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Spokanites shine in 444-mile Yukon River Quest

Spokane paddlers power a 28-foot canoe 444 miles in the 2013 Yukon River Quest race.
Spokane paddlers power a 28-foot canoe 444 miles in the 2013 Yukon River Quest race.

Registration recently opened for the 2014 Yukon River Quest to be held June 25-29. Buoyed by this year’s top-level performance, a few Spokane paddlers with a high threshold for pain may give North America’s longest paddling race another shot.

The “Your Worst Nightmare Dream Team,” representing the USA, paddled the 444-mile event from Whitehorse to Dawson City in 45 hours, 28 minutes to win the voyageur canoe category.

The group included Tim Ahern, Stormy Weathers, and Brook and Lisa Swanson of the Spokane Canoe & Kayak Club, plus a woman from Hawaii and a man from Texas.

Results show 62 teams from nine countries started the race; 49 teams finished.  A tandem canoe won for the first time since 2004, finishing 26 minutes ahead of Team USA.

Allen Cousins of Spokane, who solo kayaked the race this year, will lead the group in a program about the event on Monday.

The first major challenge for the Spokanites was the 1,700-mile drive one-way to Whitehorse, Yukon.

“Three teams this year didn’t compete because of car accidents on the way there,” Ahern said.

Everyone on the Dream Team was an accomplished paddler, but they hadn’t paddled as a group.

They rented a 28-foot voyageur canoe that was only 36 inches wide – tight, tippy quarters for six paddlers.

“We had two days to get our act together prior to the race,” Ahern said. “The canoe was built for a long-distance river race, it was not what a novice would consider stable. … But we never capsized, not even in the rapids.”

The rapids section of the river eliminated three other boats from the 2013 event, organizers said.

The first major challenge on the water was the 2 1/2-hour crossing of Lake Laberge.

“The notorious winds stayed down, so we were grateful for that,” said Ahern, who also attempted the race in 2010.

“Other years, the wind has been very challenging.

“In 2010, we had to pull off the river and be rescued.”

Although the winds were not serious, they endured horrendous thunder storms. Lightning strikes started fires on the river shores, Ahern said.

“It was 2 a.m. and nowhere to go. We just kept paddling. What else do you do?”

The team was required to take two rest stops during the 55 hours they were along the river. Their first was a seven-hour break after 20 straight hours of paddling. The second break was three hours after 16 hours of paddling before they make the final nine-hour surge to the finish.

They paddled through the night, but the sky never got dark in the far-north summer.

“That’s why it’s called the Race to the Midnight Sun,” Ahern said.

Individuals would take breaks ranging from 30 seconds to two minutes while others kept paddling. They shifted positions occasionally.

Their plan was to eat and drink every half hour to keep energy up.

Of course what goes in must come out.

“Some used a pee bottle, but a couple simply didn’t go,” Ahern recalled without offering to elaborate. “I don’t know how they did that.”

They used GPS coordinates from past teams to help them navigate the various channels. Some are non-navigable.

GPS is a tool racers didn’t have when the Yukon River Quest debuted in 1999.

“We had only a few minor problems with gravel bars, but in the past people have gotten into some messes in the big, braided river sections,” he said.

Some entertainment was provided by wildlife, including golden eagles and a moose that swam by. “Moose are tremendous swimmers,” Ahern said.

Once they floated beyond villagers into the wilderness section, they encountered a few hundred miles of big open expanse.

“There’s not a whole lot out there,” Ahern said. “We talked a lot. That’s the neat thing about a voyageur canoe when you have good team members.”

The group effect helps paddlers avoid the hallucinations reported by sleep-deprived solo and tandem team paddlers.

“The second-place team used a metronome to help keep their paddling pace,” Ahern said.

The first-place paddlers “were really tough and they knew the river,” he said.

Despite the world of self-portrait images flooding social media, the Spokane team has no photos from the event.

“We were there to race. We didn’t have a camera in the canoe,” Ahern said.

But they’ve gathered shots from other sources to put on a good program, they say.

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