The Spirit of the NorthBewildered we were by the effects of living under the northern hypnosis caused by the midnight sun our team from Salt Spring Island launched their tandem kayak into the cold waters (I know because I ran in to the river while pushing the kayak) of the mighty Yukon River. The race up river beginning in the metropolis of Whitehorse, which had managed to allude the rustic romance of the north with the addition of a Walmart, and ending 740 km later in the quiet northern village of Dawson City.
However, this post is not about our team that came to an unfortunate end at the midway point of Carmacks by the river later the next day after one member of the two-man paddler crew contracted a terrible case of tendonitis in one wrist. This post is about someone who against the odds, against the language barrier and in spite of sleeplessness, a broken rudder and all that goes with participating still finished the race. Though it was dead last.
May I humbly introduce the hero of the 2011 Yukon River Quest paddling marathon under the midnight sun, Hiromune Imai. Hiro as he became known during the event is a 47-year-old solo kayaker from Tokyo representing Ecochallenge Japan. According to the racer bio on the Yukon River Quest website http://www.yukonriverquest.com/ had the simple goal of just finishing the race.
He spoke little English and was paddling solo and unsupported, unlike so many other teams including ours, which came equipped with drivers, assistants and cooks. Hiro paddled his own race. A constant smile, good spirits in spite of the obvious exhaustion that affected everyone involved. He paddled the river slowly. Refusing assistance at every stop along the long route Hiro was becoming well-known to organizers and volunteers alike.
During a stop his boat was damaged but he still paddled on to Dawson City to an awaiting group of fans. The large stat board had lines drawn through those who had dropped out by the way side. Check marks and finishing times next to those who managed to get through the arduous days and nights to reach the goal of Dawson. The last man on the board with neither a line through his name, nor a set finishing time was Hiro. He rounded the last corner and the trick to paddle across the river to the township side was looking like something he was not going to do. For a long moment everyone gathered wondered if he even knew at this point where he was? Did he know he was at the end or would he simply paddle right by? Then with calls to him and waving arms from the shoreline the noise must have cut through the delirious fog in his head and his kayak began to move towards the right side of the river.
He paddled slowly up the stoney shoreline. I had my camera ready, my shot set and I followed Hiro through my lens as he came closer and closer to his own goal. He passed me. Just then a volunteer, teary-eyed and proud told me not to miss getting his picture as there was no one else to do it. As she walked by me I smiled and replied that I had already got the two best shots of Hiro (hero) Imai. I was moved. I felt the pride I wanted to feel, though it was now directed to someone else other than the team I had driven hundreds of kilometers to support. It was sad to not be able to put these emotions towards our own paddlers, although it was strange and uplifting with all that had in my own circle to see this small paddler reach the dock, receive his finishing time of 70:40 and being taken in hand by a volunteer to rest. At last he accepted the hand and the next morning would receive more than the bit of paper and a finishers pin. Hiromune was presented with a standing ovation, tears and admiration.
He would then receive the Spirit of the North award.