Yukon River Quest Journal

Eric Nelson and Bob Funk get splashed as Team 79 paddles through Five Finger Rapids.

Reporter paddles with voyageur team from Whitehorse to Dawson City

Story by Molly Dischner • Photos by Jeff Brady

Skagway News reporter Molly Dischner paddled with Team 79 Kookas Kanootts in the 10th annual Yukon River Quest June 25-29. Along with another 18-year-old in another voyageur, she was the youngest person in the event, paddling with a group of men from Juneau, Skagway and Washington in their 40s and 50s. Here is her journal from the “Race to the Midnight Sun.”

Day One: Whitehorse to Carmacks. 26 hours.
Preparing for the race, I was afraid of three things: peeing, hallucinating, and not being as hard-core as the rest of my team, whom I didn’t meet until four days before the race. I knew it would be fun and hard, and those were the only things I was really hesitant about.
Starting was a relief; I didn’t have to worry anymore, I just had to paddle! Almost everyone sprints, or at least runs, the kilometer from the start line to the boats. Not our team. Mike Hardy – the other Skagwegian – did, but the rest of us stuck with Dave Sevdy, one of our captains, who walked.
Once we got going, we paddled steadily toward Lake Laberge and enjoyed the sun – I think I smiled the entire way to Policeman’s Point (the first checkpoint) – and having a chance to visit with fellow racers.
Everyone had warned me that Lake Laberge was miserable, but I actually enjoyed it. The only downside was the music fiasco, a problem that didn’t end until we reached Dawson.
About seven o’clock, Eric Nelson pulled out the CD player. We had been holding between four and six miles an hour, but the boat was starting to stay at the low end of that.
As the first song started, Sevdy asked me what I thought it was.
“Coldplay, I think,” I said.
And then there was a Salsa-y sound.
“Oh wait. Maybe not.”
But the words were what we expected. Definitely Coldplay.
“Oh good,” he said. “I was worried Eric would bring his ballroom dance music.”
I chuckled at the thought of middle-aged men – or myself – paddling to ballroom dance music. It sounded like something the 70-year-old crowd would opt for.
The song finished. Something mellow came on next. Not great for paddling, but better than ballroom music.
Eric asked if we liked the CD. It was Cuban artists covering their favorite American songs, he explained.
So that was the funky phrase in Clocks. Sevdy groaned, and I started to think the CD might go downhill. Soon the covers were of songs straight out of the late 80s and early 90s. Not ones I remember fondly.
Surprisingly, the bad music made the middle of the lake seem shorter. Ridiculous or not, it gave us something to laugh about.
For the most part, I was less worried about the things that had made me nervous at the start. I filled my yogurt container on the third try (not great, but I figured I had 400-some miles to get more comfortable with it), wasn’t sleepy yet, and discovered the rest of the crew – men in their 40s and 50s – weren’t nearly as hard core as I was expecting.
After the lake, I started to get sleepy. Talking might have helped, but everyone seemed sluggish and no one had the energy for words. Even Rolf Nelson, master of bad puns, was quiet.
When Sevdy asked us what a big, dark, structure was around 1 a.m., it didn’t really hit me that it was something we wouldn’t want to be close to.
Later, whenever we saw an undistinguishable mound ahead, the joke went like this:
Person one: “I wonder what that is?”
Person two: “Probably a moose. Or a tree.”
Person three: “Let’s go check it out!”
That’s just about what happened that first time. What we didn’t stop to think about were simple rules of nature: trees and animals are attached to the ground, and typically found in shallow water. Voyageur canoes, particularly those with keels and a rounded bottom, don’t do well on gravel bars.
We hit bottom and Sevdy fell out. Eric, our other captain, jumped out, and the two of them got us off Anchor Bar and moving again. From then on, Eric, the sternman/map reader/spotter of gravel bars was extra cautious.
From Hootalinqua to Little Salmon (the next stretch of river), we passed bunches of historical sites. Between the six of us, we joked that we couldnít figure out more than 40 percent of the story behind each site, but looking forward to each one still gave us a way to pass the time. I got more and more sleepy as the night went on, and by daylight, I felt awful. I didn’t think I could finish the race.
The plan was to paddle to Carmacks without a break, but I must have seemed desperate, because they started looking for somewhere to pull over.
Stopping helped, I didnít feel great, but we were all paddling a little better when we got back in the boat. Little Salmon was what really helped. Waiting on the shore to cheer when we paddled by were our support crew and friends.
And then we hit the oxbows. The oxbows are a particularly windy part of the Yukon, just before Carmacks, where the river makes a huge spiral. The guys were barely paddling, I felt like we were doubling back and paddling the same segment of river again and again, and aside from briefly spotting one boat, we didn’t see anyone the whole time. Laberge had been cake compared to the oxbows. We were 24 hours into the race, and the constant breaks in the middle were getting on my nerves. Plus, it felt like we were paddling in a strange loop.
Sevdy noticed the whole boat was dragging, and 10 or 20 miles from Carmacks he suggested we muscle through the rest. I zoned out, paddled as hard as I could, and was content. Twenty or so minutes into it, I felt as good as I had during the first sunny stretch of the race. I was smiling more than I had since I had gotten sleepy the night before. I probably enjoyed it more than the others – sometimes we had to remind the middle that paddling hard meant no stopping ñ but our pace picked up.
In no time, we were in Carmacks, where we spent the mandatory seven hours rest stop, but not an extra second.

Team 79 paddles with other racers past Policeman’s Point, a monitoring station before the teams head out onto Lake Laberge

Support crew member Mike O’Daniel helps Dave Sevdy and Mike Hardy get the boat ready to leave Carmacks. Molly Dischner applies sunscreen before paddling under the midnight sun.

Day Two: Carmacks to Kirkman. 17 hours.
Paddling away from Carmacks and through Five Finger Rapids was my favorite part of the race. There are a couple more twists between before the rapids, but the Yukon gives up on the oxbows of doom pretty soon after Carmacks, and it was a gorgeous ride.
I couldn’t stop smiling. I was happier than I’ve ever been in my life. Everyone else was doing better too. Bob Funk was back to his 10-stroke water breaks that left the rest of us marveling at his drinking speed. Whether we were happy to be rested and fed, or because Rolf was taking a break from the bad puns is debatable, but it didnít matter much. We caught up to a couple boats, and took mini-breaks to take pictures and chat with paddlers.
Sevdy started talking about how the river was going to pick up soon. We were averaging a little under 10 miles an hour, but Sevdy kept telling us about a miraculous part of the river. The rest of the river, we’d cruise along at 13 or 14 miles an hour easily, he said.
We knew that whatever was helping us keep moving was helping our competition keep moving too, so we had to try to stay steady. Going through the rapids was fun, but as I told Eric once we were through, they should have been longer!
We passed some major sites – Yukon Crossing and Minto being the most prominent – without fanfare. Eventually we didn’t know if Paddlers Abreast (or as Hardy called them, “the breast girls”) were ahead of us or behind us with all the sloughs and channels to choose from. At Fort Selkirk, we took a 10-minute break to stretch our legs. Luckily, Hardy kept us moving, and our break ended right at 10 minutes. When we paddled away from Fort Selkirk, we could see Paddlers Abreast behind us.
We couldn’t see them for very long, but Hardy and I kept telling everyone they were right behind us to keep the boat moving. By then, he had changed their name to “The Beastie Girls”.
Eventually, I hit the point of exhaustion where I was really, really, talkative. Mostly I laughed at everything, and was very sarcastic. I don’t know how much the guys enjoyed it, but I was having fun. I also had a lot more energy to paddle. Every so often, I’d beg them to do a power 20, where we paddled as hard as we could, and they’d oblige with a whole lot of grumbling.
Sometimes I got the feeling they only said “yes” so that I would be quiet for a couple minutes, but other times Rolf really seemed excited about it, and the grumbling must have been for show, not because they actually minded paddling hard. Once, Sevdy suggested we power until the first person threw up. I was game, but Rolf stopped counting the power at 50. Eric pulled out the Cheez-Its, and we all got distracted.
Between there and Kirkman Creek, Sevdy did a couple longer power sets with me, and once or twice I went to 100 on my own. We hit a windy stretch, and kept waiting for Sevdy’s fabled fast water. We also raced other boats for a while, which kept our speed up, and kept up our wildlife count. In a really rocky area, we saw something other than birds – three sheep – and added geese and swans to the bird list that already included eagles, gulls, loons, and some others we couldnít identify.
We raced Incredigirls for a while, but couldn’t get ahead until we picked different routes around an island. When we pulled into the Kirkman Creek homestead for our second mandatory rest, they were just a few minutes behind us, and on their way to breaking the women’s tandem kayak record.

The Juneau-Skagway voyageur team leaves Carmacks rested and ready to paddle hard.

Day Three: Kirkman to Dawson. 10 hours.
The three-hour break at Kirkman was much needed. After getting sick on the first stretch, I decided not to eat too much because I didn’t want to feel nauseous again. By the time we got to Kirkman, I was famished, and wolfed down my sandwich and soup. The sleep was good too, although I was one of the few people on my team to really rest.
Eating on the boat turned out to be way more of a problem than hallucinating. I never hallucinated, although once my team told me I was (turns out I could just see better than the rest of them). Hardy was the only person to ever mention a hallucination – a white pickup on the river. But eating was hard. I didn’t like stopping paddling to eat, and I was afraid of getting sick. By the time we were on the final 100 miles, I also didn’t have the energy to chew. Pudding and applesauce wound up being my favorite foods.
The only bad weather was just after Kirkman. We hit a storm. Sevdy and Eric had never really been able to hear each other, but the storm made it worse, and it was pretty tense for a while. The clouds stayed ahead of us, or over us, for a couple hours, letting up just long enough for us to find Triangle Mountain (a bad description of a mountain, by the way: most mountains can be construed as triangles), and get into the best channel.
The storm actually wasn’t too bad. It provided variety, and gave us something to think about. The hardest part of the last stretch was mental. Although we were all exhausted, there was no question that our bodies could finish. But we were definitely having trouble mentally. For me, the worst part was the switches. I knew we needed to switch to keep going, but every time we did, the boat fell apart. We were too tired and chafed to successfully swap sides, and our boat died every time we moved. I dreaded switching because it made me question our paddling.
Unlike during the first two segments, we didn’t take a shore break on the last day of paddling. Instead, after we were out of the storm, we all stopped paddling and floated for about 10 minutes while everyone ate and prepared for the final hours of the race.
Somehow, we never found Sevdy’s super-fast stretch of river. But we still had teams to catch up to during the last stretch, and they kept us moving forward. We never saw Paddlers Abreast after Kirkman, although we were always worried they might show up on a long straightaway. The last 30 miles or so we raced a tandem through the fog, and with about 10 miles to go, we pulled ahead of them for good, finishing a couple mintes before them. When we finished in Dawson at 3:40 a.m., we had managed to pass almost 20 teams since the lake, putting us in 27th place out of about 70 teams that finished the race.
Finishing in Dawson was a really good feeling. Right after we got out of the boat, I was pretty loopy, but after a good rest I felt great. In Dawson we visited with other paddlers, and got to know them without being stressed about the race, which was a blast. Plus, I had been dreaming about milkshakes for 460 miles, and in Dawson I finally got one. And then I had another in Carmacks on the drive back, and another in Skagway after we returned, and a lot of ice cream in general.

Special thanks to our support crew: Mike O’Daniel, Dorothy Brady, and Danny Brady.