Posts Tagged yukon river quest 2016

All is Fair in Love and Paddling

Sod kayak launch pad donated by The Sod Farm, Whitehorse.

Sod kayak launch pad donated by The Sod Farm, Whitehorse.

The previous five minutes had been a blur. The starter horn blew. We all ran, walked or hurried to our boats lined up in order on the gravel beach beside the park, I was one of the hurrying types not wanting to use it all up before paddling. There was tussling of bodies ahead of me and I lost sight of Joe who was also of the hurrying kind. Reaching my boat after side stepping those in front of me who were seemingly less in a hurry to get going I found my wooden kayak and Anik standing at the stern awaiting her big moment to shove me out into the river, my kayak resting on a fresh strip of sod.

Ray, a volunteer on a sweeper boat was an acquaintance Gus had made on his many trips to the Yukon to compete in the Quest worked his family’s sod farm just outside of Whitehorse. The sweeper boat’s job is to follow the progression of paddlers up the river staying behind to round up, retrieve, aid, or rescue kayakers and canoeists who decide to call it a day, scratch or fall into trouble at the back of the pack. Ray would end up keeping the same ridiculous hours on the river as all the participants as he circled around the many islands and islets searching out the above mentioned boats.

After his short visit with Gus on the island Ray was on the same ferry ad I during my weekly trips to Victoria where Anik lives. Gus had pointed out my wreck of a car as I entered the terminal parking lot and told Ray that I was planning to paddle in the Quest. Ray sought me out. At first when he tapped a knuckle on my window disturbing my reading I thought he was just another hitch hiker looking to grab a ride into the city. He was not that but turned into someone else indeed. In the space of five short minutes chatting on the open deck of the ferry I had made a friend for life. In that meeting he gave me as much intel about the river that he could, and the offer to take me up river before the race on his jet boat to investigate the best route to Dawson. This encounter was the single most important tipping point in my decision to enter the race, though in the weeks to come I would be handed even more incentive. For now, I had a great new ally, a new addition to the team I was building and more important a new friend.

I wasted no time at my kayak as other racers madly paddled away. There was a rush of water, tension being released as finally after months of preparation we all were getting this thing started once and for all. I picked up my paddle and kissed Anik realizing two things at that moment. One being I could continue kissing her all day but that would significantly harm my finishing results, and two the remembrance of what Gus had told me earlier about setting up his GoPro camera up in a tree pointing at my boat. Its on film, the curtain was up and the performance had begun, I got to it. Sitting in the cramped cockpit I wrestled my feet into place in the rudder pedals and began the always tedious wrapping of the elastic of my spray skirt to secure it to the rim of the cockpit. Inevitably, whenever I rush this process it springs off at the back and I have to begin again. Usually resulting in an ocean wave threatening to fill my kayak wit sandy sea water. I knew this would happen and calmly as I could under the harried circumstances started from behind my back and all the way to the front pulling at the toggle until it fell into place. I gave Anik the thumbs up and she lifted the back of the boat and pushed me down my grassy ramp. I was actually paddling in the Yukon River Quest! I struck out hard but maintained my pace not giving into the temptation to race ahead.

Starting my paddle in the YRQ.

Starting my paddle in the YRQ.

Most of the front runners had long gone and the mid group was ahead of me. I set off into the swift current that rushed through the narrows along the Whitehorse city shore. Onlookers waved and cheered and it had been the first time experiencing anything like that. I never had fan fare before and it was a rush.  In the time it took to redo my skirt I had lost considerable ground. I knew I could make it up if I stuck to my plan and raced my own race. However, others around me had alternative and unforeseen plans. The one aspect of the race that I did not count on before hand was the crowding at the start. Thankfully, most of the pack had already set out but I still had several boats and the long voyageur canoes to contend with as I looked for a safe line to take. I saw Joe up ahead paddling strongly on one side of his canoe and then the other. I kept his pace. A silly move and a small detour from my instincts, but the moment took over me. I was racing after all and wanted to keep up with Joe as long as I could. I looked around me. My head on a constant swivel in search of those around me potentially crowding my paddle space. I thought I was clear and cut across to the center of the river to hopefully find the strongest current that only three days before had been intimidating until I discovered the joy of moving water for the first time.

Clunk! I felt it before I heard it. The soft nudge from behind and then the horrifying reality of what was happening jolted me from my bubble. I was facing the wrong way. My kayak hit from behind by the Japanese tandem men’s kayak, their bow locking horns with my rudder housing and the force of the collision tossed me into a 180 degree spin in the current.

“Let go!” I shouted as the front paddler in the tandem held onto my kayak. What was he thinking was anyone’s guess at that point but all I knew was I had to get free and somehow right myself. I couldn’t go all the way backwards. I pushed at their boat and finally he got the hint and let go. They pushed ahead and paddled on but I still was sailing at quite a clip, in reverse! I grabbed at the water on my right with the paddle blade shaped like and elongated spoon, shifting the rudder that I was relieved to discover was undamaged. I grabbed at the water on my left. The wing blade scooping at the emerald green river water hard and in a few strokes and aided by the current to the cheers on the boardwalk I was going in the right direction with the kayak’s bow now pointed firmly north. It was a humbling beginning to my journey that would be filled with humbling moments, but of all that could have happened in the mayhem at the start line a mild bump from another boat was the least disastrous. All is fair in a race like this one and mistakes will happen. I settled back into my bubble as I left the outskirts of the city and followed the narrow path bordered by high white sandy cliffs towards Takhini River Bridge.

 

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No Turning Back, now?

I stood, or more accurately I was pacing and shifting from one foot to the other on the grass in Whitehorse’s Rotary Park under the nearly noon day sun with the 250 paddlers of the gathered 95 teams of kayakers, canoeists, and the newly added stand up paddlers. Our team names were read out in turn by the mayor and one of the territory’s member’s of parliament at the microphone who were sheltered from the heat under the covered stage area. It was a long process and added a half hour to the traditional half hour wait of anxiety until the starting horn sounded.

Line up at the start of the 2016 Yukon River Quest.

Line up at the start of the 2016 Yukon River Quest.

The sudden weight of what I was about to enter into fell upon me about fifteen minutes into this speech making and I could barely register when my name, Team number 7, Paddlingboy from Canada was read out to the crowd. A rush of self doubt was swimming in the back of my mind. There were too many moving parts involved, I had come too far and spent too much money to back out now. People were looking, counting on me and I was the recipient of more support than anyone could ask, but still it was laying heavy on my shoulders. I am not an endurance racer. I am no athlete as my high school gym teacher would testify, and that has not changed in the ensuing years so what the hell was I doing standing on the grass surrounded by life jacket clad river warriors. Imposter syndrome was kicking in and I wondered if I was truly prepared, or was this going to be a huge failure if I had actually bitten off more than I could chew as a kayaker. I tied once again to build that bubble around me. My race bubble that I had formed and practiced in the months leading up to the Yukon River Quest was now difficult to establish. It would not fully formed, it was irregular and had holes letting in distractions and concerns.

About midway through the reading of team names my friends and support crew, Gus and Pia arrived at the rope fence around the coral of racers and waved me over. I jumped out of my stupor, and this would not be the last time that Gus managed to accomplish this feat. I walked over to them to receive good luck hugs. We were supporting two other solo kayakers, Wayne and Brad so Gus and Pia had to leave to be ready at the riverside to help push kayaks into the flow of the Yukon River. I had my partner Anik stationed by my kayak to do just that once I was in the boat and ready to start my paddle. A few words from them and a bit of love and somehow I became more relaxed and went back to where I was standing but now sat down reclining back on my elbows in the warm grass. Was I prepared? Did I actually know what I was getting in to? The answer is simple, maybe. There was the little guy on one shoulder and another little guy on the other shoulder. One, dressed much like I was in a ridiculous outfit of spray skirt and life jacket, pockets of which were filled with safety gear like fire starter and an emergency bivi sack in case of worst case scenarios. Those scenarios were the least of my worries.

I was navigating through a small last-minute crisis of confidence and on the other shoulder perched a fellow resembling that kid I was once. In fact, he could have been any version of me at just about any age. I am not sure that I would have committed to this event even a few short years ago. Was it lack of confidence then when I was younger leading my to a 51-year-old case of mid-life angst pushing me into the prospect of kayaking thousands of paddle strokes over the race course of 715 kilometers to Dawson City? The kayaker guy said go for it. “You got this!” he exclaimed smiling and waving a kayak paddle proudly in the air above his head. The other one, well he was less encouraging. He was a bit of a downer. I know he was only trying to keep me real, to add some common sense to this crazy thing I was about to do, he was only trying to help but I wanted him out of my bubble. He reminded me that I could have  trained more, I was not sure I had the right amount of gear in fact in hindsight I did have too much. What if I scratched? Would that be a sin, a crime and evidence of fraud to those whom I now see as my peers. Would they understand. Some paddlers don’t make it its true. By Carmacks which is the first mandatory rest break a good portion of those who start the race, quit. Fatigue combine with heat or cold exhaustion taking hold along with dehydration, injury and all manner or other potential problems lay ahead on my river quest. Would I be one of those fallen. Would it be my own fault for being here?

I chose to listen to the first guy, my little kayaker buddy who seemed to believe in me as much as my team and it was too late to turn back now. I dug into my internal self and dredged up a character trait that I knew would get me started and keep me paddling throughout. stubbornness! I stood up and whipped my hands then hooked my thumbs into the shoulder straps of my life jacket also referred to from now on as a PFD (personal floatation device) and its yellow. The confidence renewed and I envisioned myself somewhere on the long river in my kayak, in my element doing what I do best. I began a last minute chat with a fellow paddler, a canoeist Joe Evans whom I had met years before. He appeared far more prepared both boat and equipment wise as well as in attitude. He took this all in stride. He spoke with me as a comrade. Asking me if I was ready and to that I could only laugh a little. “I guess I can tell you that at the end of Lake Laberge, Joe!” He grinned and never once made me feel the newbie that I was. In his mind, just being here on the grass waiting to run the first 400 meters of that 715 kms to our boats was enough to initiate me into the fold. The horn sounded and he and I jogged to the waterfront passed cheering family, friends and tourists who had come to watch the Klondike spectacle. I arrived at my kayak resting on fresh green sod to aid the slide into the river saving the belly of my kayak from the shore line gravel. I kissed my sweetheart goodbye, sat down in my kayak and fumbled restlessly with the cumbersome skirt as I pulled its edges around the cockpit opening. I gave Anik the thumbs up and she shoved me out into the river proper. I was off! I would not see Joe again until a few days later as within a couple of kilometers of river he sprung well ahead of me. I was in my bubble however, but this time that preciously thin cocoon was larger and encompassed 250 more people sharing an experience.

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Before and After the Yukon River

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

I have been away from the blog for months now as life and work and all sorts seems to take my energies away from my writing time. But as I did my weekend walk from my girl friend’s palatial apartment building and down through the tranquil Ross Bay Cemetery with a cup of coffee in hand it occurred to me that three months from now I will be doing the same darn thing on a Saturday afternoon as is my tradition while she is at work, but in three months time I will be doing this stroll recovering from and hopefully revelling, and not despairing the Yukon River Quest experience.

Now that the weather has improved my training has officially begun and I have set a 20km loop around the islands north of my home on Saltspring Island. Set in Trincomali Channel it can be flat calm one day and a tossed mess of white capped waves the next, and in the case of my paddle the other evening all in one day! I am relying on all sorts of gadgets to record my times and help assess my progress…if any over the next couple of months. I feel good, the boat is great and am looking forward to bringing a kayak I built in my living room over a decade ago to the Yukon River and put myself and my kayak to the grand test of racing from Whitehorse to Dawson City, a mere 715 plus or minus kilometers against the clock and against my own fatigue.

I admit to waking up some mornings wondering what the hell I have gotten myself into this time. Then, I sit in my kayak and all is well. While blasting through wind waves the other evening, knowing full well they, and the tide were conspiring to ruin my 20km lap time I was laughing. Like riding a bike. I have not put my butt in a kayak solidly for a couple of years other than occasional evening or weekend paddles. I am starting from scratch and feeling fitter with each outing. The sun of springtime helps, and I wonder how it is for my fellow competitors who may not have the availability of luxurious backyard waters to train in, and in such nice conditions. I am lucky in where I live, and the support team I have to help me undertake the crazy task of making it so very far on my own, alone on a winding river up in the great white north under a disinterested midnight sun.

I will keep you all posted from now on with regards to training, thoughts and with luck, I will be sitting on my girlfriend’s front porch in three months time writing the opening pages of the post Yukon experience.

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Madness Under a Midnight Sun

In a week the registration for the longest paddling marathon on the planet opens and I will be one of the first to sign up. Call it a bucket list item, a midlife crisis gone off course from fast cars and dating inappropriately aged women. Tell me I must be nuts to even think about entering the race. I would reply, a little of column A and a little of column B. In the past couple of years as I really began to put some serious thought about paddling the 715 km distance between Whitehorse and Dawson City also known as the Yukon River Quest (the Quest) some have questioned why do it at all.

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

“You could just paddle the river as a holiday adventure.” as an example of the most common response to my crazy scheme. I have to say to that, it will be a holiday. I love road trips and the last one I took to the Yukon is a long story for the telling later on down the road. But I was hooked by the place, and especially the people I met along the way. And it is an adventure. The whole point is not whether or not I manage to stagger to the finish line, or fail to make it even to the first rest stop. That is the meaning of adventuring. If there was no question of success, a guarantee of completion without hardship or personal trials then why bother. So the naysayers I challenge you to go with the flow and accept that I am rather bent and willing to subject myself to long hours in a kayak, wildlife at every turn in the river, a growing tiredness and the need to pee.

During which I will meet people and witness wilderness from the unique perspective of a kayak that I will never un-see for the rest of my life, and sensations I will never un-feel for the rest of my years. I will face demons and doubts along the way. I have great people backing me, morally and physically. My support crew is a good friend who has finished the race several times. I trust him without hesitation and that only leaves the paddling to me. And though I know I will not be as competitive as he, I know he will get me as far as my body and mind will take me. I made a random contact on the ferry the other evening with a fellow who knows the river well and lives in Whitehorse. My team grew by one more as his knowledge will get me a long way. I have a lady in my life who felt that kayaks were death traps but after an afternoon in a tandem kayak with me this past summer she began to see why I do what I do. Although she may quietly think I am bonkers but is coming for the ride nonetheless and will love me no matter how bad I smell by the end. I hope.

Now the hard part. Training time. Today I strapped on the runners and went for a gasping, wheezing run but know that I will find my pace again and get back into fighting form for a long haul. “You could just paddle the river as a holiday adventure.” will come into my head at some point along the long crazy river sometime around Canada Day next summer. I will face that one when I get there.

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