The Yukon River Quest – into the wild (part 1)


 

Sat in a kayak half full of water with waves lashing against the side of the boat, I didn’t think that i wanted to carry on the race, finish it or know that I would even make it to safety. The fear of drowning and hypothermia was real and I was scared, more scared than I had ever been.

About one or two km from shore, I didn’t think I would be able to swim to shore if chuck capsized, for a few minutes, I began thinking about bailing out of the kayak and swimming to shore, at least that way I would have been able to make sure I had a few things with me if I made it. It would have been an impossible swim through four foot waves and freezing water. I was alone; screaming and crying to myself, begging to get closer to the pebbled beach. I was cursing myself for being in a situation that I couldn’t get out of. How could I be so stupid to sign up a challenge that could leave me badly injured. I kept running through my head at how selfish this decision was to do the Yukon River Quest. I was alone, with no one to help me. Only I could get me out of this mess. I kept on thinking about Christopher McCandless, an inspiration of mine, who broke away from normality and set off on adventure, only to die alone in an old bus.

It was the hardest and most draining hour of my life trying to make it to shore, I paddled as hard as I could, but it didn’t seem to make any difference, I was still miles from safety with my boat taking more water on. But little by little the trees got bigger and I could feel myself slowly edging to shore. I was only about 4hrs into the race and I was already a wreck. By the time I landed on the side of the lake, I was cold, shivering and soaked from head to toe. It didn’t feel like a race at all at this point, more like battling for my own safety. I kept telling myself:

Don’t give in, you can’t give in”

Stay positive”

Don’t tell me what you don’t have, tell me what you do”

You can’t give in, it isn’t an option”

you are not a quitter, do you want to quit and sit in a hotel room or hospital and imagine what might have been? No? well then paddle harder, paddle stronger and you’ll make it”

Now and again I would talk aloud to myself and repeat the words that I would imagine my friends and family would be saying to me if they were close, they may have been thousands of miles away but they felt close:

 

You’re doing well, stay strong”

Concentrate, you’ll make this and when you do, you’ll grow in strength”

 “If you think of quitting, give it one more try for me”

Slowly the waves would ease off for a while and I did my best to make the most of the calmer waters, I didn’t dare go out too far from shore, when I did move out a bit too far, I’d be shouting to myself “what are you doing, get back in, remember what happened before, don’t let that happen again, you’re not good enough to be all the way out here, paddle in”. The wind would pick up and the waves would grow, my body would tense as I tried to manage the next set of waves. I was so worried about falling in, that I didn’t dare lean back and get my sunscreen, so I was getting roasted by the sun at the same time, I felt like I was getting hit from every possible direction, I was determine to not let this get to me, I needed to stay positive and upbeat. I could see a boat in the distance, so I put everything I could to paddle closer, it took an hour until I was in speaking distance of it, but it was a huge relief to have some company on the lake, because for me, company brought safety and that’s all that I cared about.

When I chatted to the guys in the canoe, they told me that my rudder was up on my kayak, I already knew this, as I had kept it up as I didn’t know how to use it, however, the guy recommended to me that I flip it down and when he did I began to see how much easier it was steering with the rudder than my paddle, sadly by this point I had already damage my left wrist battling the waves when trying to steer, but at least I knew going forward steering would be much easier.

I think I got to the 3rd check point at Goddard Point at about 11.30 at night, after 11hrs and half of paddling, I was exhausted physically and mentally but here all the same, the lake was the hardest part supposedly and I was relieved to have passed that test. I could see the fire and looked forward to putting on some warm clothes for the cold night of paddling ahead. I didn’t realize how tired I was until I got out the kayak, I tried to get out, only to fall in to the freezing water and to be washed against the shore by the waves, I was soaked and wet again. Despite everything that had happened I had to stay upbeat, getting frustrated would have only made things worse – I still remember the words from Emery in Bukavu, Congo telling me the importance of staying positive even when you hear and see the most appalling situations. Emery works for Women for Women in the Congo and helps translate for the women, despite the horrific stories he has heard from women in the Congo when they are assulted he always remains upbeat and happy, because if he let it get to him then he would never be able to help the women look ahead and beat the cruel attacks that too many women have suffered.

When I picked myself up from the water I started running around the beach trying to warm my legs and body up, I met with some other racers and did my best to stay chipper, I hoped that my upbeat attitude would help a few of the others who were looking jaded, I couldn’t dwell on the negatives. As I dried myself off, put warm clothes on, ate, and exchanged stories with others, I got chatting to Lars from Team Bonefish, another solo kayaker. He asked if I wanted to kayak with him and this turned out to be a complete blessing and changed the shape of the race for me, having someone close to you was incredibly important, I was really worried about capsizing as I got more tired and not being able to make it to shore, so kayaking with Lars helped to bring more safety to this crazy race.

I’m not sure what it would have been like if I’d just been on my own throughout, but I doubt I would have had as much fun and it’s really special to have made a friend and experienced such an amazing race with someone who knew what it was like to solo kayak the Yukon. Lars came into a league of his own with his floating pharmacy and sports nutrition centre, he was always so willing to offer whatever he had along the way. The level of composure and silent determination that Lars displayed was phenomenal, I have enormous respect for him. We both came from similar kayaking backgrounds (limited) and had a similar philosophy on the race, it was about finishing and getting there rather than beating some arbitrary time – not quite a race and not quite a river trip.

I don’t remember him complaining once or moaning, let’s face it I can be pretty annoying at times and this can only have been exacerbated by tiredness, but despite not knowing each other we never argued or had a bad word to say, even when I would get directions wrong or lost the caffeine pills, there was no cursing, only a little chuckle. At one point our rudders would get stuck together and we were floating down the river backwards trapped, it took about 5 minutes to sort it because we were laughing t the trouble we were in.

Racing through the night on the Yukon River was unbelievable and I understood why they call it the race to the midnight sun, the darkest it got was a light dusk, a surreal experience. At about one in the morning freezing fog would appear on the river, as you looked down the river, it would resemble a wide fast running channel of jet black coffee with hot steam rising from it. Truly spectacular, something I will never forget. Paddling through fog felt like you were passing a thin veiled wall that would instantly vanish as you reached it. As the hours passed the sun would crack through the mountain tops and with each stream of light you could feel the cold vanishing and the valley heating up, slowly the frost on the bow and stern of my kayak would melt telling me that a new day was beginning, time was irrelevant – the only way I knew what part of the day it was, was the temperature.

The sheer beauty of the Yukon River is something that needs to be experienced, there is so much to take in and only by looking through your own eyes will you be able to draw your own conclusions about what makes this part of the world so special. I felt privileged to be able to make this trip down the Yukon and my respect for the river grew with each stroke. To be on the Yukon River, brought many dangers, but if you can get past this then you really are rewarded, with an experience of something that is incomparable to anything else. Being here in the middle of nowhere, feeling that nothing in life mattered about from the flow of the river and the eddies in the water left me humbled by the beauty and scale of this vast territory.

The warm smell of the morning air as the flowers and trees heated up and the crisp sharp scent of the evening chill as the sun fell behind the mountains, gave the feeling that every sense was being touch by the Yukon. My eyes would be mesmerized by the infinite shapes and sizes of rocks along the river banks, broken into an impossible jigsaw puzzle that would take eternity to finish, each rock seemed to sit there in a perfectly irregular order.

Minutes seemed to pass like hours at times and the time seemed to blend into one long day as my body and mind grew tired, I was willing the next check points to come quicker, but as the energy dropped each stop seemed further and more unattainable. My mind began to wander and I began thinking about the luxury of a 7 hour stop at Carmacks. Sadly it didn’t come around as quickly as I hoped, the river was slow and the bends grew longer, my arm was really beginning to suffer. Each distance calculation I made was way out and I began to worry about missing the cut off time and being thrown out the race. I thought we’d be there by 2 in the afternoon, but it was about 9pm by the time we got to Carmacks, I think it took 30hrs of paddling to make it. As tiredness crept in, I kept catching my paddle, the propensity of mistakes grew larger (see chart 1.).

Whirlpools would emerge from nowhere and would spin the kayak round, or a tired stroke would unsettle the boat and I would panic and try and steady the ship.

 

My arms, legs, back and ass would hurt from being in a kayak for so long, but it was my mind that was hurting so much from concentrating and trying to make sure I didn’t tip the thing over. My brain was so sore and felt like it was cramping at times, I’d stare at the river bank and mountains and begin seeing shifting shapes across the land. It was a bit like when you look at the clouds and you can make out images, but much more vivid. I saw the strangest things – images that were like 3D holograms painted in the changing colour of petrol in water – blues, pinks, purples and greens. I’m not sure of the significance of what I saw but I remember a giant converse high top trainer chasing a spade and on the spade were lines of writing type in WingDing font (e.g subfbodfour). Behind the spade and shoe were two giant fish cheering the shoe on. Occasionally a ‘Hello Kitty’ picture would emerge on a river bank and then transform into that thing you play Kerplunk with, it would then switch back to a unrecognizable cartoon character with huge eyes, eyes like satellite dishes. I wasn’t too worried about these visions, as I assumed this was normal when you are tired, especially when you stare at things long enough, later on in the race the hallucinations were to become stranger and more worrying as I battled for focus.

 

It got harder to reach Carmacks and with each check point I’d pass, you’d learn of another team scratching. It might sound harsh, but knowing that others had quit and I was still strong, really gave me a boost, much more than any power bar or gel. I began to believe I could finish the Quest and that was a special feeling, because for many months I didn’t know if this would be possible.

 

My arm was beginning to stiffen up and I was in real agony. I was alarmed at the swelling above my left wrist, my hand had doubled in size, shooting pains were running up and down my body, telegrams of pain going straight down my spine. I vomited over the side of the kayak as the pain burned deep, I breathed deeper and tried to push it to the back of my mind, I wouldn’t tell Lars the extent of the pain, as I didn’t want to let him know what I was feeling, I didn’t want the doubt to set in my mind that an injury could end this for me, I had come to far. I was reluctant to acknowledge the degree of pain in my arm, I think the minute you do, it’ll take over and absorb your thoughts. My body was riddled with aches and tenderness. I kept telling each muscle or limb to take a ticket and get in line because I could only deal with one aspect of injury at a time. I had told my friends and family that before I had gone away, I would pull out if I was in trouble or injured, there reality was I was never going to scratch, even if I had broken something I would have taped it up and gone on, I was determined to deal with it. Lars helped greatly by knocking up a prescription to help with my arm, I would take 4 of his pills and then double up with a few of my own, it would give me some rest bite. I had told Lars I couldn’t reach my pills, as I didn’t want to worry him, by the doses I was taking.

 

I’m conscious that this blog is quite long, but there is a lot to cover off and will post another section of the race in a few days, I’m still trying to put everything in order in my mind and remember what happened and how I felt then and how I feel now. Being able to write about the race having finished it is a wonderful experience because I knew I went the distance.

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4 thoughts on “The Yukon River Quest – into the wild (part 1)

  1. What a ride! Sounds amazing, clearly quite ethereal at times. I’m jealous but I can also see how much it takes to do this and that would most people out! Well done – look after that arm and keep going 🙂 x

  2. I meant keep going generally, rather than keep going on the quest that you have now completed – just realised how that read!

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