By Sonja Stark
“There are strange things done in the midnight sun,
By the men who moil for gold;
The Arctic trails have their secret tales,
That would make your blood run cold;
The Northern Lights have seen queer sights,
But the queerest they ever did see…
Was the night on the Marge of Lake Labarge,
I cremated Sam McGee.”
My Yukon river guide finishes the poem with a snicker and a sneer. Goosebumps ripple up and down my bare arms.
My first time in the Northern province of Yukon and I’m scared out of my wits thanks to a haunting poem by Canadian bard Robert Service. His words are legendary in a province where shadows linger longer and creatures stir in the wild.
My guide shares creepy stories of severed toes while we comb the shoreline for thirsty paddlers. One by one the paddlers arrive gliding atop a pristine and deep Lake Lebarge.
They are on a journey of a lifetime — one that began in the capital city of Whitehorse this morning and travels north to Dawson City.
My boatman cuts the engine so we can drift closer to a Voyager canoe (a canoe with six or more people) with nine thirsty gals huffing and puffing.
Their ages range from the early twenties to the late fifties. Only seven hours into the race and they wear a look of depletion. We glide close enough to offer steaming cups of hot coffee and cookies for a needed sugar rush.
My travel guide hauls a vat of brew around on his sightseeing tour especially for this occasion. The girls’ gratitude is measured in silence as they gulp the power boost. Paddlers are expected to maintain a stroke rate of 75 per minute or fall behind quickly. This is not a race for novices.
At 460 miles the Yukon River Quest is the longest canoe and kayak race in the world. Except for two mandatory rest stops contestants race non-stop down the mighty Yukon River.
Only the strongest and some might say the most foolhardy enter this race. Like scaling Mount Everest or swimming the English Channel, it’s one of the toughest adventure marathon events on record.
“It’s not the prize money or the competition that makes you do this. It’s the human spirit that drives you,” says Yukoner champion Elizabeth Bosely.
Held annually during the last week of June (around the summer solstice) teams and solos from as far away as Australia, Europe and South America push themselves just because they can.
Mother Nature tests their endurance with cold, wet and windy nights and blinding sunshine. Blisters, burns, mosquito bites and extreme fatigue are all part of the drama.
It’s not unusual to hear stories of broken bones, hypothermia and hallucinations. Some even imagine seeing bleeding trees and pulsating rocks as they struggle to stay awake.
Stash Like a Squirrel
Every year the race grows bigger and better with fewer scratches and fiercer competition. To improve the odds of surviving, much less winning, several canoes and kayaks are modified for the round-the-clock race.
Pizza slices, sandwiches and oatmeal bars are stored in plastic bags and stuck to boat walls. Others run plastic tubes around the seats so they can sip electrolytes without needing to stop.
Many run a string from bow to stern with collapsible cups with snack items inside. The true diehards refuse to break to use the bush — instead they rig up a bathroom system under the seats.
First aid kits are mandatory as are life vests with whistles, river maps and waterproof flashlights. The better organized you are, the better your chances of going the distance.
In the land of black bear and herds of Porcupine Caribou, mental preparation is also important. It helps to know the environment as well as a group of local First Nation aborigines from Saskatchewan. They excel at knowing the territory and its rich history and their own culture. A few of them have quite literally grown up in a canoe.
A Spectator Sport
The best part about this race is you don’t need to be a participant to be a part of it. Spectators and support teams travel in campers along a lonely Klondike highway, partly a two-lane gravel road that runs in tandem with the river.
Along its length you’ll spot fox, bear, wolverines and scenic views of spruce, poplar and alder trees. Paddlers appear so small from the cliffs above that binoculars and zoom lens are needed to identify who’s in the lead.
Outside of one or two campgrounds, there are few places to refuel and even fewer overnight accommodations until you reach Dawson City. The unspoiled beauty of the North refuses to be tamed by big-box retailers and chain hotels.
Carmacks and the Roaring Rapids
A third of the way to Dawson City is the Carmacks rest area. Paddlers are required to check in and recuperate for seven hours. This is the perfect place to cheer on the brave mushers and tent under faint stars. The temporary watering hole offers up clean toilets, warm showers, hot food and volunteer back massages.
The Five Finger Rapids are just up the road from Carmacks with a pedestrian trail leading to an overview of the churning danger. It’s midnight by the time I reach Five Finger Rapids but there’s still plenty of action because the sun never sets this close to the Arctic Circle.
First, the Texan Voyageur canoe takes in too much water on the descent and eventually capsizes near Minto. The First Nations canoe team, hot on their heels, does the honorable thing and stops to help. This earns them the ‘Spirit of the Yukon’ award with the Texans placing first with a time of 40 hours and 52 minutes.
Next, a solo kayaker from California barely escapes the same fate but finishes third with a time of 44 hours and 24 minutes. Finally, a couple from Maine bobs and weaves the rushing waters like a pinball machine. It’s clear they’ve done this before.
But getting past Five Fingers Rapids doesn’t mean that the end is in sight. There are three more checkpoints at Fort Selkirk, Kirkman Creek and Sixty Mile – areas that are virtually inaccessible by road with little civilization.
Civilization but not Civility
Dawson City depicts a wild and adventuresome time in early American and Canadian history. Not only is it the perfect destination to finish a race of hardship and hope, but paddlers are guaranteed a speedy recovery with old fashion hospitality and a bounty of booze.
The Eldorado Hotel is where I bunk for the evening but not before I toss back a few ‘Yukon Gold’ pints at a brothel-turned-B&B called Bombay Peggy’s, followed by a ghoulish concoction at the infamous Sourdough Saloon.
The Sourdough saloon is jammed with leather-clad motorcycle gangs and grisly bartenders with long beards.
A long line of patrons grows anxious for the 9 o’clock hour. That’s when a mummified human toe makes its nightly appearance. You read correctly: a bona-fide severed appendage from a bootlegger who gave it up posthumously many moons ago is the main attraction.
The story goes that the owner of the bar found the toe floating in formaldehyde in the basement of an old house he bought. He decided to use the toe as a gimmick to sell drinks, kind-of like the worm-in-Tequila thing.
But unlike the worm that acts like an aphrodisiac, the brown shriveled-up toe, sinking in a shot of Yukon Jack, repels many and makes them gag and squirm.
Letting the toe touch your lips while swigging guarantees you entry to a growing group of fearless in the Sourtoe Cocktail Club. Even those who just paddled 460 miles find this a challenging feat. I close my eyes and think of the words of Robert Service:
It’s the great, big, broad land way up yonder,
It’s the forests where silence has lease;
It’s the beauty that thrills me with wonder,
It’s the stillness that fills me with peace.
More than 100 years after the Klondike gold rush, Dawson City is just as colorful as
it was in 1898. The rustic charm is preserved with wooden boardwalks, dusty roads and turn-of-the-century buildings.
Guides in period costume offer tours of the Robert Service cabin, the Jack London Center and the Diamond Tooth Gerties Gambling Hall. Dancing with Can-Can girls and lessons in panning for gold add to the mystique and magic of Dawson City.
For more information on how you can participate in the Yukon River Quest, either as a contestant or tourist, visit www.yukonriverquest.com.