It takes a lot of kit to paddle unsupported. It took a taxi to get us what would be a 5 minute walk to the start. Then the faff began. Gear check. Sending the remainder of our luggage to the right places. Getting enough drinking water.
With everyone doing the same thing it was quite chaotic and I really needed to escape the chaos to a quiet spot before the gathering of all the padders before the start. It was lovely to see Nancy and Bertha from the our bunk house, cheering us on at the start.
We had a low race number so had to get the boat ready for gear check at 8:30 am. We’d got the food for the paddle ready the day before, and with that and the required gear for an unsupported 400 mile paddle there was a lot of stuff. We were ready quickly – years of faff have trained us well, got ticked off, allowing us to get water and warmed up before the midday start.
To the Lake (30 miles)
We started towards the back, but there were still plenty of boats with us. I found trying to get to the best water in amongst everything else confusing and drove Dan a bit up the wall by moving out of the way for other boats. Almost immediately though, it was time to drink lots. Before we hit the lake we seemed to be paddling much more in harmony. it had been a good fast run to the lake, although I hadn’t done very well at getting where we agreed to be when we agreed, instead opting for too much of the touring approach.
After a reading of the list of the paddlers and teams; at the strike of 12 midday we jogged to the boats and set off. Many boats got off to good start in front of us. I couldn’t yet read this river to find the fastest bits, but I could work out why people were going where they were going.
Of course we started soon enough with an argument – possibly the only one on the whole of the trip. We got overtaken a few times as boats dominated the river, leading to a little interboat stress. We were both engaged in different ways and it was hard with all the boats rushing about for space and learning about how to paddle in a race. We got into gear after the first 30 mins and started working well together, but we lost a little ground getting it together. We averaged 7 mph which was what we wanted.
The Lake (32 miles)
30 miles of lake with a horrible headwind to start with and boiling heat. Tough times. It’s beautiful but we spent hours travelling to each point. As it moved into the evening it was time for shore leave and we stopped by some campers. There were still enough people about to make me need to find bushes. We pulled over again later to get waterproofs on as it looked like rain. Fortunately it didn’t rain. Instead there was an amazing display of gulls chasing moths as we got to the end of the lake. We hopped out for a brief break at the checkpoint. It had been a hard paddle across for both of us and I hadn’t been aware enough of how little Dan was eating. Both of us had forgotten our gourmet chicken and cashew wraps.
The lake was sunny. Hot, hot hot. We crossed the first section diagonally – joined by one of the Cockleshell paddling team. Getting to the right bank we found we had a head wind. We paddled hard up the lake and gladly felt the wind shift into a tail-wind as we got about halfway up. It wasn’t quite straight and Sarah found holding the angle hard.
I knew we needed to get a good speed across the lake to hit the timing window so paddled really hard – really working the legs.. Sarah noticed that I was looking very very hot – she was right my head was getting swimmy. I dipped my hat and then my sleeves into the water and kept drinking and drinking – 4 liters down at the end of the lake. 2/3s of the way across the clouds covered the sun, and suddenly soaking sleeves and sweaty clothes were a risk as my temperature plummeted. We got to the side and put on warmer layers, just in time.
I’d not eaten on or before the lake really – it was hard with everything going on – just a few Cherry Ripe bites, a banana and a cereal bar. I was starving when we got to the end, as well as still cold – it was getting close to midnight. I quickly ate a bag of pasta, some porridge and hot chocolate. Turns out that wasn’t such a good idea.
30 mile & Big Salmon (65 miles)
I think that the 30 Mile section is my favourite bit of the river. It was the darkest and coolest but from a flat lake onto riffles which are big enough to get the person in the bow wet and big boils is a fun transition and wakes you up. Once the Teslin river joined though the river starts in earnest and its character then seems to stay the same for a while. Dan’s stomach really started to play up once we were past 30 mile and we struggled. Stomach cramps were impacting on his posture and it was extremely hard to keep on going. We carried on to Big Salmon, 125 miles into the race. That’s 125 miles in around 24 hours with one of the team unable to eat or drink as they need to. This was a lively checkpoint and Dan was able to have a short rest and try some drugs to settle his stomach. Not many occasions when you will take any small tablets. We were thinking of getting out here, but we pulled a little something else out of the bag as there was no road access. No choice but to keep going.
Heading down the river was a relief from lake paddling – we got some fun riffles as the river sped up, but so did my stomach. I started getting bad cramps which had me sitting oddly trying to keep paddling. We were getting down the river at 7 mph which wasn’t as fast as we hoped – but we kept paddling and working hard.
As the night drew on the river formed mist and then fog. We could often just see the nearest bank, and not that far ahead. Having pink pine scented fog was quite pleasant though. Less so was my tummy. It was hurting and now so was my back. I had to take a few breaks on the bank that weren’t pleasant for me or the woods. I couldn’t eat anything and so couldn’t safely take painkillers either.
Getting to the checkpoint at Big Salmon I was a bit broken and had a lie down in the shelter. Everything between head and hips hurt. Someone offered me a chalky stomach settling tablet – that was wonderful! The staff at the checkpoint offered me dry crackers and a second tummy pill for later. Good people there. After 30 mins it was time to press on.
Little Salmon (35 miles)
The section to Little Salmon was really tough physically and mentally. I could tell that Dan was really suffering and looking at the 9 mph we averaged I am surprised. We had some good lines to follow on our maps but we were both working so hard that it hurt. Dan simply hadn’t had the energy in terms of food and I’m trying to put in as much as I can. Add to this that we have by now been paddling for around 29 hours and we want out. Physically and mentally it hurts and I can see that we are both on the brink of snapping which is no good when there is only one hotel room at the end. This checkpoint was manned by a guy who has done the race and won several times and there was no way he was letting us off the river there, so we go on.
I think it was now afternoon again, my stomach was settling a little – I had one more break at Twin Creek that stays between me and the woods, but the river was moving faster and I was getting better at reading it – hitting average speeds of 9 mph. On this section we saw beavers right beside us, and had an eagle swooping in to grab a snack from the river next to us. I also started to see animals in the patterns in the weathering sides, and the banks spelt out words.
I hurt , but I could eat ginger biscuits and so I could take a few painkillers, but my vertebrae were all cramped and with hindsight I was probably massively dehydrated and out of fuel. At Little Salmon checkpoint I wanted to quit – each paddle stroke was painful. The volunteers chivvyed me along – he was a past winner and said pain was all in the mind. Carmacks wasn’t far and we set off for the final section.
Getting to Carmacks (15 miles)
This is truly the longest 15 miles ever. It goes on and on and the scenery is all the same. It’s now all about just finding the best bit of the river and sitting paddling in it until we get there – we managed 7 mph though. Dan started fantasy food discussions. He is still waiting for the chocolate pudding that he said he wanted. We made the porky pasta dish the day we arrived on Vancouver Island. All I wanted was a cheeseburger and fries with root beer from the Carmacks cafe.
We still needed a short break to stretch and rest and we briefly explored a island which had a ladder from water level to the campsite. A power line across the river showed us we were almost there. A welcome sight.
At carmacks the campsite crew met us and took us to the showers and our tent and Dan got to see a medic who poked his back. The stomach upset had left him badly dehydrated which is not unsurprising to a logical mind that hasn’t been paddling flat out. We decided to take longer than the required 7 hour stop to see if his stomach would settle and if we could rehydrate him enough to go on. Unfortunately by the time we were looking to leave the medic who we wanted to give him the once over had gone to sleep. We had discussed that if he drank a lot while we were there and kept his dinner down then we could go on. That’s two overtired stressed and worried individuals making decisions about safety and capability in an extreme wilderness situation. What could go wrong?
I don’t remember much at all – I just wanted to get it done.
Getting to Carmacks was good, and I was ready to stop. I had blisters on my neck, and grazes 270 degrees around my waist from clothes rubbing. I managed a cheese sandwich and a few mouthfuls of soup after a shower and collapsed into a tent to see how I would feel in 7 hours time.
Want to know what happened next? Read part two of our experiences of paddling in the Yukon River Quest 2015.