After seeing the amazing performances at the 2016 YRQ by the SUP contingent I was determined to enter the 2017 race. I even set my alarm when I found out when registration opened at midnight Nov 1st so to be sure of not missing out – which turned out to be very important as the SUP category was sold out in less than a day. It was a relief to get signed up but with it being 8 months away it wasn’t quite real. Eventually months turned to weeks, finally the training and preparation was done and I was in Whitehorse and I was three days out - it was real! I was keen to get to Whitehorse by the Sunday before and get a practice run on the river on the Monday – I hadn’t been on a river since February. Despite a nasty head wind, the practice run went well and I was feeling good about being on a river again.
|The SUP contingent for 2017|
Then came Tuesday’s registrations, gear checks and briefings and finally race day was here. After a morning that seemed to take forever I was on the start line and waiting for the SS Klondike to blow its whistle. The race begins with a 400m run through a park to the rivers edge. I was unsure how to start. Part of me wanted to sprint to my board and race off like a Tuesday Night Race but I resisted. This race wouldn’t be won or lost in the first 400m of 715km. I jogged briskly down, gave my girlfriend a last kiss goodbye and got myself on the water. The river was busy at the start with nearly 100 various craft jockeying for position. I tried to get into a rhythm and started to look for a good draft. I started recognizing some other SUP’s on the water and managed to catch Carmen and Joanne after about an hour. I had tried to get on a couple of tandem canoe drafts but couldn’t quite make it work. I had heard from Jason Bennett that the 6-man voyageur canoes are the best for drafting and was on the look out but none were in sight. With my slow start, I had imagined they had all got a head of me, but then out of the blue one came by and I hopped on its draft. The hype was real, it was a great draft and I was flying a long behind it. I caught and passed Chris Christie and Stu Knaack who both tried to hop on the draft but couldn’t make it work. We made it to Lake Laberge just shy of 3 hrs and I had been on the draft of this canoe for the best part of 2 hours. I hadn’t been eating or drinking enough and was starting to suffer – the 6-man canoes never stop moving! It became increasingly difficult to stay on draft. I eventually fell off the draft of the voyageur and instead of taking a break I was completely taken over by race fever and kept trying to paddle at race pace – Chris Christie was just behind after catching a good draft of his own.
|Peter on Lake LaBerge - Photo Credit: Ulf Dittbrenner|
After struggling for a while and getting passed by Chris I finally took a break. I had probably been paddling for 5 hours at this stage and really needed it. I got going again and felt good, though not being able to see the other end of the lake was making this mentally a hard paddle (the lake is 50km long). After paddling for another while I found myself closing on a kayaker as I got closer I realized it was my friend and training partner from Vancouver, Marieke Kietselaer. She looked like she was struggling. We drafted off each other a while and she got a 2nd wind and was off again! I then came across Chris again and we paddled together for a while swapping drafts. Eventually Chris took a break and I pulled ahead. The hours and KM’s continued to pass by and eventually I made it to Lower Lake Laberge Check Point -9hrs 37mins after leaving Whitehorse. The lake seemed endless but I was finally across it. It was such a relief. So many people had told me that the Lake was the make or break section. We were very fortunate that it was completely flat with a very gentle tail wind. It also was overcast so wasn’t that hot either. I was ready for a break so I pulled into the check point and got off my board. I refilled my bladder and restocked my PFD with food. I got my only ‘real’ food (PB&J wrap) out and boy did it taste good! I was here for about 15mins and reflected on the lake crossing and how the first part of the race went. I decided here that for the rest of the race I had to drink some water every 30mins and eat something every hour – no matter what. I had got caught up in race fever during the lake crossing and hadn’t eaten or drank often enough and really suffered for it. I saw Chris come into the check point and at that point it dawned on me I was the 3rd SUP. That completely gave me a lift and I couldn’t get back on to the water fast enough.
I was expecting a bit of a cruise for the next bit with the river behind me but it turned out to the most challenging part of the river. After the lake its narrow and windy and was quite a bit more turbulent than I was expecting. The river was also in quite a deep gorge with thick forest either side and it was darker than I was expecting. It became increasingly difficult to see the boils and standing waves and I nearly fell in a few times – my legs and stabilizers where working over time. My legs were starting to cramp and I was having a torrid time. Then seemingly out of nowhere ‘30 Mile’ Monitoring Point appeared with and I decided to pull over and get on solid ground. As soon as I was on the river bank I felt instantly better and only stayed here for 3-4 mins. I couldn’t believe how much better I felt after such a short break standing on solid ground. The rest of the way to Carmacks seemed to go by in a bit of a blur. I was feeling good about how I was reading the river. I was consistently passing other kayaks and canoes – I was staying in the fast water. After my experience on the lake I was pretty strict with eating and drinking every 30mins. I was also using caffeine infused energy gels through the night and felt mentally very sharp through the first night of paddling.
The night came and went. The river started to widen and I was creeping closer to Carmacks and a 7-hour break. As I got closer to Carmacks, a highway appeared high up on the hillside to my right and I could see what looked like some cars parked. As I approached I thought I hear cow bells and someone shouting - It was my girlfriend Erica high up on the highway screaming at the top of her lungs and ringing the cowbells that she brings to all my paddle races. Talk about a lift - I had been paddling for about 23hrs at this stage!
|Photo of Peter taken high above the water from the highway by girlfriend, Erica.|
That gave me such a boost to make the last push to Carmacks. I kept paddling and I remember looking at my maps and figuring out there was only 30km to go, this made me laugh out loud as before this I would never have preceded 30km with ‘only’!
|Coming into Carmacks Photo Credit: Stu Knaack|
I made it in to Carmacks at 2.05pm – 26hrs 5 mins after starting! I pulled up and jumped onto the dock and about 5 people tried to grab me but I was buzzing, I was in Carmacks!
|Photo Credit: Stu Knaack|
I felt great. Erica sat me down and went and got me a burger, fries and milkshake – never has food tasted so good! Then I tried to get up. My legs wouldn’t work, I couldn’t stand up. Erica had to pick me up out of the chair to help me to the shower and to my tent. On my way to the tent (after an hour in Carmacks, Chris Christie came in). I was so stoked to see him, he looked strong. I passed out as soon as I got to my tent and slept sound until Erica woke me with an hour before my earliest leaving time. Erica had done a fantastic job while I was sleeping, she had everything prepped for me just to check and get back on the water. I was back on the water at 9.05pm. There was a nasty head wind just after Carmacks but after about an hour it subsided and I started to approach the first of the two rapids. I had heard so much about Five Finger Rapids before the race. During the pre-race briefing they are very particular about how they want you to approach them. I was quite nervous coming up to it, expecting this huge rapid surrounded by high cliffs but then it appeared and it was much smaller than I expected. I followed a canoe into it and went to my knees and it was over in less than 5 secs – such a relief! Shortly after Five Finger comes Rink Rapids, they say to stay right and there is a channel that by passes the white water. As you approach Rink Rapids it was way quite intimidating – it looks likes this huge field of white water crosses the whole river. The channel that by passes it doesn’t appear until the last moment. Once past the rapids the river widens out and is in a large valley. It was at this point I had one of the most surreal moments of the whole race. I was so focused with the two sets of rapids I had lost track of time. I remember looking at my map and noticed I was paddling North. I then looked up and the sun was in the sky directly ahead of me to the north – it was 12.30am. I was paddling into the Midnight Sun. I smiled and said to myself ‘I guess that it why they call this ‘The Race to the Midnight Sun’’. It was much brighter than the previous night.
It was at this point I caught Marieke and a team of other kayaks who where paddling as a team. I was glad to see her going strong. As the night went on, like the previous I started to get leg cramps and really needed to get off my board. I could tell from my map that Minto Monitoring Point was coming up and I decided to stop there for a break. Minto couldn’t come quick enough. I was so happy to see the campfire and person manning the MP. When I finally got there, the pull out was a small back eddy and it was really challenging to get into it. In my rush to get off the board I caught my foot in a bungee on my deck and fell flat in the water and flipped my board over. I swore quite loudly and then looked up to see someone running down the boat ramp towards me before I could say anything he had picked me up and hugged me and said in a thick New Zealand accent ‘Bro you’re good, I got you’. I was so happy to be on dry land. I got chatting with my new hero and his name was Steve from New Zealand. He had come the whole way over to the Yukon to volunteer for this race. I couldn’t believe it and I was really humbled that that someone would come that far to be there at 4am in case someone like me needed help. After being here for about 10 mins, I was back on the water with a renewed sense of purpose. A few hours after Minto and meeting Steve, came the first of the big river confluences where navigation would matter. The Pelly River joined the Yukon and it seemed that the river was a mile wide with islands everywhere and endless route choices. I picked the wrong route through here and ended up in knee deep water travelling at about 6km/h (I was doing 15km/hr in the main flow) – it was very frustrating to be moving so slow. After this point I was counting down the KM to Coffee Creek (3hr break) or at least I was trying to. My GPS tracker was way ahead of my map and I was having to re-start it and re-calculate the distances marked in my maps in my head. This really bothered me, I don’t know why, it just did. After Pelly River the sun properly came out for the first time and it got really hot. The river was very wide and even though I was still moving at a good pace I felt like I was going nowhere and it felt like a real slog to get into Coffee Creek.
|Photo Credit: Marieke Kietsaeler|
Coffee Creek appeared sooner than I thought and I was so relieved to be there! I got there at 2:45pm on Friday – 50hrs 45mins after leaving Whitehorse (17hrs 40mins after Carmacks). The first person I saw here was Jason Bennett getting ready to leave, he looked exhausted, he came up and hugged me and I could tell he was super stoked to see me, that meant a lot. I started trying to tell him about my map troubles but I wasn’t making much sense and he said, ‘go get some sleep, it will make more sense after some sleep’. I then went to the kitchen tent and got some soup and a cookie – it was glorious! After finishing eating I prepped my gear for leaving. I knew I should get some sleep but I remembered my body seizing up when I stopped moving at Carmacks and was really worried about the same happening here but not having enough time to get over it. My hands where started to hurt during the last stage and I decided to go to the 1st aid tent and get them looked at. The medic dressed them in a waterproof tape and I was ready for sleep. It felt like I had just blinked when I got my wake-up call – I had been asleep for 1.5 hours. I was back on the water within 15mins at 5.45pm. Just before leaving Joanne Hamilton-Vale arrived and I learned Chris had dropped out. I realized I was just under 3 hrs ahead of 4th place. This gave me a huge motivational lift just before leaving Coffee Creek – just bring it home, only 180km to go! After Coffee Creek, the river is at the widest point of the whole race and gets hard to navigate. If you miss the main current, it’s no longer just a few meters away. It could be a hundred meters or so away, on the other side of the river. Many rivers join the Yukon on this section and more and more islands start to appear and you have some decisions to make. Do I go left, or right? For the most part I made pretty good decisions but there were at least two occasions where between them I estimate I lost about an hour by making the wrong choice. I got caught in slow shallow water. It was at this point I paddled with a tandem canoe (#69) quite a bit. I had followed them through Five Finger Rapids and we had nearly always been in sight of each other but this was the first time we had chatted. I thought I was having a tough time until I spoke to team #69 – Tia in the front of this canoe was having a very tough time – her first words to me where ‘How are you doing? I am in a very dark place right now’. This made me feel much better about how I was doing – as bad as I was feeling I wasn’t in any dark place – yet. Time continued to pass by and more KM where covered and I was feeling strong (it was about 3am). Then it got windy. A stiff head wind- it was brutal. I was 70km out and I was paddling in to head wind. I tried paddling on my knees but it was very awkward with my long paddle. It was also at this stage my legs started failing me – it was getting increasingly difficult to stand up after taking breaks on my board. This resulted in me taking fewer and fewer breaks which in turn lead to me eating and drinking less, this led me to start to feel really tired at this stage. For the first time in the race I was felt like I was struggling. I was only a few hours from the finish but this is the first point where I really was in a mentally challenging place. I couldn’t find anywhere to pull over easily and it was starting to rain. At this moment, I was really starting to hate what I was doing. I had tears in my eyes and I was screaming at the wind to go away. I had to dig deep inside for the strength to keep paddling. After what seemed like an eternity I turned the last page of the map and was heading to Dawson and the finish line! Once I knew I was on the home straight, even though it was still 25km away I found the strength to bring it home. When I came around the last corner of the river and heard people cheering life was good again and the turmoil of the previous hours where quickly forgotten. I crossed the finish line at 7:06am or 67hr 6mins after leaving Whitehorse, giving me an official race time of 57hrs 6min 55secs and 3rd placed SUP.
Kiwi Steve is in yellow behind me. Photo Credit: Stu Knaack
I pulled up on the shore and the first person to hug me was Steve – the Kiwi who picked me up at Minto - I couldn’t believe it. Chris, Stu and Jason where also there, as was Erica, I think I got hugs from them all before Stu had a beer in my hand (it’s 5pm somewhere, right?) – it tasted amazing, it was my first beer since the beginning of April. Stu Knaack earned legendary status right there!
|Getting the first post race beer! Photo Credit: Stu Knaack|
I remember standing at the finish line thinking, ‘Is this it?’. I am not sure why but it was a bit anti climatic – it hadn’t sunk in at all what I had just done. I was so appreciative of everyone who came down to see me finish. Especially Jason who had got in 4hours ahead of me and made the effort to come down. I started crashing, hard. The 715km in 3 days on less than 7hours of sleep hit me like a ton of bricks. Erica got me into the car and before I know it she had me showered and in bed at the local campground. She woke me just after 11am and told me Carmen Merkel is due to arrive soon. I tried to sit up, but my whole body had seized up, nothing seemed to work, I have never felt so helpless. I crawled out of my tent and Erica literally picked me up. We went down to the finish line and saw Carmen finish. I was so stoked for her! I stayed up the rest of the day, I wanted to try and get back into a regular sleep pattern but I also didn’t want a repeat of the what happened when I tried to get up earlier in the day.
It is a month since finishing the race and looking back at the whole experience it was completely ridiculous. Reflecting on the race it was crazy how you just got into a rhythm and time just disappeared. It felt like hours just seemed to evaporate at times. I was worried before about being able to stay focused during the many hours of paddling but I found there was always something to think about. Trying to read the river and stay in the current kept me engaged and focused. I also found myself trying to calculate arriving times at various check points using my current speed from my Velocitek Makai speedometer. The hardest part of the race to stay focused was on the lake. It was completely flat with no current and it was a challenge to stay engaged at times. All in all, I would say the race is a very difficult undertaking but it wasn’t as hard as I was expecting. In my opinion, it is a very achievable goal for most committed paddlers. Training and preparation are important but for me the key thing is having the right motivation - when you figure out you are still 13hours from Carmacks, the only getting you there is sheer will power. I was lucky that I realized I was in 3rd place early in the race and this gave me the motivation to keep paddling when I needed it. Never in my wildest dreams did I expect to finish 3rd and be on the podium with Bart De Zwart and Jason Bennett. My goal for this race was finishing in under 60hrs and to be honest I wasn’t even sure if this was realistic.
I couldn’t have completed this race without the help of many people. My girlfriend Erica put up with my many days training through the winter and spring. She was the best support crew before and during the race I could have asked for. She was a star in Carmacks, I am not sure I could have done it without her. My work team at Ecomarine Paddlesports, were able to let me take 2 weeks off during the busiest time of the year. The support of Nikki Rekman in terms of gear (Werner Paddles and Kokatat PFD’s), advice and moral support was more than I could ever imagined – thank you. The pre-race beta of Jason Bennett and Norm Hann made enormous difference to my preparation and gear set up. Stu Knaack for all his help in Whitehorse both before and after the race, made life so much easier. Thank you to everyone who sent me messages of support before and after the race. I was truly humbled by the volume of messages and the amount of people who said they where following me on the race tracker.
A huge thank you must be said to the race organizers and volunteers that make this race possible. This race is the completely run by volunteers and is a huge logistical and organisational effort. The volunteers come from far and wide (Steve from NZ) and this race wouldn’t happen without you.
The most common question I get asked about the race is – Would you do it again? The answer is, without hesitation, ABSOLUTELY!
|Top 3 Female SUP and Top 3 Male SUP Photo Credit: Stu Knaack|
Peter's gear of choice for his YRQ race:
Board - Surftech Vapor 14 in Ghost Carbon
Paddle - Werner Paddles Grand Prix 86, Spare Paddle Werner Paddles 3 pce. Flow 95
PFD - Kokatat Bahia Tour PFD
Electronics - Velocitek Makai speedometer
Clothing - Patagonia R1 Hoody, Patagonia Stretch Rain Shadow Jacket