This is what friendship gets you: a grueling race that covers hundreds of miles through the rough waters of the Yukon River in the wilderness of the Yukon Territory.
Every year, paddlers gather in the Yukon to pit their bodies and their minds against a 460-mile stretch of the Yukon River in an endurance kayaking and canoeing race that lasts for five days.
Laurel-area resident Veronica Wisniewski and Fairhaven resident Thom Prichard were among the competitors in the Yukon River Quest, which began June 27. They not only won their class — mixed tandem canoe — but were fast enough to beat out all other tandem canoeists.
They recount their quest in the land where the sun never sets this time of the year.
The race begins at 12:30 p.m. with a sprint down Main Street in the town of Whitehorse to the fleet of boats waiting on the river.
It is the first quest for Prichard, 56, who’s best known locally for his canoeing skills in Ski to Sea. He’s there because his friend Wisniewski, 47, asked him to be her partner in the mixed tandem canoe class. She won the same category last year with her husband, Edoh Amiran.
Prichard, whose longest race before this lasted for three hours, sees the quest as the adventure of a lifetime.“It is the crown jewel. You choose that knowing that you are doing the ultimate,” he says.
The first leg starts off in fast water.
“You look at the water from the shore and you’re just amazed at how fast it’s moving,” Prichard says.
But the duo is off to a strong start until they hit a storm at Lake Laberge, some 27 miles away. Their boat is walloped with a “fairly fierce headwind,” Wisniewski says, that whips up waves that crash into their canoe and floods it with about five inches of water.
That forces them to paddle to shore to bail out their boat. They lose about 15 minutes.
“That was definitely demoralizing,” says Wisniewski.
The lake is 30 miles long and five miles across. The wind comes at them the whole time.
But they push on, passing one boat, then another. They reach their first stop, a required layover at Carmacks, a little town at the confluence of the Nordenskiold and Yukon rivers. It is 11:12 a.m. on June 28.
They’ve been paddling for roughly 23 hours.
They discover they’re just 12 minutes behind the lead canoe, which is a men’s tandem. And they’re 18 minutes ahead of the third-place canoe.
They’re here for seven hours, provided they can get out of their canoe.
“You can’t stand up straight,” Wisniewski says.
They’re met by their support team, which includes Prichard’s wife Joan Bachleda.
The support team helps the paddlers, who are bent like Gumby, out of their canoe, gets them to walk around a bit, shoves them into showers, takes their dirty clothes and washes them so they can wear them again.
“I got them over to the massage tent,” Bachleda adds.
Both are fed plates of pasta. Prichard barely touches his; Wisniewski reluctantly eats her tortellini and marinara sauce meal.
“I confess I wasn’t super hungry,” she says.
But eating is critical, because the paddlers have to replace the roughly 300 calories they’re burning each hour — even though they’re often not hungry because their bodies can’t digest the calories they need to replace the ones they’ve lost fast enough.
“One of the critical things if you’re doing a long-distance race is food and water,” says Wisniewski, who’s had 17 years experience as a paddler.
Over the course of the race, they’ll consume peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, high-calorie drinks such as Ensure, GORP, chocolate, beef jerky and pepperoni sticks. “They’re real fatty and greasy and eech, but god they were good on the boat,” Prichard says.
At Carmacks, Wisniewski sleeps for about five hours, and gets up at 4:30 p.m. to prepare for the second leg of the race. Prichard doesn’t sleep much. As they doze, their support team readies the canoe.
They push off at 6:12 p.m. that same day.
They’ve traveled 201 miles.
Surprisingly, getting back into the canoe isn’t too bad.
But soon they’re blanketed by exhaustion. Wisniewski craves sleep.
Twice, Prichard, the bow paddler, turns around in his seat so he can steer while his partner naps for a total of 20 minutes.
They struggle to keep going. “There were times we just knew we’d blown the race,” he says.
But they’re back in the river’s current at least, and Wisniewski uses her considerable navigation skills and her maps to keep them going in the fastest part, cutting down on their work.
At one point, they hit a windstorm and thunder and lightning but they are on the front edge of the storm. The paddlers behind them will get the brunt of it.
Their biggest concern on this leg is Five-Finger Rapids, located about two hours from Carmacks and the only whitewater portion of the race. Boats have flipped there. Theirs doesn’t, but they see a rescue boat, and its members look like they’re pulling something out of the water.
Prichard jokes that it’s the lead canoe.
“Son of a gun, if it wasn’t the lead canoe. All of a sudden we were in the lead, which really surprised us. Now what do we do? We don’t have a boat to chase. Everybody’s chasing us,” Prichard says.
For Wisniewski, this segment of the Yukon is a beauty.
“I love that segment of the river,” she says.
There are cliffs and islands. They see a moose and a bear standing still on top of one of the cliffs. They paddle through the night, and the light is an eternal dusk because the sun doesn’t set this far north this time of the year.
“The light is perfect,” Wisniewski says.
But the team almost falls apart running into the last part of the leg. They misread the sign to Kirkman Creek, their second stopover. They think it’s three miles away. It’s five.
“We just couldn’t get through the psychological despair … of it being longer than we thought,” Wisniewski says.But make it, they do.
It is 11:03 a.m. on June 29. They have paddled 360 miles during 17 hours. They have three hours to rest here, where they find they’re 53 minutes ahead of the second-place canoe.
They’re elated, and drained.
“I was beat. I fell asleep instantly,” Wisniewski says.
They’re off again at 2:03 p.m.
“I’m feeling pretty good. I’m feeling like we’ve been doing pretty well,” Wisniewski says.
Their strategy: “Let’s just keep steady and keep pushing,” Prichard says.
Soon after they leave Kirkman Creek, black clouds gather and the wind starts blowing. They paddle into headwinds for the next hour or two.
“That point in the race it’s brutal because you’re tired,” she says. “You feel like you’re pushing against the wall.” But they’re still making progress.
“I think we got to enjoy the river more at that stage,” Prichard says. “It’s just a beautiful river, rock formations. Oh gosh, it’s the Yukon.”
Still, they’re utterly exhausted. Prichard starts having hallucinations. It’s not uncommon for racers. One swore he saw a little green man. Another, vivid Haida tribal designs on rocks. For Prichard, it’s sound.
“It was like there were people talking in the woods, just out of sight, sitting around having loud conversations. I’m pretty sure it’s just the water moving over rocks,” he says.
In this leg, the river’s biggest challenge is where the White River dumps into the Yukon. Here, the river is as wide as Lake Whatcom and sprinkled with islands. The White River carries silt that turns the water gray and opaque “so you can’t see rocks or anything that help you figure out speed. Everything’s flatter,” Wisniewski says.
The trick is to figure out which channel to take.
Take the wrong one and they could lose the race.
But Wisniewski keeps them in the faster moving channel.
The hours here feel like the longest of their lives. There’s no one ahead of them to chase, no one behind them to fend off. They are beset by other problems.
“I’ve never had so much pain in my life. I was suffering,” Prichard says.
It’s his sitting bones that bother him.
Wisniewski’s forearms hurt; it feels like tendonitis. Her shoulders give her serious problems. She tries different strokes to relieve the pain. None provide relief.
“You go through these moments of intense pain and you keep working through them,” she says.
About 10 miles from their finish at Dawson City, they start paddling hard. Now, they know they’re going to make it.
At 12:43 a.m. June 30, they cross the finish line.
They win by 36 minutes.
“I’m still on a high,” Prichard says three weeks after the race. “I’m sure it’s something I’m going to remember forever.”