The way the river flows

Life has a way of throwing us the unexpected, and sometimes I feel I’m dealt that hand more frequently than some. When I took on the challenge of the Yukon River Quest, the longest annual canoe and kayak race in the world, I wasn’t 100% certain I had what it takes to paddle 715km non-stop down a river for three days. I figured to do this you needed to be a super human… like those who run ultra marathons before breakfast and climb mountains in their sleep.

My goal since the beginning of the year was to become this super human, to train and prepare my body for a gruelling exercise and to research and test every system and piece of gear imaginable to increase my chances of success.

In January I’d paddled no more than 25 uninterrupted kilometres in my life, but by May I’d increased that to 140 by putting in close to 1000 training kilometres throughout the winter months. By the time I reached Whitehorse in June, I’d eaten all the right foods, taken all the advised supplements, ticked all the boxes on gear, and ensured sufficient rest time before the big day.

When my boat finally launched from the banks of the Yukon River at 12:00 noon on June 29, 2016, I couldn’t wipe the smile from my face. I was doing what I’d been dreaming about every waking minute since the beginning of the year. My body felt strong, my systems were dialled, and my mind was ultimately focussed.

Photo taken by Harry Kern

When I reached the 50km stretch across Lake Laberge just 3 hours in, I moved across it effortlessly. There was barely a breeze, the water was calm, and there was even time for candid conversations with fellow paddlers as I casually cruised by. I passed my friend Jason who was racing on a stand up paddleboard around the 60km mark. It was the first year the race organisers had agreed to include this experimental class, and because Jason and I had shared many a training session together in Vancouver, it was a special moment seeing him out on the water.

“You’re killing it,” he cried, and I replied the same to him.

The slight headwind that had rolled in kept our interaction brief, but I was certain at some point our paths would cross again.

Then 30 minutes later when I was half way across the lake, a mere 65kms and 7 hours into the race, my right foot pedal began to come loose. Not only does the pedal control steering, it allows one to use the stronger muscles in their legs and torso to power each stroke, alleviating the weaker muscles in the shoulders and wrists. I held my breath as it wobbled unsteadily beneath my foot, moving in a way a fixed object in a boat never should. The next thing I heard was an audible clunk, and suddenly the foot pedal was gone.

I was struck by a shockwave of disbelief. I didn’t know what was happening, other than my boat was starting to turn sideways. I stretched out my foot to feel the plastic pedal dangling along the rudder cable within an inch of my toe. I nudged it gently and the boat veered right, but the minute force caused the pedal to disappear altogether, along with my ability to steer.

My eyes widened with alarm. I stopped blinking. Thoughts littered my mind as I paddled towards the rocky shore on one side, praying for some kind of reasonable explanation as to what was happening. A family who was setting up camp watched me zigzag towards them, and a young girl and her mother held onto the end of my boat as I clumsily extracted myself from it, knee-deep in water perpendicular to the shore. Their faces expressed intrigue and a hint of bewilderment as I tried to force a smile to match theirs. But my world was being swallowed like liquid down a plughole, and my attention fell immediately on the task at hand.

I bent my head into the cockpit to assess the damage, extracting a sheared piece of plastic that had once bound the foot pedal to the side of my kayak. The balloon of hope inside me deflated, and a flood of tears came rising to the surface.

“My foot pedal’s broken,” I croaked breathlessly, gasping for air through my trembling lips.

The woman’s expression shifted dramatically, but the young girl seemed to be clinging to hope.

“My dad’s pretty handy,” she offered sweetly, her bright eyes aglow with the strength of possibility.

Though her words resonated above the cacophony of panic plaguing me, I stared blankly towards the shoreline, motionless in my inability to comprehend.

“Why don’t you come out of the water?” her mother coaxed gently, her concern beginning to mirror my own.

I lumbered out of the water with my clipboard and maps dangling heavily from the bottom of my spray skirt, attached cleverly with the industrial velcro I’d adhered only a few nights before (another ingenious system that had taken me months to concoct).

While the woman’s husband began his examination of the boat, I wandered up the beach out of view, squatting behind a log as I watched the other racers passing by.

‘Could they see me stranded? Had anyone spotted my boat and wondered what was happening?’ I wondered while my chest felt heavy and my senses went numb. I’d transformed into a spectator. Sidelined. Forcibly extracted from the race I was moments before participating in.

All the training sessions, the months of testing food, the gear I’d purchased, and re-purchased, and changed and purchased again. Nothing seemed to matter now. It was all drifting away like the boats on the lake floating past me.

As I walked back towards the boat I listened for hope amongst the man’s grunts and heavy sighs. He’d had his head inside the cockpit for 20 minutes, and when his face reappeared he looked defeated and forlorn.

“Unfortunately there’s not much I can do,” he said shaking his head apologetically.

My tears resumed their steady stream, and my audible sobs told the story of my utter disappointment.

“Do you think you can still paddle?” questioned the young girl with quiet curiosity.

I wiped my eyes on my damp sleeve in an attempt to recompose.

“I guess I can try,” I whispered hoarsely, resolved to the fact I had no other choice.

I lifted the rudder out of the water and climbed back into the boat as the three of them held onto the bow.

“You’re still a hero to me,” the young girl smiled courageously, her persistent enthusiasm clinging to me as her dad pushed me from the shore.

It was shortly after this moment I turned on my camera for the first time, capturing the thoughts, moods and emotions I fluctuated between throughout the course of the race. Over the last few weeks I’ve been stringing together these clips to tell my story, and while I leave you to watch my 30-minute video, I wanted to thank everyone who was cheering me on from the virtual sidelines, and to those who supported me while taking on this challenge (THINK Kayak, Zeal for Life, MEC & Deep Cove Kayak). I’m truly grateful for everything I experienced.

The colour of the sky

It’s been a week since I completed the Yukon River Quest, yet I still feel I’m digesting the experience. There are so many stories to tell, and to do them justice I need a little more time to collect my thoughts. The race was never going to be easy, and I expected that probably more so than most. But when my foot pedal snapped 65km in and I was left without steering for the first half of the race, a whole new challenge was presented to me.

It was one of the most disappointing yet brilliant experiences of my life, and in the end I wouldn’t change a thing. During my three days on the river I experienced almost every emotion possible. There were certainly some darker moments, but like the colour of the sky, that light at the end of the tunnel never fully disappeared.

I look forward to sharing more of the experience soon.

The Yukon River at 11:05pm – Friday July 1, 2016

One day to go

Today has been go go. Food prep this morning with Morgan baking, me filling tubes full of rice pudding and ziplocks with pre-cooked sausages and cheese, grapes, corn chips, chopped snickers bars, gummy bears, fig newtons and a whole variety of other treats. We then came into town, registered for the race, had photos taken, had the boat and my gear inspected, an then made sure my tracking device was still working. 


Morgan is now in the support crew briefing and I’m stuffing my face with a roast beef and salad sandwich. My brain is overloaded and running on a few less cylinders than normal, but I’m pumped and excited and ready to get on that river.


We’ve been writing lists upon lists with sub lists and appendixes to each one. We even joked but then realised we actually do need a list for all of our lists. As we checked all of my gear for the last time under the midnight sun with swarms of mosquitos curiously hovering around last night, I realised I’m so ready for the preparations to be over. It’s really time to paddle!



I’m not sure if my video below uploaded from my phone, but it’s from my final practise paddle to Lake Laberge on Sunday:

The race begins at 12:00 noon tomorrow (PST). The YRQ tracking page will be updated every 15 minutes if you care to follow: http://www.yukonriverquest.ca/yrq/app/16yrq/results2.php

So that’s it from me. I hope to arrive in Dawson City on Saturday afternoon!

It’s not always a given

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The blue dotted line on the left shows how far we made it yesterday

Yesterday our crossing of the Georgia Strait from Nanaimo to Vancouver didn’t exactly go as planned. We were up at 3am, on the water by five, and 20km in we began to experience a 15-knot headwind that the weather report told us would only get worse. The waves were big, whitecaps and dark skies were on the horizon, and the more experienced paddlers of the group said it would be a safer option to turn around and go back. And so we did.

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Photo taken by Paul Kendall (Kendall’s Clicks)
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I paddled at the back of the group with radio contact to the boat ahead
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Watching the ferry go by
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Schools of jellyfish just under the water

I was at an advantage being low down in my stable kayak, watching the poor team on their boards being thrown into the water multiple times, having to clamber back out of the waves. We knew the weather would eventually calm, but out in the middle of the ocean you don’t have the luxury of pulling to the side to wait out the storm. If we battled into the wind for multiples hours I’m not sure everyone would have made it, so as a team we decided the only choice was to turn back.

Video:

I was racked with disappointment after the energy and hype that had led to us being out there. I couldn’t help but turn to look around on many occasions, wondering just ‘what if?’ or ‘was this the right decision’? But in the end, though I would have loved to say that I’d crossed the straight, being with the team on what turned out to be an epic adventure home may have been all the more memorable.

Video:

It was a tough 20km paddle back to shore despite the wind and waves were in our favour. The excitement and motivation was now gone, and we still had 20km ahead of us. Had we known we’d have to scale a rocky embankment with 10 boards and a kayak, lift them up and over security fences with all our gear, walk them over and onto the ferry, wait for 90 minutes and then sit in damp clothing for another 2 hours until we reached Vancouver, I think many would have opted for the paddle.

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Having lugged our gear all the way back onto the ferry

But as we stood around our own self-hosted potluck eating the remains of the food that had gone uneaten from the trip, like the pre-cooked sausages, Oreo cookies, brownies, gummy bears and pizza that I’d packed, two women came over to ask what we’d been doing. When we explained our story one of the women shook her head with disbelief and said will such sincerity, “It’s awesome to take on a challenge that isn’t a given.” That one comment put the entire experience into perspective, and seeing my disappointed team mates smiling at the after party made me realise that ticking that box of completion was not the most important outcome.

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Before the paddle
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After the paddle

There was a host of representatives from PADS (Pacific Assistance Dogs Society) to greet us at the party, who were so incredibly grateful for the money we had raised. We reached over $5,000 as a group, and I want to thank everyone for donating so generously.

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Big smiles as we set off with Jason who’s also paddling the Yukon behind me

To top off the evening, my friend Morgan (who’s coming to the Yukon as my support crew), drove down to the party at Kits Yacht Club to pick up my boat and me. He met some other folks that are heading to the Yukon, and on the drive home pulled over to show me something he’d made for the trip.

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Morgan with our team Muk Muk banner

When I saw the banner I almost burst into tears. He’d figured I’d need a cheer up, and all I can say is that if anything, yesterday’s experience has made me even more determined for the Yukon River Quest. In just over a week we’ll be on our way up north, driving to Whitehorse for the next big adventure!

Check out Kendall’s Clicks Facebook page for more pictures of the Salish Sea adventure.

One month to go!

When I set out to paddle around Bowen Island with one of Vancouver’s best paddlers today, I did not expect it to be as eventful as it turned out. With one month until the Yukon River Quest, I finally tested out the closest equivalent to what I’ll be paddling during the race for this longer paddle.

I blew my seat cushion up as thick as it goes, and as a result my centre of gravity was a lot higher than what I’m used to in a boat like that. As we reached the southwest side of the island a headwind picked up, and I definitely wasn’t feeling as stable as I do in my bathtub of a plastic boat in the resulting waves, especially with a national paddler right beside me.

Wes paddling the Think Uno with an Orca feet away.

Before we rounded the south end of the island we were distracted by a pod of Orcas, which got so close I actually put the camera down in fear that it was going to knock me off my boat. Wes quickly encouraged me to keep filming, but also had a hair-raising moment when one of the whales came right up next to him.

As we continued on the waves started getting bigger, and we made the call to turn around as I wasn’t 100% comfortable in conditions like that in a less stable boat. It was definitely a good call, because even in the calmer waters around the smaller Bowyer Island, my core was engaged for the entire 35km paddle, and I barely ate anything because my stomach was so tense.

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Thankfully I had a monumental breakfast!

Just when I thought I was going to make it back dry, my boat flipped over and I took a swim. In a way it was excellent practise, because the boat was so top heavy with gear that it didn’t want to stay upright after I flipped it back over. My water bladder fell out, but because it was clipped to me it dangled in the water by my feet, and after some untangling I managed to get back into the boat while Wes steadied it for me. Fortunately everything else, (except my hat that I just managed to save) remained where it was attached, and other than not being able to reattach my spray skirt and paddling with a boat full of water to the shore it ended relatively well.

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Another picture of one of the incredible Orcas!

Because I was already wet I tested out the surf ski Wes was paddling when we got back to shore, and was barely able to stay upright for two seconds on flat water. Shows what 20 years of training can achieve!

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Though I should technically be tapering down my training soon, I’m actually paddling from Nanaimo to Vancouver with a group of stand up paddleboarders across the Straight of Georgia in two weeks as part of a charity event. I’m going to be in a much more stable boat, but depending on conditions the paddle can take between 10 – 12 hours. To read more about it and to make a donation please click here!! I’m trying to raise $2000 for PADS – Pacific Assistance Dogs Society, so any donation would be very much appreciated!

Live your opportunity to explore the world…