River run
by Jillian Rogers - News sports reporter
A Yukon News Archive story originally published June 23, 2000

It's Quest time again.

But competitors in this four-day trek down the mighty Yukon River are trading parkas and sleds for PFDs and paddles.

The Yukon River Quest is the world's longest canoe race.

During the race, paddlers from around Canada and the US thrash 735 kilometres down the river from Whitehorse to Dawson City.

This year's race - the second annual - includes some newcomers riding side by side with seasoned pros, including last year's winner, Solomon Carriere of Cumberland House, Saskatchewan.

Carriere and his partner finished the race in just over 56 hours, and he hopes to retain his title with his new boatmate, Dan Solie of Fairbanks, Alaska.

"We'd like to be the first to Dawson," the former world champion canoeist said Wednesday before the start of the race.

"But this year, I just want to be in the race, have fun and spend some time with Dan."

Most of the racers ran from Main Street to their canoes and kayak at Rotary Peace Park in a LeMans-style start, though three brave soloists got a head start of about 18 hours.

There are 31 adventurers in total - 13 canoe teams, three solo kayakers and one tandem kayak team.

The first major obstacle was Lake Laberge, which a strong wind can whip into big waves in the blink of an eye.

Most of the competitors took about seven hours to cross the lake which, luckily, was calm at the time.

Tom Fell and Jeff Mettler of Washington state were the first across with Bob Vincent and Gwyn Hayman of London, Ontario, close behind.

Last year's champion was in third position while this article was being written Thursday afternoon.

The competitors raced down the river for 380 kilometres before hitting their first checkpoint - at the halfway point - in Carmacks for a mandatory two-hour rest.

Then they were back on the water for the 80-kilometre paddle to Minto for a six-hour stop.

While at the checkpoints, the racers are allowed to get help from their support staffs to restock their canoes and prepare their meals.

The final leg of the race is the 315-kilometre haul to the finish line in Dawson City.

The serious racers won't get much sleep. Last year, one paddler started having hallucinations.

The others suffered from a host of physical ailments, like blisters, sore shoulders and backs and torn muscles and tendons.

"The easy part is that trail is already put in for you, you just have to go with the flow," former Yukon Quest president David Porter said Tuesday.

The River Quest "is a little easier (than the winter version) in the fact that you have to look after the paddlers and not 300 dogs," he added.

This is the second River Quest for Carcross musher William Kleedehn, who competes in mid- and long-distance dogsled races.

"If you find some teams that are the same quality as yours, and do some chasing and tactics and calculations on how you can beat them, then it's almost like the dog race," said Kleedehn.

"When we started out last year, we just wanted to have fun, but once we passed the halfway point, we ran into some teams and we beat them. That was fun.

"So this year, I hope that we can cruise around with a few more boats," he said at a meet-and-greet barbecue Tuesday at the Takhini Hot Springs.

Kleedehn plans to run a more strategic race this year than last, using some of the islands to sneak ahead of his competition.

"Sometimes things that you plan like that work and sometimes they don't, but we'll see soon enough," he said, noting he finished 12th last year.

"All we wanted to do last year was make it to Dawson on the Saturday before the last restaurant closed.

"We barely made it," he chuckled. "This year, we want to be there on Friday before the last restaurant closes."

Racers stop for almost nothing. They take turns eating and sleeping while paddling to the finish line.

Some subsist on pounds of dried fruit, Power Bars and Power Gel to keep their muscles fuelled.

Others, like Kleedehn, are veritable gourmand and prefer to eat things like smoked salmon, dried meat and fried eggs and bacon.

"We tried granola bars last year but they were way too dry, so after two of them, I'd had it," he said.

"At the halfway point, we got some Power Bars, that high-tech stuff that tasted awful, and when we hit some head winds, I ate some Power Bars and Power Gel.

"Well, 12 hours later, I had to make an emergency stop because apparently you're supposed to drink a gallon of water with that stuff.

"I don't think it works anyway, and you might as well eat something that you look forward to eating."

Vincent and Hayman, who were in second place coming off Lake Laberge, are newcomers to the River Quest.

"We want to still be friends when we're finished, and I think we're pretty competitive, so we'll see," Vincent said at the starting line Wednesday.

He hopes to complete the race in under 75 hours.

"We came because it's the Yukon and just (because of) the distance of the race," added Hayman.

"It's going to be a very interesting experience," he said.

Most paddlers will finish the race tonight or early Saturday, in plenty of time to attend Sunday's awards ceremony.

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