Last week, I pulled my first all-nighter since college. Instead of finishing a research paper, cramming for an exam or laying out the student newspaper, I was sitting on a canoe bench covered in foam and Tyvek tape, paddle in hand, chasing the midnight sun.
On June 29, I joined more than 100 other canoers and kayakers in the 2011 Yukon River Quest. We left Whitehorse, in the Yukon Territory, at noon and by 10 p.m. on July 2, 55 teams had landed in Dawson City, 460 miles down the river.
I joined seven other paddlers in a voyageur canoe. Named Team Skagnificent, everyone but me was from Southeast Alaska. Dave Sevdy and Eric Nelson were from Juneau, and the rest of the team — Jeff Brady, Annie Brady, Denise Caposey, Mike Healy and Bruce Schindler — were Skagwegians. Everyone on the team had paddled at least one stretch of the Yukon River before, and most of us had done the race. But before our support crew helped us push off from the riverbank on June 29, we had never had the full team in a boat together.
By the time we had paddled for more than 40 hours, that didn’t matter.
“Rolling, rolling, rolling on the river,” blared from the CD player while we cruised down the fastest stretch of the Yukon River, less than 50 miles from our destination.
Our paddles hit the water at the same time every stroke, the midnight sun was out and we looked like we might have known what we were doing.
When we finished hours later we were 18th overall with a time of 52:58, which doesn’t count the ten hours of mandatory rest. That was fast enough for bragging rights, finishers pins and a cash award for earning second place in the mixed voyageur class.
It was also fast enough to love every minute on the river — and not get sick of each other (I hope).
Surprisingly, finishing the race was not the best part. I certainly enjoyed sleeping in a bed, eating sweet potatoes fries and iced tea, shopping and a night out on the town in Dawson. But the highlight was every punchy, giggly, tiring minute on the river.
I had raced twice before, once in a voyageur with Dave, Eric and others, and once in a tandem, so I knew what I was getting into, even if I hadn’t trained as much as I’d have liked. This year’s race was the best yet.
I eschewed caffeine before and during the race, worried about the peaks and pits of the stimulant. Staying awake required as much effort as the actual motion of paddling.
Mostly, that meant our trip turned into an aquatic edition of Glee.
I was lucky — Annie and Denise were not only excited about singing, but good at it. They even knew the words to more than two songs. We entertained and irritated our boat with any tune we could remember at least a few words of, everything from Jimmy Buffet to “The Little Mermaid”. When a husband and wife from Latvia proposed a song exchange, the whole team joined us in rousing renditions of “Down by the Bay” and “Alaska’s Flag”.
The Latvians were not the only new friends we made on the river. We paddled with a team from Tasmania for a little while, enjoyed saying hello to old friends and long-time racers throughout the race and even gained a ninth team member for the last 100 miles or so. Ian from Ottawa paddled with us off and on during the second half of the race, but once we offered him an enchilada, the solo canoeist stuck by our stern the rest of the way to Dawson.
During the days, we saw routine animals — eagles, an owl and beavers. Between dusk and dawn, we spotted the more interesting ones — a musk rat hiding in the clouds, moose made of logs, and phantom people waving from shore. There was even a tree on fire, although I think that was real.
Hallucinated animals aren’t the only interesting creatures on the Yukon. The river is steeped in history, and although I don’t know as much about the steamboats and landings as I’d like, I’m certain we must have passed at least one or two ghosts. There was an “X” marking the spot where a sunken ship was found at the end of Lake Lebarge. If nothing else, Sam McGee was surely the breath that gave us the power to cross the lake so swiftly.
We weren’t moiling for gold alone, but I think Robert Service got it right long before anyone got the crazy idea to commemorate the gold rush with a 460-mile canoe race.
“There are strange things done in the midnight sun.”
Special thanks to our support crew in Whitehorse, Carmacks and Dawson — Dorothy and Danny Brady, Denver Evans, Megan Hahn, Chris Maggio, and Mike and Sylvia O’Daniel — and those supporting us from elsewhere.