Voyageur team CAP launches from shore in the 20th Annual Yukon River Quest. See more photos on Page 6. PHOTO BY DAN FOX
By ALYSSA DE ANGELUS
It’s another year in the books for the Yukon River Quest, and race organizers are celebrating big. For starters, there was free ice cream.
Yes, you heard correctly.
The week-long event kicked off in Whitehorse on Wednesday, June 27, where participants both old and new were welcomed back to the area for another chance to snatch a regional title and prove their crew’s prowess on the rough and tough journey to Dawson City.
After a grand introduction of race organizers, volunteers and racers from 20 years ago, the 2018 River Quest teams were whisked away to plan with their teammates and workout any last-minute kinks. The race began exactly at noon near the gazebo by Rotary Peace Park.
Approximately 250 paddlers are on the waters this year. Every team that finishes will receive an official finisher pin and an awards presentation will be held on July 1 in Dawson City for outstanding competitors. At press time on Wednesday, June 27, the Skagway team Dyea Devils Club was in fifth place for voyageurs, just 6.5 kilometers past Cathers Place.
Since 1998, the Yukon River Quest was established as a challenging 715 kilometer (444 mile) race to charter remote wilderness and enjoy friendly boatside competition. Its roots go back even earlier to the Dyea to Dawson race, where racers had to hike the Chilkoot Trail before taking up their starting positions on the water.
Eventually race organizers Buckwheat Donahue and Jeff Brady were asked to reevaluate that route because the town didn’t favor such heavy foot traffic on the trail (or the number of heat exhaustion calses for that matter) and the race soon evolved into what is now known as the Yukon River Quest – “The Race to the Midnight Sun.”
So, if the present-day River Quest has ever made you question the sanity of race-goers, just remember that people used to reenact the entire main access hike of Gold Rush stampeders before getting in the water.
Roger Hanberg is the race president for the River Quest. He has participated in both the Dyea to Dawson Race and the River Quest each once, along with numerous years of experience in helping the safety crew, acting as the race marshal and eventually becoming a top advisor for the race. His most vivid memory throughout the years was during the first year of the River Quest.
“This is going into the second day between Big Salmon River and Carmacks, and there [are] sheer cliffs, clay cliffs and they are indented and channeled from the weather,” Hanberg said.
“Personally I saw lots of faces in those cliffs, but further [than] that one thing I saw which was a hallucination, but it was what I actually believed I was looking at, was a little old native lady. She had some wood on her back and she was on the riverbank and she looked happy that we were going by.”
It is a common occurrence for racers to experience hallucinations on the course due to long days and sleep deprivation.
“The funniest stories are with my wife when we did it in 1999 because we took our time. We had the slowest time ever for anybody,” said Brady, member of Skagway voyageur team Dyea Devils Club and initial race organizer. “We were just plodding along and it was really windy and we didn’t like paddling in the wind so we pulled off to the side. It got to be like the fourth day and I was hallucinating and I was seeing sky bridges over the river.”
Today there are six built-in official race checkpoints to reduce the extent of mental fatigue, which include a verbal checkpoint at Policeman’s Point and Lower Laberge, a seven-hour mandatory layover at Carmacks, a verbal checkpoint at Ft. Selkirk, a three-hour mandatory layover at Coffee Creek and then the finish line at Dawson City.
This year the town is represented on the water by the Dyea Devils Club, an all-men Voyageur team whose ultimate goal is to beat the Skagway record and finish in just under 50 hours by midnight on Friday. Peter Zimmerman, age 29, is the only returning paddler from last year’s Skagway Scissor Wizards team, which placed 11th in the 2017 competition.
Other members include 61-year-old Brady and his 17-year-old son Danny Brady, 41-year-old Skagway resident Cory Thole and 28-year-old Skagway resident John Hinrichs. A last minute addition to Skagway’s local possie is 75-year-old Anchorage resident Larry Seethaler.
According to Brady, Seethaler has the most race miles in all of Yukon River Quest history, participating in 15 of the 20 River Quests. Seethaler will be replacing Mike Korsmo, after Korsmo bowed out due to an injury.
Seethaler is excited to be back in the race and to be welcomed onto a voyageur canoe for the first time. Seethaler says he may be 75 years old, but he often is told he is “a young 75” and his frequent workout regiment keeps him feeling refreshed.
Brady thinks it’s great to have age-variety on the team.
“I am not the oldest guy in the boat anymore,” Brady said, laughing. “That’s kind of different.”
Besides managing a brisk finish, Brady says his team would be more than happy to land a second place finish behind last year’s winner Yukon Wide Adventures. Considering the fact that the Skagway team has yet to rehearse all-together, Brady isn’t looking to win, although a second place finish – even if its a few hours behind “the pros” – would be nice.
“The nice thing about the river is that it’s moving all the time so as long as you can stay on the river and not take too many rests, you usually can make that no problem,” Brady said. “Last year’s team should of had it, but they took a wrong turn with about two hours to go, or they would have smashed it [the Skagway record]. As it turned out they missed it by two minutes and they were heartbroken.”
Next year Brady says he is looking to put a group of women together for another same-sex voyageur team.