This is the ‘Yukon River Quest’ (OR: “Why am I paddling 715km down a cold river in Canada?!”)
UPDATE: It’s time! Follow the Yukon River Quest live GPS tracking map and Instagram updates from Wednesday to Saturday as 118 teams attempt to conquer the 715km course…
In exactly seven days’ time, I will be paddling down a long, cold river towards the village of “Carmacks” in Canada’s wild and remote Yukon Territory in desperate search of rest.
If all goes according to plan, I will have already been on the water for more than 24 hours at that point, paddling all through the night of Wednesday 26 June. But I’ll still only be one third of the way towards my final destination of “Dawson” in the far north.
Carmacks is the first of two rest stops along the 715km (444 mile) course of the Yukon River Quest, the world’s longest annual paddle race and an almighty challenge both physically and mentally.
I’ll be joined on that cold river in Canada next week by ten other stand up paddlers and scores of kayak and canoe competitors for the 21st running of the “Race to the Midnight Sun,” an event that has become something of a mythical beast in the world of paddling.
The word “Quest” is very fitting in my opinion. This isn’t just a race, it’s an odyssey.
So after covering the Yukon River Quest from the comfort of my laptop the past few years, I’m nervously-excited to announce that I’ll be taking part in this year’s challenge, and we invite you to virtually join us on this crazy adventure.
Though at this point you might be asking yourself the same question I’ve been contemplating the past few days: “Why on earth are you doing this?!”
I’m in no shape to be an ultra-endurance athlete, at least not physically. When I was a kid, I would often win the 100 metre sprint on athletics day before finishing dead last in the mini marathon.
But I was also one of those day-dreaming kids who would would memorise the Latin phrase “fortis Fortuna adiuvat” (Fortune favours the bold) while pretending to be a 15th-century Portuguese explorer. I’ve always longed to see what’s around the next corner. There’s not a whole lot left to discover on the surface of our planet – you can track every square metre of the Yukon River Quest with your thumb on Google Maps – but I think modern day “exploring” isn’t so much about the physical. It’s about the mental.
There’s an endless world inside our own minds, and one of the best ways to open it up is by pushing yourself well beyond your physical and mental comfort zones. Paddling for three and a half days through extremely-remote wilderness with very little rest seems like a pretty good start.
I’ve been motivated by the likes of Chris Bertish, Casper Steinfath and SUP’s current ocean-crossing hero Antonio de la Rosa (god speed, amigo). But one guy in particular has inspired me to do the Yukon River Quest: Bart de Zwart.
Because while the race celebrates its 21st anniversary this year, this is only the fourth year SUPs have been allowed to compete in the YRQ. It was once thought too daunting a challenge for stand up paddlers, but Bart’s pioneering mission alongside a band of Canadian heroes including Norm Hann and Lina Augaitis in 2016 made SUP an official division of this mighty event.
Bart will start a strong favourite for a fourth-straight title. No other man has ever won the race. And despite this being very much a personal challenge, the Yukon River Quest is definitely still a race: Although it’s not marketed as a professional event, there’s actually $40,000+ prize money on the line between the various divisions plus an even bigger pool of pride and glory.
Every time I ask Bart “Why?” he undertakes these incredible challenges the answer is always similar: “You go places in your mind you didn’t know existed.”
I guess some people go to army bootcamp, others paddle for three days down a cold river in Canada.
There’s a few other reasons I’m doing the Yukon River Quest, apart from my own selfish introspection, and hopefully all of them will motivate me as I battle the overwhelming desire to just stop paddling and get off the river at one of the various safety check-points.
Firstly, I’m simply eager to help share the story of this crazy race. At a time when SUP racing seems to be an endless series of 10k events, I find these “ultra” races to be the most fascinating corner of our sport. Even if all the names in the field aren’t so famous, there are so many interesting stories and so many questions I want to ask the other competitors (chief among them being “Why?!”).
We’re also getting ready to launch something special on The Paddle League platform that will support and promote the “ultras” of the world (Yukon, 11 Cities, etc), and this will be the first test of that formula.
Though perhaps most motivating of all is that we’ll be raising funds for the junior training club on the Spanish island of Mallorca (which is kind of my second home). These kids were left $10,000 out-of-pocket-money when the PPGs was suddenly canceled earlier in the year after a dozen of them had already saved up and bought airfares to California. In a last-minute attempt to save Christmas, we’re looking for a few ways to raise money and get them to the Gorge Paddle Challenge in Hood River instead. Next week, I’ll be asking if you’d like to sponsor me with a few cents for every kilometre I paddle in the Yukon River Quest, with all the money going to the fundraiser that The Paddle League will be launching on behalf of the Mallorca kids next week.
Finally, this wouldn’t be possible without the generous support of a few brands, in particular Starboard who’ve commissioned a 30-minute documentary of this year’s race. I’ll be traveling to Canada with co-Boss Man and filmographer extraordinaire Trevor Tunnington and our photographer, Kelli, both of whom will do a race of their own as they stay up all night getting footage and interviews with the paddlers as they stagger into the rest stops.
This Starboard documentary isn’t going to be your standard race recap video. Inspired by Casper’s Viking Crossing, we’re hoping we can come up with an engaging way to tell the story of this epic challenge. We also aim to include every stand up paddler and several of the canoe/kayak competitors in the story.
Our good friends at Quickblade Paddles and VMG Blades, who’ve supported us right through the European summer, are also on board to help tell the story. Along with my 14×26 Starboard All-Star, I’ll be using the new UV88 paddle from QB along with my VMG carbon race fin, which hopefully knows its way around the maze of small islands that dot the lower parts of the Yukon River and can apparently send you mad as you try to read an old black & white paper map in the 2am twilight of day number three.
We’ll also be supported by local legend and “SUP Yukon” founder Stuart Knaack who was part of the inaugural class of 2016 and now runs paddleboarding tours on this remote edge of the world.
The entire team will be willing me on to the finish line that all of us competitors have to reach by 9pm on Saturday 29 June, almost three and a half days after the start time of midday Wednesday.
Given the Yukon River has a 5km/h flow rate, I’m confident I could eventually make it to the finish, but the big question mark is the dreaded cut-off times. This is a race, not a leisurely trip down the river, and organisers enforce strict cut-offs at around a dozen check-points for obvious safety reasons.
With a minimum of 10 hours mandatory rest — 7 hours at the first stop in Carmacks and another 3 hours at the second, makeshift camp near the ultra-remote “Coffee Creek” (it doesn’t even have road access) — and a total cut-off time of 81 hours, there’s only 71 hours on the water to complete 715km of paddling.
So we’re required to paddle at almost exactly 10km/h average for three and a half days. That would be a serious pace in an elite race, let alone an ultra marathon, so we’ll all be counting on the assistance of the river flow to see us through in time.
The other paddlers in the SUP division apart from Bart and myself are Emily Matthews, Brad Friesen, Mike Procter, Ben Ashwell, Stuart Croxford, Peter Allen, John Dye, Shauna Magowan and Heath Spence. We hope to get a word from all of them at the finish line for our mini documentary and find out what motivated them to tackle this challenge.
There are another 100+ teams entered in the solo, tandem, four-person and eight-person canoe/kayak divisions.
We’ll be updating Instagram and Facebook (@supracer and @paddleleague) next week (whenever we find a slither of mobile internet along the remote route), and you’ll also be able to follow our dots on the screen with the official GPS tracker.
The official YRQ Facebook page will have plenty of updates as well.
Thank you to the Yukon River Quest organisers for welcoming us into this wild world. I’m still not sure what I’ve gotten myself into, but I’m pretty sure it’s going to be one hell of an adventure…
The 2019 Yukon River Quest begins at midday local time on Wednesday 26 June in Whitehorse (southeast corner of the map below) and finishes 9pm on Saturday 29 June in the northwest Yukon town of Dawson.
Map not displaying? View directly on Google Maps