Madness Under a Midnight Sun

What would Robert Service make of the wild goings on that will happen in the Yukon in just a couple of weeks?

Painted on the wall opposite Klondike Kate's cafe in Dawson City, Yukon Photo by Dave Barnes

Painted on the wall opposite Klondike Kate’s cafe in Dawson City, Yukon
Photo by Dave Barnes

Two years ago my wife and I were support crew for a couple of paddling friends attempting to complete the 700 + km Yukon River Quest, and though our race ended at the midway point in a place called Carmacks the experience of living under the midnight sun for a week was hardly diminished. In two weeks my friend and paddling mate Gus will return for the third time to the mighty Yukon River. Last year he took on the challenge as a solo kayaker and placed well, meeting his goal of 50 hours. What this year’s race will hold is anyone’s guess, strange thing are done under the midnight sun and what the river, wilderness paddling over such a vast distance, and the toils that will fall upon the paddler’s bodies will tell the final tale. Perhaps it will be told in rhyme.

For my part, I envy the chance to go back up to that wild and untouched landscape. Bears, Moose, Fox and the stunted forests cut by a huge river and the northern spirit that draws paddlers from all points of the world for the opportunity to suffer greatly as they kayak and canoe through the non-night hours. The spell was indeed cast upon me during that not-so-relaxing trip to the north. The events and dramas unfolding in our camp was under the shadows of something that has seen so many more larger scale events and dramas unfold under the weird light of a day that does not see a sunset.

Old grave sites on the hillside above Dawson City, Yukon.  Photo by Dave Barnes

Old grave sites on the hillside above Dawson City, Yukon.
Photo by Dave Barnes

The case can be made that our experiences on that trip two years ago are nothing more than human folly, ego and our will to be seen doing something unusual, compelling and to a degree rather dangerous. What put if in perspective for me was a mosquito infested wandering through the graveyards in Dawson City as we awaited the last paddlers to find the finish line.

What were we really about? As one of our paddlers reached too far with a stranger he convinced to finish the last leg of the river in our tandem kayak, pushing the limits, the rest of our group strolled through hillside grave yards witnessing a deathly history of the northern people and the ego, the greed and most often empty promises of gold. The finish line for them reached. A story of a miner who was gone for six months working a claim for a financier who stayed in comfort in a local hotel. The miner returned home knowing his toils would be rewarded with the arrival of a son he had never met, born while he was away in the wilds. He returned to his cabin to find neither wife nor child. Still born was the boy and she passed in childbirth. Two markers on a bramble-covered hillside was all he found.

We discovered too many such tiny graves and after a pair of hours it was too much to bear. We left, lumpy throated and clear that our own desires of the Yukon were dictated to us not by our own fates or destiny, but by the place itself.

Our paddler arrived somewhat intact, exhausted and sick, but he made it. Awards were handed out the following morning to all those who met the river on their own terms, and survived to tell the tale another day. With luck, this year will provide new stories, a good adventure on the river and maybe even beating a personal best. But remember Gus, the river bats last! I expect that would the advice that Robert might give to those endeavouring to challenge themselves on the wilds of the Yukon River.

Anyone can follow the racers during the Yukon River Quest simply by following the links on the river quest website using the race tracker. The one to watch is Dharma Bum. To all the paddlers heading up there this year, good luck and have a pint of the Yukon Gold as Bombay Peggy’s in Dawson.

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