Severin Nelsen of Skagway pulls away from the Fort Selkirk checkpoint on day three of the Yukon River Quest. Jeff Brady

Skagway’s Severin Nelsen scratches late in YRQ


The 12th annual Yukon River Quest reached a record high of 24 scratches, including Skagway’s Severin Nelsen.
The weather conditions for the better part of the three-day race included wind and rain, and the biggest number of scratches came at Little Salmon, after the large waves of Lake Laberge, with eight teams pulling out.
The winner of this year’s quest was the Texans, a Texas voyageur canoe team, with a time of 42 hours and 48 minutes, more than two hours longer than its winning 2009 time.
Carter Johnson, a solo kayaker who kept up with the Texans six-man team, came in a half second later. He set a new record for his class by about two hours.
Starting at noon on June 30, 78 teams lined up in Whitehorse’s Rotary Peace Park in the rain and ran a short distance to the Yukon River where their boats were waiting for them. Single, tandem and voyageur canoe and kayak teams made their way down the Yukon in hopes of paddling all 460 miles to Dawson City.
According to its website, the YRQ is the longest annual canoe and kayak marathon in the world. The race got its start in the Dyea to Dawson Centennial Race to the Klondike in 1997-98, thought up by Jeff Brady and Buckwheat Donahue.
With his Mountain Shop hat, and White Pass & Yukon Route race bib, Severin Nelsen, team 68, represented Skagway.
Before the start, he told his wife Shandra, not to let him get too excited on the run to the boats, so he that he wouldn’t tire himself out. Nelsen said he jogged to the river and was in the back half of the pack starting out.
The first big challenge for the paddlers was the 31-mile Lake Laberge.
According to the YRQ website, the lake “is the most dangerous part of the journey, because strong wind and large waves can whip up in a matter of minutes.”
Going into the lake, Nelsen said he and the tandem kayak team of Maine residents Brad and Dawn Krog worked very hard to catch up to the women’s voyageur canoe team, Paddlers Abreast - a team of breast cancer survivors from the Yukon.
Although he said he was encouraged going into the lake, after paddling for six hours straight and having a few large waves crash on top of him, Nelsen said he was a little seasick and needed to rest so he could paddle stronger.
The Krogs, however, did not have the same luxury.
After flipping once, and Dawn getting stuck under the kayak, they swam to shore and changed clothes. But after they were back on the lake, their sprayskirt then kept leaking with each crashing wave, and by the middle of the lake they had no more dry clothes.
“We have no problem scratching,” Brad said adding that they came in ninth place overall in last years quest with a tandem canoe. “Now we get to spend some time in the area and more time getting to know the people.”
Brad said the couple’s favorite part of the 2009 race was getting to meet the other paddlers and quest volunteers.
“We met so many people last year that we have kept in contact with,” he said.
The Krogs went on to the Carmacks checkpoint and Dawson City to meet people they watched in YRQ videos during the year and cheer them on.
It took Nelsen eight hours to paddle through the lake, and when he was about four hours away from Carmacks, he was mentally struggling because he knew it was only a 20-minute drive from where he was on the river.
While waiting for her husband to arrive at Carmacks, Shandra sat in the pavilion and updated her Facebook status to let their friends know each time Nelsen went though a checkpoint.
“It was the hardest for me when it was raining because I was worried,” she said.
Shandra said she read books, travel magazines, and watched the entire seventh season of The West Wing because she needed something mindless to pass the time.
“I’m trying not to feel too competitive because it’s his first time doing this,” she said about Nelsen’s kayak racing. “Even if he scratches, he will learn something new.”
The Carmacks Checkpoint 5 is the first mandatory stop where teams are required to spend at least seven hours in the camp. The two leading teams, Texans and Carter Johnson, both pulled into Carmacks at 7:14 a.m. on July 1, with Nelsen pulling in at 4:15 p.m.
“When I got there, I took a warm shower, and Shandra had food waiting for me and I crashed for six hours or so,” he said.
Two of Nelsen’s friends from Skagway even made the trip up to Carmacks to support him. Nelsen said he wished he could have spent more time with them, but he said he was too tired.
Ultimately, Nelsen’s left shoulder caused him to scratch before he reached Kirkman Creek, the seventh of eight checkpoints and the second mandatory stop.
Nelsen said he’s had shoulder problems since he was in high school when he played basketball and ran cross country.
“My shoulder was a little tender in Carmacks, but after I rested it felt a lot better,” he said.
After he left Fort Selkirk, checkpoint six, he ran into a very strong headwind, and he said he paddled too hard for his weak shoulder.
When he pulled over on the river to rest, a safety boat approached him and asked if he was OK. Nelsen said he thought he was fine, but told the volunteers if they saw him again to stop and talk to him.
“They told me I would be to a certain point in a half hour and I didn’t even get to it in an hour,” he said.
Nelsen pulled over one last time to set up camp and wait for the safety boat to come down the river. He scratched about four hours away from Kirkman Creek, about 130 miles short of Dawson.
Despite having to pull out of the race, Nelsen said he is happy that he did the Yukon River Quest.
“It’s a great challenge, and something to really train for and work towards,” he said.
During the race Nelsen kept having to put into perspective how much paddling he was actually doing.
“Outside of the absurdity of the race, paddling for four hours is like an all day paddle,” he said.
Although he wanted to have the mentality that it was “just 4 hours,” he said he had to fight to remember to take good care of himself by stopping to rest, eating and applying sunscreen.
In his tired state, he said he only had a few hallucinations which included seeing bridges and thinking that the bottom of the river was shallow and sandy.
“I kept being tempted to reach out and touch my paddle to the ground because I thought it was so close, but it was actually really deep and I probably would have tipped over,” he said.
Right now, Nelsen said he is resting but as an avid adventurer, his next move is to head to Yakutat for some surfing.
“I’ve only tried surfing two or three times,” he said. “I’m not really a surfer.”
Although Nelsen said the water would be in the 40s, he said he would be fine with a nice thick wetsuit and his big burly beard.

CAPTIONS: Shandra Nelsen helps her husband with his rain gear before moving the boats down to the water. The running start to the canoes and kayaks. Seventy-eight boats head out of Whitehorse; only 54 would finish. Severin paddles through the big waves at the narrows of Lake Laberge. Whitehorse film maker Werner Walcher shoots Severin as he pumps out water during a rest stop on the lake. Photos by Katie Emmets and Jeff Brady