Yukon River Quest: Blackfish riders dig deep and share wealth of knowledge to survive the SUP ultramarathon

Blackfish Paddles riders have been digging deep and pushing hard through the Yukon territory since the inception of the Yukon River Quest, the world’s longest 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,” it is run at a time of year when the northern sky does not get dark, allowing paddlers the unique experience of being on the river 24 hours a day. The journey takes paddlers through the traditional territories of five Yukon First Nations, who used the river for thousands of years before the gold rush stampeders came into the country and changed the land forever. TotalSUP had a great opportunity to talk to Peter Allen of Blackfish Paddles (completed YRQ in 2017 & 2019) and Brad Friesen, Endurance Paddler and SUP Coach (completed YRQ in 2019), about the Yukon River Quest experience, the breaking points and pure stoke of crossing the finish line.

Photo: YRQ / Harry Kern 2019

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

Peter Allen, Blackfish Paddles: That is quite the expansive question and one I could write an essay on! I think for me the Yukon River Quest was one of the most incredible experiences I have ever had. It is a crazy undertaking, 715km in less than 3 days but one I would do again tomorrow. It is a race of huge highs and lows and riding these waves are all part of the race. For me it is much more of a mental challenge than a physical one. I really ‘enjoy’ pushing myself to the limit and seeing how I deal with it and get through it.

Photo: YRQ / Harry Kern 2019

Brad Friesen, Endurance Paddler, Advanced SUP Instructor and Whitewater Coach: Where to begin…I first became interested in the Yukon River Quest in 2016 when the first SUPs were allowed to participate. I thought maybe one day I would have the opportunity to paddle the Yukon River Quest. Fast forward a couple years to the summer of 2018, my wife and I, along with our 4-year old son and a couple of friends, took a leisurely canoe trip down the Yukon River. On the second evening of our trip, we spotted two stand up paddleboarders travelling down the river. Zooming in with my camera I was pretty sure that Bart de Zwart was one of the paddlers. A little while later this was confirmed by two other stand-up paddleboarders who came to shore for the night. We also learned that they were all competing in the Yukon 1000 paddling race. That moment right there solidified things in my mind and I was determined to come back the following year and race in the YRQ.

Photo: YRQ / Harry Kern 2019

I signed up for the race the minute registration opened on 1st November. From that point on until the start of the race, the YRQ consumed everything. As I suspect it would for anyone who signs up for this race. There’s a lot of training and preparation that needs to go into any endurance race, but more so for the YRQ given its extreme length and remoteness. I arrived in Whitehorse a few days early to get organized, dial in my gear, and go for a couple short practice runs down the river with some of the other paddleboarders.

Finally race day arrived. Standing at the starting area, the intensity increased as we anxiously awaited for the horn to sound and the race to officially begin. Once the horn blasted, it was on! I sprinted down to the river and got on my board as quickly as possible. It sounds silly to be sprinting at the start of such a long race, but I wanted to get a good start and get away from the congestion of the starting area as quickly as possible. Ideally I wanted to be in a position where I could find a faster boat to draft, which would be extremely helpful for getting across Lake Laberge.

Going into the race Lake Laberge was always my biggest concern as it is highly unpredictable (not to mention there’s also a cut off time that all paddlers must meet in order to continue). However, I knew if I could make the lake, I’d be able to finish the race. The lake didn’t disappoint and lived up to its reputation!

After passing the first checkpoint at Policemans Point, Shauna Magowan and I decided to team up and work together to tackle the lake. We got off to a nice start trading drafts and making decent progress. We were probably close to an hour or so into the lake when out of nowhere a storm hit us. I’ve never seen a storm hit so fast! It was as if someone had turned on a switch. Intense headwinds, rain, along with four-foot waves made paddling extremely difficult.

Not knowing if conditions would improve or get worse, we decided to pull off to shore. Once on shore we changed into dry clothes and put on our rain gear. After around 15 minutes or so we decided to push on through despite the conditions. Eventually the rain and the wind let off and several hours later the sun even made an appearance. It was actually quite peaceful given what we had experienced earlier in the day.

Lake Laberge was definitely the first major challenge we had to overcome. Our spirits were high once we reached the end of the lake and made our way back into the faster moving flow of the river. That first night on the river was cold. Apparently the air temperature was somewhere around 4°C. Several people dropped out due to hypothermia. I wore my rain gear to help stay warm. Shauna and I continued to paddle together for the next 11 hours or so, keeping each other company and taking turns drafting one another.

Photo: YRQ / Harry Kern 2019

Later in that morning I felt like I had hit a brick wall. Fatigue crept in and I was feeling nauseous. Shauna being the superwoman that she is pressed on. I pulled over and stopped for 10-15 minutes at the Little Salmon monitoring point. This was the second time I broke my own rule to always stay on the river. After a quick rest and a bite to eat I got back on the river and continued on my way towards Carmacks. After fighting a constant headwind all afternoon, I finally reached Carmacks. This is the first mandatory checkpoint where all paddlers are required to stop for a minimum of 7 hours. I was greeted by my amazing support crew, Stu Knaack (SUP Yukon). After a quick shower and a bite to eat, I headed off to my tent for some well needed rest. 5 hours later, Stu woke me up with breakfast and fresh coffee. I felt quite refreshed and was ready to get back on the river.

I left Carmacks around 1:00am. The night was lonely, but time passed quickly as I was anxious to see the infamous Five Finger Rapids. The rapids are fairly easy to navigate. Basically stay river right and you shouldn’t have any trouble. The rest of the morning was going really well. I felt great and was paddling at a nice pace. Then the wind picked up and didn’t stop. The rest of the day would be spent battling a strong headwind. After a gruelling day, I finally made it to Coffee Creek, the second mandatory checkpoint where paddlers are required to stop for three hours. I slept for a couple hours, ate some food, and replaced a broken SUP fin that had been damaged at some point during the day. After Coffee Creek, I spent the majority of my time paddling with a solo kayaker (Konan) and a tandem canoe team (Team Savage). This made the time much more enjoyable and I felt more relaxed and wasn’t concerned with “racing” at all. It was just the four of us on a grand adventure sharing stories, trading food items, and of course paddling. Towards the final 50km of the race I decided to break from the group and push on to Dawson. I picked up my pace and focused more on reading the river to find the fast water. I felt more determined than ever to get to the finish.

Photo: YRQ / Harry Kern 2019

For the remaining 15km the headwind returned. I think the absolute worst of the wind was paddling into the final turn. In the distance you could see Dawson City and the Moosehide Slide, but the wind and waves were so powerful that for a split second it felt like reaching the finish would be impossible. I eventually broke through the wind and turned the final corner towards the finish. I could now see and hear everyone cheering me on from shore. Then I heard it. The SS Keno blasted it’s horn signalling that another paddler had crossed the finish line and completed the Yukon River Quest! I did it! I felt a wave of emotions as I made my way to the docking area. There to greet me were my family, support crew, as well as the other SUPers who finished ahead of me. It was an amazing sense of accomplishment and let me tell you, an ice-cold drink of water never tasted so good in my life! It took me a total of 65 hours and 28 minutes to get there. Not the time I was planning for, but I’m extremely grateful for the experience. What an adventure!

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

Peter: I really enjoy this type of paddling – it almost becomes meditative. The dynamics of the river means you have to concentrate on paddling and reading the water means your mind can’t wander and become ‘bored’. I find I would become so focused on the task at hand time no longer really mattered and hours would ‘disappear’ and you would cover distances and many hours without even realizing – paddling and maintaining as high a possible speed was the only thing I was focused on.

The Yukon River Quest is such an iconic race and should be on every paddlers bucket list. The scenery, the other paddlers and the overall experience is something you will never regret signing up for! There is also something very special about paddling into the ‘midnight sun’. During the last night the Sun is above the horizon the whole night and you are paddling due North directly into it!

Brad: The Yukon River Quest was everything I expected and more. Almost one year later, I’m still reflecting on my time spent in the Yukon. What an incredible experience. It’s really hard to put things into words, as it’s something that needs to be experienced to completely understand. The race itself was quite humbling, as well as both physically and mentally challenging. Although not for the faint of heart, I highly recommend it for anyone who wants to challenge themselves, and of course have the adventure of a lifetime.

What are your expectations for this year’s edition?

Peter: I expect a really interesting race (I am not racing but will be watching the online tracker at home). There are 15 SUP paddlers signed up so far – hopefully all 15 get to the start line! I think we will see Jason Bennett (finished 3rd in 2016 and 2nd in 2017) give Bart de Zwart some serious competition and push him hard right to Dawson! I will also be interested to see if anyone else can be competitive with Jason and Bart.

Brad: It’s always hard to predict race day conditions in advance. But with the current snow pack in the Yukon, it sounds like we could potentially have higher water levels than in 2019, thereby making the race quicker. Racers keep your fingers crossed! I’ll be cheering on Bart de Zwart to win his 5th consecutive YRQ. There are some very good paddlers signed up for the race, so it will definitely be an exciting race to follow. I’ll be glued to my computer following the race along closely this year and cheering on all of the paddlers.

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

Peter: For me, the toughest part is signing up and making the start line! It takes a lot of commitment to firstly sign up and then put in the time and effort to train and prepare equipment etc. The hardest part of the actual event I think is the lack of sleep and how you deal with it. I find I can deal with sleep deprivation very well and if you stayed hydrated and fueled it is manageable – caffeine also helps!

 

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Brad: Physically everybody in the race is hurting in some way or another (blisters, fatigue, etc.), but it’s the mental game that makes an endurance race tough. This is where experienced endurance racers have an advantage over those who are new to endurance racing. They’ve pushed themselves to the edge and have an idea of what they’re capable of. For new endurance racers, this can be a bit of an unknown until they’ve actually gained some experience.

One must be able to dig deep and keep on pushing, no matter how tempting it might be to pull over and sleep or give in and quit. On such a long race like the YRQ, you need to do your best to stay positive and focused on the task at hand – staying on the river and paddling.

What is your Blackfish paddle of choice?

Peter: Viento 520 – so easy in the water but still have lots of power!

Brad: The Andaman has been my go to paddle of choice and was what I used during the YRQ. Lately I’ve been using the new Viento and am absolutely loving it. It served me well at Chattajack and I’m looking forward to some longer races with it this year.

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

Peter: The hardest part of the 2019 race for me was during the last ‘night’ about 6 or 7 hrs from the finish line in Dawson. It was about 4-5am and had been broad daylight all night. I was starting to get tired and had stopped eating and drinking as much as I had planned during the last night. This all of a sudden caught up with me and I started falling asleep on my feet. I was really worried about falling in! I tried splashing my face with water, shaking my head and limbs but it wouldn’t work, I kept getting the ‘nodding dog’ and couldn’t paddle very well. Then all of a sudden I realized I hadn’t eaten very much through that night (my plan was to eat something small every 30min through the race). I sat down, drank as much electrolyte fluid and ate as much food as I could find and took about 10min break – once the calories kicked in I was like a different person and able to make a push for the finish.

It was a reminder to me of how important it is to stay hydrated and fueledhave a plan for eating and drinking and stick to it, no matter how much you might not want to eat or drink!

Brad: Oh, there were several! As previously mentioned, Lake Laberge was tough, but we got through that and made it across the lake well before the cut off time.

But for me I think the biggest breaking point occurred Friday afternoon. The day was going really well up until I reached Fort Selkirk. That’s when the headwinds from hell picked up. For the next 8, maybe 9 hours I was paddling into an intense headwind. In this stretch the river seems to form a wind tunnel. It didn’t matter which direction the river was heading, there was always a constant headwind. Thankfully there’s still some flow to the river, so you still make some progress, just much slower than you were used to up until this point.

That afternoon was very tiresome and also very lonely. I hadn’t seen another paddler in hours. My mind also began to wonder during this stretch. Often I would look to the shore and see what I thought were people. However, as I got closer, it turned out they were just large rocks or trees playing tricks on my mind. Sometimes I would hear distant voices. I wondered if people were close by and if the wind was carrying their voices, but I never did see anyone.

With the river being extremely low, I was also concerned with hitting my fin on the rocks. The river is very clear and most of the time you can see the rocky bottom, especially when it’s shallow. It can be quite mesmerizing to stare at the rocky bottom as you move along the river. The clouds would also reflect on the river surface causing me to sometimes react to them as if they were rocks. At some point during the day I definitely hit a rock as when I finally reached the Coffee Creek checkpoint, I noticed my fin had snapped and was dangling in the fin box by a thread. I wasn’t totally surprised by this, as during the day I would sometimes hear a clunking sound from under my board. What I didn’t realize at the time was that the sound was my broken fin moving around in the fin box. I’m sure if I was more with it at the time I would have picked up on this and swapped out my fin.

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

Peter: Where to start…. you can’t prepare too much – especially on things like nutrition and hydration. Lots of different options for what to eat and drink and what works for you might not work for someone else. Have a plan with nutrition and stick to it. Back yourself – get signed up and put yourself out there – you will be surprised by what you can achieve! And above all else, enjoy it!

Brad: Have your systems figured out well in advance. This includes gear choices, clothing, food and hydration. Use your training runs to test out everything that you intend to use for your race. If something isn’t working during your training you can always make adjustments. Don’t make any last minute changes prior to the race, especially switching up your nutrition to something that you haven’t tested out beforehand. Stick with what you know works for you.

Break the race up into smaller segments. For the YRQ, the maps can help with this. Take it one page at a time. Think of each page as approximately one hour.

If you need a little boost, just think of all your friends and family who are back home cheering you on and watching the live race tracker. Caffeine gel shots can also be your friend in times of need 😉

If you have the opportunity, talk to other paddlers who have completed the race you’re intending to paddle. Get as much information as possible. You’ll find that experienced endurance paddlers are typically very open to sharing their strategies and experiences with others.

Most importantly, don’t forget to enjoy the experience! A lot of times these endurance events take place in amazing places that not everyone gets to experience, especially the Yukon. Sure it’s a race, but it’s also a bucket list once-in-a-lifetime adventure for many!

What are your SUP plans for 2020?

Peter: After completing the Yukon River Quest for the 2nd time in 2019, my 2020 SUP plans are pretty tame! I will take it relatively easy and just compete in some local races in Western Canada and try and get down to Hood River for some downwinding!

Brad: This coming Spring, I’m planning a self-supported solo expedition to paddle the entire length of the Red River from its source in South Dakota to its mouth in Lake Winnipeg, Manitoba (550 miles/890 km). As for racing, I plan to attend several local races as well as a few endurance races including the South Dakota Kayak Challenge (72 miles/115 km), Big Ole SUPathon (26 miles/42 km) and possibly Chattajack (31 miles/50 km).

I’m also organizing the second annual Red River Paddle Challenge (28 miles/45 km) on 26 September 2020.

Unfortunately I won’t be competing in the YRQ this year, but I do plan to make a return for another YRQ and possibly even the Yukon 1000. Anyone care to join me?

To find out more about Blackfish Paddles and their progressive, refined, handcrafted designs, visit www.blackfishpaddles.com

To find out more about the Yukon River Quest, visit www.yukonriverquest.com

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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