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.
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’ve actually edited it down to 18:23), 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.