Stay Home, Stay Safe…Stay Sane

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.

Going the distance.
Photo by Dave Barnes

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Catching rainwater on Vargas Island, BC
Photo by Dave Barnes

 

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Resting after a long paddling day on Vargas Island, Clayoquot Sound.
Photo by Dave Barnes

 

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.

 

 

 

 

 

A communal effort on the beach at Clark Island, Broken Group.

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Remnants of burial boxes in Nuchatlitz Marine Park, BC.

 

 

 

 

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.

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A Case of the Bends

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.

Short rest stop after the Big Salmon River.

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.

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30 Miles of Kayaking and One Vanishing Deer

30mileNo 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.

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September, I remember…

Vargas Island ,Clayoquot Sound 2006.

Vargas Island ,Clayoquot Sound 2006.

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.

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Lake Laberge is very long, Part One

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.

A wild ride on Lake Laberge before the race courtesy of Ray Falle on his jet boat.

A wild ride on Lake Laberge before the race courtesy of Ray Falle on his jet boat.

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.

A voyageur canoe on Lake Laberge.

A voyageur canoe on Lake Laberge.

 

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.

A look ahead mid lake to a storm cell.

A look ahead mid lake to a storm cell.

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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All is Fair in Love and Paddling

Sod kayak launch pad donated by The Sod Farm, Whitehorse.

Sod kayak launch pad donated by The Sod Farm, Whitehorse.

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.

Starting my paddle in the YRQ.

Starting my paddle in the YRQ.

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.

 

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No Turning Back, now?

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.

Line up at the start of the 2016 Yukon River Quest.

Line up at the start of the 2016 Yukon River Quest.

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.

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