UK Stand Up Paddleboarder André Le Geyt has recently returned from the most gruelling SUP event of his life… The annual Yukon River Quest in Canada. The long distance endurance race is not an event to be taken lightly. It’s a true test of endurance and your mental state, as André found out! So before you sign up for next years race, read what André had to say about this insane event!…
“I have just completed the Yukon River Quest. Wow, what a wild, beautiful and brutal experience!”
The Yukon River Quest is the worlds longest annual canoe and kayak race, held on the Yukon River in north-western Canada. The race starts in Whitehorse, and finishes in Dawson City, a total of 720km or roughly 445 miles. The cut off time to complete the race is 3½ days. This year there was over 250 people taking part; 96 teams.
For the first time this year the Yukon River Quest Board let SUP in as an ‘experimental class’ with a total of 12 paddlers being chosen to take part from all over the world.
I saw an advert for the race pop up on some forums and knew a couple of paddlers who had signed up (Pascal Blueys from Belgium and Joanne Hamilton-Vale, UK). After speaking with them, I thought ‘hey why not enter?’ So I sent my paddling wilderness experience CV along, and had a mix of emotions when I got excepted; joy and, WOW I had better train hard for this!
Body and board ready?
Having done the Holland 11 Cities I thought I would have a rough idea on how to train, so I followed that plan, and put in longer training paddles. I paddled around Jersey on three separate training sessions, which took between 6 – 8 hours, factoring in tides & winds. Along with paddling, I did some long cycle rides to strengthen up my legs (and I am very glad I did as your legs take a real hammering standing for such a long time). I also trained doing general circuits, weights and 10k runs.
Another area I worked on was diet. Paddling for close to 3 days non stop I realised gels and energy bars were not going to be much good. I worked with my friend Liz Sheehan who is a local nutritional, we looked at getting my diet ‘clean’, my gut strong and working well and using real foods that would give me a balanced consistent form of energy. This helped me a great deal, as I felt stronger and got out of the sugar cycle of training which made my body work far more efficiently.
Kit was next, and a board was the main issue! With 4 flights each way it would be a real mission to transport a carbon board! After trying a few boards and speaking to the team at Red Paddle Co I was set up with a 14′ elite board, 3 piece paddle, dry bags and a few other handy kit items. The board was great, I won the 14′ winter series in Jersey riding it, and it was so much easier to travel with. Most of the survival kit I needed also managed to fit into the carry bag for the board which was really handy. And believe me the survival kit list was very long and detailed (the organisers certainly want participants to be safe paddling the Yukon River, as some areas are completely inaccessible and complete wilderness, so you need to be prepared to survive). I managed to borrow some kit (thank you to everyone who helped with this.)
I was luckily introduced to a great guy, Rob Cassin who had canoed this race 3 times, and he gave me some great information and tips. He also leant me a lot of kit, thank you Rob (massive help). Talking with Rob made me realise even more what a huge race this was going to be! The race is sort of broken up into 3 parts, with 2 mandatory stops.
“The first leg is 190 miles, you then have a 7 hour mandatory stop. The second leg is 155 miles, with a 3 hour mandatory stop, then the last leg is just a short 100 miles! “
I think up to this the longest I had paddled in one go was 50 miles, so it was taking it up a lot!
I was lucky to have my partner Catherine travel over with me and give me support during the race. We went a couple of weeks early to get used to the time difference, have a bit of a holiday and hopefully so I could get a few paddles in on the river. When we got to Whitehorse we began to realise that this was a huge event the whole town was buzzing and there was so much talk about could the stand ups make it? Was it too far for them? Are they crazy? They will not make it! Well I planned on making it! We met up with Stuart Knaack a local paddler who runs SUP Yukon, and he showed us around and took us paddling, such a great guy, and worth contacting for wilderness tours in the Yukon. Stuart had Tony Bain staying with him, and we all did a few paddles together. The rest of the paddle crew arrived a couple of days before the start. We all met up chatted and generally said what are we doing!
The couple of days before you have a get together with everyone racing, competitor briefs, kit and board inspections. It really is a massive operation to run this event, so well organised by the Yukon River Quest board, and all the amazing volunteers! Thank you to you all.
A midday start, with a 400 metre run to our boards. I got a good start then fell in! Not sure why, but got up real quick and back at it. I was with a local paddler Stephen Waterreus and we were not too far behind the lead pack of Bart Kanaha Kai Maui, Norm John Hann and Jason Bennett. We had managed to get on a draft of a voyager canoe and were going a good pace for 3 hours along the river when we hit Lake Faberge (which is nearly 60k long). We were really lucky with the wind as it can be really strong on the lake, I managed to stay with Stephen and the voyager until halfway along the lake as I was grabbing some food out of my bag, I dropped a glove in the river and had to go back for it. I then decided to stick at a steady pace as the lead guys where still going hard. I managed to hop on the draft of a few more big voyagers as they went past. I got to the end of the lake about 10pm and stopped at the checkpoint to put on some warmer kit for the night, have a good stretch, eat some food and hydrate.
Then off again…
The next stretch was great, fairly narrow and good flow! It really felt like you where eating up the miles. We raced into the midnight sun. It got twilight but was still light, really strange. The wilderness was breath taking, going on and on. Mountain cliffs, small islands and more trees than I’ve ever seen in my entire life, simply stunning scenery. For a while it was surreal it must have been 50 miles of just burnt out trees where a wild fire must have passed through a couple of months ago, I guess this far out they just let the fires burn. It got pretty cold and I saw quite a few people on the river. Morning came and it took quite a while to warm up and then I came around a corner and there was the first stop at Carmacks. You had to come in on your knees as there was quite a lot of flow next to the dock. My thighs were in pieces and I was pretty wobbly as I got off my board, luckily Catherine and our friend Sandy Clunies-Ross who runs Aspen Breeze B&B in Whitehorse were both there to steady me and get me up the bank. I was then feed, watered and sent off to the massage tent, and off for a few hours sleep. I had gotten in at 3.30pm so that was 27 ½ hours paddling! After a few hours sleep, a shower, kit check, more food, and a re-stock of my supplies, I was off again at 10.30pm. I felt pretty good. I paddled into the midnight sun again. That night went well, I saw a few people had a few chats and felt pretty good. Somewhere around 5am it got really cold and there was fog here and there. The river started to widen out with lots more islands to navigate around. As you’re getting more tired it was harder to read the maps. I probably took a few wrong turns where you lose the flow and end up in dead water pushing hard to get back to the main flow. As the day wore on, it became hotter and hotter and I was really struggling having to take more and more little breaks, mainly to drink out of my filter bottle (one of my best buys). I finally got to the second stop around 6.30pm. There was sandwiches and hot soup – wow they tasted so good!
I found some shade, covered myself in bug spray, and got just over an hours sleep. The volunteers wake you up a half hour before your departure time. I saw Lina Augaitis here and she looked tired but determined. I figured I was maybe an hour behind and hoped to catch up. But that never happened. I struggled once I hit 5 or 6am, I was so tired reading the map was near impossible, all the islands started to fade into one, we had hit the White River too, and in the early morning light everything looked the same colour. I was starting to hallucinate. It’s quite amazing where a sleep deprived mind can take you. Every tree stump is a bear or a person, floating logs could be crocodiles and cliffs have faces which stare at you and follow you as you go past! One point I thought I could hear voices and was convinced I was being followed by hill billies. I was talking to myself too saying MTFU and I pushed on through. It’s surprising how much you can push yourself. I guess not having anywhere to stop makes you push on. I was getting closer, then the last 30km or so there was a f****ng headwind! It seemed to be there around every turn! I started losing it and shouting every bad word you could think of. Then I finally took the last turn and could see the finish! I started to well up. I couldn’t believe I had made it.
“What a crazy, crazy, amazing race! 445 miles in just under 63 hours. I had made it, so stoked!”
Catherine was there at the end shouting me home and helped me off my board, my legs by now just two giant sticks of pain. I was in bits, but I had made it. Nikki Reman, Carmen Merkel and some volunteers helped us, got me sat down, then one of the fantastic volunteers got me a cold beer. It was the best beer I’ve ever tasted!
The rest of the SUP paddlers who were in, came to welcome me in. It was so good we didn’t really need to say too much to each other. I went to our accommodation, had a shower and a bit if sleep and then went back to the finish line to see the last few SUP’s in.
WOW, my hats off to the SUP guys at the front who smashed it, and to everyone else who completed the race. This was so hard, so far outside of my comfort zone, it’s crazy but boy did it feel good to make it!
A couple of our crew didn’t make it and I was gutted for them. I know they put in a lot towards this, but it’s such an extreme race that any little thing you could shrug off in a shorter race will catch up on you. They both pushed further and harder than a lot of people would of. Next year guys.
The next few days were kind of hazy… lots of sleep and lots of food, we even had ‘sour-toe cocktails’ a local Dawson City speciality!
Catherine and I met lots of incredible people, we made great new friends, and really enjoyed our time in the Yukon and Canada as a whole. What a great place and so many opportunities to paddle.
“Would I go back and do it again? – On the river in the heat and in pain I swore no way… but now… hey who knows! But what I do know is that the Yukon River Quest board have now agreed to include SUP as a category for future years.”
Words : André Le Geyt
Well done André. A huge achievement, and great that SUP has now been agreed as a category in the event. We look forward to hearing if you sign up again next year! Just think of the cold beer at the end!
Find out more about the Yukon River Quest on their website.