a creature, an entity that comes around to torment me with months of grey and rain and the damp cold that digs deep into your bones. They don’t call this the ‘wet coast’ for nothing. September is the last gasp month. Not quite summer anymore but not quite that other thing either.
September brings with it sweet and bitter memories, of back to school, romances come and gone, kayaking trips and walking bare foot on cold sand with a hot cup of coffee in the sunrise hour. With all its connotations September remains my favorite month of the twelve. It is the light and the slight dampness. It is the call for warm sweaters in the morning and begging for a cool t-shirt by 2 pm. It is the time of confusion for dressing and whether or not to have the doors open past a certain evening hour. It is the morning mists holding tightly to the ground and gathering in the apple trees in the valley below my house. It is the fact that I can still leave my bedroom window open at night, at least for now. It is the dry grass knowing that with the first rains of October (and that rain will come) all will return to green then blanketed by the fallen maple leaves that started to give up the ghost early this year. It is the threat of a first frost. It is the embrace of adding a log to the fireplace. It is dark too early and increasingly shorter days. Time to dig out those books collected and wine to drink. It is the beginning of a cosier time to slow down after the wild and so short-lived summer months of not caring about interior things.
September, welcome. I was expecting you to show up at some point this year but not as fast as you have. Were you ahead on schedule or was I behind? In any rate, there is no fighting with you. You are now here and all I can do is say hello, come on in. Sit your bones down as you may be tired from the journey. I do hope you will help me out in making yet another set of September memories to add to my list of those you seem always to inspire. It is time to dig out the tent, the cook stove and embrace the damp morning on a beach with a fresh hot cup of coffee and wet chilly sand under my bare toes.
Of the two major cruxes of the Yukon River Quest, omitting the obvious physical and mental endurance aspects of course, I asked myself for years which would be worse, the lake or the rapids? I would have said the rapids if those worried thoughts during sleepless moments at 4am in the week leading up to the race were any indication. I have never shot a set of waves bounding over submerged boulders let alone paddled in moving water so I was anticipating a knee-shaking-adrenaline-pumping-capsizing-red-hot-mess of floating debris and my lost wits by the ending of my attempt at the rapids. But, it was the lake that should have garnered more of my fear and anticipatory loathing. Rapids are somewhat predictable depending on the year and volume of water flowing through them. A lake is an animal, wild, at times ill-tempered and prone to fits of trickery lulling the weary paddler into a false sense of tranquil security. This is where the Yukon showed me hers and I did my best to show her mine. This is where I began coining the phrase ‘I Got Yukoned’ to my fellow paddlers. I really should have spent that time laying awake in bed dreading the unknowns of Lake Laberge not the ‘over in a second’ Five Finger Rapids.
I came to realize the enormity of the lake shore distances during a boat ride on my first day in the Yukon. Our host and River Quest Volunteer, Ray took my team out for a short run on the lake in his jet boat and as we motored out around Richtofen Island I looked out to the opposite shore where in just a few days I would be paddling. It looked long and what was visible to the eye was only a potion of the long 50 km lake. It was pointed out to me by Ray and Gus who had paddled it many times before that the length of the lake is a, pardon my language, a mind fuck! The geography and slight bending of the lake causes this. You never see the end. We will be paddling to one point, rounding it only to see nothing but the next outcropping point of land.
As I calmed down after my bumper car beginnings of the race I rediscovered the now familiar portion of the river beyond the limits of Whitehorse. High white sandy cliffs skirted the edges of the river. The water a glacial greenish blue and the course ahead was narrow. I was not accustomed to navigating with so many other craft surrounding me and this made me hyper aware of everything around me. I watch as an eagle flies across my bow a few feet above the water and attempts to land on the sandy cliff. With no secure purchase it fumbles the landing and with wings flapping and feathers flying and dust clouds rising with each awkward motion it slides to a stop folding its wings to its body and acts natural while the small san avalanches tumble down the rivers edge.
The river widens and shrinks allowing the flotilla to squeeze through with care until the intersection with the Takhini River where I had pulled out during my training paddle two days before the race. There I heard my crew. “Good job Paddleboy, We Love You!”. I could barely make out the shapes of my friends that were making this mission possible from so far below as the current whipped me around the next bend. I love them and hearing the cheers lifted me up and added power to my paddle. A couple of hours later I would hear them again far in the distance at Policemans Point, and that would be the last time until I landed at the dock at Carmacks. I took them with me during the night and coming day.
Policeman’s Point was the last twisting section of river before this flat bug infested and shallow estuary opens up into becoming a lake. I had mixed feelings about leaving the river for several hours of lake paddling. On the one hand, getting away from the bugs would be a blessing but when I stretched out for my paddle onto the lake it was obvious that the winds were not blowing the right way.
From the mouth of the river the organizers allowed the racers to cross a long diagonal course to the opposite shore on the right side of the lake. This was a bumpy crossing but nothing I was not used too from ocean kayaking on a breezy day. A small rolling chop and a persistent slightly annoying headwind that I knew would dissipate once we all arrived in the lee created by large exposed rock faces such as Graveyard Hill. I can only imagine the reasons behind the naming origins of that mount. It did have a tombstone feel to it and I hoped that first glimpse of the topography that would be my view for the next few hours was not to be too ominous a theme. I had been paddling with or close too a big voyageur canoe paddled by breast cancer survivors named, Paddlers Abreast. We had chatted prior to entering the serpentine leading into Policeman’s but now they moved ahead of me pulling on the paddles hard against the wind. I looked around and up the long expanse of the lake to see white caps forming and far along the shore beyond the island was what I knew was calm water. Smooth and inviting and I worked hard to reach shore guided by support boats edging us along a line of buoys.
It didn’t take long to reach the calm waters that looked closer to where the lake narrows but were in fact closer and that initially had me excited as I had hopes of a windless journey on this section of the marathon, or at least a decent tail-wind. The blessing of flat water soon proved to be a sour challenge. With the calm lake came intense heat not detoured by the winds cooling. My pace slowed dramatically and I plodded on drinking often and cursing the clouds forming over the hills ahead of me. I looked behind and saw the skyscape altering as well. It was made of dirty grey clouds. I moved onwards only concerning myself on what I saw ahead of my kayak. Thunder rumbled and I had thought for a moment that it was about to get very wet but instead the angry air slammed downwards hard and created ripples on the water that in what seemed seconds not minutes aroused into wind waves.
I was paddling close to an SUP paddler. We had met at Takhini Bridge that first day and I liked Glen immediately. Now he was about fifty meters ahead of me, and on his knees paddling hard to reach shore. The dreamy conditions earlier had moved us farther away from shore than we should have been so the fight for safe shore line forced us to come inside of the buoy marking a mid-lake monitoring point. By then the winds eased slightly but the damage was done. There wasn’t much to discuss about what had just transpired but he and I were both happy to be paddling normally again. I settled in for the next leg of the lake as I finally began to gain every closer to that first outcropping. Point number one done, how many more? In the effort to keep any forward momentum in the storm I pushed too hard and had strained my shoulder badly. I knew this was a possibility that at some point during the marathon it would become an issue, but I had assumed it would not be so close to the start. A veritable flood of worry entered my head and that too was something I concerned myself. I do spend a lot of time in my own head. River Quest would allow so much more solitude and I was fine being in my own company and moving through thoughts that I would not have normally had time for back home but now I was becoming consumed with the problem of paddling in pain. There was no way I was going to scratch from this! It ached and with each paddle stroke when I pulled my arm back to begin the next stroke there was an uncomfortable twinge. Nothing to do but paddle on and again the water softened and the skies reloaded for the next attack.
The previous five minutes had been a blur. The starter horn blew. We all ran, walked or hurried to our boats lined up in order on the gravel beach beside the park, I was one of the hurrying types not wanting to use it all up before paddling. There was tussling of bodies ahead of me and I lost sight of Joe who was also of the hurrying kind. Reaching my boat after side stepping those in front of me who were seemingly less in a hurry to get going I found my wooden kayak and Anik standing at the stern awaiting her big moment to shove me out into the river, my kayak resting on a fresh strip of sod.
Ray, a volunteer on a sweeper boat was an acquaintance Gus had made on his many trips to the Yukon to compete in the Quest worked his family’s sod farm just outside of Whitehorse. The sweeper boat’s job is to follow the progression of paddlers up the river staying behind to round up, retrieve, aid, or rescue kayakers and canoeists who decide to call it a day, scratch or fall into trouble at the back of the pack. Ray would end up keeping the same ridiculous hours on the river as all the participants as he circled around the many islands and islets searching out the above mentioned boats.
After his short visit with Gus on the island Ray was on the same ferry ad I during my weekly trips to Victoria where Anik lives. Gus had pointed out my wreck of a car as I entered the terminal parking lot and told Ray that I was planning to paddle in the Quest. Ray sought me out. At first when he tapped a knuckle on my window disturbing my reading I thought he was just another hitch hiker looking to grab a ride into the city. He was not that but turned into someone else indeed. In the space of five short minutes chatting on the open deck of the ferry I had made a friend for life. In that meeting he gave me as much intel about the river that he could, and the offer to take me up river before the race on his jet boat to investigate the best route to Dawson. This encounter was the single most important tipping point in my decision to enter the race, though in the weeks to come I would be handed even more incentive. For now, I had a great new ally, a new addition to the team I was building and more important a new friend.
I wasted no time at my kayak as other racers madly paddled away. There was a rush of water, tension being released as finally after months of preparation we all were getting this thing started once and for all. I picked up my paddle and kissed Anik realizing two things at that moment. One being I could continue kissing her all day but that would significantly harm my finishing results, and two the remembrance of what Gus had told me earlier about setting up his GoPro camera up in a tree pointing at my boat. Its on film, the curtain was up and the performance had begun, I got to it. Sitting in the cramped cockpit I wrestled my feet into place in the rudder pedals and began the always tedious wrapping of the elastic of my spray skirt to secure it to the rim of the cockpit. Inevitably, whenever I rush this process it springs off at the back and I have to begin again. Usually resulting in an ocean wave threatening to fill my kayak wit sandy sea water. I knew this would happen and calmly as I could under the harried circumstances started from behind my back and all the way to the front pulling at the toggle until it fell into place. I gave Anik the thumbs up and she lifted the back of the boat and pushed me down my grassy ramp. I was actually paddling in the Yukon River Quest! I struck out hard but maintained my pace not giving into the temptation to race ahead.
Most of the front runners had long gone and the mid group was ahead of me. I set off into the swift current that rushed through the narrows along the Whitehorse city shore. Onlookers waved and cheered and it had been the first time experiencing anything like that. I never had fan fare before and it was a rush. In the time it took to redo my skirt I had lost considerable ground. I knew I could make it up if I stuck to my plan and raced my own race. However, others around me had alternative and unforeseen plans. The one aspect of the race that I did not count on before hand was the crowding at the start. Thankfully, most of the pack had already set out but I still had several boats and the long voyageur canoes to contend with as I looked for a safe line to take. I saw Joe up ahead paddling strongly on one side of his canoe and then the other. I kept his pace. A silly move and a small detour from my instincts, but the moment took over me. I was racing after all and wanted to keep up with Joe as long as I could. I looked around me. My head on a constant swivel in search of those around me potentially crowding my paddle space. I thought I was clear and cut across to the center of the river to hopefully find the strongest current that only three days before had been intimidating until I discovered the joy of moving water for the first time.
Clunk! I felt it before I heard it. The soft nudge from behind and then the horrifying reality of what was happening jolted me from my bubble. I was facing the wrong way. My kayak hit from behind by the Japanese tandem men’s kayak, their bow locking horns with my rudder housing and the force of the collision tossed me into a 180 degree spin in the current.
“Let go!” I shouted as the front paddler in the tandem held onto my kayak. What was he thinking was anyone’s guess at that point but all I knew was I had to get free and somehow right myself. I couldn’t go all the way backwards. I pushed at their boat and finally he got the hint and let go. They pushed ahead and paddled on but I still was sailing at quite a clip, in reverse! I grabbed at the water on my right with the paddle blade shaped like and elongated spoon, shifting the rudder that I was relieved to discover was undamaged. I grabbed at the water on my left. The wing blade scooping at the emerald green river water hard and in a few strokes and aided by the current to the cheers on the boardwalk I was going in the right direction with the kayak’s bow now pointed firmly north. It was a humbling beginning to my journey that would be filled with humbling moments, but of all that could have happened in the mayhem at the start line a mild bump from another boat was the least disastrous. All is fair in a race like this one and mistakes will happen. I settled back into my bubble as I left the outskirts of the city and followed the narrow path bordered by high white sandy cliffs towards Takhini River Bridge.
I stood, or more accurately I was pacing and shifting from one foot to the other on the grass in Whitehorse’s Rotary Park under the nearly noon day sun with the 250 paddlers of the gathered 95 teams of kayakers, canoeists, and the newly added stand up paddlers. Our team names were read out in turn by the mayor and one of the territory’s member’s of parliament at the microphone who were sheltered from the heat under the covered stage area. It was a long process and added a half hour to the traditional half hour wait of anxiety until the starting horn sounded.
The sudden weight of what I was about to enter into fell upon me about fifteen minutes into this speech making and I could barely register when my name, Team number 7, Paddlingboy from Canada was read out to the crowd. A rush of self doubt was swimming in the back of my mind. There were too many moving parts involved, I had come too far and spent too much money to back out now. People were looking, counting on me and I was the recipient of more support than anyone could ask, but still it was laying heavy on my shoulders. I am not an endurance racer. I am no athlete as my high school gym teacher would testify, and that has not changed in the ensuing years so what the hell was I doing standing on the grass surrounded by life jacket clad river warriors. Imposter syndrome was kicking in and I wondered if I was truly prepared, or was this going to be a huge failure if I had actually bitten off more than I could chew as a kayaker. I tied once again to build that bubble around me. My race bubble that I had formed and practiced in the months leading up to the Yukon River Quest was now difficult to establish. It would not fully formed, it was irregular and had holes letting in distractions and concerns.
About midway through the reading of team names my friends and support crew, Gus and Pia arrived at the rope fence around the coral of racers and waved me over. I jumped out of my stupor, and this would not be the last time that Gus managed to accomplish this feat. I walked over to them to receive good luck hugs. We were supporting two other solo kayakers, Wayne and Brad so Gus and Pia had to leave to be ready at the riverside to help push kayaks into the flow of the Yukon River. I had my partner Anik stationed by my kayak to do just that once I was in the boat and ready to start my paddle. A few words from them and a bit of love and somehow I became more relaxed and went back to where I was standing but now sat down reclining back on my elbows in the warm grass. Was I prepared? Did I actually know what I was getting in to? The answer is simple, maybe. There was the little guy on one shoulder and another little guy on the other shoulder. One, dressed much like I was in a ridiculous outfit of spray skirt and life jacket, pockets of which were filled with safety gear like fire starter and an emergency bivi sack in case of worst case scenarios. Those scenarios were the least of my worries.
I was navigating through a small last-minute crisis of confidence and on the other shoulder perched a fellow resembling that kid I was once. In fact, he could have been any version of me at just about any age. I am not sure that I would have committed to this event even a few short years ago. Was it lack of confidence then when I was younger leading my to a 51-year-old case of mid-life angst pushing me into the prospect of kayaking thousands of paddle strokes over the race course of 715 kilometers to Dawson City? The kayaker guy said go for it. “You got this!” he exclaimed smiling and waving a kayak paddle proudly in the air above his head. The other one, well he was less encouraging. He was a bit of a downer. I know he was only trying to keep me real, to add some common sense to this crazy thing I was about to do, he was only trying to help but I wanted him out of my bubble. He reminded me that I could have trained more, I was not sure I had the right amount of gear in fact in hindsight I did have too much. What if I scratched? Would that be a sin, a crime and evidence of fraud to those whom I now see as my peers. Would they understand. Some paddlers don’t make it its true. By Carmacks which is the first mandatory rest break a good portion of those who start the race, quit. Fatigue combine with heat or cold exhaustion taking hold along with dehydration, injury and all manner or other potential problems lay ahead on my river quest. Would I be one of those fallen. Would it be my own fault for being here?
I chose to listen to the first guy, my little kayaker buddy who seemed to believe in me as much as my team and it was too late to turn back now. I dug into my internal self and dredged up a character trait that I knew would get me started and keep me paddling throughout. stubbornness! I stood up and whipped my hands then hooked my thumbs into the shoulder straps of my life jacket also referred to from now on as a PFD (personal floatation device) and its yellow. The confidence renewed and I envisioned myself somewhere on the long river in my kayak, in my element doing what I do best. I began a last minute chat with a fellow paddler, a canoeist Joe Evans whom I had met years before. He appeared far more prepared both boat and equipment wise as well as in attitude. He took this all in stride. He spoke with me as a comrade. Asking me if I was ready and to that I could only laugh a little. “I guess I can tell you that at the end of Lake Laberge, Joe!” He grinned and never once made me feel the newbie that I was. In his mind, just being here on the grass waiting to run the first 400 meters of that 715 kms to our boats was enough to initiate me into the fold. The horn sounded and he and I jogged to the waterfront passed cheering family, friends and tourists who had come to watch the Klondike spectacle. I arrived at my kayak resting on fresh green sod to aid the slide into the river saving the belly of my kayak from the shore line gravel. I kissed my sweetheart goodbye, sat down in my kayak and fumbled restlessly with the cumbersome skirt as I pulled its edges around the cockpit opening. I gave Anik the thumbs up and she shoved me out into the river proper. I was off! I would not see Joe again until a few days later as within a couple of kilometers of river he sprung well ahead of me. I was in my bubble however, but this time that preciously thin cocoon was larger and encompassed 250 more people sharing an experience.
Stumbling in the dusk of a Yukon midnight on rounded river stones at the Lower Laberge checkpoint I battle my legs that have become unforgiving and wobbling after the 87 kilometer slog from the running start at Whitehorse. I give up the struggle and opt to sit on the ground and wrestle into new dry layers for the cooler nighttime temperatures until the sun rises ever so slowly above the tree line. The next section, the 30 Mile Canyon’s swift currents would provide a respite from the intense paddling required to cross Lake Laberge’s unpredictable winds and waves of which I experienced both.
A running theme to my journey on the YRQ (Yukon River Quest) would be the phrase ‘nothing can prepare you for…’ and this would begin with the legendary Lake Laberge. A 50 kilometer long shoreline that provides no mental relief as the contour of the land does not allow the paddler to see the end of the lake until the final few paddle strokes. I entered the lake thinking that the forecasts were a dirty trick and completely useless to me as was the headwind coming from the Northeast. The support boats lined up with buoys to direct the long line of competitors diagonally from the entry point at the Policeman’s Point delta to the shore.
When I hit that shore the winds were not just blocked by the hillside, but stopped completely and the water became a glass tabletop accompanied by a draining heat that was previously hidden by the winds. My speed dwindled but I was still paddling. In the distance, a thunderhead builds and a single clap of thunder erupts, warning me of two things. One my carbon fibre paddle is a terrific conductor and two, the weather could within a heart beat become daunting on the lake. I would not be struck by lightening but did have to contend with the winds that began sending a slight ripple on the surface of the lake and then with alarming speed whipped the inland sea into a bright green white capped frothing mess and what seemed endless head down paddling. I over exerted myself and felt the twinges in my left shoulder. The winds died and the water softened but would never return to a full calm.
The length of the lake was always in the back of my mind even as far back as my training paddles after work. It was not until I was on the lake that its full potential to work your nerves and your mental state became reality. The simple fact that you cannot see the end of it as the geography only allows a view of one point for hours. Then, rounding that point the only view again is the next point some distance away. This mind destroying routine repeats. The GPS reads out my distance, speed and ETA to the next checkpoint which never seems to get closer, my speed never rising fast enough and my ETA a lingering dream of some future event not to come.
I watched the sun set and paddled the last 10km in the dusky midnight sun happy to see the blinking red light denoting the entrance to the river proper and a welcome return to going with the flow after eight hours of paddling in dead water.
My river map depicts a serpentine section of near overlapping bends and I imagine how much distance I would make up if the gods would just grab both ends of that stream and pull it straight. I stop paddling, drifting at 8km/hr to take in some calories. I don’t think of what I carry in my bag as actual food, rather just calories. I needed at least 340 calories per hour to maintain my pace and it became a struggle to even ingest half that amount. Power bars, gummy bears, fig bars, 5 hour power shots as chasers to Redbull, and then there were the oh-so delectable energy gels that kept me going during the over night hours when my stomach could not bear anything solid.
The landscape. Yes, I am also here to compete in the toughest paddling marathon on the planet but aside to that is this amazing wilderness. High cliffs, low delta, bog, river fog, swift currents, a minor rapid, and at times almost fiord-like v-shaped notches between mountains that appeared to be drawn by children. At times the river narrowed creating lovely strong currents to push me along my way. At other times the river opened up wide to a maze of islands, sweeper currents and log jams. I start seeing things. The sleeplessness was on the list of things that I could not be prepared and the resulting mental depletion leading to hallucinations on varying levels from seeing things in the rocks and trees such as faces and animals, to full-on visual and audio ghosts of the mind. I had never experienced hallucinations before in my life so these came as a surprise to me and an immediate frustration. The so-called sleep monsters causing my head to bob as though I was falling asleep on a city bus, making my eyes heavy and causing me to fully realize that all this was happening while I was in a kayak. A capsize in the icy waters would definitely wake me up but was something I wanted to avoid. It was not until I found other racers to chat with as we paddled that these symptoms of ultimate fatigue alleviated I only briefly.
From the moment my team and I arrived in Whitehorse to the ending of the race in Dawson it is the people I met along the way that made this challenging and at times emotional experience all it could be. Our hosts welcomed us with food, drink, laughter and soft beds. My fellow racers, though truly competitors also gave way to giving and helping each other. Offering encouragement, aid on the river, and even hotel rooms at the 7 hour rest break at Carmacks. I was turning down offers! The camaraderie within this moving community of racers, organizers, a host of joyful and simply amazing volunteers to which I am forever grateful and my dream team support crew is what I take away from this. Not the exhausting hours of paddling, nor the sore aches pains and flattened backside. Even the incredible scenery falls short of what the Yukon people, new paddling friends and my close team brought to the YRQ.
At the end of the race as I was guided to the hotel by my partner Anik who braced against my constant paddle-drink veering to the right I said that I felt as though I had been Yukoned. The great north had hit me with just about everything she had. Rain, winds, and constant head winds. Heat that was nearly debilitating at times, and the non-stop daylight, though dampened slightly by rain clouds was never truly dark.
For five years I had fretted about the Five Fingers Rapids. After running them and it should be noted that this was my first ever rapids I can see that I really should have been more concerned with the lake section. Five Fingers was the highlight of the entire paddle. I passed a small island where a spotter stood vigil and shouted a warning that I was nearing the rapids and to keep right. I did so, hugging the right side of the river and could hear the rush of water but could not see it. The sun had began to rise and up in the Yukon that rise is shallow and slow. It also caused a blinding glare preventing me from seeing the notch that I had to aim for. I was not until I was about 50 feet away that the sun was trapped behind a tree, or a rock and the notch opened up to my view. Waves and boils of water were backlit. Every water droplet suspended in light and draped with river fog steaming up from the water’s surface. In dreamlike quality I paddled hard into what I hoped to be the sweet spot.
A slot of water that would take me through safely. Like a pinball I bounced from broadsiding waves to the line of rapids to my right that I dearly wanted to avoid. ricocheting out the other side I found myself wanting to do it again! I whooped loudly to the safety boat who cheered me on. I felt elated and refreshed and regained a strength I had lost on the lake. I sat enjoying the current and fiddled with my GPS to set it for the next waypoint. I looked up and was being pulled to the left side of the island after the rapids and worked hard up against the current to follow the right side, the softer safer route around the island. All the while berating myself for being cocky! I would find myself using more energy in similar fashion at least four more times that day to avoid being drawn down channels.
Reaching the last checkpoint at a place called 60 Mile after hours of paddling in milky cream coloured waters caused by the silt pushed into the Yukon River by the intersection with the White River, under heat that had taken the place of the early morning rains. I was tired, but happy. I was paddling with two of the stand up paddle boarders that were allowed into this edition of the YRQ as an experimental class. I am in awe of these athletes and shared my last hours on the river with them. We took a break at the check point to stretch before the last leg to Dawson that was an expected 5-6 hours of paddling. I left that checkpoint feeling the bubble I had stayed within since the start begin to loose air. I was emotional, in a certain amount of pain from my sore shoulder and tendonitis raging in my left wrist. I could see the end, it was near. I let the emotions take over for a few moments, with watering eyes and a lump in my throat. I was going to make it. I would be dead last, but I did not care about my time, my placing or position. I was set to be a finisher in the Yukon River Quest, if the last hours did not finish me.
The real adventure of this race for me was those last hours. Fading in and out of my sleep deprived stupor. Just keep paddling embroidered on the flat of my deck bag my constant mantra. I was on auto-paddle following the center right of the endless but easy to navigate channel that would inevitably, even if I only drifted take me to Dawson City. The optical illusion of going downhill was exenterated at this point. I was in fact paddling downhill with the flow if the river to the Bering Sea but in my sleepy state I felt as though I was paddling down endless steep shuts of grey water. If the current slowed it was as though I was going up and over bowls. My visuals were becoming a greater part of the problem. There was a long period of time where I felt as I was paddling under an series of overpasses. Concrete columns appearing in my peripheral vision and the spotter plane that kept track of us flying far too close to collision with my imagined structures.
The last part was a mixture of foggy mind and tired body and everything that could go wrong did. I could see the famous scar, that white exposed rock demarking Dawson and it was still at least an hour of paddling away. My over-packed and now messy cockpit cause the first problem when the looped handle of a dry bag jammed my left rudder pedal making maneuvering increasingly difficult. The Yukon had one more head wind in store for me as well. At one point I gave into it all. Depleted and drained and unable to fully grip my paddle or steer out of the wind I let my kayak drift sideways in fast current. I can only imagine the drama and speculation taking place at the finish line as everyone wondered what the hell I was up to out there.
From behind, a familiar set of voices. Not imagined, not hallucinatory but real, my support team. My loves and my dearest friends had been gathered my our host who was volunteering as a sweeper boat and came up from behind. Gus, who had paddling the marathon several times shouted and coached me to the last few paddle strokes. Cutting through my fog and the adrenaline took over me and I sprinted as best I could to the end. The horn sounds and I am done. I am home and greeted by fellow paddlers, onlookers and my team. The next few minutes were overwhelming as I struggled to my feet from the kayak cockpit that had been my home for so long. Nearly drowned as my partner helps me drink from a water bottle and leaning terribly to the right from a sore hip I managed to give a coherent interview on shore before staggering to a hot shower and a reward of a cold beer in the hotel room. I slept for 10 hours.
The Yukon River Quest attempt was a bucket list item that I had thought, completed or not would be checked off that list and I would move on. Nothing surprises me anymore about myself. At Carmacks, after 30-some hours of paddling my kayak I arrived announcing I was done. My crew mate Gus noted that I did not say I was scratching, just that I was done. After giving myself a good talking to in the hotel room I realized done only done for now. I was back in my boat. At the second rest break, a small 3 hour stop where I found no time to sleep I lay in my sleeping bag making plans for next year’s race and all the things I would do differently based on some hard lessons learned. I must be out of my mind and thought that once I got some sleep that I would come to my senses. Alas, no. I have secured a kayak for the 2017 edition of the YRQ and going back to the river with a new plan and a year to prepare.
I can’t end this post without thanking a few people. My partner Anik who took such sweet care of me before during and after the race. My kayak support team of Gus Oliveira and Pia Cove who made this experience all that it could be and more, and I have never laughed so much in a long time. The volunteer hordes of the YRQ made everything easy and again added to the amounts of laughter and good spirits. A special and from the heart grateful thank you goes to the crew at the Coffee Creek rest break who were kind, gentle , thoughtful and amazing to us messed up paddlers.
I was indeed Yukoned. She tossed it all at my but in the end I and my little wooden kayak endured, and that is what this marathon is all about.