As I paddled the last couple of kilometres where the coffee and cream coloured Yukon River collides with the equally famous Klondike River at Dawson City, I was knackered. Those final hours of the Yukon River Quest in 2016 were by far the most mentally and emotionally taxing paddle strokes I have taken in my kayak. I was all motor function and no one left inside for lone periods. Lucidity failed and then I was broken from my hallucinations by the sound of my own name being called out from somewhere, was it behind me, beside me or in my head. Word had gone out that I was definitely struggling to stay straight in my course. I was zig-zagging about in the wind waves brushing against the current that would eventually take me to where I was going. My support team jumped aboard our friend’s jet boat and had zoomed behind the island I was passing to eventually come up behind my kayak and shouted love and encouragements. When I realized it was real and not yet another fanciful creation of an extremely exhausted drain and flattened mind I perked up. It was what I needed to finish the trek. Last place, but who cares it was my goal and mission to complete every inch, of the river 715 kms from the start line in Whitehorse to the gravel beach finish line at Dawson City.
I followed the line now where the two rivers converge and the Klondike appears to be jet black running beside the silted Yukon. A dividing line is made where the two meet and I followed the subtle curls of silt and bubbles to the place where for the first time in a long time I saw people. Competitors from the race who had arrived as early as the previous day, well-rested and cheering my hard fought attempt to meet them. I saw friends, clapping and shouting. I mustered what I thought was one final surge of energy putting paddle to the water with fierce abandon. The video evidence shows the contrary. Okay, so only one paddle blade was making contact with the flowing river while the other stroke missed completely or barely skimmed the waters surface. I was leaning sharply to the right in my seat and my lower back was raw and sore. I heard the horn sounding the beginning of the finishing line and my friend shouting from the boat to just keep paddling its not over yet. Then I heard the second horn and could limp into shore to the awaiting volunteers and friends. I made it!
The experience began with a hat. A friend who would later be on that jet boat egging me on was the one who got me into this mess in the first place. He had competed and finished the Quest several times in the past and bought me a souvenir ball cap with the River Quest logo embroidered on it. When he gave it to me he stopped me from putting it on telling that I could only wear it if I entered the race the next season. I did. It was a nice hat and a shem not to wear it after all. With planning, packing and the long drive north we arrived in Whitehorse some forty hours later a bit stinky and bedraggled but met by our friend Ray and his family who took us in, gave us actual bedrooms instead of the camping in his backyard in which we all assumed would happen. We were well taken care of beginning with a tremendous bbq feast of northern fare.
I began a few days of acclimation to the scenery and the prospects of paddling the epic event. I was not an endurance racer but a recreational paddler. Until I began training for the race I had never intentionally paddled with aggression other than those times I need to dig deep to get out of harms way. I was thriving on the lingering tiredness from the non-stop drive and excitement of the unknowns ahead. Nerves rattled inwardly and I hoped that my crew understood any random outbursts. I set out on a training paddle a couple of days before the start and that was the first time ever that I had kayaked in moving water. It rushes by the shores of Whitehorse and to look at the moving current and swirling water it is demanding. The moment I set out and steered easily into the center of the river heading from Tahini Bridge about an hour paddle upriver I was enjoying it. I had no idea how fun kayaking in current would be. There was little struggle to maintain a course. I was not tossed in whirlpools or dashed against the sandy cliffs north of the city. The water was clear and and intense blue when deeper and at times I could see the rounded stones on the bottom. It was hot, I sipped water and payed close attention to my GPS and my surroundings. Testing my map reading skills and learning how the river wanted me to paddle. I thought to myself, well it the whole thing is like this then I will be fine. It wasn’t. This first section was benign enough but I would have my skills truly tested a few days later when the sleep monsters chased me down 30-Mile canyon and confusion found me in a place of islands and intersections before Carmacks and a 7-hour break from paddling.
There would be times after twenty or more hours without seeing a single person that I would see other things real or imagined. The cliff face had faces in them. There was a long period of time where I was sure that my girlfriend was arguing navigation with me around a set of difficult islands. The burning tree. That one I had witnesses so I am sure it was not a group hallucination. The time right after leaving the checkpoint at the end of Lake LeBarge where I saw the white deer prancing on the rivers edge and then in one leap disappeared into a cloud of sparkles. I am sure it reappeared elsewhere. I ate a few gummy bears and finished my Red Bull and paddled on after that one. There was a plane that was out spotting the racers. I am not too certain there was actually a safety measure that required a low flying plane new Dawson City but nonetheless it made two passes over the river and on the second fly over it banked around a bend with wings flapping like an albatross.
During the trek I felt as though I was travelling in a timeless state. It is wilderness, the real deal wilderness and from the seat of my kayak I gazed as though into a void at times at fiord-like mountains angling sharply to the river below. Wide valleys. Open sections of river which had the opposite shore up to two kilometres away with an obstacle course of log jams and islands making navigation demanding on a tired mind addled with sparkling deer sightings. An amazing landscape that is the most accurate memory of the river I have.
The volunteers make the race what it is. We show up and paddle our hearts out until our hands blister but these people come out each year with an enthusiasm that is contagious. The year I participated there were 2 volunteers for every paddler. From registration, boat measuring and gear check to the hand holding you get from a young guy at 2am in a wilderness camp turned rest stop who understands what you are going through and does a heroes job of feeding you and making certain you can continue on to the last leg of the race. Thanks again Ian, my man!
This year, there is no race. Today would have been the start of the Quest for 2020. Covid-19 and the very real precautions take hold in the Yukon shutting down an annual event that brings a spike to the local economy of both Whitehorse and Dawson City. It is something the Yukoners look forward to each year as much as anyone who has taken part or is planning to compete in the Quest. In the two times I have travel north to the Klondike both for the River Quest. Once as support crew and once as a racer it gets in the blood. The genuine nature of the Yukoners, the landscape, the place and the event. Hopefully in 2021 it will return with racers from all over the world paddling against the clock, their own demons and seeing how the river wants them to paddle.
I stood behind Chaz the latest short-term addition to the kitchen crew with a nearly room temperature coffee in hand. I took an immediately regretted sip from the cup but should not have been surprised by the lack of heat because most of my on shift coffees die slowly and drank cold. I was watching for some time as my young dish pit Jedi apprentice struggled again to get through the morning dish and pot pile. My day always began at noon and by that time the morning baker, and morning breakfast dishes, scrapers, pots, pans, mixing bowls, spoons encrusted with hardening batter, and cast iron skillets had gathered on any flat surface in the prep room slash dish washing area. On some days that mess could be a daunting sight when I first walked in the back door, but I had a tried and true system for breaking it down quickly and returning much needed priority items to the line. I had a system and I say Chaz struggled because no matter how many times I ran him through the simple act of washing a dish in past weeks he inevitably returned to his ridiculous default settings. This was his last day of what was intended to be a two-month work experience training and I looked on as he was gradually filling the second soaker sink with garbage.
“Chaz.” I sighed after taking a sip of the gasoline the restaurant called coffee and forcing a gulp down a reluctant palate.
“Chaz buddy.” I said again using the term I would add to anyone who was not my buddy but in actual fact is quite the opposite and arguably irritating to me.
He turns slowly nearly dropping a plate back into the depths of the shallow two-inches of tepid barely sudsy dish water. Default setting number one, was to him to only ever use water if absolutely necessary, soap optional. He looked at me like he could see through me to the back wall shelves where the baking ingredients and canned goods resided. Nothing came out of his mouth. It rarely made much noise if only to piss off some member of the staff with a hurtful comment. This kid was a shit. I have worked with teenagers before and more often than not I am pulled from my cynical preconceptions, surprised to be working beside a capable, likeable young person. Chaz on the other hand, if he were to fall into the deep fryer and never to be seen again, not many around me would shed a tear.
The events of the previous weeks since the day I was introduced to and given the responsibility for young Chaz I had seen that gormless self-pitying look of teenage despair at being asked to do anything at all. But Chaz had managed to weaponize the attitude and expression to attempt to manipulate those around him. He seemed to have trapped my boss into thinking he was just a poor youth from a poor existence needing a leg up. At accepting him from a program and giving him a two-month work experience gig in her kitchen she then patted herself on the back for a job well done and dumped him onto her staff to deal with.
Fine, we had been down this road before and I have seen them come and seen them go. Kitchen life is a hard life. It requires certain skills and not just the ones that might come immediately to mind. Not just multi-tasking and group teamwork skills that are the staple of any restaurant help wanted posting, but the ability to do the job even if your back is in knots, your legs are rubber and your feet feel like they have mutinied hours ago. Not everyone can be asked to do it. Most find it simply overwhelming on the first day and never come back. Some stick it out and slowly come into their own, moving up the chain from dish to prep, to second cook to hardened line kitchen soldier. The top percent being offered the big spots if they are lifers. I have said that I have worked with kids who have impressed me with work ethics of old timers. Being the oldest in the kitchen more often than not I sometimes slip into a fatherly role to them. They trust me with their concerns and real life stuff that they are dealing with outside of the kitchen world. I like them and I think some of them may even have liked me through my constant crankiness that I bring with me some days.
Chaz was not one of them. Yes, he came from the far north and a small isolated place at that. He was Inuit and some like my employer coated him with the artifice of poverty just because of where he came from. It is a simple thing to do if you don’t bring to the table an understanding of the outside world and that not all native peoples are sliding by or near poverty. It is the rest of the working staff under her employ that are struggling to make the rent. This young fellow came from the far north yes, and was of native decent but his family was not impoverished in the slightest. Chaz would brag about losing an expensive set of headphones and instead of working to make the money to replace them, his dad did it for him without blinking. Chaz was a spoiled rich kid who missed the indentation his butt left in the sofa at home where he tuned out playing video games day and night with his mates. Working in a kitchen was a great weighty imposition on poor young Chaz and he could not wait to be rid of us. I believe his strategy was to screw around, and screw up enough that the staff would fuss enough that he would be sent home. We did not give into his campaign but the home stay family that had billeted him were on the fringe of wanting him gone as soon as possible and did get their wish in the end. This was why Chaz was on his last day with us and being sent home three-weeks prematurely. It was no surprise that he could not follow simple house rules.
I looked at him straight in the eye and mentally rewound the tape. I was not happy to have had him deposited on my shores. Myself and the head cook were given charge of Chaz without much prior consultation and it was on us to find things for him to do and learn. At first, we worked out a small list of things we could get him into. Obviously, dish washing would be his key task as a newbie to the kitchen and the traditional place start where any other person would look around during the shift and take in what was going on around them, the routines, the work, and especially the timing. There is a rhythm and flow in a well-oiled kitchen team. The dance of working in a small confined space with heat and food and what comes first, what comes second and what comes third. If everyone is doing their jobs there is no conflict and the dance of each dish going out to the dining area is a flawless ballet. Whether in a Manhattan fine dining restaurant or an off the beaten track diner there are a row of giant dominoes in the kitchen dynamic that can tumble at any moment with the littlest of things being the breeze that tilts the first tile towards disaster, one thing out of place, one item not ready and the chain unravels.
Chaz could care less and only wanted out. His daily deliberate excuses and lack of retention caused the domino tile wobbling. He took more breaks than a chain smoker but din not smoke. I would look around from the prep table to see the dishes piling up and Chaz out sitting in one of the booth tables with a pile of fries in front of him and headphones on. The boss took it easy on him because, and I quote, “He isn’t used to working.” What, really, fuck me!
I was the target of most of his garbage. Each day he would grab a soup pot from the end of the dish line and walk slowly, as slowly as humanly possible to then ask me where the pot goes. For weeks at a time the answer was the same. It wasn’t as though each day we decided to redecorate and move the entire kitchen sideways just to make it hard on him. He knew damn well where stuff went after the first few days, he was just looking for trouble and one day he pushed my buttons all at once. I was putting away a large food order and having to navigate my way from the back room through the line with boxes of canned goods, sauces and the like. When I was on the last can of cranberry sauce, the same type we have at home for Thanksgiving dinner. The type that makes that lovely nostalgic squelchy sound when it slides out of the can with the lines of remembrance of what the inside of the can looks like imprinted on the jiggling contents. Chaz holding a pot limply from his left hand asked me one too many times,
“Dave, where do I put this?”
The answer was swift and at the end of the rifle I was holding a can of cranberry sauce target locked directed at his forehead. I did not pull the trigger though everyone in the firing line backed up and pulled the shutters in case a duel ensued. I knew I could take him out before he could loft the heavy pot in the air. Yes, I would shoot first like Han Solo. And yes, live with it nerds, he did shoot first!
“The same fucking place you put the fucking pot yesterday, fuck!” and I sulked back into my darkness of the canned good shelf seething.
Chaz used up all of our Band-Aid supply as well. None of us could figure out why he went through so many during the day. Perhaps when he put them on wet fingers and did the dishes without gloves they just refused to stay on. All we could assume was that his tender fingertips were not accustomed to touching work related tools and the metal dish scrubber was irritating them.
Having him take on other simple food prep items that dishwashers are often saddled with was pointless. I showed him how to hold and use a knife only to watch his valiant attempts at removing his own digits. Other items such as tartar sauce which is only a blend of mayonnaise and green relish and if you want to go fancy one can toss in some white onion and lemon juice. Ours was the simpler two-ingredient style. It was beyond him or so he would like us to think. Every task shown was met with a practiced incompetence meant to have us give up entirely so he could slack off.
Chaz was the poster kid for the idea that no good deed goes unpunished. I gave it my all in the beginning. I was kind, patient and I understood the hardships of being made to go to some strange place with strangers telling him what to do and worst of all expecting him to work the whole day. Drip by drip he wore me down to the point of wanting to do him in with an assault of machine gunned canned goods, and I will implicate my coworkers in this as none of them saw anything, and it would stand up in court!
I am at times, when I think back on him slightly ashamed that I let him work my nerves and eventually lose my cool. I don’t do that on the job. I am the old guy remember, the one that might grump during a shift but never lose it entirely on anyone, no matter how unruly.
There was on moment of redemption for young Chaz, although I cannot be sure he was being sincere or just playing the part when he changed course one day and asked about cooking. I love to cook. Chopping vegetables relaxes me. The process and love put into a dish made with confidence is an art and I am a willing student. So I encouraged his interests and I offered to give him, not lend him a book that I had when I was in college. It was a book of simple recipes for the single guy and got me on my way in my home kitchen. I told him of the importance of the book and the family hand me down it was from mother to son. The next week he continued to ask me about the book and finally I brought it to work for him. He was excited to see the book and for once I was happy to see him slacking off by flipping through the book rather than leaning up against the chest freezer flipping through his phone. His reaction being more humbled that I would have expected and I believe the fact that it was a sort of family heirloom carried some weight with him. I returned to prepping dinner potatoes I wondering if this simple act would shift the little creep into becoming a real person. I thought while laying halved potatoes onto a sheet pan lined with melted butter and herbs that perhaps one of the pages would be the spark of inspiration and gratitude for a gift of a mentor. I was Chaz’s Obi Wan! Are there too many Star Wars references in this essay? I gave him the book under orders that he attempt to make each recipe when he got home. Did he? Will I be the guy that one day walks into a restaurant and sends compliments to the chef, chef Chaz la asshole who showed me up in the end?
“What do you think you are doing with a sink filled with garbage?” I asked truly wondering what his endgame concerning the garbage would be, and he shrugged.
“There isn’t a garbage can.” He said.
“I can see that, did you go look for one?”
At that question there was a pause, and it was excruciatingly too long for what was to be Chef Chaz’s eventual answer.
“I don’t know.” He said to me.
The rain is washing the leaves of the large Maple outside my cabin and adding enticement to the already out of control grass left uncut partly due to pandemic fatigue with a dash of can’t be bothered to fix the weed whacker once again out of whipping line. This repair would require me standing in line distancing socially mask on (wear the damn mask people!) which is something I hold out on doing unless there are also other lines I can join to get a week’s worth of errands done all at once. There you have it. A rainy day on Salt Spring Island, and to be fair we have not seen enough rainfall this spring into early summer and we need it.
What lingers in my head as I woke up staggering in search of hot coffee from my bed occupied by soggy cats who don’t know when to come out of the rain is the realization that my afternoon to closing shift at the restaurant will be slow. Rain does that. It has been my observation that a rainy day will cause my favorite coffee shop to fill to capacity but will for some random deeply psychological reason will detour customers from eating out. This was true even before the health crisis that has made all of us re-evaluate how we do things and when we do them.
Now, nearly three-months into this new world order, that is take out orders. This time last year my hours at work increased. I was a one man band, prep cook, dish washer and porter. I add the term porter because out walk-in cooler resides in a shed some distance away from the kitchen. I run constantly back and forth with produce, beer kegs, tubs of anything from french fries to cod fillets and more. I would end my shift with a twenty-minute chat late in the evening with my lady as I sat in my car too tired to drive with that tiredness causing my ears to ring. I was exhausted but content in a day of work well done. The war not won, but at least that day’s kitchen battle was finished and this kitchen soldier could grab a few hours of sleep after the adrenaline wore off.
In the past eleven weeks I have remained one of the only members of the original kitchen crew to be kept on as the two owners muddled on alone. I was all of the above as usual in my support role but then was added hauling of tables, painting of trim and newly reno’d walls and fetcher of take-out containers and bags. I also added a new title to my list of titles, that being delivery driver. The restaurant had never done home delivery before but closing the doors to the dining room and our gem of a sunset facing patio this feature became a necessity.
The owners, who had only bought the place a month before the Covid-19 shut down took on the attitude of seeing what would happen. They both have astounded me with a positive attitude masking what I can only imagine to be a well hidden WTF panic. A bad day was still a good day, we were alive, healthy and still breathing, good enough and try again tomorrow and see what happens. It was now a day to day operation. I can’t say on any given Monday I felt much job security. That was out of my hands and in the palms of our local folk. If they kept coming to the the take-out window we would remain open for business. I was not sure about the new ownership and I am sure they were equally doubtful about this over the hill kitchen worker in the pre-apocalypse era of the six weeks of them getting to know us the staff, and vice-versa. If anything positive has come of this awkward relationship that had me working directly with the bosses one on one for so many weeks it is a mutual respect. I like who I work for. How many out there can say that? I’m rooting for them and not completely because their success means that I keep my job, although that plays a part. I am rooting for them because they earned it working in the industry for several years and taking the big leap to open a restaurant of their own. Taking over a seafood shack on a small island fueled annually by an onslaught of tourist dollars now reduce to hoping the small local community will show up and be supportive.
It has been a roller coaster time. The people did show up at the take-out counter and though there are slow days there has also been days when the kitchen was slammed and overwhelmed due to reduced staffing. But so far the little engine could and day to day it goes on. They have invited a couple of the line cooks back as the doors are locked but will be opened for those with reservations for the patio. A week into Phase two of the soft reopening of our Province it seems okay. The added benefit of being in a part of country and world least hit by the virus the patio was filled on a Monday night with brave souls eager to get out again. That is seated with proper spacing and nifty plexi-glass partitions. But the rain. The rain will keep them away this evening. Take-out orders will dwindle as well for some reason though we might get a couple of the indoor tables filled it will be a night to clean oven hood vents and reorganizing the pantry yet again.
The rain will stop later today or during the night, but the other issues of keeping your favorite eatery, cafe, or pub alive through this time is to show support. We are all in a place where the money is not rolling in but I ask you to get out there and grab some take-out if that is all they can offer. Now more than ever the restaurants need you. the long haul is not over and it has been heavy to date. There are so many of my oft-visited joints that are now for sale, or closed permanently because of the current climate. In places that are attempting to reopen hopefully as well thought out and as carefully as in my region of the country the restaurants may offer only a smaller version of the menu and mandated limited seating but it is still worth it to go out. Keep in mind that the transition from only take-out to doing that as well as limited seating Covid-style dine-in is tough for some staff and kitchens to adapt to. We are, and doing our best.
I woke up this Wednesday morning to a much needed hot coffee and while sipping it in my pj’s (the everyday uniform these days) read that British Columbia parks, ecological reserves, and campgrounds are now closed until June. This would no doubt include all the wonderful stops around where I live on Salt Spring Island which is part of the ever-expanding marine park trail system. If I go for a paddle and set foot on any of these places I could be in trouble and a hefty fine. As far as I know I can still walk to the mailbox once a day but no more trees, trails, parks for some time.
For most, this would not be a hardship. The reason for the closure is due to the fact that a sudden pre-peek season surge to the parks has been witnessed and social distancing has proved to be too challenging to enforce. Again, staying indoors is not a big deal if you don’t visit the outdoors that often. But the stress and anxiety being felt by so many has even the most ardent couch potatoes rushing to the forested areas just for a change of scenery from the hike between the living room and kitchen.
Two weeks before all of our lives shifted gears so dramatically that the grinding could be heard from space I had begun shooting footage and material to create videos for a new You Tube Channel designed to get some of those You Tube watching couch potatoes to drop their devices and go outside. That fun project has now officially been put on hold as I can’t even access the places I was going to use to inspire others. Alas, Murphy’s Law strikes again!
This morning I find myself reflecting on simpler times. In the early 2000’s I had the luxury of time and cash to get outside whenever I wanted and with three other friends spent many weeks kayaking the west coast of Vancouver Island. These remain my main memories. Focal points of better times and reckless abandon to the great wilderness experiences. From being surrounded by a colony of Sea Otters off Nootka Island one misty rainy and muggy afternoon to riding the larges ocean swells beating against the cliff sides during a physically committing five-hour paddle on the impenetrable shores of Flores Island. Nights laughing around a campfire as our kabobs sizzled over the coals.
I started to search through the archives of my computer to find some nuggets from those trips to share with you all. There are too many to choose from but here are a few bits and pieces from Tofino, Clayoquot Sound, and Nuchatlitz Marine Park near Nootka Island.
My buddy Pete bashing into the winds gathering prior to a storm that would find us later on that evening in the sheltered bay we chose to camp in Nuchatlitz Inlet south of the archipelago of amazing islets to pitch a tent upon.
With one of out water bags gone Awol during a botched surf landing we made do with the guarantee of rainy days to gather water off the tarps. We ran out of pans in the end. Mmmm tasty tarp water.
My good friend Colin and I had a sudden change of paddle plans with the weather took a turn for the worse on our way to the Hot Springs north of Tofino BC. It could have been a lot worse. We spent a week watching the landscape evolve into something different each day with winds gusting to 70km and raindrops the size of marbles.
Yes, we always ate well out there. On Clark Island in Barkley Sound we put our heads together for a big meal of peanut sauted chicken skewers, rice and steamed snap peas.
A very rainy start to a final day of paddling back to Toquart Bay from Hand Island in the Broken Group Islands.
In a hidden grotto on a small islet we discovered a treasure trove of artifacts and burial boxes from a bygone era on the outer coast of Vancouver Island which has a rich history.
Catala Island was home for a few days of sunshine after many days of rain. We set up clothes lines, and wooden walkways on this island of beach pebbles which would find their way into our shoes. It was all ours and threw our group back in time. The mice were unusually large and fearless here as well.
Recon walk on the San Juan River Estuary to find a way to paddle though a long log jam. There was a narrow slot however so no portage this time, though there were more to come as we explored.
Morning light was still in my future as I was somewhere in the middle of the section of the Yukon River called the 30-Mile River. A series of twists and bends combined with a narrowing of the waterway that creates small rapids and speeding eddies that give a paddler who has been in a kayak for fifteen hours straight a chance to sit back and enjoy the ride. I picked up quite a good bit of acceleration on those winding corners and paddled steadily to add the pace. It was dark, well as dark as it would be at that time of the night and at that place on the map. I was still far south of my goal of Dawson City and the closer I paddled to that goal the more midnight sun I would be seeing. For now, morning light was something lost behind the low trees. The 30-Mile River section is said to be one of the most picturesque parts of the river race but we all pass through it at a time of night when one can barely make out either shore. It is cold.
At Lower Laberge I had stumbled from my seat on wobbling legs to the greetings of the volunteers waiting to help. One fellow in particular had grabbed the bow toggle of my kayak and yanked me so far up the shore he had to help me slide the boat back down when I left. He gave me a bear hug when I could barely stand and cheered me up no end, though it weighed on my sleepy mind that I had indeed fallen far to the back of the pack during the set backs on lake.
I found a private spot in the woods to have a pee. I was taking a break from filling my pee bottle that was marked with caution tape so I didn’t accidentally sip from it when the sleep monsters took hold later in the race. I wobbled back the the kayak and switched into warmer layers to get me though the rest of the night. This was a dangerous time for all of us in these precious overnight hours on the water. The combination of fatigue, slight dehydration, and colder air could potentially and quickly give rise to hypothermia. No one wanted that and it was constantly drummed into our heads to watch for signs of this being the one thing that takes competitors off the water and potentially out of race.
My bear-hugging friend shoved me backwards into the river where my boat quickly was clutched by the increasing current. An hour or so later I was chilly but doing well. My face was cold but my body and hands were fine. I saw the teasing glimpses of the sun occasionally through the sparse ridge of trees when I rounded a bend giving me a good angle. It would be hours more before the sun even reached the tops of the trees and hours more after that before any of us felt its revitalizing warm rays.
Behind me I saw the dim lights of headlamps and the muffled sounds of conversations. I was aware of the fact that I had only given myself a small lead on the gathering at Lower Laberge but they were gaining on me. This was my game now to get myself safely through the nighttime hours of cold eerie and surreal landscape to race the back of the pack. It was the stuff of dreams and a landscape ripe for nightmares. Shapes appeared and disappeared. Deer prancing on the sandy shore leap into the air only to vanish completely in mid-air leaving sparkles behind. Shapes in the trees. Other people claimed to have seen Indians, pioneers, and voyageurs in traditional garb standing vigil riverside against the backdrop and half-light of thin stemmed trees. Some have seen fires that were not there, and even bleeding trees. The mind would play tricks on you down this section of the river in the middle of the night even if you were fully rested let alone silly enough to be doing what I was.
Then nearer to morning and whatever you would call sunrise in the north the flow of the canyons twists and turns slowed into more or less straighter sections of water. It was around that time that the sun had brought some clarity to the features of landscape around me. I entered the bends. On the map it did not look so bad but from 20,000 ft glancing at Google Maps it looked like the river had lost all will to go anywhere for a moment and slumped into a series of nearly overlapping bends. The meander was another mind fuck taking you kilometers of paddle strokes to do very little northward progression. A tandem kayak team caught up to me and were paddling in perfect synchronization as they passed to my left with a hello and a good morning as we both entered Klondike Bend together. This one bent back again slightly into a short straight patch then around into the switchback whip of Vanmeter Bend that at a point had us all going more or less back in the direction we came from. At the middle of this bend the next one was in clean view over the small space of land in between. Trees and small brush found purchase on these humps and I could sometimes see if not hear other paddlers talking.
At Keno Bend I rounded the corner to find the tandem canoe team made up of two women I had met on my training day afternoon. I could only see one paddler though. “Have you forgotten someone?” I shouted across to the canoeist. Her partner was taking a nap in the gunnels. We zipped around the ending of the bend together riding the sweeping eddy that pulled us towards Glacier Gulch Bend. A quick glance at the map to see if this torture of going back and forth will ever end you find that you are at the final whipping twist of Big Eddy Bend which shoots us out one my one into the unnamed elbow before more reasonable progress can be made. From here it would be another hour at least before the next checkpoint of Big Salmon.
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.