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Soldotna canoeist tackles brutal race

Posted: Friday, July 22, 2005

 

  John Morton, left, of Soldotna, and John Maher of Guam stop for a picture during the 2003 Yukon River Quest. Morton and Maher teamed up to run the 460-mile canoe and kayak race for a second time earlier this month. Submitted photo

John Morton, left, of Soldotna, and John Maher of Guam stop for a picture during the 2003 Yukon River Quest. Morton and Maher teamed up to run the 460-mile canoe and kayak race for a second time earlier this month.

Submitted photo

When describing the Yukon River Quest, billed as the world's longest annual canoe and kayak race, the word used most frequently Soldotna's John Morton is "brutal."

And after completing the 460-mile paddle from Whitehorse to Dawson City in Canada's Yukon for the second time earlier this month, he's looking forward to doing it again.

"It's very satisfying to finish — it really is a brutal race," said Morton, the supervisory biologist at the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge, during an interview last week.

Morton and his teammate, James Maher of Guam, completed this year's race in 55 hours, 45 minutes, finishing 20th overall and eighth in the canoe class.

Though the duo cut more than 12 hours from their 2003 time, they finished further back in a field that has grown more competitive over the seven-year history of the race — Team M&M placed 11th overall and seventh in the canoe class in 2003.

"It's becoming more of a race than a wilderness adventure," Morton said.

Morton said he's always been a recreational paddler but began paddling competitively while living on Guam, a Western Pacific island and U.S. territory, in 1993, when he and his wife, Leslie, took up outrigger canoe racing.

"My wife and I have used this to travel around the world," said Morton of outrigger canoe racing, adding that he'd paddled in the Pacific, on the East Coast, in Europe and in China. "It's a good excuse to travel."

The Mortons moved to Soldotna three years ago, and after hearing about the Yukon River Quest Morton figured, "Sign me up."

"I've done canoeing for years, and we're just gradually switching over to river endurance paddling," Morton said.

Between the change in climate from the Western Pacific to Alaska, and some recent additions to the family, daughters Mika and Charly, Morton said training has become harder and less frequent.

For this year's race, he relied on paddling technique refined over the years, as well as the strength and endurance developed by practicing karate.

The race begins with a LeMans-style start on Main Street in Whitehorse. Competitors run about a half mile to the water, where their boats are waiting.

The first big obstacle is Lake Laberge, a 30-mile long body of water that can often be a wind tunnel for those trying to cross it.

"That's often a breaker," Morton said.

Two years ago, Morton and Maher had a tailwind for the crossing and were able to ride the waves kicked up by the breeze. This time around, they paddled into a headwind across the lake.

After crossing Lake Laberge, racers make their way to Carmacks, a 24-hour paddle from Whitehorse, for a seven-hour mandatory rest.

Morton said that after the 2003 race, he and Maher were able to come up with a strategy for this year's competition.

"One of the tricks is to never get out of the boat," Morton said. "That's the trick to this race. It's such a fast-moving river, if you get out for five minutes, people will go flying past you."

Morton said serious competitors figure out a way to do just about everything in the canoe, from eating and drinking to catching a rest and even relieving one's self.

Despite having a support crew at Carmacks, Morton said he managed maybe two hours of sleep. After that, it's a 18-hour push to Kirkman Creek for a short, three-hour rest stop, then 12 to 14 hours of paddling to the finish line in Dawson City.

Morton said one of the neat aspects of the race is the remarkable country the rivers flows through, as well as the changes in the river, from flatwater to rapids.

"There's a neat section where the White River flows into the Yukon. Where the White River comes in, the Yukon flows uphill for quite a long distance," Morton said.

Morton said he also developed quite a bit of respect for the power of such a big river.

"The river actually gets scary in some places — the hydraulics of such a big river," Morton said.

"You're so tired, but every now and then it dawns on you, if you were to flip over, what might happen. They don't call it a wilderness race for nothing. Not too far into the race, people are spread out over huge distances."

Even after finishing, Morton had one more challenge ahead of him. After entering the lottery for a spot in the Mt. Marathon race, his number came up this year.

Morton finished the canoe race at 6:15 a.m. on July 2 and was loaded into the car by Leslie, who drove straight through to Seward to get him there in time for the rookie orientation July 3.

Morton said the race up Mt. Marathon on July 4 was, well, brutal.

"As soon as they said 'Go' in Seward, the first 20 feet was, 'Oh my god!,'" Morton said. "As soon as I started, I knew this was going to be an ordeal. I just felt lucky to have finished it."

Still, the agony of the experience hasn't deterred Morton from looking ahead to another trip down the Yukon. After watching the race as part of the support team, Leslie also would like to give it a go.

"I'll probably go back in a couple of years to do it with my wife," Morton said. "We'll have to do something with the kids, but we'll go back and do it."



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