By HANNAH FLEACE
The team was paddling, arms synchronized like a rivet on an assembly line machine.
1, 2, 3, 4.
Who can take a sunrise, sprinkle it with dew.
1, 2, 3, 4.
The Candy Man, oh the Candy man can.
For whatever reason, Sammy Davis’ silky voice, wafting over the speakers in the canoe, had given them their theme song. Maybe because it was so uplifting, or maybe because it would make a good story.
Before the race, Cory Thole filled out an online biography form. In the “Reason for Entering” box, he typed: Curiosity and a story for my future grand kids: “Back in the day when there was water in the river …..”
Every good story has conflict. Man versus self. Man versus man. Man versus nature. Excellent stories have interesting characters, unlikely circumstances and a quest. Cory’s story would have it all.
But it wasn’t just Cory’s story. It belonged to AJ Conley, Cynthia Adams, Dirk Foss, Kent Fielding and Denny Bousson.
Six people who knew each other, but not in the way you know someone after spending three days in a canoe with them.
Now they would paddle 444 miles in the 17th annual Yukon River Quest.
The Yukon River feeds from the melting Llewellyn Glacier that last inched across the planet two millennia ago. It is the longest river in the Yukon Territory at nearly 2,000 miles long.
Hundreds of years ago, anthropologists claim, the first native peoples of North America used the river as a migration route from Russia to what are now Canada and the lower 48 states.
In the late 1800s, gold was discovered in a tributary of the river. The Yukon River transformed into a pulsing highway for prospectors in the last North American gold rush. Tens of thousands of people journeyed 500 miles down the river to the heart of the Klondike in Dawson City.
For decades to come, the river was a lifeline to the settlements scattered throughout the Yukon. But when the Alaskan Highway was built during WWII, the river became a relic.
On a bright day in late June, the icy blue waters were flooded once again, this time by kayaks and canoes. A new breed of explorers descended on the river, some in hopes of victory and money, but mostly for a good story, a few laughs and the chance to prove the wilderness of the Yukon could still be conquered.
* * *
The Alfred E. Paddlers stood near the bank of the river in Whitehorse; their gear for the four-day trek was spread across the grass for an inventory check.
Free standing tent(s) to shelter all members of the team? Check.
Race bibs, watertight flashlight, backpack stove and fuel. Check. River map. Check. Whistles, emergency space bivy sack, fire starter. Check. The list ran through 21 items and by the end of it, the group needed to buy a handful of gear.
But when the team woke the next morning, five hours before the race, almost everything was gone.
The red pick up truck that held all their gear had been robbed. Immediately, the Skagway and Whitehorse swap was flooded with requests to borrow gear and the police were called.
A few miles out of the city, most of the gear was discovered and the repeat offender was taken into custody.
For many captains, such a blatant omen would dock their ship for the day. But team Captain Cory wasn’t moved.
At noon, when the horn sounded and 57 teams sprinted down a short path to their boats, The Alfred E. Paddlers were ready.
Photographers shivered waist deep in the water, support crews stood by, and for as far as the eye could see, onlookers cheered from the shore.
Suddenly the blue green waters were full of boats and people that became tiny and eventually disappeared around the first bend.
* * *
It was almost a reality show. A teacher, a park ranger, a fisherwoman, a handyman, a park services officer and a recent retiree, ages 26 to 57 in the middle of a river.
Cory and Dirk acted as support crew the year before and were eager to paddle it themselves. AJ, adventurous and athletic, joined early on. And Cindy, with plenty of navigating and canoeing experience, was essential.
Denny was in the boat because you can’t say no to Cory Thole.
“I was shamed into it,” Denny said. “It’s true I was shamed into it.”
Kent joined the day before the race started, when one team member quit at the last moment. It took five minutes to decide and a few more to get permission from his wife.
“It’s something I always wanted to do and the opportunity was there,” Kent said. “It was pretty much that I was going to do it once I was asked.”
* * *
Day One. Lake Laberge was a sheet of glass. The lake is early on in the first day of paddling, miles and miles of pine tree covered slopes and blue shaded mountains.
The single kayaks looked like windmills, paddles dipping and pushing the pointed boats along.
The Alfred E. Paddlers dug into the water. Quick. Sharp. Their reflections worked diligently below them.
In some races, Lake Laberge can be an ender. Strong winds and choppy waters capsize boats almost every year. It happens so quickly, the emergency boats have to be vigilant.
Last year a few paddlers nearly died.
But even if the waters are calm and the weather is perfect, the lake is as grueling as it is beautiful. There is no current to help the boat along, and no shade to cool the sun.
After the lake is 30-mile river, a stretch of the race most of the team considered the most beautiful.
Three men in life vests rushed to the dock and squinted. It was just after 8 a.m. in Carmacks, and spectators crowded the river’s edge to welcome the first team in. It would be four more hours before the Skagway team would arrive for the mandatory seven-hour break.
As the sun hiked into the sky, new tents popped up, climbing rope strung between pines sagged with soaked pants and numbered bibs.
When the Alfred E. Paddlers parked at the dock, after 20 hours of paddling, it took a few minutes for everyone to unfold from the canoe.
“This is us, are you kidding?” AJ said as the team approached the cabin they could sleep in.
She started up the steps and nearly fell back down, “Whoa. Stairs.”
They ordered cheeseburgers and milkshakes from the concession stand and promptly fell asleep.
When the tatter and bruised paddlers woke up five hours later, curry from Starfire was warming on the picnic tables.
Kent needed Icy Hot for his shoulders.
Cory and Dirk had burns from rubbing against their life jackets. AJ was explaining how difficult it is to pee at the front of the boat in a small “Female Urination Device.”
“You really have to control yourself,” she said. “It fills up fast so you have to be careful. Mind over bladder.”
Soon the team was staggering toward their boat, climbing in and sailing away.
* * *
No one remembers exactly when they saw the leprechaun. Other images appeared in the rocks – faces, masks. There were ghosts in the woods, power lines out of nowhere and river gremlins.
After many hours of sleep deprivation and physical exhaustion, hallucinations are a norm.
One year, a paddler swore he saw a 1800s prospector standing on the shore, saddled with gear and staring out at the river.
Another woman imagined a picket fence across the river and began desperately trying to find the gate for her team to sail through. Some have seen visions in the sky.
But for the Alfred E. Paddlers, some of most peculiar occurrences were the wildlife.
“I can’t say I’ve ever seen a red squirrel swim across a big river like that,” Cory said.
In total the team saw one owl, five moose, a vole and a river traversing squirrel.
Around the same time that the hallucinations began, the music came on. The Candy Man. Song about rivers. A capella singing. Karaoke.
They talked about trucking in Nepal. Getting attacked by poisonous snakes. Time spent in the Philippines.
By 4 a.m. on the third day, morale was low and the team couldn’t shake their sleepy funk. It had been hours since they’d seen another team.
1 . . . 2 . . . 3 . . . 4.
That’s when Kent piped up. A marathoner and former track and cross country coach, he was familiar with the lull.
“I recognized it from running,” he said. “You have to push through it and make small goals. When you start thinking about long goals it is hard to motivate yourself.”
He had the team take a five-minute break and then no one stopped paddling for two hours.
The funk dispelled, and the team was moving swiftly and two people saw a speck about two miles up river. Another boat. Actual competition.
Suddenly, the team was energized. They paddled hard, focusing on shortcuts across the current and keeping their rhythm strong.
1234, 1234, 1234.
They inched close enough to recognize the boat – the “8 of Hearts” boat. A duel ensued.
It was so close. Denny watched the other team’s boat hustle across the water. Paddles plunging.
But the Alfred E. Paddlers kept pace. For hours the teams swapped the lead. Denny could tell the other team had expert navigators who knew the river well. The Skagway team missed a few shortcuts and were worried about another canoe behind them.
Around 2 a.m., two hours into the fourth day, still battling the 8 of Hearts, they spotted the finish line.
* * *
The casino on 4th and Queen Street was mostly dark, save for the dancing slot machine lights and a few spotlights on poker tables.
The roulette table was crammed with people stacking chips on their lucky numbers and birthdays.
Denny scratched the team’s numbers on the back of a creased Canada Day flier.
Three, five, 11, 13, 26, 31.
The wheel spun. The chips were scraped off the board and Denny returned to the group, palms up, raising his voice over the piano music.
“Nobody won,” he said.
It was the day after the race in Dawson City. The sun wouldn’t think about setting until well past 2 a.m. and the team had at least one more bar to go.
The Pit was crowded and a band on stage sang about a bad relationship. Almost everyone was drinking beer and chatting about the river.
In the last moments of the race, the Alfred E. Paddlers pulled ahead. They finished at 2:43 a.m., more than 52 hours after starting in Whitehorse. They placed third in the mixed teams and fourth in the voyageur class.
They climbed out of the canoe that was no longer their home and opened beers to celebrate. They cackled at inside jokes, divided up the sleeping arrangement and began to recount stories.
Remember the time we paddled the lake? It was so hot. We didn’t know our arms could ache like that. The first drafts of their stories they would hone and embellish for decades, around campfires and coolers, to friends and strangers, to grandkids perched on arthritic knees.
It wasn’t the river we conquered but ourselves. The day we found out how much our brains and bodies could take, then kept going. The stories that remind us who we were, when we were young and strong and there was still so much water in that rushing river.