Team Yukon River Pirates paddles away from Carmacks after the first of two mandatory rests. Jeff Brady

Pirate’s Log: Swashbucklin’ down the Yukon River
YRQ: Tough navigating, rough water

By Molly Dischner

Editor’s note: From June 24-27, Skagway News reporter Molly Dischner competed with fellow UAF student Tran Smyth in the 11th annual Yukon River Quest. They finished 41st out of 73 teams with a time of 61 hours, 20 minutes, a new record for a Skagway canoe in the YRQ. Below is her logbook for Team 70: Yukon River Pirates.

Whitehorse to Carmacks: 200 miles

At high noon, we set sail on the Yukon with the ol’ Jolly Rroger flying prominently in our boat’s stern. A crew of bandana-clad pirate supporters watched us sail away in the black Skagway canoe. I was relieved to start paddling.
This was the second time I had embarked on the 460-mile Yukon River Quest. Last year, I had been part of a voyageur crew, and me hearties were from Skagway, Juneau, and Washington. This year, I raced aboard a tandem canoe with a bloke that goes by the name Tran Smyth, a matey from school.
Early on, my boat traded blows with a pair of landlubbers whose home port was Anchorage. The swashbucklin’ was friendly: our weaponry, despite a last-minute upgrade to higher-powered squirt guns, didn’t have the range needed for a serious attack. When we tried (and failed) to pillage some sea dogs from Juneau (who zipped by, not to be seen again until we reached Dawson), they laughed at us and suggested an easier target – cruise ship passengers in Skagway.
We lost our Anchorage buddies about twelve miles down Lake Laberge. Lakes are no place for pirates (I’ll take water with waves any day), and this one dragged on forever.
Things perked up once we got on the river again. I took a few naps that night and spent the day watching cloud shapes (elephants and ghosts and more) in the sky. As we paddled towards Carmacks, we alternated chasing and leading a white canoe, but by Little Salmon it was out of sight. When we finally made it to Carmacks, I was glad get out of the boat for the first time in over 29 hours.

SMILING THROUGH THE PAIN - Team 70 members Molly Dischner and Tran Smyth. Harry Kern

Carmacks to Kirkman: 160 miles

Thanks to me hearties Dorothy Brady and Mike O’Daniel (our support crew), we departed Carmacks with a full resupply and a clean boatskiff. Rough water and navigating conditions made this the toughest part of the race. We descended upon Five Finger Rapids first. Waves crashed into my lap, sending water down the front of my lifejacket. Mike yelled “arr,” from the bluffs above, and seconds later the rapids were over.
As we approached Minto hours later, the barge was crossing back and forth from the mine side of the river to the road. Getting caught in the barge’s wake terrified me. But that water was much calmer than the rough seas we sailed whenever safety and media boats passed us, and I felt a little foolish for panicking.
Once we passed the barge, we became dependent on my hazy memory and map-reading skills to navigate the rest of the way, as neither of us had much experience on that section of the river. From Minto to Fort Selkirk, things went pretty smoothly. And then we had two problems: headwinds and islands.
Navigating was the hardest part of the rest of the race. Last year, food plagued me like that great white whale. This year, it was the map that did me in. I had to adjust to reading it, paddling, watching for landmarks, and checking and paddling and watching for landmarks and checking the GPS all at once (last year I was able to zone out blissfully for long stretches of river). To make it worse, the map was full of pictures without stories, which tortured me.
Just outside of Kirkman, I panicked one more time: I didn’t think we’d manage to find the checkpoint. We did, and we got there, and we learned that we weren’t the only crew having trouble. Quite a few teams scratched on that leg of the race.

Team Yukon River Pirates battles head winds on one of the long stretches before Kirkman Creek. Harry Kern

Kirkman to Dawson: 100 miles

As navigator, I trusted my map to make the last leg of the voyage the fastest. But the river is tricky, and the main channel zig-zagged from bank to bank. I lost the channel, and instead of zooming along, we had to proceed cautiously to avoid gravel bars and shallow spots. Eventually, with the help of the kayaks ahead of us, we found our way to the good side and did our best to follow the river as it meandered back and forth.
Despite the hazards, the final early-morning paddle was the best part of the race. We started to figure out how to follow the current, and the river finally felt like it was moving. As we followed the main channel, we paddled past the only major wildlife we saw during the race – a mama moose and her calf. I spent much of that morning thinking about why we paddled and the stories the Yukon held. Tran joked that we would arrive in Dawson much like the gold miners had: absolutely exhausted. That got me thinking about why they headed to the Klondike, and why I was following in their footsteps.
As we paddled past the confluence of the Yukon and the Klondike, I knew I was in better shape than the miners or the pirates. People I cared about were waiting for me on shore. Dawson has refrigeration now (so I could eat all the ice cream I wanted once we arrived). I was sore, but I still had my eyes and limbs. Those things were definitely better than gold.

Thanks to the Skagway Alpine Club sponsors for letting us commandeer their canoe, and to the pirates who supported us onshore: Dorothy and Danny Brady, Denver Evans, Mike O’Daniel, and Randy Peterson.

Team 70's support crew helps haul the canoe to the river in Whitehorse, and then cleans out and reorganizes the boat in Carmacks. Jeff Brady