The stop at Kirkman Creek was a funny one. Staggering up the bank and I saw this old wooden cabin, fully donned with an authentic outhouse and antlers on the roof. The people were incredibly friendly and helpful, but the building had the look of a place where people would be found hanging from meat hooks. It was so remote.
I remember standing in the kitchen naked, trying to get changed, my arms were so tired it was such an effort. I shook off my clothes, and resembled the dancing baby from Ally McBeal.
We were given a sandwich and soup, without exaggeration it was the best sandwich of my life. Soft bread and tender beef with salad. Greg Wallace from Masterchef would have cried if he had ate it. It just wasn’t a power bar and that made my mouth happy.
Eating soup with the giggles is an experiment of control, something set us off and within minutes Lars and I were spitting pipping hot soup around the cabin as we laughed out loud, completely delirious.
I crawled into my sleeping bag head first, I couldn’t get my waterproof shoes off and given that they stank of rotting flesh (my feet were beginning to decompose) and piss I didn’t want to cover my new bag with that smell and liquid.
I came round 2hrs later, face burning and my head damp from sweat. As I shed the sleeping bag skin, I realised I had bedded down next to an open oven fire.
The kayaks were loaded for the last time and we departed ready to take on the final stretch, it was 5am, we had about 100miles to go, the body was already hurting and I couldn’t wake up, feeling so lethargic and sluggish, I couldn’t get my timing or groove. I thought the last day would be easy, paddling to the finish, as it were. It turned out to be anything but, with energy levels completely run down, each stroke was a battle, forcing your body to keep going.
The kayak was moving agonising slowly, paddling through treacle as my body stiffened up.
I started seeing things again, but much more vivid. I’d look at the sky and the clouds would fall vertically to the ground and then just vanish. I’d look again and they’d be back in the air.
Often I’d see a flock of birds fly by my kayak as I watched them fly past, they’d just explode in mid air, hundreds of them bursting into thousands of tiny feathers that would float to the water. I’d start seeing more and more bears in the final stretch, not real ones though, I’d see cartoon bears, bears made out of gingerbread and also people in fancy dress bear costumes. The bears would wave and I’d wave back, the bears seemed to be holding a toy box.
None of the above seemed that odd, it actually all seemed pretty straight-forward and logical. I’d just watch, laugh and then paddle waiting for the next episode. I think these bizarre moments kept me sane as it helped keep my interest and concentration along the way. Life in the kayak was a giant spot the difference, you spent most of the time wondering what was real and what wasn’t.
The final miles to Dawson were the hardest, I could feel the twisted blood in my muscle. Progress was aided by taking three of the largest herbal energy pills from a stranger. Having taken three in one go, when I should have only taken one, my heart was popping out my chest, eyes kept on blinking and blinking. I kept humming the Gummy Bears song.
Eventually the boost would die off and I’d be back to struggle against the wind. It didn’t seem fair at the time that the last miles were so hard, I kept telling myself, don’t I deserve a break, why isn’t it easier. Things don’t get easier because you want them too or feel that you deserve it, you have to work for it, you make them easier by staying upbeat and putting your head down and paddling.
As we pushed on harder to the finish we slowly clawed at the remaining miles and Dawson finally emerged in the distance, the crossing of the fast river and a giant paddle boat gunning straight at me were the last remaining obstacles of the trip.
I didn’t know what to expect when I finish, partly because I didn’t expect to finish for many months. But as I got to the line, I didn’t feel a rush of excitement or happiness, just a sense of relief and pride that I’d made it. I screamed a little and let the pain out..
What originally started out as a wild plan cooked up on a sofa in March, had unfolded into something much more challenging than I initially envisaged, and I’m glad it did.
I took an enormous step outside my comfort zone in kayaking the Yukon, and perhaps too far, but the experience I’ve gained from it is huge and I’m all the better for it. Finishing something you didn’t think you could, is a brilliant feeling. Having had all those doubts and then dispelling them, felt cathartic.
It is a cliché, but you only get one crack at life, and if you don’t push yourself and move away from your routine, you’ll never understand what you’re capable of, and for me that’s so important. I really suprised myself in completing the Yukon. Three months ago I’d never kayaked, but three months later I had completed the worlds longest kayak race in the toughest category.
It was dangerous at times, and this was made worse by my level of experience. However, as a wise person once said: if we are always ruled by reason and rationality, then all possibility of life and adventure will be destroyed. The Yukon River Quest set a spark of spirit, drive and wonderlust inside of me and when I felt it, I had to grab it, because it’s too easy to let it slip away, these opportunities don’t always crop up so you’ve got to take them while you can.
The trip gave me the opportunity to expand and continue the conversation about the DRC with a different set of people in a new region, who maybe wouldn’t have known about Congo. Being alone on the river also gave me time to think about the women I’d met in DRC and how else I can support them going forward.
In terms of completing the race I didn’t have a real sense of completion until I reached the hotel room in Dawson and if I’m honest it still hasn’t fully kicked in – I don’t really know what to expect.
But as I sat on my bed on Saturday evening I heard a couple of pings from my phone, I looked over and it was lighting up with messages from friends. I hadn’t seen any of these whilst kayaking, as I looked through them I saw how my friends had pushed me on along the way. Being so far away but knowing they were checking on the race meant so much, more than they might appreciate. When I read people saying I had done it and congratulating me for finishing, I just wept. It was at that point I realised I could stop. I was exhausted, battered, and broken but I had done it.
I had been so worried about letting friends and myself down, by scratching and not finishing, I just felt a lot of relief for getting to the end. Knowing that 20, better prepared teams had scratched, but I had finished, made it all the sweeter. I could have quit a couple of times, but I didn’t, I carried on and went the distance.
For me kayaking the Yukon was a dream, I love the wilderness and a challenge. But the Yukon was the first time I’d really stepped out my comfort zone. Because of this I had become worried that if I couldn’t finish the Yukon then everything else in life that I wanted to accomplish wouldn’t be possible, I was scared my other goals and challenges would be just pipedreams and the ramblings of some guy who thought he could do anything, but ended up doing nothing.
I wanted to know I could do more than just run, understand that I could learn new skills, face different challenges, be brave enough to keep believing in myself, and ultimately know that I still had my drive and thirst. I was scared this might have waned after the marathons.
My arm is still in agony, my fingers are numb, my back tingles and my feet are a mess (no change there at least).
But I’m happy. When I land I can hold my head up knowing I achieved what I set out to do and I’m coming back positive, stronger (mentally, not so much physically), and most important happier, happy because I did it and that I’ll see the friends that helped push me along the river.
Chris Jackson 8.7.11