One thousand miles.
This is the approximate distance between London, U.K., and Florence, Italy. It’s 50 miles longer than the fastest road route between Vancouver and San Francisco. It is also the distance between Whitehorse and the Dalton Highway Bridge in Alaska via the Yukon River, the course of the world’s longest paddle race, the Yukon 1000.
Earlier this summer, two Whitehorse residents, Carmen Gustafson and Crispin Studer, partook in the challenge, finishing in six days, nine hours and 28 minutes. The duo secured the second-place spot in the standings, paddling their canoe across the finish line roughly 16 minutes after the first-place team.
The road — or, perhaps more appropriately, river — to the finish line was long for Gustafson. She initially applied and was accepted to participate in the Yukon 1000 in 2020, aiming to race in 2021 with a friend from the United Kingdom who was previously a Royal Marine.
The pandemic delayed these plans when the race was cancelled in 2021. Their participation was postponed to 2022, but Gustafson’s marine friend could not join due to other commitments. Studer stepped in at the last minute, but Gustafson’s involvement in the race was once again derailed.
“I got really sick, probably COVID, so I had to pull the pin on the race just a couple of days before the start. And I’m really glad that I did,” Gustafson says.
This latest setback meant that 2023 would be the year.
Despite initially planning to race in a two-person kayak, Gustafson and Studer decided to use a canoe, one of the three non-motorized watercraft allowed in the competition, with standup paddleboards being the third. They also chose the team moniker “Not A Crisis.”
After deciding upon a name and how they’d tackle the race, the duo began what Gustafson calls “the least disciplined training regime” she’s done. They cross-country skied over the winter, which she notes works on the same muscles as paddling, and strength trained. Once the ice was off local waterbodies — six to eight weeks before the race, they put in 100 hours of paddling adventures.
Aside from training, Gustafson and Studer came into the race with an impressive array of relevant experiences in other outdoor challenges.
Gustafson had previously completed the Yukon River Quest four times as a full-race participant and once as a half-race participant. Meanwhile, Studer had taken part in the Yukon Quest sled dog race twice and secured the top spot in the Percy DeWolfe Memorial Mail Race in 2011, 2013, 2014, 2015 and 2016, with solid finishes in several other years.
“I’ve paddled with lots of different people, and I’ve learned from a lot of different people as well. [… Studer] came into the race with a lot of mid- and long-distance dog sled racing experience, which was, you know, really unique,” Gustafson tells the News, adding that Studer also participated and performed strongly in the 2022 Yukon River Quest.
“So, we came into the Yukon 1000 with some pretty good race experience.”
The race kicked off on July 15, with Gustafson and Studer blasting up through Lake Laberge and finishing their first day in “10th place, or something like that.” They camped next to another team on the first night and were up bright and early, and on the water before their neighbours were even awake.
“We take off, and then we just start passing teams that are still on the side of the river, packing up their camps. And we’re like, ‘Oh, my goodness, we’re, you know, we’re passing another one and another one and another one,’” Gustafson says.
“And then we started passing teams that were paddling, and we’re like, ‘Oh, well, this is this is going well, this is a surprise.’”
Over the following days, the pair would pass more teams until they cruised into second place at some point beyond 40 Mile and before the Yukon-Alaska border. They were informed of their position by the stand-up paddleboarders that they passed, who also told them that the leading team — two Estonian kayakers — was only about 40 minutes ahead of them.
“We couldn’t believe it. Because at that point, we thought that we were hours behind them and there was no way we’d be able to catch them. So, we got pretty excited and started paddling hard,” Gustafson says.
The top two teams came face-to-face in Eagle, Alaska where race participants must stop and alert U.S. customs of their arrival via a phone. However, the customs phone was out of service, so Gustafson and Studer decided to carry on while the Estonian team, dubbed the “HUUM Sauna Kayak Team,” hung around, trying to figure out what to do.
“The Estonian women had been trying to figure out what to do and […] they were quite concerned about crossing the border, rightfully so, and not doing it properly. And we were like, this is rural Alaska, things break and don’t get fixed for a long time. So, what else can we do? Let’s go,” Gustafson says.
And with that decision, Not A Crisis was first in the Yukon 1000, a hugely exciting moment for both team members. For the remainder of the race, Not A Crisis and HUUM Sauna Kayak Team would take turns in the lead, even paddling together for portions of the Yukon Flats, although the race remained competitive.
“I didn’t expect Carmen to be that competitive, but she became, like, highly, highly competitive and never slacked for days and days, chasing them […] So that was very exciting, and I loved that,” Studer tells the News.
On the final day Gustafson and Studer fell into second place after opting not to take a precarious shortcut that the HUUM Sauna Kayak Team took. The decision cemented Not A Crisis’ position as the 2023 race’s runners-up.
“At the finish, they were about 15 minutes ahead of us. And yeah, we had, you know, big hugs and handshakes […] It ended up pretty good,” Gustafson says.
“Crispin and I said that if they ended up winning after taking that risky shortcut that, you know, they really deserve to win and that it was, you know, it was a strategic win. And we were happy with that.”
After the excitement of completing the race subsided, the top finishers learned that the third-place team would not arrive until the next day, highlighting how far ahead they were.
“We were so far ahead and that was the best news. That was incredible,” Gustafson declares, adding the competitive nature of the top two teams led them to “push each other,” creating the considerable gap between the top two teams and the third-place finishers.
There is no prize money for the Yukon 1000’s top-performing teams, instead, according to Studer, they were given T-shirts, beers and commemorative coins.
Following the race, Gustafson and Studer invited the winning team to join them for a paddle in Whitehorse. On July 30, the Yukoners and Estonians met at Fish Lake, with the former teaching the latter how to marathon canoe.
“So it ended up being a really nice relationship and, you know, a lot of mutual respect.”
Contact Matthew Bossons at email@example.com