As I paddled the last couple of kilometres where the coffee and cream coloured Yukon River collides with the equally famous Klondike River at Dawson City, I was knackered. Those final hours of the Yukon River Quest in 2016 were by far the most mentally and emotionally taxing paddle strokes I have taken in my kayak. I was all motor function and no one left inside for lone periods. Lucidity failed and then I was broken from my hallucinations by the sound of my own name being called out from somewhere, was it behind me, beside me or in my head. Word had gone out that I was definitely struggling to stay straight in my course. I was zig-zagging about in the wind waves brushing against the current that would eventually take me to where I was going. My support team jumped aboard our friend’s jet boat and had zoomed behind the island I was passing to eventually come up behind my kayak and shouted love and encouragements. When I realized it was real and not yet another fanciful creation of an extremely exhausted drain and flattened mind I perked up. It was what I needed to finish the trek. Last place, but who cares it was my goal and mission to complete every inch, of the river 715 kms from the start line in Whitehorse to the gravel beach finish line at Dawson City.
I followed the line now where the two rivers converge and the Klondike appears to be jet black running beside the silted Yukon. A dividing line is made where the two meet and I followed the subtle curls of silt and bubbles to the place where for the first time in a long time I saw people. Competitors from the race who had arrived as early as the previous day, well-rested and cheering my hard fought attempt to meet them. I saw friends, clapping and shouting. I mustered what I thought was one final surge of energy putting paddle to the water with fierce abandon. The video evidence shows the contrary. Okay, so only one paddle blade was making contact with the flowing river while the other stroke missed completely or barely skimmed the waters surface. I was leaning sharply to the right in my seat and my lower back was raw and sore. I heard the horn sounding the beginning of the finishing line and my friend shouting from the boat to just keep paddling its not over yet. Then I heard the second horn and could limp into shore to the awaiting volunteers and friends. I made it!
The experience began with a hat. A friend who would later be on that jet boat egging me on was the one who got me into this mess in the first place. He had competed and finished the Quest several times in the past and bought me a souvenir ball cap with the River Quest logo embroidered on it. When he gave it to me he stopped me from putting it on telling that I could only wear it if I entered the race the next season. I did. It was a nice hat and a shem not to wear it after all. With planning, packing and the long drive north we arrived in Whitehorse some forty hours later a bit stinky and bedraggled but met by our friend Ray and his family who took us in, gave us actual bedrooms instead of the camping in his backyard in which we all assumed would happen. We were well taken care of beginning with a tremendous bbq feast of northern fare.
I began a few days of acclimation to the scenery and the prospects of paddling the epic event. I was not an endurance racer but a recreational paddler. Until I began training for the race I had never intentionally paddled with aggression other than those times I need to dig deep to get out of harms way. I was thriving on the lingering tiredness from the non-stop drive and excitement of the unknowns ahead. Nerves rattled inwardly and I hoped that my crew understood any random outbursts. I set out on a training paddle a couple of days before the start and that was the first time ever that I had kayaked in moving water. It rushes by the shores of Whitehorse and to look at the moving current and swirling water it is demanding. The moment I set out and steered easily into the center of the river heading from Tahini Bridge about an hour paddle upriver I was enjoying it. I had no idea how fun kayaking in current would be. There was little struggle to maintain a course. I was not tossed in whirlpools or dashed against the sandy cliffs north of the city. The water was clear and and intense blue when deeper and at times I could see the rounded stones on the bottom. It was hot, I sipped water and payed close attention to my GPS and my surroundings. Testing my map reading skills and learning how the river wanted me to paddle. I thought to myself, well it the whole thing is like this then I will be fine. It wasn’t. This first section was benign enough but I would have my skills truly tested a few days later when the sleep monsters chased me down 30-Mile canyon and confusion found me in a place of islands and intersections before Carmacks and a 7-hour break from paddling.
There would be times after twenty or more hours without seeing a single person that I would see other things real or imagined. The cliff face had faces in them. There was a long period of time where I was sure that my girlfriend was arguing navigation with me around a set of difficult islands. The burning tree. That one I had witnesses so I am sure it was not a group hallucination. The time right after leaving the checkpoint at the end of Lake LeBarge where I saw the white deer prancing on the rivers edge and then in one leap disappeared into a cloud of sparkles. I am sure it reappeared elsewhere. I ate a few gummy bears and finished my Red Bull and paddled on after that one. There was a plane that was out spotting the racers. I am not too certain there was actually a safety measure that required a low flying plane new Dawson City but nonetheless it made two passes over the river and on the second fly over it banked around a bend with wings flapping like an albatross.
During the trek I felt as though I was travelling in a timeless state. It is wilderness, the real deal wilderness and from the seat of my kayak I gazed as though into a void at times at fiord-like mountains angling sharply to the river below. Wide valleys. Open sections of river which had the opposite shore up to two kilometres away with an obstacle course of log jams and islands making navigation demanding on a tired mind addled with sparkling deer sightings. An amazing landscape that is the most accurate memory of the river I have.
The volunteers make the race what it is. We show up and paddle our hearts out until our hands blister but these people come out each year with an enthusiasm that is contagious. The year I participated there were 2 volunteers for every paddler. From registration, boat measuring and gear check to the hand holding you get from a young guy at 2am in a wilderness camp turned rest stop who understands what you are going through and does a heroes job of feeding you and making certain you can continue on to the last leg of the race. Thanks again Ian, my man!
This year, there is no race. Today would have been the start of the Quest for 2020. Covid-19 and the very real precautions take hold in the Yukon shutting down an annual event that brings a spike to the local economy of both Whitehorse and Dawson City. It is something the Yukoners look forward to each year as much as anyone who has taken part or is planning to compete in the Quest. In the two times I have travel north to the Klondike both for the River Quest. Once as support crew and once as a racer it gets in the blood. The genuine nature of the Yukoners, the landscape, the place and the event. Hopefully in 2021 it will return with racers from all over the world paddling against the clock, their own demons and seeing how the river wants them to paddle.