Skagway team finishes 7th overall
By AIMEE O’CONNOR
It started in a bar, like all good ideas,” said Yukon River Quest co-founder Jeff Brady, who raced this year for the fourth time.
The 444-mile race from Whitehorse to Dawson City has been challenging the vim and vigour of racers from all over the world for 16 years.
This year’s 16th YRQ showed how widespread the race has become, with teams coming from 13 different countries. Not to mention the people in 44 countries following the race online.
Skagway’s Buckwheat Donahue, who co-founded the Quest’s predecessor, the Dyea to Dawson centennial races with Brady, was there to count down the start at high noon on June 25.
At the starting line, when the 152 racers ran past cheering onlookers in Whitehorse’s Rotary Peace Park, excitement and anticipation was in the air. They jumped into their boats and began to pull away, not knowing that by the end of the night, Lake Laberge’s infamous rough conditions would cause eight boats to withdraw from the race, giving a few paddlers traumatic experiences.
“The lake seemed to be saying, ‘Can you handle this race?’” said Orion Hanson, who was at the bow of Brady’s voyageur canoe team The Skagnificent Six.
Team member Nadia White described Hanson as being “out in space” while the voyageur canoe was going through the lake. A southerly squall erupted, causing large breakers that sent the front of the boat airborne, and others right over.
Because the wind was pushing the team and there wasn’t much space between waves, Hanson explained that they would have to steer toward smaller waves and then turn with them, by flicking the stern of the boat, and catching bigger waves. This steering technique was carried out by Brady at the canoe’s stern. Hanson commends Brady’s steering as being “phenomenal,” but the team’s coordination as a whole got them through the rough parts and kept them off the rocky shoreline.
“We placed [overall] because we didn’t pull over there,” said Hanson.
The Skagnificent Six finished in 7th place overall, with a time of 51 hours, 17 minutes and 26 seconds. That was the best finish ever for a Skagway team and earned them second place in the voyageur class. Half of their more than $1,000 in winnings were contributed to the Yukon’s Paddlers Abreast team of cancer survivors, which had to leave a sick paddler at Carmacks but went on to finish the race unofficially.
There were other acts of kindness on the river.
For Jessica Zimny and Julie Greening-Winkel of tandem canoe team Yu-kon Du-et, paddling in the middle of the night further down the river resulted in a near-death experience complete with a knight in shining armor.
Whitehorse resident Ken Gibbons, or Kenny G, spotted the two hypothermic damsels in distress after they had capsized, and he made a choice to abandon the race in order to help them. For three-and-a-half hours, Gibbons took the women under his care. He built a fire, gave them dry clothes and hot food, and accompanied them down the river to a monitor point at Big Salmon, about 20 km away from where the girls capsized.
The 45-year-old was recognized at the YRQ awards banquet on June 29 and given the Spirit of the Yukon award for his efforts.
“He took himself out of the race for hours just to keep the girls safe,” said volunteer Ray Falle, who presented Gibbons with the award, artwork from Sign of the Raven.
It was not the only story of chivalry and selflessness during the race.
Above all else, the YRQ’s large fleet of volunteers is the base that supports the paddlers themselves and the race as a whole.
At the awards banquet, volunteer Al Foster told everyone that there are three things for racers to remember about the race; the challenge of the race itself, the beauty of travelling down the Yukon River, and the help the volunteers gave them.
His speech received a standing ovation from everyone in the room.
Out of the 66 teams registered, 18 of them scratched (including one before the race due to injury).
Along with shaky conditions on Lake Laberge, there are many other difficulties for racers to endure including sleep deprivation and hallucinations.
While tandem kayak racer Pete Liggins of the United Kingdom was paddling on the river, he realized he didn’t like kayaking very much after experiencing bouts of hallucinations of sleeping
Buddhas and strange men sitting on his paddle.
Others were coerced into bets that were never made.
Upon arriving in Dawson, Skagnificent Six team member Tim Bourcy asked Brady, “We’re still on for our bet right?”
“Bet? What bet?” asked Brady, sleep deprived and clearly delirious.
“While we were on the river, I bet you five dollars that Crusty would eat all of the food in the two coolers before we get back to Skagway.”
“Oh right, that bet.”
Bourcy, nicknamed “Chef Boyarcy” on the river, had been cooking for the team on a small jet-boil stove set on the top of a cooler. The voyageur team enjoyed hot meals such as beans and rice on the river, and the leftovers got put into the two coolers the team carried. Knowing that Brady would be tired in Dawson, Bourcy concocted a believable bet that Brady would go along with it as though it had been made earlier.
While the team was celebrating after the race in the absence of Brady, partners in crime Stephanie Ryan and “Crusty” Aric Baldwin unloaded the coolers and coerced those around them to eat delicacies such as 7-day-old enchiladas and the aforementioned beans and rice out of a large zip-close bag. On the long drive back to Skagway, they continued to eat the food as a team, which Brady considers to be a disqualifier for the bet.
“We will never pay each other off and continue to argue over the next 30 years,” Brady said.
Between the rough waters, hallucinations, exhaustion and exertion, it is hard to pinpoint what it is exactly about the race that makes it worthwhile to each racer.
“If you have enough dedication, you can do anything,” said Philippe Heitz, a tandem canoe racer from Switzerland. As a canoe guide, Heitz was faced with the difficult decision between making money and spending money, since he lost two weeks of his work season.
For YRQ overall winners Steve King and Shaun Thrower of team Two Numbnuts, perhaps it was the victory strawberry ice cream that made it all worth it.
“Bloody brilliant ice cream it was,” said Thrower, who captained the tandem kayak team from the Great Britain.
The YRQ community of racers and volunteers is full of familiar faces. Volunteer Al Foster said, “It becomes an addiction, we keep coming back”