Canadian Canoe Routes

Yukon 1000 Canoe Race 2009
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Author:  nessmuk [ August 7th, 2009, 11:00 am ]
Post subject:  Yukon 1000 Canoe Race 2009

I'm finally back home after spending 20 days in the Yukon Territory and Alaska, including a few side trips before and after the Y1K main event that began on Monday, July 20.

The Yukon is full of amazing sights (“there are strange things done 'neath the midnight sun by the men who moil for gold…”), not least of which is the river itself. It is big, really big. Everything is big. Nothing down here really compares, perhaps the St Lawrence River for sheer size. But we trained on the St Lawrence and it certainly is not very similar to the Yukon.

After 10 months of training and planning and pouring over maps we headed north with a 6-person crew to paddle a 28 ft wood-strip voyageur canoe, driven all the way on top of a GMC "Yukon" SUV from NYS by our team captain. He picked up one crew member to help with the drive at Edmonton airport. The rest of us flew to Whitehorse. The team had all arrived by Thursday, and met with 2 other NY tandem canoe crews. One of those crewmembers didn't make it - he went into emergency gall bladder surgery the day he was to have left NY. The partner now there is a good friend of all of us (known to anyone who has done the 90 Miler) and we didn't want to see him not paddle the race. As luck would have it, another larger canoe was available in Whitehorse. The crew scheduled to paddle it had dropped out earlier. It was 34 ft carbon graphite canoe that had won the YRQ (the "short" 460 mile race) against us in 2008.

So now we had a 7-person crew and plenty of room for all the required equipment and food. The race organizers required us to carry enough self-sufficient supplies, including 20 kg (44 pounds) of food per person, to last potentially 3 weeks in the wilderness. We knew we could finish in a week in good weather, but no matter, 7x44 pounds was what we must carry. Oh, and it all had to be carried in IGBC certified bear-resistant containers. We spent several hours reconfiguring the side/side sliding seats of the new boat, polishing it, and did 3 practice runs near Whitehorse to test the boat and placement of gear. The long list of required gear was checked and food was weighed at check-in Sunday.

Race start was set sailing yacht style.... there was a start line on the river and a not-earlier-than-time of 11:00 Monday morning to cross the line without penalty. Problem is, you can't really paddle to hold upstream very effectively against the 5-6 mph current. Part way out from the near shore there is a shallow gravel shoal slowing the water allowing most boats to gather near the shore by the start line. We alone managed to paddle our big boat upstream in the shallows so we could do a rendezvous turn over the shallows, slipping into the fast current past mid-river, timed to arrive at the start line on time and at speed. I calculated that at 6 mph a tenth of a mile takes a minute to cover. We paddled upstream .18 miles and began our turn barely clearing over the gravel with just over 2 minutes to go. With time in the turn it worked perfectly... we crossed the line just 10 seconds late paddling at 12 mph while the other boats sprinted behind us from a dead stop across slow river to get into the current behind us. Our nice lead wouldn't last against the 3 tandem Brit kayaks, but it was a fun way to begin.

Cheers from our "bank staff" (pit crew) greeted us at the 12 mile mark from high up on the bank at the Takhini River junction, one of the very few viewing places available on the entire route. Twenty-one miles after the start we entered Lake Laberge (of Cremation of Sam McGee fame) with a hefty tailwind.

Already we had seen a dozen bald eagles watching us from trees and the river shore (they actually stand on the ground overlooking the river - their river). We had 30 miles of open water with whitecaps and big rollers to navigate the big long lake. Most (all?) the other boats took a slightly longer path next to shore, but we were confident in the big boat to head out into the open. Oh, and even at the end of July the glacial melt water temperature is barely 40 degrees. I took a couple of random big waves on me over the bow, but otherwise we stayed dry.

By the end of the lake some 5 hours later we were happy to re-enter the river, one of the prettiest river sections of all. The water to this point is deep blue-green and clear. Many hair-pin turns in fast current and 200-300 ft high sandy banks cut through the rough terrain. Now in late evening we could eat our dinner. The "voyageur advantage" meant one person could work the Primus stove to heat water for a select package from the 3-week load of home-dehydrated food I had prepared over the past few months, while the others are still paddling. We ate really well this way 3 times a day, sitting out 2 paddlers at a time to gain nourishment. We also downed plenty of high calorie snacks between meals. Our short night rest periods could be reserved exclusively for setting up tents and sleeping, not wasted on preparing food.

At mile 85 the Teslin River joins the flow, bringing the first load of muddy silt that only gets worse and ever thicker as other rivers add their glacial load of silt. We collected 5 gallons of clear water just prior to the Teslin. Later we would use a chemical treatment to congeal and settle the silt 5 gallons at a time. I heard that the silt is a good laxative, something we did not desire. The silt is not mere mud like we experience in some waters locally, it is heavy grains of mineral. Paddling through we continuously hear a hiss as it scrapes and sands the surface of the boat, much like the static of a mis-tuned AM radio that can't be turned off.

Soon it was time to start looking for a decent camping spot before the mandatory 23:15 hour. We are required to stop for not less than 6 hours each night, not later than 23:15, to be verified with GPS manual "OK" transmissions from SPOT. This could be a problem, as in many places the shoreline is essentially vertical, or if not vertical then it is swampy. Neither could support any kind of campsite. We lucked out and found an actual previously used campsite on the inside of a bend. After landing and shooing away a huge porcupine, up went the tents and down went our heads. Just four minutes later the lead tandem, a blue canoe, passed us by looking for their suitable landing spot for the night. Six hours to the minute after landing we were back on the water for our first full 18-hour long day. We passed the tandem less than a half mile downstream, still packing up their tent from within thick brush and not quite ready leave. Now we were ahead by well more than four minutes.

I'll briefly mention some issues we had with one of the tandem kayaks, a couple of young Brit brothers. We passed their campsite about a half hour into the first morning, both lead kayaks were there at the same site. We were now the lead boat in the race. A couple of hours later we noticed one of them gaining on us. For the next couple of hours it tagged along, sometimes a bit back, more often drafting in our wake. What got us riled is when we stopped for a shore break, they did also (but did not get out of their kayak), actually had hands on our boat while we were wrestling with a strainer in the current. We asked them to back off, they said they had misplaced their map. A map is a mandatory piece of equipment, should have been checked at shakedown and you are not allowed on the river in the race without one. Now I had spent months planning the route from many potential tracks down the river, and I didn't appreciate these kids using me as a map only to have them save energy behind us and then sprint ahead at the end. Paddle your own race, follow the current and you will reach the end, maybe not the fastest but you will get there. We slowed to let them pass, they slowed to stay behind. We stopped again - and so did they. We had a few words. Not until their "partner" kayak came along did they leave us and tag along with them. Later we learned that they tagged behind them for 700 miles, without taking a turn in the lead. Legal? Maybe but questionable in the sportsmanship category. We later heard this team is known for running their races with this tactic - follow the leader 99% of the way to save energy and sprint ahead to win. A change in the rules for next year is already on the books.... no "out of species" (different boat class) drafting will be allowed along with other fairness in drafting rules.

Navigation through this upper section was not too difficult but you need to know and refer to the map to stay in best track. Google Earth is more accurate than the 1950's topographic maps and all 678 GE generated waypoints serve us well to negotiate shortest distance vs fastest current choices around thousands of islands to come. Nearly every inside bend has a gravel bar, sometimes extending half way or more across the river. You don’t want to get stuck in slow slack water approaching or following such obstacles. A few feet left or right to catch the main current can change your speed by 3-4 or even 6 mph. Current is difficult to read because it looks for all the world like you are paddling in a pot of water just as it comes to a boil. Upwelling of deep water cross-currents and whirlpools trick your senses as to where the fastest current flows. We paid constant attention to the GPS to eek out the next tenth of a mph faster. Even our 34 foot boat started to swirl half way around one of the larger well defined whirlpools. It might have been fun to stay for a bit if we weren’t in a race.

We lost count after 20+ eagles, we saw 6 moose, 3 bear cubs, an adult bear (separately), and a black wolf. Beautiful tiny swept-wing terns swooped around us, and squawking ravens were in every rocky crag. No telling how many other creatures we missed while we were concentrating on navigation and hard paddling. No doubt the heavy smoke covered some. Speaking of rocky crags, the river is famous for presenting character faces in the rock walls. Hundreds of caricatures, beautiful and grotesquely shaped overlapping faces staring at us from the cliffs. Last year on the YRQ I saw a perfect head-to-toe likeness of Albert Einstein in a rumpled suit. Others appeared this year. Rather spooky and exciting at the same time. The tired mind seems to want to create human and animal features in amazing detail from nothing but jagged rock and shadows. I'd love to take a month to just take photos of faces in the rock and publish a book of them.

We would break the boredom of consistent paddling by running sets of two 60% moderate effort followed by one 90% hard paddle sessions as we hut switched on each side, 50-60 strokes to the hut. Do 6 sets of 3, take a short snack break of easier paddling for a couple of huts and do triple hut sets again before settling down to a more consistent steady drone for another 30 minutes. We quickly gained a lot of extra distance that way.

We stopped briefly at Carmacks (200 miles) and waved/hugged our waiting bank staff, and again at Dawson (460 miles). That was about the total extent of our outside contact.

Below Dawson we encountered massive shoreline destruction caused by record spring floods and ice blocks the size of houses (now melted). At the Alaska border town of Eagle (actually 6 miles beyond the Yukon/Alaska border crossing), entire houses were ripped off foundations, islands were denuded of big spruce trees. Eagle is a required stop to show the border officer (Chuck) our passports. Chuck is a super dedicated guy on duty 24/7. No one gets by this border checkpoint without someone knowing about their passage, and Chuck will give chase if he has to. We chatted with Chuck much longer than we should have.

We received a special surprise from some friends flying in the currently ongoing Red Flag exercise. This is Alaska, our U.S. northern border after all. In a particularly scenic section of river we noticed 3 small dots approaching directly off the bow. Three F-16s coming fast, very fast following the river at very low level. I waved my paddle into the air in a wide arc, and as each fighter approached they rolled wings at us in a return wave. When directly overhead each climbed vertical and did a turning rejoin. Simply spectacular. Everyone on the crew agreed we all felt a special pride for our country well up in our chest in what we had just experienced. After the race I stopped by Red Flag Operations at Eielson AFB (near Fairbanks) to relay a heart felt thanks to the pilots who gave us the show. The Ops Officer said he would make sure the pilots know they were appreciated.

Finally we reached the town of Circle, where the "flats" begin. Gone are the mountains and well defined river. We also began to enter thick smoke from dozens of forest fires in Alaska. At one point just before entering the smoke we counted 7 separate smoke plumes on the horizon, each causing their own thunderhead cloud above. Weird sights, like thick mushroom rain clouds above with wispy smoke blowing from the ground level to the base of the cloud.

The river widens to about 4 miles here in the flats. Looks more like a lake than a river amongst dozens and dozens of islands and gravel shoals. But it is a lake with a surprising current! Fast current can be found, but much flows over shallow gravel. The challenge is to find the shortest path with fast current and not get hung up on gravel bars. We had a bow navigation team and a stern navigation team coordinating with each other, each with a complete set of paper maps and running GPS's with different displays for map/track and course/heading and certainly constantly watching for our best speed. In many places the difference between staying in the “main channel” (if you can find it) and taking a “shortcut” could mean the difference of 2 miles or more, saving up to 30 minutes of time. We had to get feet wet 5 or 6 times from running aground, but were always able to walk the boat through to deeper water in a short distance. Early in this vast expanse we were surprised to see the fast blue tandem come upon us, but they stayed in what appeared to be the wide curving main channel as we veered off on a pre-planned shortcut channel to take a straighter path. We never saw them again, and at the finish they were fully two hours behind.

Navigation is very tricky on the Yukon. With some islands it doesn't matter much whether you go left or right. Sometimes you come upon an unmapped shoal that you wish you hadn't, where you lose current or worse. Even planned left/right turns around islands must be set up well in advance, at least a half mile in some cases. The current splits into two directions that far upstream, and you can get cross-current sucked into going the wrong way very easily. We often had to battle a sweeping current taking us astray far upstream from where we intended to turn in the opposite direction.

The river has changed significantly due this year's spring record disaster ice blockage flood. But the 2-4 year old Google Earth map waypoints were still in large part keeping us ahead of the game. This section of river below Circle village looks nothing like you can imagine from the maps or from any previous experience elsewhere. The whole area is actually kind of spooky because of the complete desolation with massive overturned trees brought from miles upstream and the fast water completely surrounding you for miles in all directions. The pall of obscuring smoke only adds to the dismalness (see photo). You feel very much alone and fragile in a world unknown, as if on a different planet.

“Night” (the sun dips down slightly below the horizon but it never gets dark this time of year) overtook us on the flats and we simply camped our mandatory 6 hours on a gravel bar. Most of our nights after the first woodsy campsite were spent on gravel in the open. We always unloaded the boat while we slept to keep it safe from any grizzes that might want to investigate our food containers. Without the boat we would be totally stranded for a long time. Sleep came easy, but the alarm 4 1/2 hours later did not.

The flats continued for the next 100+ miles, and didn't get much better beyond Fort Yukon – the northern most point on the river. We were advised not to stop at Ft Yukon because it is the only non-dry village for hundreds of miles, and.... well bush planes regularly fly there from the dry villages with thirsty passengers. But here we were, amazed to be now paddling above the Arctic Circle!

About 45 miles from the end we came upon one of the 3 kayaks ahead of us - not the offensive yunguns mentioned earlier. The team was on shore (later we learned they had to stop in the middle of the day to sleep). They followed us a quarter to an eighth of a mile back for the next 25 miles in what can only be called a sprint. We traveled our fastest, but they traveled faster and eventually passed us just 20 miles from the finish. Had we been 5 minutes earlier where they stopped we would have passed them unseen and maybe taken 3rd place overall. We both paused to chat a minute or two, then we backed off to a more reasonable speed. But we couldn't slack off too much because we didn't know how far back that fast blue tandem would be.

But we had a good finish, in thick smoke first sight of that huge finish line bridge was gorgeous. Even more gorgeous our cheering bank staff was there to meet us at the Dalton Highway Bridge (of TV show “Ice Road Truckers” fame). After a brief rest we only had 140 miles/5 hours of washboard road to reach Fairbanks and a soft hotel bed.

Official photos (so far) are posted on the web page gallery. I took a few photos, at the risk of a paddle slap 'side the head for not paddling for a few seconds. Here is one of Lake Laberge before in high wind it got much rougher (note the water color). Ever wave surf a 34 foot canoe? Later here's another of the boat at our border/customs stop at Eagle AK. Note the thick silty water and the village in background left side.

Still at Eagle, the landscape in foreground in the third photo used to be covered in spruce trees before last May's record destructive ice breakup and flooding. Village houses suffered the same fate. Much of the shoreline below this point resembled a war zone scoured by the ice. What remained of trees were bent into the ground and barkless as if a giant cheese grater ran through them. Large formerly spruce covered islands were denuded of all vegetation. Later downstream there were graveyards of trees by the acre in the flats, hundreds of big spruce trees root ball and all now laying in the relative shallows many miles below where they were ripped out by the roots, all aligned on their sides with tops pointing the way downstream. The scene reminded us of gravestones scattered about in a miles long cemetery. Many places still had active deeply under-cut banks that were dropping soil, permafrost (see photo), and doomed trees into the river even as we passed by. Our most current map showed that we should be on land instead of paddling in a swift river. The maps were effectively changing as we in real time watched the land disappear to become part of the silt laden river.

What a great trip and a fantastic river in a spectacular wilderness. So glad to be the first canoe to cross the finish line in the first ever Yukon 1000 mile canoe race - 6 days, 6 hrs, 52 mins.

There's a land where the mountains are nameless
And the rivers all run God knows where;
There are lives that are erring and aimless,
And deaths that just hang by a hair;
There are hardships that nobody reckons;
There are valleys unpeopled and still;
There's a land--oh, it beckons and beckons,
And I want to go back--and I will.
- Robert William Service, Spell of the Yukon

Author:  Gerald Guay [ August 7th, 2009, 12:38 pm ]
Post subject:  Re: Yukon 1000 Canoe Race 2009

Thanks nessmuk for the great 1K report.
I envy every one of the participants in this super event.
Last summer (2008) we had the opportunity to see the start of the shorter race (the 1k event did not exist last year) and were very impressed.

What would you say were the major difficulties you met on the river this year? Any debris?


Author:  nessmuk [ August 7th, 2009, 1:24 pm ]
Post subject:  Re: Yukon 1000 Canoe Race 2009

Gerald Guay wrote:
Thanks nessmuk for the great 1K report.
I envy every one of the participants in this super event.
Last summer (2008) we had the opportunity to see the start of the shorter race (the 1k event did not exist last year) and were very impressed.

What would you say were the major difficulties you met on the river this year? Any debris?

I was in the "shorter" 460 mile race to Dawson last year also. We call that race the "sprint" now. :D

There was plenty of debris below Eagle, but not much that was of any trouble to us. A few of the possible shortcut routes through the Yukon Flats below Circle were blocked. In some places there were large piles of logs, as if stacked by a drunken logger. As I mentioned, in places where the flats were broad and shallow hundreds of large spruce trees ripped from upstream islands were scattered about as if in a graveyard - individually perched in their own resting place, not stacked. They were arranged like the weather vanes of the current. We paddled through some of these areas without trouble, other than the occasional short section where it got a bit too shallow to float the boat plus passengers.

I'd have to say the most difficult part was not being able to see more than a millimeter into the silty water when we were in the shallows of the flats. You couldn't always easily tell where there was a shallow gravel bar. Get too close and the cross currents would suck you the wrong way and there's not much you can do about it without finding deep water to catch your paddle. We never got hung up so bad that we couldn't float the boat by walking along beside, but even the shortest of these sections reduced our speed (paddle plus current) from 10-12 cruise mph down to 1-2 mph while walking. Of course in each of several of these cases if we had taken what was (as best as we could tell) the "main channel" this might not have been a problem, but with the penalty of a many miles longer path. If I do it again I'd still follow pretty much the same route with the shortcuts I had planned for this trip, with a bigger dependence on knowing actual river conditions. Thankfully I had planned alternate optional "safe" routes around what in preplanning I suspected might be troublesome shortcuts. Those saved much time and consternation if we had been blind to "what do we do now". Now I know what is available at the water depth we had. A month earlier and just another couple inches of water depth would make a tremendous difference.

The river changes from year to year. 2009 probably created the most change of any in recent times. The river was changing the landscape as we watched many large chunks of earth fall into it from the undercut banks as we passed by. The 1950's era "most recent" topographic maps available (both Canadian and US) are ridiculously inadequate outside of the stable canyon regions on the upper river. There are major changes in the main river channel from the old maps, and certainly in side channels over the years. Google Earth images of 2-4 years ago are much better but even since then there are many changes underway. However, you can be confident that the lat/long registration of GE is very accurate where the river has obviously not changed its path.

Author:  Gerald Guay [ August 7th, 2009, 5:06 pm ]
Post subject:  Re: Yukon 1000 Canoe Race 2009

Thanks nessmuk.

There are a lot more logistics for such an event than I could have imagined.

I seems that your planning helped make for such a successful race result.

I bet you guys were downing 4000-5000 calories a day in order not to lose too much weight and muscle mass.


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