Out of food, a Dutch walker finally calls it quits on the Quest trail

CIRCLE Wilco van den Akkar walked into the Circle checkpoint on Friday. He’d been without food for a week.

CIRCLE

Wilco van den Akkar walked into the Circle checkpoint on Friday.

He’d been without food for a week.

Planning to walk the entire Yukon Quest trail, the Dutch adventurer left Fairbanks on January 19th.

It was warm and the first 160-kilometre stretch to the Chena Hot Springs checkpoint went smoothly.

In fact, it was a little boring, said van den Akkar, who was pulling his supplies in a sled.

“The checkpoint wasn’t open yet and you didn’t see anybody on the trail — there was no action.”

The boredom didn’t last long.

After he left Chena, the trail grew progressively softer and patches of deep overflow forced the fit 32-year-old to repeatedly put on and take off his overshoes.

At points, he even needed snowshoes.

It was just below freezing when he started climbing toward Rosebud Summit, the first major hurdle mushers face on the trail.

By the time van den Akkar reached the 1,092-metre peak, it was dark and a storm was rolling in.

“I didn’t see it coming,” he said.

The storm came in fast and van den Akkar, who had dressed light for the climb, wasn’t prepared.

It was blowing so hard “I couldn’t even see my own hands,” he said.

“And I couldn’t do anything with my gear because if I opened my sled it would have all blown away.”

Van den Akkar’s hands started going numb almost immediately.

“I had to get down or I would freeze,” he said.

He knew the trail dropped into a bowl, and headed down accordingly.

And hour later he was out of the wind, dug a snow hole and set up his tent.

The next morning, a quick look at the maps and GPS confirmed his suspicions.

He’d descended in to the wrong valley.

It took him two days to get back out.

“The snow was up to my waist and trying to pull the sled … I was going about half-a-mile an hour.

“I was constantly falling on trees under the snow and couldn’t push myself back up because the snow was soft — it took a lot of energy.”

He finally reached a creek bed and followed it.

“I knew there was a road to the north,” he said.

“I didn’t know how far it was but I headed north.”

Three days later he hit the Steese Highway that leads to Mile 101 dog drop, Central and eventually Circle.

Deterred by his stint on Rosebud and because he was behind schedule, van den Akkar decide to walk the highway around Eagle Summit, which is infamous for high winds and storms.

He joined the Quest trail again at Central and followed it 119 kilometres to Circle.

Van den Akkar had mailed himself food rations and fresh batteries for his GPS, personal tracking device and satellite phone at various post offices en route.

But when he arrived in Circle late Friday evening, the post office was closed.

“I couldn’t wait until Monday for it to open,” he said, citing his tight 30-mile-a-day schedule.

So, van den Akkar bought some food at the Circle store, got additional provisions and batteries from a local German he met and headed out on the Yukon River toward Eagle, 256 kilometres away.

He was roughly one day behind schedule and planned to be in Eagle five or six days later.

But he’d never see the tiny Yukon River community.

The trailbreakers had been through several days before, and although the trail was rough, van den Akkar was making decent time.

“It was cold, but as long as you have the right clothes and keep moving it’s not a problem,” he said.

After he passed Slaven’s Cabin, 93 kilometres from Circle, the trail got worse.

There was jumble ice and patches of fast-moving open water.

“It scared me,” he said. “I was not used to a river like this.”

Van den Akkar had walked rivers before. He’s competed in the Iditaski, where competitors walk, ski or bike the Iditarod trail. In fact, he’d won it in 2006.

“I was only the seventh person in the world to complete it on foot,” he said.

It was after competing in the Yukon Arctic Ultra, that van den Akkar got the crazy idea to walk the Quest trail.

“I heard about the Quest and just thought I’d try the whole trail, not for competition, but just to do it.”

Despite the jumble ice pushing his sled forward and pulling him back until “he felt like an old man,” van den Akkar continued on.

But just after he passed another cabin on the Kandik River, 40 kilometres past Slaven’s, the trailbreakers had turned around.

“There was just a big loop and no more trail,” he said.

He spent the night in the public-use-cabin and called his girlfriend in the Netherlands the next day by satellite phone.

She phoned the Quest office to find out when the trailbreakers were expected to open the route to Eagle.

Anywhere from three days to a week, was the reply.

Not ready to call it quits, van den Akkar decided to try breaking trail.

“But it was impossible, the river was too icy and bumpy and it was minus 60,” he said.

He was afraid he’d end up falling through the ice into the river.

His flimsy tent was nothing more than a wind shelter, van den Akkar was running low on fuel and his food was almost gone.

“By the time I reached the Kandik River it has been six days and I was almost out of fuel,” he said.

If things had gone as planned, he should have been in Eagle by then.

Without fuel van den Akkar would not be able to melt water.

“Without food the body can do OK,” he said.

“But without water …”

He waited a few more days at the cabin, cutting firewood to stay warm and keep busy.

Every day he phoned his girlfriend.

But the news got worse and worse.

“It looked like the trailbreakers would not be coming for 10 days,” he said.

Out of food, van den Akkar decided to head back to Slaven’s after he heard an airplane might be coming to the cabin to drop off people and supplies.

But when he got to Slaven’s the next day, there was no one around.

The planes were grounded because it was minus 65.

Almost out of batteries, van den Akkar had to stop making calls.

However, he did manage to find some fuel for his stove at Slaven’s.

Still without food, van den Akkar knew he had to do something. So, he started the three-day trek back to Circle.

When he arrived, all he could fit in his stomach was two eggs.

“Your body adapts,” he said.

“And my stomach was so small.”

On Monday, he was still stuck in Circle milling around the checkpoint looking for a ride to Whitehorse.

Originally, he’d hoped to make it to Dawson in time to continue with his trek, but after looking at his maps and schedule, he realized it was impossible.

“I already took almost seven weeks off work,” he said.

“I’m disappointed, but I know it’s out of my hands.

“I tried every option down to nothing, and I don’t want to risk my life.”

After giving up his career as sprint swimmer on the Netherlands’ national team, van den Akkar joined the army.

“I wanted to do sports, be outside, and travel the world, and the army seemed to be the way to do that,” he said.

He joined the infantry, and soon realized why he’d excelled as a sprint swimmer.

“I hate long-distance training,” he said.

“Especially running and walking.”

In every infantry exercise, van den Akkar ended up last. And after a year of that, he got fed up.

He started training and ended up running a marathon.

“But I didn’t like simply running on roads,” he said.

“I like walking with a pack and maps.”

He went on to run several races in the Sahara Desert, in the extreme heat.

“Because I don’t like heat,” he said.

Then, he found his niche and started racing in the snow.

“And it all started because I was a bad long distance runner and walker,” he said with a grin.

Van den Akkar finally found a ride on Monday night, with musher Brent Sass’s father/handler.

He is headed to Whitehorse to meet up with his girlfriend, spend a few days in a cabin on Lake Laberge and go mushing.

“You know when you do things like this that they can go wrong,” he said.

“Sometimes you’re lucky.

“But you learn more from disappointing things.

“Sometime you have to fall very hard to get stronger.”