July 18, 2023
by Christopher Parker (@wheresbossman)

After paddling 480 miles in five days, they’re almost halfway…

this year’s bold stand up paddlers on the start line; we’ll see how those smiles look at the finish…

“You change as a person.”

That’s how ultra-marathon legend Bart de Zwart sums up what happens when you paddle beyond the realms of all reason and enter a world of endurance, exhaustion and enlightenment that few will ever attempt.

And if that’s the case, competitors in this year’s Yukon 1000 must be experiencing an almighty, all-consuming metamorphosis right now as they move beyond the halfway mark of this 1600km pilgrimage and enter the twilight zone of the river’s labyrinthine-like lower sections.

The Yukon 1000 is the younger, wilder and batshit-crazier version of the 440-mile Yukon River Quest. The “1000” has only been held half a dozen times and those who have finished are members of an exclusive club. Paddlers who’ve done it standing up are practically unicorns.

There were 17 teams starting in Whitehorse on the weekend. After four days on the water (or five for the two SUP crews), the 15 pairs remaining in this year’s “race” – and that’s a bizarre term for an event most won’t finish til the second week – paddled beyond the famous gold-rush town of Dawson sometime on Tuesday (the official name is Dawson City but that’s being generous).

Dawson is a dangerous beacon of temptation in this race — it’s considered the only inviting place to retire. If you paddle beyond Dawson you’ll see very little sign of civilisation — you’re all but committed to reaching the finish line a further 550 miles downstream.

Some people go to therapy, others paddle the Yukon…

There are two SUP teams attempting this year’s mind-bending voyage and the second of those, ‘Renegade Moose Chasers’ (Martin Rendle and Kim Foster from the UK) made camp late Tuesday evening at mile marker 485 after passing Dawson with no doubt a mischievous grin.

And that’s the colossal nature of this grand adventure in one simple stat: paddling five days and not even being halfway yet.

The leading stand up crew, ‘Team SHAC’ (Craig Sawyer and Scott Innes, also from the UK) have been setting a solid pace and spent Tuesday night resting at mile 564. They’ve only been passed by two teams so far (SUP teams begin a day earlier than canoes and kayaks). Team SHAC also successfully navigated the infamous Five Finger Rapids on Saturday evening.

In the race for line honours, the 150-mile-per-day-pace of “Team Not a Crisis” (Carmen Gustafson and Crispin Studer in a canoe) puts the leaders on track for a seven-day finish on Friday. Interestingly, sitting in second place just three miles off the lead canoe is a two-woman kayak team from Estonia; three of the top four paddlers are women. (The stand up teams should finish between early Sunday and late Monday.)

Completing the Yukon 1000 is a simple enough proposition: you and a partner will paddle a thousand miles down a fast-flowing river in 10 days or less. You can be on the water up to 18 hours a day but must be resting from 11pm til 5am (for your own safety & sanity). You’ll sleep rough on the riverbank at night and try your best to avoid the local wildlife — bear spray is a mandatory safety item. You must carry all of your own food and gear — you’re not even allowed to communicate with the outside world let alone get support. Phones are placed in tamper-proof bags, GPS trackers inspected for contraband messages.

It is, quite simply, a descent into madness.

Apparently more people have climbed to the top of Everest than have paddled beyond Dawson. Fortunately, once paddlers reach their Yukon summit they don’t have to turn around and go back the way they came. That would really change you…

You can follow the Yukon 1000 with the live tracking map and official Insta; the SUPfm team have been doing some great coverage (including podcasts with the teams leading up to the race – well worth a listen)