Yukon River Quest 2023: Yster SUP Rider Göran Gustavsson aims for the top three

When we’re publishing this article, Göran “Gossa” Gustavsson, Ultra Endurance Paddler and Yster SUP Team Rider supporting the premium Swedish brand on the development side, is already in Canada, getting acclimatised in the run up the Yukon River Quest, kicking off on the 4th July.

This ultra endurance challenge is an annual marathon race testing paddlers’ endurance to the limit over the 715 km/444 mile course from Whitehorse to Dawson City. Known as the “Race to the Midnight Sun”, the route runs down the Yukon River that passes through Five First Nations on the race route: Kwanlin Dün, Ta’an Kwäch’än Council, Little Salmon Carmacks, Selkirk, and Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in. The Yukon River Quest event “honours their culture and those who have lived off the river and nurtured it for centuries”.

TotalSUP caught up with Göran in Sweden during the Malmö Ocean Race, where our interview was set against the stunning backdrop of the iconic Öresund Bridge. A truly beautiful place to chat about “the extreme” and Gossa’s reasons to compete in the world’s toughest ultra endurance SUP events.

Yukon River Quest: “A challenge before challenge”- Why this race?

As I always say, Yukon River Quest is more than a race, it’s an experience with people coming from pretty much all over the world to do it. Obviously it’s an endurance race (715 km / 444 miles) and a challenge before the challenge (and during of course!) to be honest – to get ready, get prepared for it, and get it done. It’s a fantastic race, the organisation runs really smoothly with great hospitality and then there’s the nature!

I was there last year so this is going to be my second time hopefully and my my goal is to finish in the top three. I finished 5th last year and hopefully with the experience I have from last year, I’m going to paddle a little bit faster and won’t do to the mistakes I did last year.

I think I would still do it even if I finished in the bottom end or as the last or second last because this is a challenge for myself. Over the years I have realised that I’m pretty good at it and one of the few that, you know, finished top five in this sort of events. So that of course gives me a little bit extra but I think I would still do it, because of the social stuff and such.

What’s your board set up for the Yukon River Quest challenge and could you tell us more about your collaboration with Yster SUP?

For the Yukon River Quest I’m going to Yster SUP 14’x 28″ which is a really good and stable inflatable board with a lot of space for gear (drybags from Yster too!). It’s a fantastic long distance board, especially that there’s the rule that the board has to be 14 feet long and it can’t be less than 24 inches wide. It’s really rare that people will use boards that are narrower than 25. Mine is 28. It’s a wide board pretty much at it’s whole length which suits me really well for this type of competition as the river flows really quickly there and the currents can easily throw you off your board so you have stay concentrated all the time.

I started working with Yster SUP in January this year and it’s a Swedish brand so it’s helps me to have really good contact with the owner, Per Vallbo, to have an input in developing the board as he loves to get the feedback and he’s thinking about it all the time, what shall we develop for long distance paddling. The main thing is that he doesn’t want to change the board too much, you know, people will always want to add new stuff, so those small tweaks rather than changing the whole concept are good and the 14×28 is a nice long distance board for the Yukon challenge.

I will then use Yster SUP 17’3×26 for the Alabama 650 (No SUP paddler has succeeded this one yet , it’s the unlimited one as I would need to have a lot more food with me. This year is going to be also the first time I’m going to do the SUP 11-City Tour non-stop race on an Yster SUP hardboard.

Yukon River Quest preparations, challenges and little hacks

Yeah, so one of the biggest challenge is nowadays to find a reasonable price on the airfare. And then when you’re done that you’re going to have at least two bags with you, one with a board,  because I do inflatables on this race, and then one bag with all the kit and provisions. But I learned last year that White Horse has a really nice outdoor shop. So more or less you can get you can get everything there but then again, it’s going to be more expensive if you’re going to buy everything new every time you go but least I’m not going to be worried about it this time if I forget anything.

The map – People usually wonder why do you need a map because you’re on a river. But it’s really important as you look at that map all the time – where you are, where the fast flowing water is – so this is what I learned last year, to get a really good map that you can turn pages easily and read it while you’re standing on your board.

The food – My biggest concern this year and it’s also what that I’ve learned from the Last Paddler Standing and all endurance races, is my food, it’s the eating. I brought everything that I liked but I do think I have to be more strategic about the food, of course it should taste nice as well as give you enough energy, it doesn’t need to be too bulky, you don’t want to cook it or prepare it or anything, but yeah, food is a big preparation task. I’ve learnt that from Bart de Zwart: You have to eat before you’re hungry and drink before you’re thirsty. If you eat when you’re hungry it’s already too late and if you drink when you’re thirsty, you’re already dehydrated.

Hydration – So water, water, water and Coca-Cola (Diet?) No, the regular one, for the sugar. I don’t take any energy drinks because I haven’t found any that I actually like. You know, if you don’t like it, you don’t drink it and if you drink it, tastes bad…

My little secret is, and they were laughing at me last year, is a toothbrush. It’s about waking you up a little bit and making you feel you feel refreshed as you’re  stuffing your face with a lot of different foods as you paddle… So yeah, it’s nice to refresh a little bit, feel cool.

Feet – My feet is the problem and after a race I can’t feel my toes. Moving on the board helps a little bit but my feet just go numb and they’re numb for about a month or two afterwards. People were surprised last year because everyone was using wetsuit boots and I had my wetsuit boots with me but I was putting them on at night time when it was cold to keep me warm. But during the day I was paddling barefoot as in Yukon there’s between 15 to 25 degrees so I found my feet pretty warm. And then again your feet don’t look like Sponge Bob afterwards. I even managed to dry my boots during the day as I paddled and they were warm for the night.

Tough moments – These moments do come but then you start to think about something else. You might think about your childhood or you just think about what’s the next race you want to do? Shall I eat? What’s the time now? What’s the next thing? Shall I drink a coke or? These type of exciting things 😉

You block the heavy stuff, I mean obviously, sometimes you think about it but more you forget about the time, you know, you’re gonna paddle for pretty much 28 to 30 hours to get to Cormack,  the half point, and then out of the sudden you’ve been paddling for 14 hours and then you think, oh, it’s only 14 left. So the time is shrinking and you just keep paddling.

The stuff you see – Yeah, you go a little bit crazy and you see stuff. You see stuff on the shoreline,  you see a fisherman standing there fishing, you see a tent, a moose swimming in the river… And then you get closer and it’s a branch or a tree log or whatever.

Other paddlers say similar stuff! The weird stuff I saw last year was a yin-yang sign on the side of a mountain. But instead of the yin-yang symbols, there was a pattern of a woman and a man nearly kissing each other. And I saw it and I told myself that this could not be true. But still, why do I see it, you know…

Touchdown in Yukon, Canada

The scenery…

The fantastic thing about Yukon River Quest is that it’s the Northern Hemisphere so we’re actually paddling pretty much in daylight all the time. And there are these sunsets you know, it’s just when the Sun is touching the mountain tops, it’s that scenery and the views, and you’re all by yourself and you’re taking stroke by stroke – yes, it’s like a dream. It’s just wonderful to be the there’s no one around you, there may be a bald eagle flying around you or something. That’s one of the reasons I’m doing it.

Do you sleep at any point?

No, you go straight. And I didn’t sleep for 40 hours during The Last Paddler Standing.

Do you ever get bored?

So last year with the river flow I had to be concentrated pretty much all the time. Yeah, because I  didn’t to fall into water… I don’t know what you call it, it’s like bubbles coming from from under the water and just pushing the board up. So more or less you were standing and looking at the water flow and reading the river.

And then obviously there’s the fun part, it’s a rapid, it’s called Five Finger rapid and it’s a bit of a whitewater. So most of the SUP paddlers, I think actually all of us, go down on their knees with some people falling in last year. I didn’t fall in but it’s a bit scary because you have to have speed there. I’ve been done a bit of whitewater paddling and with that experience I know that speed is really important because if you’re gonna slow down then the water takes your board.

Yeah, you have to try to be faster than the water and then you can steer the board. So Five Finger rapid, it was quite fantastic when I looked at my watch and realised that I went down there at 12 o’clock in the middle of the night!

Why it’s called Five Finger rapid? Because it’s five rapids and a couple of islands between them and it’s really important that you only take that one route. If you get into the first one, then your  board is gone. You’re going to be hit by rocks and all, and that’s really dangerous.

But now I find it quite easy, you just follow the right side of the river, pushing a little bit and then lean up between the mainland and the first island. You have to hit the right stream. Also, you hear it! I probably heard it maybe an hour or an hour and a half before I got there because there’s this noise, like a thunder or a roaring sound like so that can get you a bit stressed.

Because it’s an unsupported paddle, what devices can you have with you?

You have to have a GPS, it’s compulsory, that can take messages and send messages. And then you have a distress code to send the SOS so they can send the helicopter.

Let’s talk about the bears…

Yeah, we’ve seen heaps on grizzly bears but they are almost always next to the road! As I mentioned, the water flowing fast last year and with the flooding the water was so high that the animals couldn’t get down to the water edge. There were only the bald eagles and some beavers I saw while I paddling but then when we were driving back I saw some bears hanging out in the  parking lot!

The problem is when you have to go on land when things go wrong and have to put your tent up and wait for the rescue, then there will be bears. You can have pepper spray or a normal whistle because everyone says, make as much noise as possible. And if you look at it, most of the animals don’t want to come close. It’s really rare for animals to attack people… So just make a lot of noise and they won’t bother you. Also, don’t take their food!

What’s after Yukon?

I have a really good chance this year to fulfil my dream… Going back to Yukon, do it better than I did last year, then the  and I do in the nonstop I live in a city that which I always love because of the people down there. They’re like a family to me! Then there’s a new challenge this year, the Alabama 650 that no SUP paddlers has ever succeeded to complete yet. There’s no sub paddlers have succeeded that one yet.

And then I finish the year with the Last Paddler Standing.  I’m a bit nervous before this one but I also know what to expect. The race starts at 48 hours! Before that it’s just about moving to get to those 48 hours and then the race starts. I did 40 hours last year but I struggled with the food again so I have to plan it well.

To sum it up, what are your top tips for endurance races… Take your toothbrush…;)

Yeah, you gotta take a toothbrush 🙂

Pick a board that is stable for you. I’ve seen so many people taking boards that were too narrow and ending up wobbling and spending too much energy to fight those narrow board.

Go one inch wider so that you can stay on the board especially when you get fatigued or tired, you start to wobble

Keep on paddling. Never stop paddling. Just slow down a little bit. Or even if there’s like a hailing headwind (such as the nonstop in Holland) just keep on paddling and move forward on the board to press the front down a little bit. Take shorter strokes and just keep on paddling, don’t stop because if you stop, you start to think too much.

Plan your food – Eat before you’re hungry and drink before you’re thirsty.

The next big thing is your support team – Have a support team that have paddled a little bit so they know what you’re going through and and they know the area well.

Why the extreme?

Because you get so many kicks for a long time. After those 30, 40 hours or 58 hours, you get an  extremely powerful kick.

I think every human being is always searching for a kick, somehow. I mean, some people are really good with their gardens and they get their kicks from there. I hate gardens therefore the extreme.

Thank you very much for your time Göran, what a story! Paddle hard and stay safe! 

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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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