The Yukon River Quest – Into the Wild (Part 2)


I looked like shit when i reached Carmacks, powerbar bits in my beard, tiny squinty eyes from wearing contacts for over thirty hours, the lingering smell of piss from when i’d miss my piss bottle. Having got out my kayak and stumbled around, i didn’t really know what to do. It was such a novelty to walk around and talk to new people, different people, i found it quite hard to comprehend. I tried to figure out what i needed to do, but i just sort of stumbled round the campsite in a daze. When i’d sit down, my body felt it was still at sea and my vision was still bobbing like i was on the water, i still had sea legs and was like Bambi on ice as i tried to walk about.

I grabbed some food and sat in this old wooden hall and munch on a foul burger and fries and just began laughing to myself uncontrollably, i think part of it was happiness, the other half exhaustion. There were some children playing in hall, i remember one of them pointing at me and saying “Mommy, that man has feet like the bogey man, he’s scaring me”. I found this hilarious and pretended to growl at her, she cried and the family left the hall… I hadn’t thought about my feet during the trip, but i took a look at them and saw they were in a very bad way, all blistered, cut, swollen and red. I ran my finger across the arch of my foot and it burn to touch. I didn’t realise it at the time, but i had begun to develop trench foot, even as i write this, nearly a week later, chunks of skin continue to fall off.

Crawling into my sleeping and into the foetal position i pulled out some of the messages my friends had sent. I knew the race was going to get harder and i wanted to have the messages fresh in my mind, the long days paddling had made me feel that my mind was being erased as i was finding it hard to remember things, and if i did it’d take me about 5 minutes. As i drifted off to sleep, it felt like my body was full of helium and i was bouncing and floating round the tent, i stared at the roof of the tent and began to drool, i kept looking and then the top of the tent seemed to start spinning similar to water going down a plug hole.

 I’m not too sure how i got up, but i was up, as was the sun, it was a gorgeous day. I visited a paramedic to get my arm checked out. I was told i had develop severe tendonitis in my left arm. Basically the little tubes that the tendons live it, were too small because the tendons had become swollen. As i moved my arm i could hear the crunch and grind of the tendons pulling up and down my arm. She told me i should really not be paddling with my arm as it was, but i think she realised that there was no way i’d quit, i’d come too far and some pain in my wrist wasn’t going to bring this down. My arm is still in severe pain now, i’m worried as it feels numb and i have pins and needles in my hand, i should go see a doctor rather than sit here typing. Getting tendonitis in my arm is kind of ironic as the reason i had chosen to kayak was because i had developed tendonitis in my ankle from running 13 marathons last year. A cruel and painful piece of irony.

 I’d heard from many competitors that if you made it to Carmacks you would make the finish, as happy as i was to have reached Carmacks, i didn’t want to allow myself to get complacent that i had all but completed the challenge, i still had 200+ miles to do, rapids and the ramping up of fatigue. The water was quick on the way out from Carmacks, the speed was probably exacerbated by my fear of the rapids coming up – 5 finger rapids. I’d been worrying about this for months, well 3 months, it may sound silly but i don’t really like water at all, i’m scared of being dragged to the bottom and seeing the light disappearing from me as the rocks on the bottom take their grip. Getting through a grade 3 or 4 rapid, was going to be practically impossible, i was struggling to keep the boat upright on flat waters, let alone rapids. The thought of coming out the boat would have sent shivers down my back, however, it had gone numb by this point. As you got closer to the rapids, you could first hear the crashing and then slowly you’d see on the horizon the white water. I began fastening everything tightly to the boat. Strangely i was most concerned about my urination station and opted to fasten it to my belt. We’d be told when you reach the rapids, take the first three rapids on the right and then cut left for the ‘V’. Yeah it doesn’t make sense to me either, but i was hoping it’d become clear or clearer. Well i was feeling pretty sick at this point from the nerves. I hit three waves, bigger than i had faced before, i nearly came out, i tried to gather my composure, it hadn’t dawned on me that these were the first three waves, and after that i was supposed to go left, instead i paddled hard to the right, unknowing that i was heading into the roughest waters when i should have gone left. I found myself being battered by waves, water flying into my kayak, horrific. I was paddling hard, trying to head for the calmer waters, as much as i was battling, the boat was stuck just being bombarded with waves and white water. Yet again i found myself screaming words of encouragement to get me through it. Slowly Chuck began to move and the waves subsided, i was physically shaking having made it through, i could feel the adrenaline pumping through my body, the hairs on my arms felt like my nerve endings my body was alive and buzzing, i’d made it through, only just but i’d beaten the rapids on this occasion. I didn’t exactly celebrate, just let the current to take me along for while as i regained composure. That brief spell through the rapids reminded me of the awful memories i had of Lake Laberge.

Having made it through the rapids (5 fingers and Rink), this was another big challenge we’d beaten and meant that there was one less obstacle in our pursuit of Dawson City. Making Dawson now seemed like a possibility and it was just up to me to make it there. Despite having had 7 hrs kip in Carmacks, i was feeling so tired and because of this my brain started to go a little funny. When i’ve done long distance cycling trips, i’d often talk to myself. But the conversations i was having on Friday morning were pretty full on and straight out bizarre. I remember having a fairly detailed conversation with an empty bottle of powerade and a trail bar. We’d just chat, i’d ask them about their ingredients and they’d ask me about work, family, life plans etc. After a while, i’d grow board and shout MUNCH really loudly and eat the trail bar. I had also begun shouting and talking loudly to the river bank when i’d see something interesting. It was also becoming apparent that my food strategy wasn’t great, my body was growing tired of energy bars and sweet food, it was reaching the point where my mouth was full of ulcers from the level of sugar i had been consuming. Occasionally i’d crack open some pasta and rice i’d cooked before the race, but this was sickly and warm having been heated up through the day. I naively thought that as long as i had enough food then that would be all i needed, i was wrong. Variety is the spice of life, and my food had little variety. As the hours ticked over i began rejecting my food, and only nibbling at bits and pieces along the way, i wasn’t consuming anywhere near the 7,000 calories i was supposed too. Water was becoming a problem too, i had made the decision to drink from the river, this was ok at first, when the river was fresh and clean, but as we’d got further down stream, it would become dirtier and foul tasting. You could taste the smell of burning in the water from recent forest fires. As i’d drag water up the little blue platapus tubes, i’d get increasing amounts of dirt, wood and grit amongst my teeth. Like the food i grew tired of drinking water and only really took token sips of water when i noticed that my piss was bright yellow. A happy mountaineer pees clear.

Decreasing energy and hydration, meant my mind started playing more and more tricks on me. i’d would imagine i’d see bears, moose, beavers, sheep, canoes, they’d turn out to be bits of wood and rocks. But as we ventured further down or upstream i’m not sure what’s right as we were going north but down a river… Anyhow, the place was remote, and as the hours passed i was sure we’d meet a bear. I really don’t like bears. Bears were my nemesis. I had no idea what to do if i saw a bear, i’d bought bear bangers and bear pepper spray but the general consensus seemed to be that they were as useful as a chocolate teapot. You can’t reason with a bear. He wasn’t going to listen to me if i tried to tell him that if he attacked me then he’d be shot, i didn’t want this and neither did he i’d imagine. I had been told from another competitor who raced last year about a bear who had swam straight towards him and only just missed his boat by a matter of metres. I was about 15 metres from the bank and i saw something up ahead which seemed to be moving, i assumed it was another hallucination, so i carried on paddling, as i got closer i could see it moving it’s head – it was a black bear, just sitting on the river bank watching the world go by and enjoying the sun. The sight of the bear made me panic, so much so that i nearly toppled the thing. I tried to gain a bit of composure and paddle out into the river, i thought this would give some safety, but i’m sure i’d heard that bears can swim at 20mph, i’d have stood no chance.. I put my head down and paddled hard, looking occasionally at the bear, yet again adrenaline again pumping round my body. In my panic i’d forgot about Lars, i started shouting “Lars BEAR”, “it’s a BEAR”, i turned round to see Lars, casually paddling past it taking photos…

 

It was about 11pm and you could feel the cold creeping in as the mountains grew too high for the sun. We were still miles from the next layover stop at Kirkman Creek, where we’d have 3hrs sleep. Despite getting closer to the finish the distance we were covering seemed to be getting slower and slower. For the first time i thought i’d put some music on to help pass the time. I played a song and when i heard it, it just didn’t feel right, i don’t know, listening to music in such a cavernously beautiful place seemed also akin to dropping litter. I felt like i was disturbing the peace. It just didn’t fit, digital sound was interfering. I didn’t want some random words encroaching on my view and feelings in the Yukon, this was my time and i had my own feelings, i didn’t want music to muddle up how i was feeling. Let’s face it, if you can’t be entertained from kayaking down the Yukon, then i shouldn’t be in the bloody kayak.

As the sun fell away behind the mountain valley at about midnight it would be like someone was moving their fingers in front of a flashlight, sometimes the sun would vanish, other times you’d be hit by a column or a shard of light that would warm your body up.

Lars had mentioned that him wanted to pull over to put some warmer clothes on. I hadn’t realised he’d stopped, i looked around for him for 20 or 30 minutes and couldn’t see him, i started to panic – i instantly assumed he’d been attacked by a bear or fallen out the boat. I sat in the boat shouting his name and blowing my whistle, but the only response i got was my own echo. Eventually he popped out through a different channel. It’s moments like this where i realise i was out my depths, I didn’t know what was best to do, paddle on and tell the check point, wait or paddle or run back up stream. Waiting seemed the sensible option, it wasn’t the sort of place you wanted to be on your own.

We slowly crept towards Kirkman Creek and reached it about 2 in the morning, my body was freezing, i should have stopped to put warmer clothes on, but i was worried about the bears and thought it best to carry on paddling. The drugs had been wearing off and my arm was flaring up again. My whole body seemed damp and cold. I knew this would be a short stop, but hopefully give me a chance to build up the energy for the last push on to Dawson.. The trip from Carmacks to Kirman was arguably the hardest stretch, you’re body and brain is so tired, the initial excitement of the race has died down, you become eager to cover more miles faster, but as your body is tired it takes you longer and longer. My own irrational fear of bears made it difficult for me to relax and i stayed uptight during this stretch. But despite all this, stroke by stroke we were getting closer and hopefully we’d have one more day of paddling.

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