A racers first hand tale of the 2001 Yukon River Quest
Submitted by Peter Coates

My son Thomas and I entered the 2001 Yukon River Quest, a race 460 miles long
with only two rest stops, one of 2 hours and one of 6.  It seemed like a silly
idea from the start, but we did OK, coming in 8th with a respectable time of
62hr 12m.  That was about 25 hours for the first section, a two hour rest,
7 for the second section, 6 hours rest, then 23 hours to the end.  Or something
like that.

For the edification of others who might be thinking about entering this event, I
thought I'd write up what we did, and what turned out to be a good idea, what
turned out to be a bad idea and what I'd do differently if I had a chance.

We made the decision to enter the race in September/October 2000 which,
considering how little we knew was all very daft.  I had done some canoeing in
the past, my son had done none!  So our first step was to buy ourselves a canoe.
I looked at the specification for the race, and determined with the trusty aid
of my web browser that this meant a Jensen 18, and that meant buying from either
Wenonah or Clipper.  I sent email to both companies.  Two weeks later I got a
reply of sorts from Wenonah, by which time it was too late.  By then I had had a
long correspondence with Clipper who had sold me a Kevlar Jensen 18 with a spray
cover and advised me on paddles, selling me a couple of Zeveral paddles.  I
bought a standard kevlar canoe, rather than the ultra light as I hoped to get
more use out of it that way: judging by the amount of abrasion on the hull, I'd
say I was right.  We used this canoe both for practice and in the race.  I don't
think the extra 5kg makes all that much difference... maybe... who knows.

So my son and I start practice, and I buy the standard text on marathon canoe
racing, "Canoe Racing : The Competitor's Guide to Marathon and Downriver Canoe
Racing" by Peter Heed and Dick Mansfield (currently listed as out of print by
Amazon).  We settle into a practice schedule of paddling more or less all day
one day each weekend.  There was no particular method to our practice, and we
were pretty laid back about it.  One of the best things about doing this race
was the amount of time I got to spend with Thomas who was in his final year of
high school.

Living, as we do, in the Los Angeles basin :-( we did our practice mainly down
at Newport Beach, which despite its name, is actually a yacht harbour.  A lap
around the main part of the bay is about 6 miles, but it got pretty old.  We
knew every boat in the harbour, its habits and everything.  We also went out to
sea some, once I got brave enough.  That Jensen hull is stunningly stable.
Going out of harbor we would occasionally be in 4' rollers with 2' wind waves
and 5' wakes from @$%!!# boats would hit us.  The waves would go right over the
bows, soaking Tom from head to waist, but with the spray skirt on we shipped
little water, and never, never came even close to going over.

We did a trip down the coast to Dana Point, and a weekend trip out to Catalina
and back (26 miles each way).  Being out in the ocean was much more fun than
being in harbour, but from the perspective of the race it was a mistake: out in
the ocean you use a deeper longer slower stroke, and we should have been
concentrating on getting our stroke rate up.  But in harbour there was a 5mph
speed limit that the yachts more or less obeyed, rather like the way cars obey
speed limits.  This gave us something to race, and race them we did.  Now that
was good for us.

While we were practicing, I thought about how we were going to manage for food
and water on the race.  We experimented with various foods, and we found that
fruit cake (the English type of fruit cake, not the Germanic version that is
infamous in the US) was very palatable, but I found I had a rather acidic
reaction to it.  Of the energy bars around we found that Cliff bars were the
best.  I was worried that a diet of Cliff bars for 60 hours would be too much,
but we used them on the trip to and from Catalina Island (26 miles each way)
successfully, and so I assumed that would be OK.  Oh well.

Initially we simply used old 2 litre coke bottles for water.  Then I set up in
the boat a couple of big blue hard plastic water containers, 50 litre as used
for camping.  We had one behind the front thwart and one in front of the foot
rest for the rear paddler.  I set up drinking pipes for these which went up
under our life jackets and clipped on.  This arrangement worked well, but I was
concerned that it was a heavy solution.  (worked well on the ocean over to
Catalina, though)

Later we used four 2 litre storage bottles I got from Target.  They have big
wide mouths and a little flap that reveals a little hole just big enough for the
drinking tube to fit through quickly.  The drinking arrangement we used in the
race, and the one I'd recommend to anyone, is this.  These two 2 litre bottles
we initially filled with tap water and one packet of cytomax.  That's about 1/4
the recommended concentration.  This will get you to sufficiently far into Lake
Laberge for the water to be more or less safe.  From then on, use one bottle for
water+ cytomax, the other you dip in the river to get water, and purify and let
sit until the first bottle is empty.  Then put the contents of a cytomax sachet
in the empty bottle, half fill with water from the other bottle that now
contains purified water, shake hard to dissolve the cytomax, fill to the top,
refill the other, now empty bottle, add water purification stuff and paddle on.
For water purification, we used the new(ish) 2 part Chlorine Dioxide stuff,
Pristine.  The instructions say 7 drops of A + 7 drops of B per litre, mix, let
stand at least 5 minutes then add to the water.  What I did was mix the whole
lot together in a dropper bottle before the race and used a small squirt of the
mixture.  At the temperature of the bottom of a canoe on the Yukon, the chemical
reaction is plenty slow enough that this approach is safe.

Various odd observations in practice: at the end of the long weekend paddle to
Catalina and back, I suddenly found the back of my left hand and wrist very
painful: good old carpal tunnels.  I found that wearing neoprene wrist braces
helped: I wore them for the race, and they helped keep the cuffs of whatever I
was wearing out of the water.  Another observation there: practicing in southern
California made us really careless about dipping our hands in the water.  We
very quickly stopped doing that on the Yukon.

We did not wear gloves for practice, nor on the race.  I did have a rather bad
blister break on me towards the end of the race, but it didn't slow me down, I
just stopped using my little finger.

For the race, we took two dry bags each.  One containing things we did not want
to have to access: change of clothes, sleeping bags, space blankets, matches,
flares.  We packed very warm fleece clothes in the emergency bags.  We took two
other dry bags of clothes we did expect to use.  We wore light trousers, relying
on the spray skirt to keep our bottom halves warm (that worked), tee shirts and
lifejackets.  And neoprene booties: those keep the feet warm even if there is
water slopping around in the bilge.  We never did have water slopping around the
bilge, but we were prepared.  I also wore a broad rimmed hat, to protect my
somewhat bald head.  My son, who has rather more hair, felt that was unnecessary
and went bareheaded.  We also took each a fleece vest (waistcoat to Brits), a
fleece jumper (sweater to Yanks), and a slightly insulated rain coat.  Oh and a
woolly hat.  This was sufficient in the way of clothes. JUST.  Or maybe not.
Thomas got a bit cold the first night.  We ought to have been wearing those sort
of fleece trousers.  Another time I
would take a little more... maybe a second fleece jumper...

We packed our cliff bars, cytomax, water purification stuff, antacid, lipsalve
and IBUPROFIN in a couple of ex swedish military shallow plastic trays under our
seats.  That worked.  We also had a couple of gallon milk bottles with their
bottoms cut off to act as "bailers".  You have to have a bailer.  One of our
"bailers" sprang a leak the day before the race.  At least that's when I
discovered it, so we had to get another one.  You do not want a "bailer" that
leaks.  You want a water-tight bailer to leak into.

Food.  I thought we'd got food OK with the cliff bars, and our support team
primed to feed us spaghetti at Carmacks and Minto and porridge in the morning in
Minto.  We had, after all, verified that Cliff bars worked for long trips: the
Catalina trip was 6-7 hours each way.  Let me recommend to you cliff bars for
trips UP TO 8 HOURS AND NO MORE.  At that point we both could not take any
more.  We relied almost exclusively on the calories from the cytomax and on the
food we had in Carmacks and Minto.  Another time I'd take some Chili or hot stew
or thick soup in a wide mouthed thermos to eat North of the lake, and somewhere
between Minto and Dawson.  And probably something else too.  I'm working on that
part of the solution.

We had another problem too.  Tom is about 30kg lighter than me.  If he paddles
stern, then no way can we keep the boat straight.  If I paddle stern we're just
fine (if with a slightly inefficient hull) unless we have a strong head wind.
This actually worked out well for us on the lake.  There was a strong following
wind with up to three foot waves.  Being bow light we had no problem keeping
straight.  Some other teams did.  We did not have to make any correction strokes
at all on the lake.  It worked well even after Minto where we did have strong
head winds.  The river is cut into a deep channel, so you hardly ever have
anything but tail or head winds.  As long as we kept EXACTLY head on to the wind
and paddled like hell we were fine.  So we paddled like hell.  That was part of
the plan really.  But we did wear ourselves out a bit before Dawson, and could
no longer keep the boat straight, so we swapped places and put up with the
frustration of a really squirrelly boat.  WHAT WE SHOULD HAVE DONE is to carry a 20
litre bucket, kept it up front, just behind Tom, and filled it up to trim the
boat once we couldn't hold her against the wind.  Or something.  Having paddlers with
very different weights is a problem.

We also took a GPS with us.  I took it so that we could keep track of where we
were on the river.  We actually used it to keep track of how fast we were
going.  It is by far the easiest way to tell if you are in a fast current or
not.  And the current makes a huge difference.  We got up to 12.9mph.  The race
organisers will send a set of GPS waypoints with the joining package.  I didn't
know they would do that and had already put a set in my GPS.  That meant that I
had Whitehorse in the right place (their waypoint had a transposition error).
However it meant that, according to my GPS, we missed Little Salmon by many
miles.  I also did not put in as many way points as they had.  This was a
mistake.  It was really depressing after passing one waypoint being told it was
74 miles to the next one.  You need more encouragement than that.  Next time
I'll have lots of waypoints, especially in that last section.

A word on maps.  The river maps published in the "Yukon River, Marsh Lake to
Dawson City" by Mike Rourke (available through Yukonbooks.com, AKA Mac's
Fireweed Books) are really good, but do not show longitude or latitude.  You
will want to add them to the maps.  Also, on two pages (one in the 30 mile
river, and one just approaching the confluence with the white river) the
direction shown for north is out by 90 degrees.

Having a good support crew really helps.  It meant we ate well and slept well at
both Minto and Carmacks.

Other observations (and some mistakes made):

You obviously want to paddle as hard as possible on Lake Laberge as there is no
current to help you.  What is less obvious is that you want to paddle hard to
get to the lake as soon as possible.  The timing of the race is such that you
want to get to the lake quickly so you can get off before the winds pick up any
more.  The sooner you get there the less wind you will encounter.  We were OK as
we had tail winds.  If head winds are forecast, paddle hard from the moment you
hit the river.

We had been down the river as tourists once before, but only as far as
Carmacks.  That was in late August.  The Yukon by Whitehorse is very different
in August from June.  The river in June is quite low, and the current really
isn't doing much: 3mph, perhaps.  The Takhini river helps some.  Entering the
Lake there are sand bars.  Bear NE as you enter the lake to stay in the deep
channel.  The water of the lake was turgid for about 8 miles after the entrance.

Make sure you get over to the left side of the river in good time at Carmacks.
The river here is fast, and the checkpoint is JUST past the bridge.  As soon as
you are past the bridge just turn in to the side and paddle (some more!).  There
is a good eddy and a wide bay of still water.

Approaching Minto, if you know where you are (GPS and Mike Rourke's maps
recommended), stay outside (left of) the last island before Minto.  Don't waste
time hugging the bank.  They warn you before the race that there is a vicious
eddy at Minto.  They are not kidding.  When we got there a race safety boat was
there too, cluttering up the landing which made matters even worse.  We wobbled
a lot, but didn't ship any water.

The rivers that flow into the Yukon generally drop their load of silt right
there and then.  This means that the mouths of the tributaries are marked by
shallow water.  The Stewart and Klondike I particularly remember as cluttering
up the river.

The rapids are pussy-cats.  Certainly after our practice in the ocean and with
the wakes of boats they were nothing.  The river (we were told) was about a high
as it ever is at 5 fingers, and this made the rapids particularly fast and
furious.  It was sill nothing much.  But do follow the advice and keep to the
rightmost channel.  Rinks rapids are completely avoidable by staying right.
Don't worry about the rapids.

Sleep.  You will need at least to nap as you go down the river, especially on
that first long night.  Think about how to set yourself up to have 40 winks.
The stern paddler can more or less just lean back.  That doesn't work as well
for the bow paddler: the spray skirt will not be taut enough to bear weight, and
anyway will be wet from drips from the stern paddler.  We found that a spare
paddle could be rested on the spray skirt with the blade on the thwart just
behind the bow paddler and that the bow paddler could lean back on that.

You will be tired when you get to Carmacks, and two hours is not very long.  We
ate, slept, and set off feeling awful.  Several teams quit at Minto.  We felt
the temptation, but figured that what the heck it's all down stream and not far
to Minto.  We did little more than float down the
river like a beer bottle for a while.  Then we woke up and paddled.

If you stop anywhere (why?), as we did to change ends, beware.  The ground does
not necessarily continue to slope at the same angle underwater as it does above
water.  I went in MUCH deeper than I expected, and I know another competitor
went in right over his head.  No joke.

Mosquitoes did not bother us during the race.  Possibly something to do with the
heroic winds we were paddling against.  We wore bug goop anyway.  At Carmacks we
encountered some Mozzies.  Minto is the heart of where all mosquitoes in
Northern Canada come from.

Wear sun screen.  The first day we wore the same amount of sun screen we
normally wore practicing in Southern California: neck, face, inside of elbows.
By the time we got to Carmacks our left arms and the backs of our left hands
were quite pink.  And we were fairly tanned already from being out practicing in
the So Cal sun.  We wore more sun screen after Carmacks.  That probably explains
why it rained.  Actually it didn't rain much.  But the message is that 22 hours
of sunlight adds up.

While on the subject of sunlight, let me say something about light.  The race is
held more or less at mid summer.  This means that there are lots of hours of
daylight.  At midnight (clock time) the sun was probably still above the
horizon.  I don't know because we were in a canyon.  Local solar midnight is
about 2am.  For about an hour the first night it got a bit dark.  Even at the
darkest, I could still see that the spray cover on the canoe was blue, but I
could not see colours in the vegetation at the side of the river.  We could
certainly see clearly enough to be able to avoid hitting things.  The third
night we were 3 degrees further north, and that made a huge difference.  At 2am,
approaching Dawson the sky was pink and pale blue.  It was dawn and dusk both.
I can't tell you anything about what it was like at 2 am the second night as I
was fast asleep in Minto.

TAKE A CAMERA.  I didn't, and regretted it.  Yes, you are in a hurry, but you
will want to take pictures.  One of the other teams sent me copies of their
pictures, including several of us (we had overtaken them, and they us, many
times during the race).  It would have been good to have been able to
reciprocate by sending our pictures to them.  You can also take pictures of the
bears and moose you see on the river.  No one will believe you otherwise.  We
saw one moose and one black bear.  I think.  The bear was hiding in the
willows.  There are also lots of bald eagles, but you won't have the time needed
to get a good shot of them.

Oh, and one more really weird thing: by the time you get out of the boat at
Minto, and even more so at Dawson, you WILL have difficulty standing up.  I
don't have any obvious explanation for this, and it goes away fairly quickly.
Be careful at Dawson.  When we got there the check point crew had a fire going
on the beach.  It was very welcome, but we felt obliged to stand more than 6
feet away lest we fall over.


If you are thinking about entering the race: DO IT. Fantastic.  Amazing. Huge
fun if you are into that sort of thing.  And wonderful people.

Peter Coates.