The Yukon River Quest belongs to another world, or another time. A 450-mile paddle into the Canadian Wilderness where the string of competitors spreads like loose pearls until the only other things you might encounter outside of your boat are moose, bears on the shore, eagles, and smoke from forest fires.
Katie Stein Sather, Commodore of the Pitt Meadows Paddling Club in British Columbia, had to do quite a bit of convincing to get a team together. But, she’s persistent.
That team became the 8 of Hearts, all women, ages 58 to 71, and not only did they win the prize for oldest crew on the river, they also took 14th overall for paddling in 52 hours what normally takes recreational canoeists 14 days. Racing through the eerily bright night of the far North, the 8 of Hearts worked hard to keep up with a boat they knew had a GPS, because they didn’t.
Tell me about the Yukon River Quest. Where is it? How long is it? What is the landscape like? How many people usually participate?
The YRQ is an ultra marathon canoe race: 715 kilometers, over about 2 and a half days on the Yukon River from Whitehorse to Dawson City in Yukon Territory, Canada.
Top times are about 45 hours (plus the mandatory rest stops of 10 hours). We finished in 52 hours, 47 minutes, 35 seconds. That made us second in our Women’s Voyageur Class, 14th overall out of 59 entries. An entry can be a solo, a tandem (2 people in kayak or canoe), or voyageur canoe with 6-8 paddlers in it.
The first leg starts at noon on Wednesday; we arrived at the first stop in less than 24 hours… yes, we paddle all night! But it doesn’t get dark because it is so far north.
The second leg is another 24 hours (exact times are on the yukonriverquest.com website) for a 3 hour break. Then it’s another 10 or 11 hours to Dawson City.
Tourists take 14 days to do this run.
How did you form your team? (In other words, how did you convince them to do this thing?)
I started by challenging a few friends… Some are friends I have taken on other longer canoe trips. Some were just paddling friends from the local canoe club. One I travel with to choir practice, and my enthusiasm during that half hour convinced her. I invited quite a few possibles to my place for homemade dessert “to get more information.” One husband came; I understood there were questions about safety. So I answered them all to the best of my ability. I had done this race the year before with a crew of strangers, with not so satisfactory results. I wanted to do it with a crew of friends.
For the 6 of us who paddled together every week for nearly 6 months, we became a team sharing our joy in paddling together. We explored the area, went camping one weekend, and generally deepened our connections. Most of us already had connections of some kind, but this strengthened them.
Tell me about your teammates. Who are they? What do they do when they aren’t racing?
Seven of the 8 of Hearts team are retired, most of us rather recently. Minister and artist, speech therapist, teachers, tax preparer, retail florist, and Yukon homesteader.
One woman has paddled this race 14 times. She was our navigator.
Several members are grandmothers, caregivers of mothers or their grandchildren.
Were there any mishaps during the race?
The big “mishap” was the poor integration of one of the members who lives in Whitehorse, who had different expectations for the race strategy. We had met her prior to the race, but she didn’t say anything about her reservations until we arrived in Whitehorse, just days before the race. Her words: “This isn’t what I signed up for.” I think she had thought we were an experienced and competitive team. And I had thought I had been clear that we were not; that we were a team of friends out to enjoy the ride. Our goal was to finish the race—quite a few entries do not. So finishing as well as we did was a total surprise, and bonus. We did garner the prize for the oldest team.
Weather was truly on our side this year. Lake Laberge was nearly wind free; it didn’t get as cold as it can overnight. We did face some fog and smoke from forest fires the second night. With the heavy cloud cover, it made for a dark finish.
I believe that her skepticism did drive us to compete though, there at the end. See #6. Although that was not articulated or evident during the race. On the two training runs before the race, she was icy and negative. During the race itself, she was fine. Not truly warm, but professional and helpful. She is a professional in her day job.
She changed her tune somewhat when we passed the team she trained with, a benchmark team.
What sort of training do you do for an ultra marathon canoe race? And what are the logistics of the race? When do you sleep!? What do you eat?
We started training in January—living in greater Vancouver, BC allows us to paddle all year! We kept paddling longer and longer in our weekly team paddles, up to six and seven hours at a time. And most of us also paddled at other times during the week as well. Some of us worked out in the gym, or did yoga, or whatever.
One of my big concerns was an old injury. I had had a cortisone shot immediately prior to a big canoe camping trip two years before. I did not want it to recur. Many others had similar concerns, so we built up our paddling muscles gradually. No one wanted their body to be gobsmacked by the task of the race. No one was. The biggest problem was blisters on the butt.
Sleep? Not much. During the layovers mostly. Although a couple of us caught some zzz’s on the boat. Me included. Maybe 10 minutes is all.
Food: pretty much regular food. Each person figured out for themselves what they wanted.
And the question everyone asks: how do you pee?
We peed over the edge of the canoe, using the gunnel to sit on. It’s actually very easy in a big canoe. We had lots of time to practice it before we got there… It’s more a head problem than a physical one. No one had to stop for a more, um, substantial, deposit. One more reason to be grateful to be on an all female team.
The physical challenges of the race are clear; what are the mental challenges?
Staying awake, keeping warm at night and when it rained. We missed the hailstorm that some found, thank goodness.
The biggest challenge is keeping at the paddling. Staying strong. Close to the end of the race, we flagged a bit. Lollygagged. Then a mixed team (different class, so not our competition) passed us, but told us that our rivals, the team that the two Whitehorse residents trained with, was not far behind! We smartened up right away, and paddled hard, sprinted even, for the last two and a half hours. After 50 hours of paddling, we paddled like we had the first day!
When, why, and where did you start paddling?
I learned to paddle in 1974, in Alberta. My husband and I spent so much time that year paddling whitewater. It was such a blast. I have been a canoeing instructor, wilderness guide and am now Commodore (President) of the local club.
What’s next for your team?
Four of the team are on a dragon boat team together. Two of us now paddle much less. Sigh. Three of us are on the executive of the Pitt Meadows Paddling Club.
I personally hope to kayak Haida Gwaii next summer, and I plan to captain a team in the brigade across Canada for 2017 in celebration of Canada’s 150th Anniversary. Some of the team will probably join me.