This year’s Yukon River Quest featured the usual jumble of adventure, weather and local paddlers out in front.
Whitehorse paddlers won three divisions in the 17th annual race that began last Wednesday with the first boats arriving in Dawson City Friday evening.
“It was really unexpected,” said Whitehorse’s Jake Paleczny, 29. He and his partner, Karen Mann, 28, who make up the team Flannel Fantasy, were the first Yukon paddlers to reach the finish.
“We exceeded our expectations, that’s for sure. We spent the next day or two after the race being surprised by what happened, that we were able to keep going strong for that long.”
They took first in the mixed tandem canoe division and placed seventh overall in the 715-kilometre race from Whitehorse.
“We stuck to the plan and raced our own race: not get sucked into what other people are doing, if they are racing up ahead, to not go out and chase them down,” said Paleczny. “You just keep your pace and over the course of the race we ended up passing several boats, which doesn’t always happen because people get quite spread out.
“It’s not because we sped up during the race, it’s because those people we caught up with had slowed down and were running out of energy.”
Paleczny and Mann, who paddled in their first Quest last year, finished in 50 hours, five minutes and 32 seconds to be the second tandem canoe in.
Whitehorse’s Alex Jessup and Robert Spinks placed third in the mixed tandem canoe division and 16th overall at 54:13:42.
Just about a half hour behind Flannel Fantasy was another boat of Yukon champs.
Whitehorse’s Team Ts’alvit placed second out of 10 voyageur canoes and was the top mixed voyageur team.
Other than captain Jim Boyde and wife Pam, it was a whole new crew this year. Also on board were Pat McKenna, Elizabeth Bosely, Mia Lee, Justin Wallace and Andre Paul. With the exception of Paul, who was paddling his first Quest, the rest of the crew was Quest veterans.
“It’s a matter of trying to include different people and first-timers,” said Jim. “The biggest thing, because of the definition we have on the boat – the story line – is to include more First Nation folks in the boat … But also long-time experienced people.”
Team Ts’alvit, which gets their name from the Gwich’in word for arctic loon, placed eighth overall with a time of 50:34:18.
“It was a harder one,” said Jim. “Lake Laberge was flatter, which often helps, but can also be a hindrance because it was very warm. So there was a fair bit of suffering from heat exhaustion.
“Then the low water made you work harder. And there were forest fires happening off on the left side behind Fort Selkirk … (Whitehorse’s) Ingrid Wilcox had mentioned they had a hard time at Fort Selkirk – even finding Fort Selkirk, there was so much smoke right down on the river.”
The Boydes were on the top voyageur team in last year’s Quest, along with Paleczny and Mann.
“We learned a lot from the Boydes on how to race a River Quest,” said Paleczny. “It put us in a good position to do it ourselves this year…
“I don’t think we could have done what we did without the help of people like the Boydes … Pat McKenna lent us her boat to train in and Elizabeth Bosely lent us her boat to race in. That kind of generosity made it really amazing. It would have been really hard to do without that.”
Whitehorse’s Erin Giesbrech had a division all to herself, but she needed to reach Dawson to win it. Giesbrech took first in the women’s solo kayak with a time of 64:15:23.
Whitehorse’s top solo paddler was Thomas de Jager, who placed fourth in solo kayak, 11th overall, at 51:21:26.
For the second year in a row a tandem kayak took the big prize.
Montana’s David Hutchison and Kingston, Ontario’s Bob Ross kayaked to a first place overall finish, reaching Dawson in 44:51:07.
“(We’re) a little tired, but the race went really well,” said Hutchison. “We had real consistent time, felt strong all the way through. We had huge headwinds this side of Carmacks that second night. Then coming into Dawson they were even worse.
“The last 20 or 30 miles, it was blowing so hard, if we stopped paddling I think we would have gone back to Whitehorse.”
They made a good team, but they didn’t even know each other a couple months ago.
Ross called Hutchinson, last year’s solo kayak winner, out of the blue and convinced him to form a tandem team.
“He has done the race before as well and saw that I won the race last year, so he called me up and convinced me I should go race again this year,” said Hutchison. “I was a little uncertain but eventually he talked me into it.
“I’ve never raced tandem before – I never really paddled tandem before this. It was a whole new thing for me.”
Ontarian tandem canoe team of Gaetan Plourde and Jeff Brainard, who are both past solo champs, placed second overall at 45:33:46.
B.C.‘s Gus Oliveira and Chris Spoor placed third overall – second for men’s tandem kayak – at 46:40:51.
A Canadian-U.S. voyageur team with paddlers from B.C., Michigan, California, and Colorado, took fourth overall at 49:29:17.
North Vancouver’s Martin Rother raced to fifth overall and was the top soloist at 49:29:30.
A dozen countries were represented in this year’s race, as well as nine Canadian provinces and territories. A total of 44 boats reached the finish line from the 57 that started. The race was held with the help of about 100 volunteers.
“The enthusiasm of the volunteers on the river is outstanding,” said Quest president Harry Kern. “We have interesting people out there from all over helping our race … and a lot of them are repeat offenders and keep coming back year after year.
“One of the things about this race, a lot like the Yukon Quest (dog sled race), it doesn’t really stop. So for the volunteers, it becomes a 24-hour or more of no sleep environment, just like with the paddlers. The guys at Five Fingers Rapids, making sure no one spills, it’s a 24-hour shift.”
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