By TOBEY SCHMIDT
This year’s Yukon River Quest has already broken the field record with 96 teams representing 13 countries in the “Race to the Midnight Sun.” Two of those teams are from Skagway, with some competitors returning to the oars, and some newcomers.
The 19th annual race is a 444-mile excursion from Whitehorse, Yukon Territory, down the Yukon River to Dawson City, from June 28 to July 2. Participants can paddle from a solo canoe or kayak, a tandem canoe or kayak, a stand-up paddleboard or a voyageur. Skagway has a team each in the tandem canoe class and the voyageur class.
Denver Evans, paddling in a tandem canoe with her grandfather John O’Daniel, will be racing in the Yukon River Quest for her first time.
“I absolutely love being in the middle of nowhere, so that will be great,” Evans said.
Evans and O’Daniel recently went out to practice for their first time, paddling two miles upriver and back. O’Daniel had a heart attack last November and was medevaced to Anchorage.
“I kind of sat around most of the winter so I am really out of shape,” O’Daniel said.
This will be O’Daniel’s fifth time participating in the race, though he has only finished it twice.
“We’re gonna have to take it real easy until we get to the lake and then we can use the energy, because if you’re not paddling on the lake, you’re not going anywhere,” O’Daniel said. “Whereas when you’re on the river, it’s [a] six mile-an-hour current.”
Evans and her grandfather agreed that staying awake will be the hardest part of the race, though Evans has some practice in that regard. She has participated in the Junior Iditarod, a 150-mile sled dog race.
“So I’m used to not sleeping,” Evans said.
The duo’s team name is Grand Canoedles and they are number 83. The Grand Canoedles will be rocking purple life jackets, Evans favorite color.
Evans and O’Daniel said that their goal is to finish the race. O’Daniel expects it will take them around 35-40 hours from start to finish, including rest time.
The other local team, the Skagway Scissor Wizards, has a goal to finish the race as well, said team member Curt Burns. Though he expects it will take them roughly 67 hours total, including rest time.
Burns is a part of the voyageur team including the captain Kent Fielding, Kate Meemken, Sarah Waterman, Logan Weber and Peter Zimmerman. Only three of the six have participated in the race before —Burns, Fielding and Meemken, who were all in a voyageur together last year.
“I think the water level will be lower this year, so that will be something working against us, but I hope we improve,” Burns said. “Half the team is coming back so we have the experience of knowing where we are, and have already done it once, know how to pack better, have the food that you need.” With a team of six people, it has been hard to match schedules for them to practice together.
“We all have full-time jobs, Kate is in Minnesota right now, and so we’ve been trying to meet at least once a week leading up to the race, just doing like two-hour, three-hour paddles,” Burns said. “We did our first overnight paddle last weekend, so we went from Carmacks to Minto in just under seven hours.”
The six members of the team will not be together until the night before the race, when Burns said they’ll do a quick practice run with everyone.
“Another really cool thing is finding fill-ins,” Burns said. Since they can’t practice with the whole team, they typically have to find at least one fill-in to practice with. Evans has even practiced with them a few times this year.
Like Evans and her grandfather, Burns also expects the hardest part will be staying awake. He said that is when the team becomes really important, because they all help each other stay awake. They plan to bring a speaker for music.
Burns said he is most excited for the Sourtoe shot in Dawson City, which is a famous drink from the Downtown Hotel that uses a preserved, dehydrated human toe as a salted garnish.
“Drink it fast, drink it slow, just gotta touch the toe,” Burns recited. The Skagway Scissor Wizards are number 71.
“You’re out paddling the Yukon River, just finish it and enjoy it, have a good time,” Burns said.