Photos by Rebecca Francis (see more on Instagram at @inbetweendreams_adv)
It’s an unfathomable feat for many paddlers: 715 kilometres in a canoe, in three days, alone.
For local canoeist, Chris Near, it’s been a goal for about 10 years and yesterday he accomplished it, completing the Yukon River Quest in 52 hours, 36 minutes and 45 seconds to place second in the Men’s Solo category. That time also put him 19th overall in a field that included tandem canoes and kayaks, C4 canoes (four paddlers to a canoe), and voyageur canoes (six to eight paddlers to a canoe).
It’s a challenging race, both mentally and physically. Of the 117 teams that started the race, 31 didn’t make it to the finish line.
But Near did and he says it was an amazing personal experience.
“I started doing shorter races about 10 years ago and that’s when I first heard about [the Yukon River Quest]. Right away, I kind of said, that’s the granddaddy, I think I need to do that one eventually,” says Near. Every race he’s done over the past 10 years has helped to prepare him in some way, “in terms of making me a better paddler, and stronger, and building some confidence to come here and try to do it.” They also helped him to hone his navigation skills and his ability to read currents.
One of the races he’s a regular participant of is the Algonquin Outfitters Muskoka River X, a local race Near says paddlers are lucky to have in the area.
What sets the Yukon River Quest race apart from others, besides the extreme distance, is the uncertainty involved, says Near. “There’s just so many unknowns in terms of weather and food and how your body is going to react, that a lot of a lot of teams don’t actually finish. There’s no guarantee. And so it’s tough preparing for something you’re not sure you’re going to finish.”
The 22nd annual Yukon River Quest—billed as the world’s longest annual canoe and kayak race—began in Whitehorse at noon on June 26 with a running start. About 250 people in 117 different canoes, kayaks and SUPs raced to the river’s edge where they launched into a fast-moving current.
Not long after leaving Whitehorse, the teams encountered the first challenging part of the race: Lake Laberge. It’s 50 kilometres long and ranges from two to five kilometres in width, and the wind can get paddlers into trouble.
“We did have pretty windy conditions,” recalls Near. “A lot of boats were having to pull over to bail out because they were taking water on. I was lucky enough to kind of roll over the waves, they were the right distance apart that I didn’t take on too much water…You’re paddling down this lake for six to seven hours and it just kind of mentally exhausts you until you get to the end of it.”
Teams are required to be self-supported, carrying with them a tent, sleeping bag, first aid kit, extra clothing, and food. Although the goal is to finish as quickly as possible, some teams stopped to put up their tent and get in a sleeping bag to warm up—the daytime temperatures were warm, at around 28 degrees Celsius, but at night it dropped to around five degrees—while others, like Near, paddled straight through the night, taking advantage of the 24-hour light in the Yukon at this time of year.
The first mandatory checkpoint is at Carmacks, YT, about 300 kilometres into the race. It took Near just over 24 hours to get there. All teams must stop there and rest for seven hours, after which “you have to muster some kind of strength to get back in and keep going,” says Near. “Thankfully, there are sections of the river that do have a fair bit of current to help you, but there are also sections that there isn’t a lot of current, so you’re really trying to paddle as hard as you can.”
The river isn’t too technical to paddle, adds Near, but just a few hours after leaving Carmacks, teams encountered another big challenge: Five Finger Rapids. “It’s big water with standing waves that you kind of crash through. It’s one of the few places where they have a safety boat, because quite often people will take on water or swamp or sink. Once I made it through there, I was quite happy that I didn’t get wet.”
The third major challenge teams face doesn’t come from the river itself. The physical and mental endurance required puts even the most experienced marathon paddlers to the test. “You’re just trying to fight fatigue and soreness and reminding yourself to eat and take in enough food, even when you’re not hungry,” says Near, adding that staying warm is equally important. “When you’ve been paddling and you’re kind of sweating all day, it’s very easy to get chilled [at night]and get into that hypothermic state that once you’re in it, it’s hard to recover from.”
And then there’s the sleep deprivation and trying to fathom the distance involved. After a second, mandatory checkpoint just three hours long, that for Chris came at about 48 hours into the race, there was still 180 kilometres left paddle. “Even though you’ve done the majority of the race at that point, that distance is longer than any other race I’ve done,” he notes.
There are some remote sections on the race route and, as teams spread out, Near had stretches—one for about six hours straight—where he didn’t encounter another person. He did spot a lynx along the shore, though, and bald eagles. Other teams saw grizzlies and moose.
But even though he paddled his canoe solo, he wasn’t entirely alone. “You end up paddling next to someone or close to someone for a couple hours,” Near says, adding that as a solo paddler, when he was feeling tired or had hit a low point, he’d look for another boat to paddle close to to help raise his spirits a bit. The paddling community is a friendly one, and in this race in particular, although teams are racing against one another to the finish, there’s a lot of camaraderie and the distance makes it more of a personal challenge anyhow.
He’s immensely grateful, too, for the support of his wife Rebecca Francis, and his mom and stepdad, Joan and Ed Behm, who were at the race with him, helping with logistics, making sure he had what he needed at the checkpoint in Carmacks, and providing moral support.
Near appreciated the online support he received, too—Francis shared the many comments from people cheering him on from home, which helped give him a boost. “That’s where I drew some of my my energy from, just thinking about all these people rooting for me back home, thinking ‘I’ll keep battling hard or stay awake now’. I want everyone to know that I’m grateful for all the cheering.”
It’s been more than just a paddling adventure for Near and Francis. The couple took 10 days to drive cross-country, leaving Muskoka on June 11 and arriving in Whitehorse on June 21. Along the way they camped in their converted Chevy Express van, “Goldie”, which they bought on Kijiji in the winter and updated with a new bed, food prep area, and (unexpectedly) a new transmission before the trip. Near took the time to train along the way, paddling in the Assiniboine River in Manitoba and in Banff, Alberta, among others. “I didn’t want to arrive at the race kind of seized up from driving, and we wanted to enjoy the scenery along the way,” he says.
And now that the race over, they’ll spend some time exploring. They’re not sure quite where yet. They may just point the van and go—first to maybe Alaska, or maybe along the Dempster Highway which connects Dawson City to Inuvik, NWT. And from there, they’ll head whichever direction calls to them.
Would Near do the Yukon RIver Quest again? Maybe, but probably not solo.
“I’m really happy with how I finished but my body just needs to recover,” says Near. “There’s a lot of people that say never again and they usually come back, but I’m just gonna say give me a little bit more time to decide. I’m glad I did it in a solo boat just to challenge myself…but there’s a C4 canoe that has four people and that might be a fun way to take on the challenge again if I do decide to.”
And he encourages others to challenge themselves, too. “It’s nice to work towards a goal and achieve it,” he says. “I encourage whatever people’s passions are to follow those. I feel grateful and fortunate to be able to come up here and have this experience and be surrounded by some pretty neat people.”
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