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.