“To tell you the truth, I would never do this race,” Al Foster says over the phone two days after the Yukon River Quest (YRQ) has ended for another year.
It’s not what you’d expect to hear from a guy who’s followed the 715-kilometre paddling race from Whitehorse to Dawson City for the last 22 years. But if he was going to paddle it, he says he’d take his time. Volunteering for the race, though, is another story for the 74-year-old Yukoner.
“Yeah,” he says, pausing to think. “Once you get started, it’s kind of addictive.”
Foster got his start in 2001, when his wife, Claire Desmarais, entered as part of Paddlers Abreast, the longtime team of breast cancer survivors and their supporters who paddle every year.
Foster initially followed the race to run support for their voyageur canoe. When they got to Carmacks, however, he says the race seemed short-staffed. He jumped in and started helping out where they needed. After that, it kind of became a habit. The kind of habit that goes from a helping hand, to working the start line, to joining the board, to pulling all-nighters at the Carmacks checkpoint, to lifting racers out of their boats when they land in Dawson City and can’t feel their legs.
He won the Spirit of the Yukon award in 2014. Jeff Brady, YRQ co-founder, says it was due to his guidance in Carmacks and in preparing briefings for paddlers.
“It seems like he’s always there in Carmacks to help show everyone how to handle boats as they come in,” says Brady. “He’s one of those good old souls of the YRQ.”
Three years ago, major heart surgery made Foster think about slowing down. That’s when he started saying he was done with the race. He just knew how much he put into it every year.
“When I’m with the River Quest, I’m not one of those people who moderate myself too much,” he says. “And I said, ‘I might not be able to do that anymore.’”
In 2021, he officially retired, but in 2022, high water levels led to a dip in volunteers. Foster stepped up again for what he said then would be the last time.
However, in 2023, Paddlers Abreast made a last-minute decision to paddle the half distance race to Carmacks so one of the team’s members, Lynn Rice-Rideout, could get enough kilometres to join the 10,000-kilometre club. And if he was going to support the boat and the race as far as Carmacks, why not go all the way to Dawson?
“It’s the sense of community,” he says. “People and volunteers working together. The board, the racers, the people along the river.”
One of his favourite things is being at Carmacks, waiting on the dock for teams to come in, while also shepherding teams out. All the support crews and volunteers are working together to get paddlers where they need to be. He loves seeing the commitment from people in Carmacks who know that once they’re posted there, they’re there for 24 hours. Or the youth group Y2C2, the Yukon Youth Conservation Corps, which has gotten high school and university-aged youth involved in volunteering. Or the people at the finish line in Dawson who know they’re not going anywhere until the last boat comes in.
Then there are the racers, he says.
“That’s one of the main things that’s really pulled me back to the race year after year,” he says. “To watch people, even though they’re not in the winning category, but they completed the race and really just get something personal out of that.”
Contact Amy Kenny at firstname.lastname@example.org