First person account of completing the 2018 Yukon River Quest by Bart de Zwart
This year’s preparation for Yukon River Quest was a little different to prior years because I was travelling through Europe by car, visiting family and attending Connor and Anae’s wedding – I didn’t have a regular training schedule for a race of 715 km. The new Starboard All Star Airline 14’ Inflatable was a great tool and fabulous board to have on the road – easy to travel and store, and it’s a really fast board. So I trained where I could. For the Yukon River Quest, here in Canada, I was using the All Star 14 x 24.5 in the lightweight Carbon Sandwich construction.
This year the weather looked great (little did I know) and there was a massive group of entries (120 teams) but unfortunately, in the last week a few stand up paddle boards pulled out of the race, mostly because of injury or not being fit enough for a race like this. Because it is a demanding race with little option of pulling out between the few checkpoints, sometimes 100’s of km apart. So it takes planning, preparation and being fit physically and mentally. The mental part is the most important one.
The race begins with a running start of 200 meters to your board which I had placed on the river bank with all my mandatory gear and food, all nicely packed and ready to go. We need to have enough right gear and food to survive if we get injured or have really bad weather and you have to camp out for a couple of days to wait for rescue.
The water level of the of the river was lower than previous years which meant that the flow was also slower – this made for a slow start and it took me about 3 hours to get to the lakes. The promised tailwind turned into a headwind on the lake so all competitors were a lot slower over the lakes – normally a 6-hour grind.
Finally around 10 at night I got to the river and picked up the current again. The current was a great help and made you feel as if you were flying after a hard and not easy 10 hr paddle. Although the sun doesn’t go down until midnight the temperatures started to plummet as we paddled further into the evening. The water temperature is also only 5 degrees Celsius so one needs to paddle hard to stay warm.
During the first 10 hrs I made a very good distance on the second position team – a tandem paddleboard team from France. Fortunately, I was not totally alone, often paddling some stretches with other kayak and canoe teams. I expected the Frenchman to pass me as they had the advantage on a 17-foot board with two of them paddling, but their inflatable was a handful on the lake and by now they were also getting tired.
During the night it is harder to keep the momentum going when you are battling sleepiness – your eyes go out of focus and your pace starts to slow. Sometimes you actually fall away for a millisecond but the moment you have an imbalance an almost fall of your board, adrenaline shoots through your body, waking you up instantly – just in time to not fall from your board. This is the most challenging part of the race – fortunately you just have a few hours when you feel very sleepy. As the sun begins to rise again then suddenly the sleepiness is gone and you are ready for another day.
The nights here are more twilight for a few hours than dark, giving you the feeling you’re paddling in constant daylight. The secret to racing like this is keeping a good average pace, to keep paddling and to not take too many breaks. Consistency is the magic word. After about 12 hrs all your muscles start to ache and then it is all about finding a good pace to keep going and bite through the pain. And at the same time, you are paddling to such an exceptionally beautiful place and as remote, mostly only you the mountains, the trees and the river.
After 25 hrs I arrived at the rest stop, a compulsory break of 7 hrs. Food-sleep-food and off you go again. My sleep part wasn’t that good this time because it was loud around my tent I kept waking up but rested I was. The next rest stop was about 17 hrs away.
Before we got there we first had to encounter the Five Finger rapids which always sounds harder then they are. I came through without falling into the water which would be a hassle because it was 10 pm and getting cold again and I would have had to change clothes before continuing. The first 6 hrs I was doing well and catching other canoe and kayaks, the duo SUP team and solo SUPs were all still far away.
Every now and then a headwind would pick up and then I could all my muscles would become very sore. I was already a good hr slower at the first stop and it looked like I would be losing another hour. As I was losing time again I could feel my 52 hr plan slowly fading. Later that day, I heard that a record 25 teams had quit the race at the first stop mostly from exhaustion or being cold.
The night was tough, I didn’t feel too sleepy but I was sore. In the morning, clouds gathered and a thunderstorm came in from behind us, chasing me with thunder. It got very windy and started raining an hour before the next break after 42 hrs of paddling and 17 hr after the last break. Thunder came really close when I reached the coffee creek – a 3 hr break with soup, a sandwich and sleep on the ground while the clouds above us broke down.
When I woke up after a 2 hr sleep the sun came out again and I felt great. I was ready for the last 12-13 hrs. There was still no sign of any competing SUPs behind me. Later I heard more pulled out and there were only 4 more SUP teams left in the race.
When I started I was confident I could achieve a sub 55 hr time but very soon the headwind started blowing again and I realized I had to slow down a little so I would not blow. The currents here were very good so even with the headwind I was moving along fine but I was still going 1-3 km slower than normal. I started to become better and better at reading the currents. The Yukon River is so wide at points it doesn’t always pay off to move to the outside of a bend to get the faster currents. And they make this race interesting always looking for the faster water never boring.
After having paddled for about half a day alone I started making ground again on other canoe and kayak paddlers. Here the steep mountains are beautiful but the little islands and sandbars make navigation difficult because the water, snow and ice in the winter changes the course every year so maps don’t always help. For 15 minutes I wasn’t sure where I was but soon I recognized features from the map and I knew where I was going.
On the home stretch I was pretty tired and ready to finish this race – so looking forward to good food and a nice warm bed… and you can’t imagine the burning muscles. The last 5 hours were windy and rainy but being so close to close to the finish there was no way I could get upset.
In the end, I finished in 55 hrs 35 min at 5:35 am. Although I came in first in the SUP category, this was not my best time but I still beat the next solo SUP paddler by 15 hrs and was 6 hrs faster than the tandem SUP.
This was my 3rd Yukon River Quest win, but it’s not over yet. I will be racing in here again in just 3 weeks – competing in the Yukon 1000 (miles, 1650km) which is much more remote and a lot longer. I promise myself that I will do that one a bit slower so I can enjoy a little more and hope to see more animals there because that is pure bear country.
A race like this is both an adventure and absolute challenge against yourself. You battle the urge to quit, to lay down and rest but your mind is not willing. Too suborn and too proud. That conquering feeling at the finish is even sweeter because we have all gone very deep to get here, deeper than most people will ever go. After finishing I spend the day greeting other paddlers as they arrive. I also take some to walk around in Dawson – a wild gold digger town which looks like a scene out of a Western movie. It also happens to be Canada Day so we are invited to take part in the parade through the small town before we go through to prize giving.
The Yukon River Quest is a very special race where taking part, meeting fellow paddlers and paddling through the remote backcountry is more important than winning. The prize money is a sweet bonus, which will wisely be invested in more expedition gear for the next adventure.
The All Star 14 x 24.5 performed exceptionally well because of the fast race shape and extra volume in the nose means I can load a large amount of gear without losing performance. Simply an absolute awesome board.
It’s one life, go and explore!
– Bart de Zwart