Yukon River Quest Day 3 (7 hours rest, 16 hours paddling?)

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This is part two of our experiences of paddling in the Yukon River Quest 2015. It makes more sense if you care to read part one first.

Dan

Carmacks was chaotic, even though we got up after almost every paddler had left. The medical crews were sleeping – ready to get to work at the finish line no doubt. We needed to decide if we should continue with the race. We weren’t sure. Everyone was encouraging and positive and I felt somewhat after the sleep though still confused. My tummy had settled and my back felt fine, even when I stretched it out. The race was what we were here for after all…

Getting ready was tough. It was clear to me that even having a Carmacks bag all prepped and sorting things out over breakfast we just weren’t in the same sort of preparedness as we were at the start of the race. We had lovely volunteer support staff doing a great job, but at this point I realised how much you need support who know you, know what you need and what you have prepared – and help you adapt so you can keep racing.

Sarah

After a longer sleep than planned, we were not back on top form. We were tired and not able to have the sensible discussion we needed about whether or not we could continue. Things were in the wrong places. Clothes that were to be washed and dried were in a soggy bag, flasks weren’t filled. However, Dan’s stomach had settled and he wasn’t in as much pain as he had been when paddling.

I think that the story would end here if there had been someone sensible around to say something like: you are dehydrated, haven’t eaten enough and are only comfortable because you are no longer paddling. There was no one to say it and so we stuck to the original plan, with our food to take us to Kirkman’s Creek and beyond.

Setting off

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Dan

We paddled away from Carmacks at 05.40 am. It felt good to get going again. We were tired but we felt we’d made a good decision. Just after Carmacks the river wiggles so much that the GPS told us we were returning to Carmacks 3 times.

As the river was getting wider, I took the job of finding the faster flows to get us down the river, using the GPS to help. We were finding speeds of 9 and 10 mph which really helped spirits. We knew we needed to get our waterproofs on, as we knew the big rapids of the river were coming soon and there would be fewer places to stop.

Sarah

Once we got going again, it felt nice to be back with the river. Feeling that we could do this. It was a short run to Five finger rapids and I was glad that Dan would get to see it and that he trusted me enough to steer us down. I think that I did this stretch half asleep still and know that I wasn’t inputting a lot in terms of logical thought and discussion of tactics. Hot again, so drinking and stopping for comfort breaks was to be the mission of the day.

Five finger rapids (24 miles)

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Dan

Five finger rapids has a reputation. Pick the wrong finger and, at best case, you will swim. There are newspaper articles in the guide books that talk about the losses in the left hand branches of the rapid. We went right.

“Left, left. No, middle middle!” I called out as we approached. Once lined up on the right side of the river, my job was to look for a good line down. I was told it was likely on the left hand side. Looking to the left there was sideways outflow and a wave from another branch. I didn’t like the look of that and the other clear choice was right through the middle, so we did.

Rapids are usually smaller than they look. Not this one. Three times I went up a wave and dropped into trough. In up to my armpits. We kept paddling and came through solid and steady each time. I finished, giggling a lot, looking at the large washbasin of water where my spray deck held on in front of me

Sarah

The river was a lot lower than it had been in 2013 where my memory of five finger was that it was not much to write home about and I was happy that I had a tried and tested line that was dry and flattish. When we got there what I saw was quite different and there was no way we were riding the left shoulder down.

Dan had a good view at the front and I tried to go where he suggested. Who knows if I managed it. We pulled further over to the right and pretty much followed the tongue down the river hitting several large waves but staying rock solid. I stayed very dry while Dan found himself up to his armpits in water as we hit each wave. We both felt quite energised for doing this and enjoyed the big bouncy water and control we had, despite not having done any white water as a tandem.

I had quite a giggle afterwards when Dan asked me how much water I had round me and I answered a couple of tablespoons, while his answer was a home for a goldfish.

Rink rapids (6 miles)

Rink Rapids, Yukon River

Dan

Rink was much more sedate in comparison. We could see a large line of waves ahead, but again the instruction is to keep right where there is a big wide happy though slightly boring channel.

Sarah

Rink is boring if you stay right. We may have come slightly further left than the boat length you are suggested to keep from the bank, but you have to have some fun.

Navigating the islands

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Sarah

I was not looking forward to navigating the Ingersoll Islands. I remembered the path as unclear and confusing, and it’s also where I capsized in 2013. Whether I was paying more attention to maps or Dan’s navigation and the use of the gps was outstanding, but what I saw was totally different and the path through much clearer. This cheered me no end as the navigation only gets harder from here on in. The weather was lovely but Dan was starting to hurt. His power was down and I was pushing to try and add in some extra. Problem is that this means correcting the steering more often which in itself loses power.

Dan

Using a mixture of the laminated maps, the gps and a speedometer i felt i was really getting a handle of navigation – finding good channels mean looking at the water, and knowing where we were on the maps. Checking the speed, and moving across the stream when we weren’t going fast enough helped too. Were getting an average speed of 8-9 mph and I felt that we were finding good routes through the islands.

However my back was starting to hurt and the weather was starting to turn. I was using the thwart behind me to both rest my back and to massage it, and when we stopped for comfort breaks I used large stones to try to massage too. We saw far away lightning and clouds were starting to gather.

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Minto (28 miles) & Fort Selkirk (24 miles)

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Sarah

By Minto we were slowing. We had a chance to think about continuing but we were ok. It hurt but was manageable. The river was with us, the sun was shining for a while and there was a bush to pee behind. From Minto it was only a short run to Fort Selkirk and a proper break was promised with a walk up the bank to a fire and hot drink.

While the pain didn’t stop it was manageable, although the breaks needed between paddling were getting more frequent. Arriving at Fort Selkirk we were pleased to see 2 other boats on the shore. We were last, but not that far behind. We didn’t have time to explore the old settlement which was deserted by the settlers when the last steamship went through.

Dan

Rain. Totally massive rain is what I remember before Fort Selkirk. I had to check a number of times that is wasn’t hail it was falling so heavily. We had to drain the boat, but the advantage was that it washed out the smoke from the forest fires so what could have been nastiness just made my eyes itch a little.

The rain had stopped before we got to Fort Selkirk, and the sun was out allowing us to chill a little and I could have some hot water to drink. No tea or coffee for me. Sarah found a banana and I was so happy. Best food ever. I wish I had a massive bunch of bananas at that point. I massaged my back and stretched again, then just lay on the ground, hoping to rest my back a little.

The site was pretty amazing, being almost unchanged in 100 years – when everyone left when the work moved on. We didn’t stay long but it was cool to see it.

Past Fork Selkirk – Getting to Kirkman’s Creek (18 miles)

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Dan

Leaving Fort Selkirk we joined an amazing section of rock wall. Formed by volcanic rock meeting glaciers, it looked made up of many squares of brick. Our river speed was looking really good the Pelly river joining had given the water a push. The clouds were starting to form very interesting but worrying anvil shapes and we started expecting more storms. What we got was wind. Having seen a baby twister head down the river at Little Salmon we were a little cautious.

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The wind built and built. We kept paddling, around a bend and hoped for shelter, but found none on our side of the river. We were on the right side up against a cliff. Looking at the map, I could see we needed to work our way across the river to the left bank if we were to follow the good path around the islands ahead. The left also had a soft gravel bank, something to stop on if needed.

We needed to cross carefully to manage the 9 mph water flow and the 30-40 mph winds. We wanted to point the nose into the wind but making our way across the 200 meters the boat kept turning like a weather vane. With the spray deck on we couldn’t move bags or ourselves about, we needed to paddle. As we got to the middle the boat turned to the dangerous position of being sideways to both the wind on one side and water flow on the other.

I knew we were now in a very bad place. The wind and water would be now working together to try to roll the boat over – exactly what I wanted to avoid. We were calm, and paddled solidly to the bank. With the strong strokes the boat stayed solid. we got to the bank. Safe. But my last resources were gone – I’d put everything I had left into getting us into safety.

I’d lost all hope. Will-power and way-power were gone, literally, with the wind. At that point I couldn’t see a way forwards, not just to the end but anywhere. I hated the boat, the wind, the pain, the race. I pulled us to the side and, gentle reader, I sobbed like a broken thing.

With hindsight there were options. I had a bag of tricks: jellybeans, M&Ms, cafe latte protein shakes, carob and coconut energy cubes. We had croissants and cinnamon buns. I had an MP3 player and waterproof speakers. All ready for my hitting the wall which I expected after Kirkman’s. All forgotten when I hit it so early and so hard. At Kirkmans’s there was soup and sandwiches waiting. But it felt unreachable. Eight hours away, but a lifetime with the wind.

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Sarah

As we paddled from Fort Selkirk spirits were high but very soon Dan’s back pain was becoming unmanageable. It was difficult to sit and listen to the pain he was in, feeling powerless to fix it. The wind built, and with this, our anxieties about what could happen. I felt as though we lost some control. I didn’t want Dan to make quick powerful corrections from the front, so it was tricky to keep the boat tracking with the difference in power and the headwind.

Even crossing a narrow stretch of river was difficult in the wind and dangerous as we could easily have been tipped by the wind against the current. The support boat who were behind us said that the winds were up to 50 mph

We were pulled in, having a think about where we were at, when the sweeper support boat pulled up and told us to get back in our boat. There was a bear on our bank and it was heading towards us.

There is no need to tell me twice but Dan was anti boat. Twice I told him to get in the boat, politely, using no swear words whatsoever. We paddled as far as the next sheltered spot. Here we stopped and chatted with the boat crews.

At the rate we were going we had 8 hours ahead of us before a rest at Kirkman’s. We had little power as between us, we were spent and while I did not know the pain Dan was suffering, it was agonising to hear. I honestly could not see us managing another 8 hours if the weather let up. We would need to stop for breaks and we were not aware enough to be safe from the local wildlife. How long before we hated canoeing and each other?

After a brief discussion with the crew of the sweeper boats, the decision was made. We scratched. We travelled by sweeper boat to Kirkman’s Creek, Dan still hurting and both of us crying at points as we had not succeeded in the challenge we set ourselves.

The decision to scratch was difficult and with hindsight if we had thought to use some of our tricks earlier could we have avoided it? It’s easy to say yes sitting in the sunshine afterwards.

Dan

Accident reviews and avoidance theory talk of the domino effect. Spotting the first ones to fall, and making quick changes can avoid a descent into real trouble. When we quit it was the last domino in a chain starting perhaps with stomach upsets, we could have drawn out the journey further, but would that be another domino exposing us to more risk, either through wildlife or injury? If we found a way to Kirkman’s could we have done more than quit there?

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Yukon River Quest Day 1 and 2 (32 hours paddling)

Getting Ready

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Sarah:

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.

Dan:

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)

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Sarah:

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.

Dan:

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.

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The Lake (32 miles)

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Sarah:

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.

Dan:

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.

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30 mile & Big Salmon (65 miles)

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Sarah:

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.

Dan:

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)

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Sarah:

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.

Dan:

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)

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Sarah:

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?

Dan:

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.