Meet the Pioneering Paddlers of the Yukon River Quest, the Epic 715km (444 Mile) Adventure Race That Begins Tomorrow

 

“The last unknown is the sleep deprivation – there are many stories of paddlers seeing dancing bears, people walking on water, trees on fire and hearing strange voices.”
 
That’s Bart de Zwart talking about the Yukon River Quest, an extraordinary race that stretches for 715km (444 miles) through the Canadian wilderness. The 2016 edition begins in less than 24 hours, and for the first time ever stand up paddlers have been allowed to enter.

There will be 11 athletes competing in the “experimental” SUP division this year, including Bart, Lina Augaitis, Joannne Hamilton-Vale and Andre’ Le Geyt. To say these dozen paddlers are pioneers would be an understatement. They’re quite literally pushing SUP to new frontiers, and if all goes well, they’ll be responsible for opening up this event to more stand up paddlers in the future.

 


 

WEDNESDAY UPDATE:

The race has started, and you can follow the amazing journey in real time with the official GPS tracker

THURSDAY UPDATE:

Bart de Zwart and the other lead paddlers have reached the halfway point of the race. Check out our Yukon River Quest update for full details.

 


 

With the crew currently at base camp in Whitehorse making final preparations for Wednesday’s start, I invited them to share how they’re feeling, what they’re expecting, and why they’re doing this in the first place.

You can see their inspiring responses below, but firstly here are all 11 bold explorers:

Lina Augaitis
Tony Bain
Jason Bennett
Michelle Eshpeter
Andre Le Geyt
Joanne Hamilton-Vale
Norm Hann
Thomas de Jager
Stuart Knaack
Glen Pearson
Bart de Zwart

The Yukon River Quest isn’t about finish times or placings. It’s about finishing, period. It’s less of a race and more of an adventure, one of almighty proportions.

But it’s still a race, and so there are still winning times. Last year that time was 44 hours 51 minutes, set by a two-man kayak team, meaning the solo stand up paddlers can probably expect 60-70 hours out on the river (there’s a downstream current that gives them some slight assistance).

They will each stop once or twice to sleep on the river banks, and will carry bear spray in their gear bag. Bart said he was planning to for 24-30 hours, sleep for 7 hours, then repeat. (There is a minimum 7 hour mandatory break for all competitors at the main rest stop.)

Yukon River

The almighty wilderness of the Yukon River…

Paddling in the dark won’t be a problem: The event is known as the “Race to the Midnight Sun” because of its latitude. The starting town of Whitehorse lies at 60.72 degrees north, while the finishing town of Dawson is close the arctic circle at 64 degrees north.

The sunset on the eve of the race is expected at 11:35pm, while the sunset up north in Dawson is closer to 1am in the morning. It will never get fully dark, with the sun only dipping below the horizon.

The Yukon River Quest’s length of 715km (444 miles) easily makes it the world’s longest annual paddle race, dwarfing the classic 11 City Tour, which maxes out at 220km or 136 miles (though, rather amazingly, there’s actually a biennial event called the Yukon 1000 that goes for 1,610 miles).

The YRQ has been running for years as a canoe and kayak race, and from all reports the local canoeing community is somewhat baffled that stand up paddlers are even attempting it. Apart from the extraordinary distance, conditions will vary from dead flat to rapids to wide open lakes that could potentially be wind-blown and very bumpy.

The cut-off time for finishing is 84 hours, or exactly three and a half days.

You can follow this inspirational adventure with the official GPS race tracker, and you can get regular updates over on the official Facebook page.

This interactive course map gives you an idea about the scale of this amazing race…

 


 

Bart de Zwart, Netherlands

Bart de Zwart is known as the king of endurance paddling, having completed numerous solo expeditions in addition to being a four-time 11 Cities champion, so it’s no surprise that he’s one of the first ever stand up paddlers to compete in this race.

Bart wrote a guest post last week talking about his passion for the world’s longest stand up paddle races, where he announced that Yukon would be the first of six ultra long distance races he’ll compete in this year, with a combined distance of nearly 2,000km.

In that article he also talked about how these “ultras” will not only teach you a lot about your paddling, they’ll teach you a lot about yourself.

Bart will be paddling a 14×25 Starboard All Star, with sponsorship from Starboard, Patagonia, Black Project Fins, Supskin, Maui Jim, Robijns BV, Camelbak, Suunto, Kanaha Kai Maui, along with immense support from his wife Dagmar and daughter Soleil.

Bart de Zwart

Bart de Zwart competing in the 2015 Muskoka River X race (220km non-stop) photo credit: Andy Zeltkalns

The vibe here is a mood of pioneering and adventure, but also trepidation about the unknown.

We just came from the meet and greet, where we met most of the other paddlers. There are around 250 paddlers in total this year, some solo, some as a team of two or more. Apart from our small band of stand up paddlers, most competitors are on canoes and kayaks.

The stand up paddlers are the new and unknown factor for the organisers, and they don’t have any idea if we can make it or not.

I believe we do.

I sense a lot of “unknown” for the stand up paddlers gathered here this week. Most of them have great experience in ultra long distance racing or expeditions, but nobody has done something like this before.

Perhaps the biggest unknown is the lake. We paddle for three hours off the start line before hitting a 55km long lake, where anything could happen if the wind is blowing from the side. Lakes of that size become small oceans when the wind is strong, so we could even for some serious bumps if conditions aren’t favourable. Fortunately the forecast is for south winds, which is in our favour (we’re heading north), so I’m not too worried about it.

I sense that most of the paddlers are simply competing against themselves, so there is the unknown of how they we will perform after paddling for 24 hours and not even being halfway to the finish.

Personally I am looking forward to this unknown. This is a big reason why we do this. This is why the Yukon River Quest is called an adventure/expedition race. It’s unpredictable.

What will happen? How will our bodies react? How will the weather play out? What will we see along the way? Some incredible nature for sure, along with river rapids and exotic animals.

The weather in this part of the world can vary from 4°C to 24°C (39-75°F) within the space of 24 hours. The water is only 2 or 3 degrees Celsius (36°F). Very, very cold. So if you fall in you need to react fast and change into a dry clothes, or simply wear a drysuit the whole time.

The last unknown is the sleep deprivation. There are many stories of racers seeing dancing bears, people walking on water, trees on fire and hearing strange voices.

On of the organizers gave a little speech, his name is John he was on of the founders of this race back in the day. He said that some of us will get hypothermia, some will probably be puking or suffer diarrhea, some will hit the wall, others won’t be able to feel their asses (perhaps for us stand up paddlers that’s our feet), while we’ll all have sore backs and shoulders.

But John also told us there will be times during this race that we’ll realise why we’re doing this. When we’re alone and surrounded by the vast, beautiful nature of the Yukon, paddling through pristine waters with the almost-midnight offering us a guiding light.

Bart de Zwart

Bart is probably better prepared than anyone for this race, having completed several solo expeditions such as his 2013 adventure in Greenland

I’m sure all of the stand up paddlers here will be able to make it physically. Some will be faster than others, but it’s really all about the mental challenge.

Lina has done adventure racing, knows how to handle the pain and has a good chance to do very well. She also paddled in this part of the world a few years ago and knows the route better than any of us.

Joanne, a two-time breast cancer survivor, is tough as steel and does this to raise money for breast cancer research, which will surely keep her motivated. Norm is a great adventurer who has years of experience, though not too much in the SUP racing. Andre knows how to paddle long distance from many years in the 11 City Tour, and has been training hard to be ready for this ultimate test.

All of the SUP racers assembled here deserve to be in this race (it was not easy to enter this race – there were very limited spots and you had to apply to be accepted), so let’s do this. Because like Joanne has written on her board: “Pain is only temporary, quitting is forever.”

 


 

Joanne Hamilton-Vale, England

Joanne Hamilton-Vale is a regular at the famous 11 City Tour in the Netherlands (she won the 220km non-stop division last year), while she also completed the 93km non-stop Great Glen Paddle in 2014. She’s also one of the toughest and most determined paddlers you’ll ever meet.

Jo is raising in aid of Stand Up For the Cure, and is supported and sponsored by Supskin, Black Project Fins, Red Bull, Pinnacle Performance and Training, and last but not least her husband Pete Vale.

Jo will be paddling a 12’6 Naish ONE (N1SCO) inflatable, and you can follow her adventure on Instagram.

Joanne Hamilton-Vale

Joanne Hamilton-Vale after finishing the 220km “Non-Stop” division of the 11 City Tour last year (photo: Mayola Dijksman)

I feel extremely privileged to be selected as one of the first ever SUP paddlers to enter the Yukon River Quest. It is an honour to be on the start line with a group of likeminded people.

I have chosen ultra endurance this year as my main race discipline as I feel this race format is good for my soul. I enjoy fighting against my own brain and love the camaraderie and help between paddlers. Everyone on the start line will be expecting pain, extreme tiredness and mental torture but will all be doing their utmost to cross the finish line, as we are the link to SUP being opened as a permanent race class at the YRQ.

This long of distance time is a complete unknown to me, and the uncertainty is what I am currently struggling with. As a breast cancer survivor I will be paddling every stroke to raise money for Stand Up for the Cure. When times get tough I will have names on my board of people who have not survived or are currently fighting to reflect on and put things into perspective. I have to remember I am fit and healthy, this is only 3 days of my life and I chose to do it.

I will do my best to ensure every SUP paddler gets the opportunity in the future to compete in this iconic race.

I also asked Jo how the mood was at the base camp on the eve of the race, and she added: “We all seem pretty upbeat. A lot of people up here don’t think we can do it but we will prove them wrong.”

For when things start getting tough. The names of Standup for the Cure founders plus motivation in a language I understand 😎

A photo posted by Joanne Hamilton-Vale (@joannehamiltonvale) on

 


 

Lina Augaitis, Canada

Lina is probably the best known paddler in this race, having enjoyed a stellar elite racing career over the past few months, climbing as high as number two in the world before going on hiatus to start a family. Amazingly, Lina gave birth to her first child just six months ago, however she’s already back in shape and ready for this 715km epic.

Lina will be paddling a 14′ SIC race board, and you can follow her on Instagram.

Lina Augaitis

Lina Augaitis doing a practice run with her Yukon gear, including a breast pump that will no doubt be a unique piece of equipment among the field

Being the only SUP paddler who has completed this route (edit: Lina paddled the length of the Yukon “just for fun” a few years ago) I suppose I am slightly at an advantage, but it was 5 years ago and it was at a slightly more cruisy pace. This being a “race” and non-stop puts a whole different spin on things for sure.

The Yukon River is wild and beautiful and LONG. Because I have paddled this route I can remember the parts that were hard, the ever changing weather patterns and the wild feeling of it all.

My biggest concern though is how I will be doing body wise — my first child Tav only almost 6 months old and I still have to care for him. I am hoping my breast pump and paddle system works or I will be in so much pain.

I also hope that it doesn’t waste too much time because there are strict cut-off times. I also hope I can force myself to consume enough calories as I am using up more calories than normal by pumping breast milk for my son, etc.

I will have to breast feed at the rest point on our 7 hour mandatory stop, which will definitely make “resting” interesting… hahah

And of course I’ll be worrying about my young child while I’m out there in the wilds of the river. So there are a lot of unknowns in that regard, perhaps fairly unique compared to the other paddlers. Where most will be concerned about the river and racing (which I will be as well) I have slightly more to think about!

That being said, I think it is possible and hence I am here trying to make it happen.

This is a huge step for SUP in this area. Back in 2011 they had no intention of letting me race and were surprised that I even completed the route on a SUP at my own pace. So five years later it’s great to see stand up paddling welcomed into this historic and amazing race.

I think we will shock the canoe paddlers with in our abilities and the possibilities, and I forsee the SUP division becoming one of the more popular categories in the future of the Yukon River Quest.

The Yukon is an epic magical spot, like no other… It is so rich in history, has changing weather, lots of outdoor possibilities. I love it up here.

I hope all SUPs succeed through the race. We have an epic group out here for the first official SUP category.

live, love, laugh…DREAM!

Yukon River Quest Lina Augaitis

 


 

Andre’ Le Geyt, Jersey

I also got a quick word from Andre from the isle of Jersey, who I’ve had the pleasure of paddling with at the past two 11 City Tours in the Netherlands. I spent a lot of time beside Andre in the draft trains back in 2014 (he was too quick for me in 2015!).

Andre will be paddling a 14×26 Red Paddle Co inflatable in the Yukon River Quest.

Andre summed up the excitement about the adventure ahead, while also highlighting the fact many local paddlers think the SUP competitors are just plain crazy for even attempting this.

“Hey Chris, been up here a few days and a lot of local people are kind of bemused about us doing it! But you’re right it will be pretty damn epic!”

Andre has also had his first encounter with one of the bears that populate the Yukon (there are ~10,000 black bears and ~7,000 grizzlies in the Yukon Territory).

You can follow Andre’s Yukon River Quest on Facebook.

 


 

More coverage of the Yukon River Quest

Official Facebook page
#yukonriverquest on Instagram
Official website
Event schedule and check-point cut-off times
GPS Race Tracker (view the “team names” so you know who to follow)
– Also read Bart de Zwart’s guest post about ultra long distance stand up paddling.

The Yukon River Quest begins at 12 noon on Wednesday 29th June. The first finishers (kayakers) will cross the line after about 45-50 hours, with stand up paddlers expected to take anywhere from 55-84 hours.

Good luck to everyone competing in this epic adventure, and check back later in the week for more updates.