By AIMEE O’CONNOR
In its 16th year, the gruelling Yukon River Quest is hosting its largest international field ever, with 66 teams from 13 different countries.
The marathon canoe and kayak race of 444 miles from Whitehorse to Dawson City was ranked ninth on Huffington Post’s “World’s 10 Toughest Races” in October.
According to a YRQ press release, there are few returning champions this year, which will make for an interesting turnout as most categories are up for grabs.
Among the 153 paddlers in this year’s race is the Skagnificent Six, a six-person voyageur team led by YRQ co-founder Jeff Brady.
While most of the teams are setting out aiming to simply finish the race, Brady says about 10 percent of the people are out there to win something.
Others have slightly different goals, like Steve King of British tandem kayak team “Two Numbnuts”, who aims to “drag Percy’s arse down the river so that he can get his ice cream and not to bonk on the way.”
Teams must finish the race in less than 55 hours to win prize money. The record to beat is 39:32:43 won in 2008 by Canadian voyageur Team Kisseynews.
While the Skagnificent Six hope to make it to Dawson in time for last call, their goal is to complete the race in about 47.5 hours, ending up in Dawson at 9:30 p.m. Brady has the team’s goal chart with projected times for each checkpoint laminated and ready to have in the canoe to refer to or perhaps drive the team to paddle harder.
The teammates will be racing in a 25-foot-long voyageur canoe handmade by Kissynew Canoe Company in La Ronge, Saskatchewan.
The canoe, a Saint Anne named after the patron saint of the voyageurs, competed in the YRQ before when Brady noticed how nice it was. Martin Bernardin, owner of Kisseynew Canoe Co., told Brady he could fix up the white Kevlar composite canoe for him to race this year.
In late April, Brady and his daughter Annie drove to Fort St. John, Alberta to pick it up from Bernardin’s dad, who had brought the canoe on top of an old Cadillac from Saskatchewan.
“Because I was involved in the race as an organizer, I thought I would make [the canoe] available to use in Skagway and the race culd rent it out to people [in years Skagway does not have a team],” said Brady.
While none of the racers on this team are professional, the group of six representing Skagway on the river is diverse in skills.
Brady describes teammates Stephanie Ryan and her fiance Aric Baldwin as “animals trapped in human bodies,” both being extremely fit by doing marathons, climbing Denali and working on the Chilkoot Trail.
At the boat’s bow, Skagway resident Orion Hanson has kayaking experience from all over, including the Atlantic Coast, Upper Lynn Canal and Belize.
Tim Bourcy, the owner of The Mountain Shop in Skagway, is the team’s “boat chef and gear guru.”
Visiting the North from Montana is guest paddler Nadia White. White, the great-granddaughter of Klondike Newsman “Stroller” White, is doing the River Quest as part of her research or as she puts it, “A three-part pursuit of my Klondike roots.”
White is retracing her great-grandmother Josephine Keys’ migration from Oklahoma to Dawson in 1898. The 49-year old is no stranger to tests of athleticism, having already biked from Kenton, Oklahoma, to Sumner, Washington and kayaked the Inside Passage for 60 days. The River Quest is the last leg of her so-called “funny, nagging dream,” which she is documenting on her blog travelswithjosie.com.
“To pull into Dawson would be more than just finishing the race, but also my five-year project,” said White.
Having completed the YRQ three times, Brady, nicknamed “Captain Courvoisier”, is familiar enough with the Yukon River that he has kept track of the twists, turns and bends in the river. His Yukon River flipbook map is filled with markings in a language that only Brady would understand, indicating where certain shortcuts are.
“I am learning that it really is all about the journey,” said White.
The journey for the Skagnificent Six will begin today at 12 p.m. in Whitehorse, when onlookers can watch the team running through Rotary Peace Park and jumping into their canoe.
“I can guarantee that we will win Alaskan voyageur class,” said Brady, knowing that his Skagnificents are the only Alaskan team in the voyageur category.
UPDATE: The Skagnificent Six finished 7th overall and 2nd in the voyageur division. See story in July 11 issue.