The Yukon River Quest
Janet de Putter | January 24, 2015
To most of us, this was a challenge on our “bucket list”. An adventure that not too many people had tried, and, the few people I knew that had attempted the quest, had not finished the race. One of these women was Loraine Warnock, a member of the Rowbust Dragon boat team. She had faced the challenge in 2008, but due to many obstacles, illness of fellow paddlers, and bad luck, had not been able to make it to the goal.
She decided that she wanted to challenge the river again, and so put the word out through friends and family, in November 2010. Those who decided to accept the challenge were Loraine’s daughter Meagan, Caroline Jensen and Jan Young (members of Rowbust), Jan’s friend Stephanie Yuill from Yellowknife, Sharon McHale and Janet De Putter.
After several meetings with Loraine to understand what equipment was needed, we realized that we had to get in better shape, and make all the arrangements in the Yukon in order make this dream a reality. So the workouts began – the classes, the running, the weights, the dragon boat practices, and finally with Mike’s help, a few canoe paddling and steering lessons.
Before we knew it the 26th of June was upon us. We flew out to Whitehorse from London by way of Calgary…..a very long day that saw us gather at the London airport in the early hours to catch our 0700 flight. We had a 6 hour layover in Calgary and then on to Whitehorse. We loaded all of our bags onto a shuttle bus and were off to our B&Bs. Sharon and Janet stayed at the Historic B&B, while Caroline, Meagan and Loraine stayed at the Four Seasons. Later that evening, Jan and her spouse Sam arrived at the Historic, and even later Steph showed up and took us for a drive around Whitehorse. We finally got to bed after midnight (3:00 a.m. our time!).
We were up early on Monday, partly due to the lack of darkness, but mostly due to excitement. We met at the river around 10:00 a.m. to try out our voyageur canoe and check out the Yukon River. The paddle to the Takahini River took us approx 4 hours, and we discovered that our canoe had a leak near the bow that would need to be fixed before the race on Wednesday. After a bus ride back to our launching point we had the afternoon to ourselves. Then there was a Meet and Greet at 6:00 p.m. with the rest of the paddlers.
Tuesday saw us up early again for equipment inspection, the signing of our team bibs, team pics, and the presentation of our River Quest shirts, and as it turned out…we needed to get more insurance. Fortunately everything was within walking distance and this problem was soon rectified.
Tuesday evening we had a wonderful meal at the home of Stephanie’s friends, and we had more time to get to know one another. Getting to sleep that night was almost impossible what with butterflies fluttering around in our stomachs and wondering if this was all a dream.
Wednesday morning, June 29, we were at the launching point on the river at 0730. Another inspection of our equipment was required. We made sure the leak had been mended, loaded the boat, and then back to the B&B to make last minute meal preps for the nourishment that would be needed for the next four days. When we were once again, all packed up, we set out for the river. After the carnation ceremony by the Paddlers Abreast team and our own survivor team members, we said a prayer and walked off to the starting line.
Following the introductions of all 76 teams, the fog horn blew at noon, and we were off. More experienced teams, wanting a good position to assist in winning times, ran to their boats….we walked quickly…our goal was to finish the race together, healthy and in one piece.
Padding the first part of the River was “old hat” as we had done this on Monday, but then at 1600 we saw it … Lake Lebarge … 45km of open water. It looked both beautiful and intimidating. There were head winds and waves two to three feet high. Stephanie was at the stern, and her canoeing experience got us through. Starting out in the middle of the lake we paddled towards the shore line, with Steph guiding us and cursing at the water, the wind, and the waves.
Check point 1 at 17:36, the 55km mark, and 685 km to go.
What were we thinking? More head winds, waves, digging in our paddles. The wind shifted to our backs, a bit of a break, we just needed to battle those waves.
Check point 2 18:55, 65 km mark, and 675 km to go.
At least we were seeing some other boats in the distance, and knew we really were not alone being jostled by the waves. Keep paddling ladies!
Meagan began feeling unwell, due to some hypoglycaemia. She felt shaky, weak, nauseated. But she bravely continued to paddle as much as she could.
The sun was beginning to set. What a spectacular sight! The waves were not as rough. We were going to make it to Goddard Point after all! Thanks to Steph and thanks to God! Keep paddling girls, it has to be around the next bluff……around the next corner…shouldn’t be too far…where the heck is it? Come on already….Finally! There it is!!!
Check point 3 Goddard Point, 23:45, 90 km mark, 650 km to go.
We stopped here after 12 hours of paddling. (I’ll never complain about 10 minute paddles in the dragon boat again). After changing out of our wet clothes, warming up by the fire, and having a few cups of tea, we started to feel human again. Except for Meagan, she still wasn’t doing too well. What should we do? No one wanted to quit, not after making it through Lake Lebarge…everyone says that is the worst part of the quest. We should be able to make it. We decided to wait until morning to see how Meagan was feeling, and make a decision then.
Leaving Goddard at 0200 Thursday June 30
Meagan still wasn’t feeling very well, but agreed to try to go on. We made a bed up for her in the middle of the boat where our sleeping bags, tents and extra gear were stowed. Covering her with a blanket and tarp, she settled into a sleeping bag, and we set off.
We believed it was all downhill, the worst was behind us. Paddling the last of the lake we made it to the 30 Mile part of the Yukon River in the dark, with the temperature dropping.
The current picked up faster than we had expected. The river took us around curves, past rocks, fallen trees, and islands. Then the fog rolled in. Watch out where we are going! Watch out for rocks! Oh good, the sun is coming up! More fog on the water! The smell of smoke! A campfire? Yes, it must be one of the extra stops. There it is! Power ladies! We have to get through the current or we won’t be able to stop on time! Yes, we made it!!. Getting out of the boat, I suddenly realized how tired I was. The others were cold and needed warm drinks, a fire, and real bathroom breaks. Meagan, fortunately, was feeling better. I wandered back to the boat and took her place in the bed until the others had warmed up enough and we were on our way again.
Once back on the river, everyone took their turn in getting a half hour of sleep or rest in the makeshift bed, and we continued on, knowing we had to keep going if we wanted to make it to Carmacks by the deadline of 23:00. There would be no more stopping for a while.
Check point 4 Little Salmon , 17:52 260 km mark, 480 km to go.
The breaks made the voyage bearable, but everyone was starting to get exhausted. Fortunately, either because of our personalities, or because we were just so tired, everyone got along well and there were no callous words toward each other, just a few curses at the river and the currents.
Close to Carmacks we encountered a few paddlers that we had seen off and on in the distance. Mark had a hybrid canoe, Dave and Dwaine a tandem kayak. After playing catch-up with each other for several hours, we decided to paddle into Carmacks together, as we were the last three boats in the race at the time.
Check point 5 Carmacks 22:05 (we made it with 55 minutes to spare) 325 km mark, 415 km to go.
What a relief to see Sam, our ground support person. He and others helped us out of the boat. We got our gear together. Sam had the tent and cottage all ready for us. The support group for the Paddlers Abreast Team had waited for hours, after their team left, to give us support. They had met Lorraine on several occasions through dragon boating and her 2008 Quest experience. The ladies had a wonderful meal of hamburgers, hot dogs, salad, tea, and juice….fantastic. After phoning home, we took showers, and climbed into our sleeping bags (or beds if we were fortunate enough) and had a much needed sleep while Sam did our laundry for us.
On awaking we dressed, repacked, had a breakfast made by the ladies, and had another safety inspection. After a team meeting discussing our aches, pains and other problems, we were unanimous in going on with our quest. No quitters here! We took an extra hour before saying our goodbyes and heading back onto the river.
It is JULY 1st, Canada Day, so we sang the national anthem as we went under the Carmacks bridge, the flag secured to the front seat, Loraine and Meagan wearing Canadian toques. Heading toward the Five Finger Rapids we wondered what would be in store for us this day.
Stephanie was in her usual good form, explaining we had to stay to the right and look for the V in the rapids. We had to wait for several smaller boats to go through, and while waiting the current swung our canoe around…it looked as though we were going to go through the rapids backwards! However Steph steered us out of harm’s way and we lined ourselves up to go through the rapids.
What a blast as the water rocked us back and forth! Waves coming up over the bow, knocking Meagan out of her seat and into her Mom’s lap. Let’s do it again! NO! Not for Meagan….once was enough .
A little further down the river we hit the Rink Rapids. They looked quite formidable, but by staying to the right, we had no problem getting past them. We stopped a bit further down the river to bail the water out of the boat that had swept in on the first rapids, catch our breath, and have a few laughs.
We soon ran into the guys. They had left Carmacks an hour ahead of us. We took turns most of the day either following them or them following us. Having made it past the halfway point we knew that we could make it all the way. The worst was behind us. The rest of the day we paddled, sang, told jokes, paddled, laughed, and enjoyed the experience of the quest and each other. We found Steph’s soft spot when we sang, “This land is your land, and this land is my land.” Our tough steersperson was actually in tears…didn’t take long for the rest of us either.
Looking for wildlife we spotted a few porcupines, some goats up the side of a mountain and a kid close to the river’s edge. We scared a bear up the mountain side, but were way too noisy to see any moose.
Check point 6 Fort Selkirk, 16:00, 455 km mark 285 km to go.
Seeing the old fort with the flags waving…what a wonderful way to spend Canada Day. We belted out the national anthem one more time going past, with everyone waving at us from the shore.
Finally, on an island we spotted the sign, “5 miles to Kirkman Creek”. Oh wonderful, we can get a little sleep. But getting through those 5 miles was reminiscent of the Lake; just around the next bend, past those trees, around the next corner. Those 5 miles seemed to take longer than the entire trip that day!
Check point 7, Kirkman Creek 01:32 July 2, 580 km mark, 160 km to go.
After 19 hours of nonstop paddling, it was difficult to stand up and get out of the boat, let alone hike up the hills to get to the tents that were set up. We picked one and all crawled into our sleeping bags for a few hours of much needed rest. This was our mandatory 3 hour stopover. Those 3 hours certainly went by quickly. After some warm soup, sandwiches and cake, we were back out to face the cold damp morning air. Steph and the guys had scrounged some candles and presented the birthday girls with a rendition of “Happy Birthday”. A great start to the day.
Another day, another challenge. The rivers that flowed into the Yukon; the White, the Stewart, the Pelee all brought with them heavy currents that swept you wherever they decided you should go. Despite “power ups”, we had very tough time taking the route we wanted, and at times we had to go around some of the hundreds of islands from different directions than we had planned. As a result, we played peek-a-boo with the guys at various times, popping up along the way where you would least expect to find each other. There were times we paddled and seemed to be getting nowhere. We watched Dave and Dwayne paddle as hard as they could only to be pushed backward past the point where they had started. Learning from their error, Steph steered us another way. With every one steering and powering, we eventually made it past the array of islands.
Check point 8, Sixty Mile, 12:30. 665 km mark, 75km to go.
We arrived at the island (where we believed the checkpoint to be) at the same time as Dave and Dwayne….we had lost Mark at some point earlier in the day. Shouting and blowing our whistles, we could not find anyone there and hoped we had not gotten totally lost. We continued to follow our maps and GPS. The route was becoming a bit easier with fewer islands. Then, out of nowhere, a lone canoeist named Peter came alongside the boat. He was the checkpoint person at 60 mile, and had heard us. He was on his way home to have an anniversary supper with his wife. His knowledge of the river was unbelievable, as was the speed at which he paddled. We followed him for a while and as suddenly as he appeared, he was gone behind an island.
The head winds had returned. We could see the Moose Hide Slide from a distance….Dawson. We powered into the wind. Then, protected by the shore line, the wind calmed. Knowing we had another hour to go, we stopped and rested. We sang, we cried, we shouted. We knew we had done what we set out to do. Squaring our shoulders, we set out for the last leg. Closer and closer the slide came…we could see the signal light……we saw the Klondike River insurgence….the bridge….then we saw Sam!!!….waving, yelling, “There’s my girls!”
As we pulled into the docking area, Sam ran towards the boat. With tears welling up in our eyes again…we realized that we had done it!
Dawson 17:55, July 3, 740 km, mark. WE were there!!!!!
What an amazing adventure! We had been blessed with so many guardian angels that had helped us through our trip to attain our goal…Steph, Sam, the ladies from Paddlers Abreast, Mark, Dave and Dwayne, the officials that decided to put a spotter on our boat at the beginning of the race, and the hundreds of friends and family that followed our movements by way of the internet.
Would we do it again?………..Not right away!
Give us a few years.
I have learned….. That you can put 7 women together in a space 28 feet by 3 feet for four days, in the wilderness, and they can come out smiling and best friends.
…… That it takes more than power to conquer a river, you need to learn to read currents.
…… That more than strength, you need faith….and some angels.