The Yukon River Quest : a Baptism of Sleeplessness

Stumbling in the dusk of a Yukon midnight on rounded river stones at the Lower Laberge checkpoint I battle my legs that have become unforgiving and wobbling after the 87 kilometer slog from the running start at Whitehorse. I give up the struggle and opt to sit on the ground and wrestle into new dry layers for the cooler nighttime temperatures until the sun rises ever so slowly above the tree line. The next section, the 30 Mile Canyon’s swift currents would provide a respite from the intense paddling required to cross Lake Laberge’s unpredictable winds and waves of which I experienced both.

The Lake.

A look ahead mid lake to a storm cell.

A look ahead mid lake to a storm cell.

A running theme to my journey on the YRQ (Yukon River Quest) would be the phrase ‘nothing can prepare you for…’ and this would begin with the legendary Lake Laberge. A 50 kilometer long shoreline that provides no mental relief as the contour of the land does not allow the paddler to see the end of the lake until the final few paddle strokes. I entered the lake thinking that the forecasts were a dirty trick and completely useless to me as was the headwind coming from the Northeast. The support boats lined up with buoys to direct the long line of competitors diagonally from the entry point at the Policeman’s Point delta to the shore.

When I hit that shore the winds were not just blocked by the hillside, but stopped completely and the water became a glass tabletop accompanied by a draining heat that was previously hidden by the winds. My speed dwindled but I was still paddling. In the distance, a thunderhead builds and a single clap of thunder erupts, warning me of two things. One my carbon fibre paddle is a terrific conductor and two, the weather could within a heart beat become daunting on the lake. I would not be struck by lightening but did have to contend with the winds that began sending a slight ripple on the surface of the lake and then with alarming speed whipped the inland sea into a bright green white capped frothing mess and what seemed endless head down paddling. I over exerted myself and felt the twinges in my left shoulder. The winds died and the water softened but would never return to a full calm.

The length of the lake was always in the back of my mind even as far back as my training paddles after work. It was not until I was on the lake that its full potential to work your nerves and your mental state became reality. The simple fact that you cannot see the end of it as the geography only allows a view of one point for hours. Then, rounding that point the only view again is the next point some distance away. This mind destroying routine repeats. The GPS reads out my distance, speed and ETA to the next checkpoint which never seems to get closer, my speed never rising fast enough and my ETA a lingering dream of some future event not to come.

I watched the sun set and paddled the last 10km in the dusky midnight sun happy to see the blinking red light denoting the entrance to the river proper and a welcome return to going with the flow after eight hours of paddling in dead water.

The River.

A view of Five Fingers Rapids from the look out.

A view of Five Fingers Rapids from the look out.

My river map depicts a serpentine section of near overlapping bends and I imagine how much distance I would make up if the gods would just grab both ends of that stream and pull it straight. I stop paddling, drifting at 8km/hr to take in some calories. I don’t think of what I carry in my bag as actual food, rather just calories. I needed at least 340 calories per hour to maintain my pace and it became a struggle to even ingest half that amount. Power bars, gummy bears, fig bars, 5 hour power shots as chasers to Redbull, and then there were the oh-so delectable energy gels that kept me going during the over night hours when my stomach could not bear anything solid.

The landscape. Yes, I am also here to compete in the toughest paddling marathon on the planet but aside to that is this amazing wilderness. High cliffs, low delta, bog, river fog, swift currents, a minor rapid, and at times almost fiord-like v-shaped notches between mountains that appeared to be drawn by children. At times the river narrowed creating lovely strong currents to push me along my way. At other times the river opened up wide to a maze of islands, sweeper currents and log jams. I start seeing things. The sleeplessness was on the list of things that I could not be prepared and the resulting mental depletion leading to hallucinations on varying levels from seeing things in the rocks and trees such as faces and animals, to full-on visual and audio ghosts of the mind. I had never experienced hallucinations before in my life so these came as a surprise to me and an immediate frustration. The so-called sleep monsters causing my head to bob as though I was falling asleep on a city bus, making my eyes heavy and causing me to fully realize that all this was happening while I was in a kayak. A capsize in the icy waters would definitely wake me up but was something I wanted to avoid. It was not until I found other racers to chat with as we paddled that these symptoms of ultimate fatigue alleviated I only briefly.

The people.

From the moment my team and I arrived in Whitehorse to the ending of the race in Dawson it is the people I met along the way that made this challenging and at times emotional experience all it could be. Our hosts welcomed us with food, drink, laughter and soft beds. My fellow racers, though truly competitors also gave way to giving and helping each other. Offering encouragement, aid on the river, and even hotel rooms at the 7 hour rest break at Carmacks. I was turning down offers! The camaraderie within this moving community of racers, organizers, a host of joyful and simply amazing volunteers to which I am forever grateful and my dream team support crew is what I take away from this. Not the exhausting hours of paddling, nor the sore aches pains and flattened backside. Even the incredible scenery falls short of what the Yukon people, new paddling friends and my close team brought to the YRQ.

The weather.

At the end of the race as I was guided to the hotel by my partner Anik who braced against my constant paddle-drink veering to the right I said that I felt as though I had been Yukoned. The great north had hit me with just about everything she had. Rain, winds, and constant head winds. Heat that was nearly debilitating at times, and the non-stop daylight, though dampened slightly by rain clouds was never truly dark.

The rapids.

For five years I had fretted about the Five Fingers Rapids. After running them and it should be noted that this was my first ever rapids I can see that I really should have been more concerned with the lake section. Five Fingers was the highlight of the entire paddle. I passed a small island where a spotter stood vigil and shouted a warning that I was nearing the rapids and to keep right. I did so, hugging the right side of the river and could hear the rush of water but could not see it. The sun had began to rise and up in the Yukon that rise is shallow and slow. It also caused a blinding glare preventing me from seeing the notch that I had to aim for. I was not until I was about 50 feet away that the sun was trapped behind a tree, or a rock and the notch opened up to my view. Waves and boils of water were backlit. Every water droplet suspended in light and draped with river fog steaming up from the water’s surface. In dreamlike quality I paddled hard into what I hoped to be the sweet spot.

A slot of water that would take me through safely. Like a pinball I bounced from broadsiding waves to the line of rapids to my right that I dearly wanted to avoid. ricocheting out the other side I found myself wanting to do it again! I whooped loudly to the safety boat who cheered me on. I felt elated and refreshed and regained a strength I had lost on the lake. I sat enjoying the current and fiddled with my GPS to set it for the next waypoint. I looked up and was being pulled to the left side of the island after the rapids and worked hard up against the current to follow the right side, the softer safer route around the island. All the while berating myself for being cocky! I would find myself using more energy in similar fashion at least four more times that day to avoid being drawn down channels.

The end.

Taking a rest break at 60 Mile CP, the last stop before the finish line.

Taking a rest break at 60 Mile CP, the last stop before the finish line.

Reaching the last checkpoint at a place called 60 Mile after hours of paddling in milky cream coloured waters caused by the silt pushed into the Yukon River by the intersection with the White River, under heat that had taken the place of the early morning rains. I was tired, but happy. I was paddling with two of the stand up paddle boarders that were allowed into this edition of the YRQ as an experimental class. I am in awe of these athletes and shared my last hours on the river with them. We took a break at the check point to stretch before the last leg to Dawson that was an expected 5-6 hours of paddling. I left that checkpoint feeling the bubble I had stayed within since the start begin to loose air. I was emotional, in a certain amount of pain from my sore shoulder and tendonitis raging in my left wrist. I could see the end, it was near. I let the emotions take over for a few moments, with watering eyes and a lump in my throat. I was going to make it. I would be dead last, but I did not care about my time, my placing or position. I was set to be a finisher in the Yukon River Quest, if the last hours did not finish me.

The real adventure of this race for me was those last hours. Fading in and out of my sleep deprived stupor. Just keep paddling embroidered on the flat of my deck bag my constant mantra. I was on auto-paddle following the center right of the endless but easy to navigate channel that would inevitably, even if I only drifted take me to Dawson City. The optical illusion of going downhill was exenterated at this point. I was in fact paddling downhill with the flow if the river to the Bering Sea but in my sleepy state I felt as though I was paddling down endless steep shuts of grey water. If the current slowed it was as though I was going up and over bowls. My visuals were becoming a greater part of the problem. There was a long period of time where I felt as I was paddling under an series of overpasses. Concrete columns appearing in my peripheral vision and the spotter plane that kept track of us flying far too close to collision with my imagined structures.

The last part was a mixture of foggy mind and tired body and everything that could go wrong did. I could see the famous scar, that white exposed rock demarking Dawson and it was still at least an hour of paddling away. My over-packed and now messy cockpit cause the first problem when the looped handle of a dry bag jammed my left rudder pedal making maneuvering increasingly difficult. The Yukon had one more head wind in store for me as well. At one point I gave into it all. Depleted and drained and unable to fully grip my paddle or steer out of the wind I let my kayak drift sideways in fast current. I can only imagine the drama and speculation taking place at the finish line as everyone wondered what the hell I was up to out there.

From behind, a familiar set of voices. Not imagined, not hallucinatory but real, my support team. My loves and my dearest friends had been gathered my our host who was volunteering as a sweeper boat and came up from behind. Gus, who had paddling the marathon several times shouted and coached me to the last few paddle strokes. Cutting through my fog and the adrenaline took over me and I sprinted as best I could to the end. The horn sounds and I am done. I am home and greeted by fellow paddlers, onlookers and my team. The next few minutes were overwhelming as I struggled to my feet from the kayak cockpit that had been my home for so long. Nearly drowned as my partner helps me drink from a water bottle and leaning terribly to the right from a sore hip I managed to give a coherent interview on shore before staggering to a hot shower and a reward of a cold beer in the hotel room. I slept for 10 hours.

Paddlingboy 2.0

Arriving at the finish line of the 2016 Yukon River Quest.

Arriving at the finish line of the 2016 Yukon River Quest.

The Yukon River Quest attempt was a bucket list item that I had thought, completed or not would be checked off that list and I would move on. Nothing surprises me anymore about myself. At Carmacks, after 30-some hours of paddling my kayak I arrived announcing I was done. My crew mate Gus noted that I did not say I was scratching, just that I was done. After giving myself a good talking to in the hotel room I realized done only done for now. I was back in my boat. At the second rest break, a small 3 hour stop where I found no time to sleep I lay in my sleeping bag making plans for next year’s race and all the things I would do differently based on some hard lessons learned. I must be out of my mind and thought that once I got some sleep that I would come to my senses. Alas, no. I have secured a kayak for the 2017 edition of the YRQ and going back to the river with a new plan and a year to prepare.

I can’t end this post without thanking a few people. My partner Anik who took such sweet care of me before  during and after the race. My kayak support team of Gus Oliveira and Pia Cove who made this experience all that it could be and more, and I have never laughed so much in a long time. The volunteer hordes of the YRQ made everything easy and again added to the amounts of laughter and good spirits. A special and from the heart grateful thank you goes to the crew at the Coffee Creek rest break who were kind, gentle , thoughtful and amazing to us messed up paddlers.

I was indeed Yukoned. She tossed it all at my but in the end I and my little wooden kayak endured, and that is what this marathon is all about.



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