Epic paddle ahead … greenhorns need not apply

Do you understand the meaning of Big Empty?” That was how Peter Coates put it to a Kiwi paddler on the subject of the Yukon 1000 — a…

Do you understand the meaning of Big Empty?”

That was how Peter Coates put it to a Kiwi paddler on the subject of the Yukon 1000 — a thousand-mile canoe and kayak race from Whitehorse to the Dalton Highway north of Fairbanks.

The start date is set for June 20th, 2009, and word is slowly starting to spread in elite paddling circles.

Coates, his son Thomas, and fellow Whitehorse paddler Tim Hodgson cooked up the idea after several runs of the Yukon River — Coates served as race marshal in last year’s River Quest.

“I’ve been thinking about a longer race for some time,” said Coates on Thursday. The Yukon is a good river for a number of reasons.

“It’s very long, of course, and it’s an easy river; there are no rapids or portages.”

The only drawback for staging a race longer than the River Quest is the remoteness. “You’d have to start or finish in the middle of nowhere.”

Coates opted for the latter, finishing in the middle of nowhere, at the bridge on the Dalton Highway, which follows the Alaska Pipeline from Prudhoe Bay.

“There’s a hotel there, and a restaurant, which doubles as a construction camp,” he said with a grin. “The rooms are eight by four, but the showers are hot.”

Coates describes the Yukon 1000 as an unsupported wilderness race, and newbies are most definitely not welcome.

“This is a race for very experienced paddlers, and experts at wilderness travel. You have to be self-sufficient. It’s like you’re going into the wilderness by yourself.”

He added that there will be prerequisites to enter the race, including finishing a River Quest-type race.

He estimates that competitive paddlers will complete the 1,600-kilometre stretch in about a week. That could mean several days without seeing anybody.

“After you get past Lake Laberge, you may not see another paddler until you pull out at Dalton.”

Hence the Big Empty.

“Once you get into the Yukon Flats, past Circle, the river is huge, it feels like you’re on a lake, with current.”

The massive volunteer effort required by standard races wouldn’t be possible for the scope of Coates’ race.

Anyone familiar with the River Quest won’t see much in common with this new race, which is more than twice as long and travels through seriously remote sections of the river.

“There won’t be any checkpoints — we’d need over 15 of them, could you imagine?” said Coates. “And no safety boats, either.”

How can you have a race without on-the-scene officials? Technology has the answer.

The key to making the Yukon 1000 a reality is a device called the SPOT Satellite Messenger.

At the push of a button, teams can send their location to race officials that will be able to track a team’s progress when it checks in with the device, and spectators will be able to see the updates, and find out where their teams are, via Google Earth.

“It’s almost a virtual race with these devices.”

Ideally, racers would update their position on an hourly basis, or at least a few times a day.

“Essentially, any time a racer takes a hand off the paddle, he or she can press the button to update their position.”

Without checkpoints, it will be hard to force teams to stop paddling. Coates’ plan, as it stands, is for every team, pair, or solo paddler to rest for six hours every night — which will be enforced by checking in with the SPOT device.

That idea has caused some grief for Coates, but he’s sticking to it.

“The adventure race community is a strange community, they don’t think it’s a race unless you testing the ability to stay awake.”

Another rule that has some of the more hardcore paddlers squawking is the buddy-system for solo paddlers — Coates wants competitors to work in pairs as much as possible, and he definitely wants solo paddlers to camp out with others.

“If you’re doing this race at speed, then you’re taking risks, and things can go wrong.”

As a trial run, all solo paddlers in this year’s River Quest, including Coates, will take a SPOT device during the race, and the results and tracking system will follow them.

The SPOT has an emergency button, and when pressed it will alert the authorities to send out rescue operations.

Coates said at that remoteness, it may take a day or two to rescue a paddler — but that anyone entering the race will be well aware of the dangers and, of course, will have to sign the waiver.

“It’s the paddler’s responsibility — as if they were on a solo journey in the middle of nowhere.

The Yukon 1000 will be the longest canoe and kayak race in the world, by far, and Coates is confident that the interest will be worldwide — above and beyond the reach of the Yukon River Quest.

“There will be some familiar faces, but we’re tapping into a different stratum — people who don’t want to be corralled.”

He estimates that even 10 entrants will cover his costs for the race. (Entry is $250 per person, entrants must also have their own SPOT device.)

The prize money will depend on the number of entrants after that.

For more information about the Yukon 1000, surf to www.yukon1000.com, e-mail info@yukon1000.com or phone Peter Coates at 668-4630.