Yukon call on me.20 July 2016
Part 2 of Tony’s epic paddleboard adventure down the Yukon River.
As the seconds ticked down to the noon go order, and the start of more than two days of near constant paddling down the mighty Yukon River, I tried to ignore the problems of the last few days. So what my gear hadn’t arrived until this morning (five days late), so what I hadn’t checked whether everything worked, so what I had had to quickly throw everything on to my board in time for the kit inspection, and that I hadn’t had time to rest up and fuel up ahead of the endurance test ahead – from this point on I had to just get on with it.
It was already heating up, and it promised to get much hotter during the afternoon. All competitors were constantly drinking water, trying to keep hydrated, but in the sun it wasn’t really working. To make matters worse, when we got to our boards for the start of the race I found my hydration pack wasn’t working, and I couldn’t see why.
With the race already under way, and precious minutes getting away from me, I pushed the board out into the river – it was nose heavy, and began to sink in the flow, I was thrown into the water for the first time. Cursing the late delivery, and not having enough time to properly pack my board, I regained control, climbed back on and headed off downstream.
The flow was quick, and with plenty of time to catch up on the other teams I decided to press on and sort out the imbalance at the next stop.
As the day grew older, the heat became intense out on the river. My hydration sack still didn’t work, and when I went to use one of the two 1.25ltr power pump bottles I had brought for the trip it split along the bottom. With only 1.25 ltrs of clean water I headed on, afraid that the other teams were vanishing in the distance.
I decided to push on to Policeman’s Point check stop. There I would be able to sort out the load imbalance of my board and take on water.
Policeman’s Point lies just before the river widens at Lake Laberge, and this would be my last chance to sort out my problems before heading out on to the lake. I was worried as Laberge is a 50km trek through variable, and often very harsh, conditions, and most of my journey across it would be through the night.
However, when I reached the checkpoint, the river had steep banks and a very fast flow, making stopping difficult. Looking out, the water was dirty and not fit to drink. I would have to carry on out into the lake without fresh water, and an imbalanced board.
As I got out on to the lake a slight head wind picked up, and the heavy nose started to be a real problem. Going was slow and unstable. Matters were made worse when a squall hit mid lake, and with all crews now spread over that 50km, a plane had to be sent to signal that we should move closer to the shore. The weather got worse.
It wasn’t until MP2 – the next check point – that I was able to stop and take the time to sort out my bags and water out. I also needed to eat and drink to take on those all-important calories. Fatigue was already setting in, and eating was more of a refuelling exercise than a pleasurable experience. I loaded my Trekmates Flameless Cook Box with a simple egg and rice meal, and in two minutes had the hot meal that I had been looking forward to since getting out on to the lake.
I headed back out on to the lake, and immediately felt better. Things were looking up; the board was balanced, my belly filled, and I had fresh water on board again – even my hydration pack had started working again. I began making good time, and managed to start passing some of the other stand-up paddleboarders in the race. As I approached the lakes end, I had begun looking ahead to the canoes in the distance.
What is it they say – pride comes before a fall?
The building positivity didn’t last long. I took a drink from one of my deck bottles, a strong taste of chlorine and a burning sensation in the back of my throat. I had doubled dosed the tablets in the bottle, and suffered – what I now know to be – a minor chemical burn in my throat. I wasn’t able to swallow food or water for four hours, and it wasn’t until after I had left the lake behind me and arrived at CP2 in the small hours of the morning that I was able to eat and drink, even if it was still painful.
Battling through the pain I was resolved to get back on the board and carry on with the race.
For the next leg I carried on with another SUP, Jo, who was really suffering, but, like me, fighting through the pain. At times her strength and determination to finish the race made it hard to keep up.
We were heading down towards Big Salmon, and with much more than half of the quest still ahead of us, the going was beginning to get tough.
It was the early hours of the morning, and the cold was beginning to eat into us. Jo was shivering constantly, and no amount of layers could keep the cold out. She hadn’t eaten for so long that her body wasn’t able to produce another energy to keep her warm. She began to feel faint, and light headed. The tiredness, and hunger were getting to me too, and that burning sensation in my throat was still bothering me. We decided to cruise the remainder of the way in to Big Salmon kneeling.
At Big Salmon Jo dropped out. Sitting beside the fire with the boat crews she told me she was fine, and that I should go on ahead. I could tell that she wanted to come with me more than anything, but the energy behind the determination just wasn’t there. We said our goodbyes, and I headed back out on to the Yukon.
It was now 8:00am and I was once again at the back of the pack. I was tired, and my burning throat was again affecting my ability to eat and drink; my energy levels dropped.
The day was going to be another hot one, and I was struggling badly on the river. Progress was becoming very slow. The river to Little Salmon took its toll. Without being able to eat and drink, and with the temperature rising, my paddle speed dropped. The river was still moving me along, but slower, and when I got dumped into the slower moving water it was harder to get out of it. My legs started to shake, and I had to stop to rest them frequently.
Then, just when I thought the fatigue had put me at my lowest ebb, the hallucinations started.
Most of the SUP paddlers experienced hallucinations along the way, and a lot of the visions were shocking. Most imagined people standing on the shore, whether they were supporters or more sinister, some saw drawings scratched into the rock walls. Many reported having seen bodies floating in the water. Mostly, I imagined seeing canoes and other paddles just ahead of me in the river, but the next moment they were gone, replaced by trees trapped in sand bars and stumps along the shore.
It seemed like Little Salmon was taking days to get to. By the time I reached the check point it was early evening, and I was running out of time to reach the next cut off point.
The volunteers at the check point told me I had around 60kms to go before reaching the next cut off point. That would meant a 10kmph paddle for six hours, putting me into Carmachs at 02:00am, three hours after the cut off.
I felt that there paddle time was overestimated, as the river was beginning to pick up the pace, however bowed down to their superior river knowledge. I would need to eat though, and rest for at least half an hour. This wouldn’t help with the strict time deadline, but I desperately needed to refuel.
As I sat and ate another high calorie meal from my flameless cook, I made the hardest decision I had had to make for a very long time. Taking on board the volunteers’ info, and with my energy levels and fatigue worsening, I decided to drop out.
At this stage I didn’t see the point in racing own river, doing myself more damage, and still missing the cut off time and being out of the race.
By dropping out I would be able to eat a decent meal, rest up and set off in the morning at my own pace seeing all of the amazing scenery and exploring along the way.
Still, this didn’t stop me from wiping the tear from my eyes as I ate that night; I wouldn’t be joining the other paddlers in the list of people to complete the Yukon River Quest. I was proud of what I had achieved – 241kms in 30hrs of straight paddling – but I had set out to complete the quest, and had pulled out with less than half the race gone.
As I made camp for the night, and rested my aching body, I made the decision to come back next year and finish the quest – maybe some of you will join me?
Tony took our Flameless Cook Box on his epic adventure. The Flameless Cook is available online now. Remember if you’re off on an adventure, let us know and you could be our next outdoor hero. #MyOutdoor