Across The Big Empty
6 reasons why the Yukon 1000 is the toughest race in paddlesports
This story is featured in the July 2011 issue of Canoe & Kayak magazine, on newsstands now.
THE QUESTION STREAMS IN BOLD LETTERS ACROSS THE WEBSITE OF THE YUKON RIVER 1000 CANOE AND KAYAK RACE: Do you really want to do this? Since 2009, British expat and race organizer Peter Coates has used the dare to promote the world’s longest paddling race, which starts on the Yukon River near Whitehorse, Yukon, and ends 1,000 miles downriver at a remote Alaska Pipeline highway crossing near Fairbanks. Five teams are set to compete in the third annual event, starting July 18.
Coates is a former competitor and organizer of the popular Yukon River Quest, a 460-mile canoe and kayak race from Whitehorse to Dawson City. The 56-year-old software developer dreamed up the Yukon 1000 as a longer, tougher, and more grassroots race. Instead of relying on a small army of volunteers to man checkpoint stations, each team must report its progress using a SPOT satellite messenger device. Race rules dictate that each team must camp for at least six hours each night—a regulation Coates can easily enforce with the aid of GPS.
Coates says being upfront about the hardships helps ensure that competitors are prepared for the isolation and commitment of a race on a powerful, high-volume river that takes at least a week to complete. Racers must contend with fallen trees, whitewater, and braided, poorly mapped channels where one wrong turn can force competitors to backtrack upriver. Don’t forget that the Yukon flows through some of the most isolated grizzly and black bear territory on the continent, making the race a rite of passage for the cabal of self-reliant paddlers who Coates pins as crazy enough to participate. — Conor Mihell
1. ANY CRAFT GOES — I came up with the idea for a 1,000-mile race because kayakers were always winning the Yukon River Quest. I thought there’s no way you can stay comfortable sitting in a kayak 18 hours a day for a week. I wanted the canoes to have a better shot. To my chagrin, the racers have proven me wrong. The kayakers are still winning.
2. PURE DESOLATION — The first thing I get competitors to do is to describe their canoe racing and wilderness tripping experience. Then I ask, ‘But do you know how to cope with the Big Empty?’ There’s a whole lot of it up here.
3. YOU MUST SLEEP — In the Yukon River Quest sleep deprivation is a common thing. But in a long race like this, a sleep-deprived racer would fail.
4. GPS IS YOUR ONLY SAFETY — Each team has two paddlers on the river and a safety coordinator back home. It’s the duty of the safety person to monitor their SPOT device. If the racers press the Help button it is their call what to do about it.
5. VINTAGE SURVIVAL — The race is like a very fast camping trip. It feels as though you’re back a century ago and in a hell of a hurry to get somewhere.
6. IT’S YOUR TEST— The race is uninterrupted and there’s not much hoopla at each end. When you finish, you phone in your time, pat yourself on the back and go home. There’s no big party.