Bring on Yukon River Quest 2021: Escape reality with Blackfish Riders ultimate Yukon SUP adventure

Shaken by the impact of COVID-19 global crisis the SUP industry responded by cancelling and postponing events to ensure safety of their teams, SUP athletes, visitors and local communities. The latest announcement from the organisers of the Yukon River Quest confirmed that due to the coronavirus pandemic, the 22nd annual marathon paddling race with a full roster of 125 teams from 13 countries could not go ahead.  “We’re hoping to see many of the teams back for 2021,” said Peter Coates, President of the Yukon River Marathon Paddlers Association Board and the new event date is now scheduled for 23-26 June 2021. To keep the SUP stoke going in this challenging time, TotalSUP caught up with Blackfish Paddles riders, Carmen Merkel and Jason Bennett to look back at one of the world’s toughest adventure races as they shared their ultimate SUP experience.

Hi Carmen and Jason! Could you share your experience of the Yukon River Quest, the ultramarathon paddling race?

Carmen Merkel: The Yukon River Quest is a deeply personal and meaningful experience for me being on the river with my thoughts for such an extended period of time in a particularly remote part of the country.

There’s a super positive and eclectic paddling community involved in the race. The organizers and volunteers are amazing and want to support you any way they can. They run a very well organized event that honours the history of the river as well as the race itself.

The Yukon Communities in Whitehorse really embrace the race and in the year when SUPs were allowed in the event, the community made us feel like superstars!

Jason Bennett: I was lucky enough to have the honour of paddling in the Yukon River Quest twice. I say honour for good reason, it is more than just another race. The culmination of effort from so many passionate people volunteering their time, the amazing natural beauty of the place, the history of the first nations, gold rush and the ridiculous length of the race makes for a truly unique experience.

I knew what I was getting myself into having completed the race in 2016 in the inaugural group of stand-up paddlers to complete the race. It was brutal and I had doubts about ever doing the race again. I mean really, I passed out less than 5 minutes after crossing the finish line and collapsed onto my girlfriend Carmen Merkel. Luckily I woke up 30 seconds later to wave off first aid attendants who were calling the ambulance. I was also fortunate to have been spared from the crazy hallucinations that many of the paddlers have experienced due to the sleep deprivation. I wrote about the entire experience in my blog.

Race to the Midnight Sun
What does it mean for you as an endurance paddler?

Carmen: The YRQ is the longest unsupported paddle race in the world. Apart from the Yukon 1000, it’s one of the hardest races you can do on watercraft, where you only really have yourself to rely on for so much of the time, especially if you do it solo. For me, the remoteness of the area gives it a particularly special feel. You have to have a certain level of self-sufficiency and wilderness competence to have a good time and stay safe. That part of it I loved.

Jason: This race is both a paddlers’ reunion and an escape from reality. The group of paddlers and volunteers that do this crazy race feel like family by the end, in part because of the ridiculous journey you go through. To me it means visions of valleys and mountains passing, twilight and just the sounds of the river.

What’s the toughest part of competing in an endurance event?

Carmen: General with endurance events it’s always hard to manage nutrition and hydration at optimal intervals while continuing to paddle hard. You get so into keeping up your pace or your draft that it can be hard to take a break to keep the machine going. However the YRQ presented a unique challenge for me

As always, the hardest competitor is our own brain and for me this especially rings true. Every competitor has their own mental demons to battle and a super long race like the YRQ seems to highlight them vividly. It takes a very long time with potentially not seeing anybody else on the river and I was concerned about feeling so alone in the wild and what kind of irrational and rational fears that would bring up for me. I had heard stories about losing and hallucinating from other races who had done it. I just wasn’t sure how I would react!

Most of my background in the wilderness was through climbing and SUP camping, where you always have a buddy to share the experience with, so this was a new territory for me. Going into the race, I was confident with all my long solo paddles I had done, and in the end it payed off. I stayed relatively sane the whole time and didn’t experience any deeply negative or scary episodes.

Jason: Preparation – so much of it happens before you even start. Good prep and training means a good race. But it takes a lot of time and organization.

Pacing yourself would be the second one for me. If you burn yourself out early and don’t eat right you will suffer.

What is your Blackfish paddle of choice?

Jason: I love the new Viento paddle, definitely my choice for this year’s race. It’s more than 100g lighter than my previous paddle and has such a beauty catch. I think that will translate to better endurance performance.

Carmen: The ever-beautiful Salish. I’ll never forget the year I switched to Salish, was my best race season ever and I got 3rd at Canadians in the distance race.

Were there any breaking points and how did you overcome challenges along the way?

Carmen: There were sort of two low points, both near the end of the race. One was just before the last checkpoint a 7-5hrs out from the end of the race. Headwind came up, the river seemed too slow and it just demoralized me first thing in the morning. My pace slowed down considerably and I just couldn’t shake the frustration of slowing down so much. But I had been waiting for this low point and my strategy was believing that it will pass. And it did.

My final low point was SO VERY close to Dawson. I was one corner away from seeing the finish. In my excitement I irrationally ignored my map directions and thought I was taking a shortcut around an island. Of course it was a super dead spot and I basically came to a stop stuck in slow shallow water.

I was SO MAD I made that decision this close to the finish line. It didn’t help that I had caught a cold at Carmacks halfway through the race and my throat was beginning to really bother me at that point. It hurt to swallow and my nervous system was so fried from being exhausted that every swallow felt like nails going down my throat. I also had a spot from my PFD that had been rubbing on my shoulder that was awfully raw and every stroke felt like a stab in the shoulder. I wasn’t sad at this point, just a pathetic sort of mad and feeling stupid at the same time. All while sadly trying to paddle out of this muddy pond with desperate strokes trying not to use my right shoulder. I must have looked hilarious. That moment passed too and all pain was miraculously numbed at the finish line seeing the love of my life there Jason who had finished the race ahead of me and all my friends.


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Jason: In 2016 when I was on a draft train with Bart de Zwart and Blackfish Team Rider Norm Hann paddling across the lake I dropped a wrapper and decided to double back and get it. I was determined to catch back up to the draft and after a few hours I did but I was so exhausted that I couldn’t hold on and I had to drop off again. I remember sitting down on my board and having all of my abdominals going into a massive spasm. I couldn’t move and just sat and watched Bart and Norm disappearing into the distance.

It was seeing Stephen Waterreus paddling his SUP around the corner behind me that got me going again. He is a great paddler and was moving fast and I didn’t want to get dropped. That bit of rest and motivation turned out to be enough to get me going again.

What are your tips for paddlers entering the endurance SUP scene?

Carmen: Gym and power training helped me a bunch. Nail down nutrition well ahead of the long races. It’s so important! And manage that negative self-talk, if you have one!

Jason: Be prepared, respect and thank the race organizers and volunteers. It’s really an honour to paddle a SUP in these special events and they take a massive amount of work and organization to put on. Enjoy the journey, it goes by a lot faster than you think.


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Thank you for your time and good luck with your next SUP challenge!

To find out more about Blackfish Paddles and their progressive, refined, handcrafted designs, visit

To find out more about the Yukon River Quest, visit

About the Author

Anna Nadolna

Anna is the Founder of SUPer Whale, a Cambridge(UK!)-based emerging watersports brand and a stand-up paddleboarding community. She is a certified SUP Flat Water Instructor accredited by International Surfing Association (ISA). Anna is also a digital marketing, storytelling aficionado and a growth hacking enthusiast.

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