Surviving the longest river race in the world - Yukon River Quest
Exhausted, sunburnt, and with his hands covered in blisters, Greg Lloyd had paddled his kayak all night, but knew more than 400km of river still lay ahead.
"Every part of my body hurt, and I remember thinking, 'I just can't do this'," says Greg, a Wellington lawyer in his late 40s. "I was fatigued, my head was beginning to play tricks on me and all I wanted to do was give up."
In 2013, Greg and his mate Graham Sutherland were the first Kiwis to compete in the Yukon River Quest, the world's longest canoe and kayak race. Each year, hundreds of paddlers from around the globe flock to the isolated Yukon River to test their endurance by paddling night and day to traverse a marathon 715km section of the mighty waterway.
While the winners come in after about 40 hours, up to a third of competitors never finish.
With a total length of 3185km, the Yukon is the third longest river in North America; flowing from the mountains of northern British Columbia through the Yukon Territory, and through Alaska and to the Bering Sea. Canada's Yukon region is an untouched wilderness known to many as the 'Land of the Midnight Sun'; because in summer the sun stays up nearly all night.
Think spruce-scented air, dog sled races, and huge Yukon skies lit with the dancing lights of the Aurora Borealis, or Northern Lights.
As a recreational paddler who had notched up day trips like Marlborough Sounds, Lake Taupo and the Whanganui River, Greg says he and Graham heard about the annual race and thought, 'why not?' "We talked about it and said, 'what the hell, let's give it a go – you only live once. What's the worst that can happen? Not finish, get eaten by a bear?"
Leading up to the race, their master plan was to break the course into two-hour chunks – taking turns to rest while the other paddled. "Yeah right," laughs Greg. "There were few places to safely stop because of the high water volume and potentially dangerous whirlpools and rapids."
While parts of the Yukon meander across the valley floor with various sandbars and picturesque islands dotted in their path, at the end of the course near Dawson city the river grows in intensity, with an average flow of 2095 cubic metres per second.
Although the race has a number of checkpoints and two compulsory stops – one after 300km and another about 15-20 hours further on – a heady mix of adrenalin, pain and fatigue mean sleep eluded the pair.
"It was mid-summer and so hot at the first stop it like we were in a sauna," he says. Greg says paddling for more than 40 hours takes you through a range of emotions – from elation to despair.
"It's easy to hit the wall at the half way point, to start thinking about a beer, a burger, a shower – but at least in a tandem you take turns to pull each other back up from low points."
At one stage, Greg's fatigue took over and he began to hallucinate. "It sounds mad but as we paddled past logs I could swear there were little men sitting on them in plaid shirts and straw hats. Graham had to talk me around, and in the end I knew it was just my mind playing tricks on me."
Although the start of the race involves the fanfare of hundreds of competitors, each paddler soon sets their own pace, and due to the vast size of the river Greg says at times it feels like you're the only one on the water. The Yukon region boasts Canada's highest peaks and the world's largest non-polar ice fields. "The sheer size and scale of the river is overwhelming, and the scenery is mind-blowing."
Visitors to the Yukon basin are drawn to its isolation, and the region famously has more moose than people. It's a wild northern playground, offering back country skiing, fishing, hunting and kayaking – or for the less adventurous, a river ride on the restored sternwheeler, the SS Klondike, or a casual hike and pan for gold.
On each side of the winding river, the regions forested slopes are home to varied wildlife such as timber wolves, grizzly bears, caribou, deer, moose, and even the endangered Bald Eagle, while the river itself teems with Arctic grayling, turbot, pike, salmon, and whitefish.
Before 1895, only First Nations people, a few hardy Russian fur traders, missionaries and North West Mounted police officers knew the area – but the world woke up the Yukon's beauty and bounty when American prospector George Carmack discovered gold. In the next few years more than 100,000 hopeful prospectors would migrate into the area to seek their fortune.
And while there was no pot of gold waiting for Greg and Graham at the end of their race, making the finish line was reward in itself. Greg says he was sunburnt, blistered and sore, but the sense of achievement was immense. "There wasn't much fanfare at the end, we finished and it dawned on me I had been through probably the hardest physical test of my lifetime, and we had made it."
The elation remained long enough for him to enter again this year, this time as a solo kayaker. With no companion in the boat however, the isolation was at times overwhelming, and doubt kicked in just after the 200km mark. "In a boat on a river in the semi-dark and in trying physical conditions you become acutely aware that you are completely on your own in the wilderness," he says.
It was a difficult journey but a highlight came at 3am when Greg watched a grizzly bear scamper down to the river in the half-dark.
Finally at the final checkpoint before the halfway line, Greg decided to chuck it in. Before heading home he rejigged his travel plans and spent time in San Francisco in northern California, then came through Rarotonga on the way home to 'lick his wounds'. With the wisdom of hindsight, he says he probably needed to find more time in his busy life for training.
"But with the passing of time I now there is no shame in paddling 260km on your own down a river," he laughs.
Now back in Wellington he's upped his training and has not ruled out a second solo attempt at the arduous river journey, which undoubtedly slices through some of North American's most stunning scenery. "I'm not setting any goals yet, but you have to grab these opportunities in life while you can," he says.
"Plus – doing the Yukon River Quest is a bit like getting a tattoo – painful but strangely addictive."
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