Horrible weather defined the first half of this year’s Yukon River Quest, as paddlers faced cold, rain, and even hail and lightning from Whitehorse to Carmacks.
But, after the sun came out in the second half of the race, it was all about breaking records.
The top teams were so quick that race organizer Jeff Brady had to get volunteers in Dawson to set up the finish line much earlier than expected.
First to arrive, at 3:07 p.m. Friday, was the tandem kayak of Brandon Nelson and David Kelly, posting a time of 40:37:05 (not including a 10-hour layover).
Shattering Greg McHale and Steve Mooney’s 2005 record by more than two hours, Nelson and Kelly credited the foul weather, and the big waves on Lake Laberge, for their impressive finish.
“The only reason we were able to break the record was the conditions on Laberge,” said Nelson, who hails from Bellingham, Washington.
“We’re both surf skiers, surfing comes naturally to us — that’s where we made up all our time. We’d surf for two minutes at a time.”
Both paddlers also held records from last years’ race, Kelly in the solo kayak (broken this year by Carter Johnson of California) and Nelson in the mixed tandem kayak with Heather Nelson, his wife.
However, paddling together was a new experience for the two men.
“Our first time in a boat together was Monday,” said Kelly, a professional adventure racer from San Rafael, California.
“Our second time was Wednesday to now. We just believed things would gel, and we would work well together, and we obviously did.”
Kelly doesn’t put much stock in the setting a new record.
“Records are kind of enigmatic, you never quite know how to take them — certainly there’s some pride in that, but a race like the Yukon River Quest has so many facets to it.
“Each year is so different, it’s hard to compare.”
Kelly’s competitive side came out when asked about his race strategy.
“Our intention from the beginning wasn’t to break records, it was to break our competitors’ spirits,” he said, with a mischievious grin.
“Force them to second guess themselves, to think, ‘Holy crap, can we really keep up with these guys … do we really want to hurt that much?’”
“Then we’ll just leave them to their own imaginations and machinations,” he laughed.
Racing means digging down into the depths of who one is, and enduring the suffering, said Kelly.
“The best racers know they’re going to have low periods, they’re going to be brought down to their knees, and they’ll pull themselves out of it,” he said.
After getting their required gear checked and showing off their blisters, the winners had other things on their minds.
“Can I treat you to a milkshake?” asked Nelson.
“I’d love a milkshake,” said Kelly.
Two hours and 19 minutes later, the second team arrived.
Kisseynew Dalutweh-Denesuline, a mix of paddlers from Saskatchewan, Manitoba, Alberta and Ryan Martin, the first Yukoner to finish, set a new record in the voyageur canoe class.
“We had all eight people paddling at all times, 50 to 60 strokes per minute, switching every 30 strokes,” said Kisseynew captain Martin Bernardin, who built the canoe in Saskatoon.
Heather Nelson set a new record in the women’s solo kayak, finishing in sixth place overall.
That means the husband and wife from Bellingham now hold four race records (tandem mixed kayak in 2005, solo women’s kayak, tandem open kayak and the course record in 2006).
In all, six new records were set, and four remain from previous years.
Defending champion Steve Mooney ran into some bad luck this year, withdrawing from the race after repeatedly dumping his kayak.
“It’s disappointing,” said Mooney. “This is one of the first races I haven’t completed.”
He decided to scratch near Hootalinqua, “the fifth time I dumped — I knew I wasn’t going to get warm after this,” he said.
At the awards presentation on Sunday at Diamond Tooth Gertie’s, Brady recognized several teams.
The Spirit of the North Award was presented to Scott and Dave McGee of Lethbridge, John and David Little of Red Deer and Edmonton, and Michael Hayes of Michigan for coming to the aid of a team that was caught in a log jam near 5 Mile Bend for more than two hours while the safety boats were busy upstream.
The Red Stove Award, for the last-place finish, was split between Dr. Michael Faughey-Scraggs of the UK and Bill Winslow of Sitka.
The two solo kayakers brought up the rear at 3:21 a.m. Sunday.
Graham Sheward and Richard Clives, also of the UK, took home the Oldest Team to Finish Award, with a combined age of 141.
Solo kayak women
1st KayakForCare, Heather Nelson, 46:32:27
2nd Lubbock Flower Power, Ingrid Wilcox, 57:04:00
3rd Grandma Bun Bun, Linda Bourassa, 63:28:06
Solo kayak men
1st Carter Johnson, 44:56:34
2nd Tom Simmat, 47:21:19
3rd Jeffrey Bannish, 50:44:25
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Tandem canoe mixed and women – (only two female teams)
1st Veronica Wisniewski and Edoh Amiran, 49:17:19
2nd Pauline Frost-Hanberg and Viki Cirkvencic, 49:18:56 (new women’s canoe record)
3rd Laurel Archer and Michele Genge, 51:45:02
Tandem canoe open
1st Steven Landick and Gregg Nelson, 46:01:27
2nd Opiniska, Andy Sewap and Dennis Fosseneuve, 49:02:42
3rd Chris Wenger and Ferdi Wenger, 49:48:48
Tandem mixed and women’s kayak
No awards — all entries scratched
Tandem kayak open
1st Brandon Nelson and David Kelly, 40:37:05
2nd Matthew Bailey and Shaun David Thrower, 46:01:28
3rd Richie Astridge and John Catto, 47:13:30
1st Kissynew, 42:56:13 (new record)
2nd False Creek Women, 50:59:13
3rd Scarlet Fever, 53:17:36