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Skeptics silenced as nine paddleboarders reach Dawson

There were doubters. People said the 715-kilometre Yukon River Quest was too long for a stand-up paddleboard division.

There were doubters. People said the 715-kilometre Yukon River Quest was too long for a stand-up paddleboard division.

They were wrong.

Nine of 11 paddleboarders who started last week’s race from Whitehorse to Dawson City reached the finish line over the weekend.

That makes SUP proponent Harry Kern, president of the Yukon River Marathon Paddlers Association, very happy.

“Before the race there was a lot of naysaying going on. I was not one of them … and it gave me great satisfaction to quell the naysaying,” said Kern. “I talked to a number of the paddleboarders during the race … and the thing that was amazing about those guys is their cheeriness.”

Not only did the paddleboarders reach the finish, the first three placed in the top third of the 94 teams in the 18th annual race.

Bart de Zwart of Hawaii – a big name in the SUP world – was the first person to complete the race on two feet.

“I enjoyed the Quest on a SUP. I mean all of us paddlers had tough moments in such a long race and it is a tough race,” said Zwart in an email to the News. “For me as a stand-up paddler it is easier to do it stand-up than sit down in a kayak or canoe, just because this is what I do so it is all about perspective.

“Coming into this race I knew there was a lot of skepticism about the SUP making it in but I think we proved (we belong) in this race.”

Zwart reached Dawson Saturday afternoon with a time of 54 hours, 41 minutes and 14 seconds and was 26th overall out of all boats.

The 45-year-old holds a world record for the longest non-stop, unsupported open ocean crossing on a SUP, is a four-time winner of the 11-City Tour race in Europe and a two-time winner of the Muskoka River X race in Northern Ontario.

“The Quest compares maybe a little to the Muskoka X which is also a long paddle through Canada but less remote,” said Zwart. “It is longer than anything else and more demanding physically and mentally than anything else. So it is unique I have done expeditions which were similar but you can’t compare, this is a race where you push and get pushed a lot harder.”

Squamish, B.C.’s Norm Hann placed second in the SUP division at 54:56:47 (30th overall) and North Vancouver’s Jason Bennett third at 54:56:58 (31st overall).

Whitehorse’s Stephen Waterreus did Yukon proud with fourth at 55:36:55. The 50-year-old was the only paddleboarder to attempt Five Finger Rapids while remaining standing, said Kern.

“He fell, but before we could even think about rescuing him, he was on his board again,” he said.

Coldstream, B.C.’s Lina Augaitis was the top female with a time of 60:22:08 and took 46th overall.

Whitehorse’s Michelle Eshpeter, who doesn’t shy away from SUP challenges, placed second for females at 69:13:39.

“The Quest is tough and that is part of the fun. I truly had so much fun doing this event. I loved the challenge, the scenery and every time I saw another person it was so exciting,” said Eshpeter.

“It was actually easier then I expected. My body felt better then I expected and I had more fun than I expected.”

“I had one hallucination before Carmacks, it was of a man in a boat fishing in slow motion,” she added.

Eshpeter, who led a first-ever SUP expedition in Alaska’s Glacier Bay National Park last year, wouldn’t have even embarked on the Quest if not for the help of fellow Yukoners. The day before the race began Eshpeter learned her board had an irreparable leak.

“Stephen Wattereus generously brought me one of his boards to the start line,” said Eshpeter. “Dan Reimer and I spent the next two hours getting the board set up with my kit and modifying it from the original set up so it would work on this other board.”

“I am so thankful that the organizers gave SUPs a chance this year and specifically that they gave me a chance. I don’t have previous race experience and comparing myself to the rest of the paddlers I definitely think I was the underdog, wildcard or presumably the least likely to finish,” she added.

The borrowed board was good enough to help Eshpeter win a sprint the finish, coming in 1:25 ahead of Yukon SUP pioneer Stuart Knaack of Whitehorse.

The two SUP racers to scratch did so at the Little Salmon checkpoint before Carmacks. One fell ill and the other felt he wouldn’t make the time cutoff.

The SUP division was deemed “experimental” when its inclusion was first announced last November. Though the experiment was clearly a success, Kern can’t say if it’ll be included in next year’s race.

“We haven’t met as a board to discuss it and do a final conclusion on it, but I have canvassed more than half the board who are definitely in favour of including them in next year’s race,” said Kern. “It looks pretty good right now. Personally I can’t see a reason right now why not to.”

That’s good news for Zwart.

“I live in Maui, Hawaii, which I consider one of the best places for a waterman to live, but Yukon is very special and I will be back to defend the SUP discipline in the Yukon River Quest,” he said. “In the SUP world many took notice of this race and followed what was going on. They also saw that Yukon is pure nature, an interesting culture with a hell of a race.”

Contact Tom Patrick at