Yukon 1000: The Last Great Race
By Conor Mihell
Peter Coates uses unorthodox methods to market the grueling 1,000-mile paddling race he organizes on the Yukon River. Streaming in bold letters across the top of the website for the Yukon 1000 Canoe and Kayak Race is the question, “Do you really want to do this?” Last summer, 17 teams of paddlers accepted Coates’ challenge and entered the inaugural race, which follows the powerful Yukon River from Whitehorse, in the Yukon Territory of Canada, to a remote highway crossing near Fairbanks, Alaska. The second annual race gets underway on July 19, with nine teams set to compete.
As a former competitor and organizer of the popular Yukon River Quest, a 460-mile canoe and kayak race from Whitehorse to Dawson City, Coates says he 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 their progress to race officials using a Spot satellite messenger device. Race rules dictate that each team must stop for six hours each night; GPS technology allows Coates to easily enforce this regulation.
Besides a desire to keep organization efforts minimal, Coates says his primary desire in being upfront about the hardships of the event is to ensure that all competitors are prepared for isolation and big water-not to mention a really long race. “When people ask about the race, the first thing I’ll do is get them to describe their canoe racing and wilderness tripping experience,” says Coates, a British ex-pat and Whitehorse-based computer programmer. “Then I ask, ‘But do you know how to cope with the big empty?’ Because there is a whole lot of it up here.”
The Yukon is the fourth-largest river in North America by average flow volume, though in high-water years (like 2009) its CFS tops even the Mississippi’s. Racers must contend with a multitude of sweepers (fallen trees in the river), several stretches of whitewater and inaccurately mapped braids and channels that can necessitate backtracking upstream. What’s more, the country through which the Yukon flows is some of the most isolated on the continent; Coates’ race website cautions competitors to take proper precautions against the river’s healthy population of grizzly and black bears, and drives home the message that competitors must be self-reliant in the event of an emergency.
Still, he says the race is within the realm of racers who are “organized and disciplined.” “To complete it you don’t have to be a world class paddling animal,” Coates insists. “In many ways the race is won or lost in your head as much as in your paddling skill.”
Trophy- and attention-seekers need not apply. The finish line is a remote bridge on the Alaska Pipeline Highway. “I intend to be there handing out medals,” says Coates, “but with the roads up here you can never be sure. On the website I think I said, ‘When you finish, phone in your time, pat yourself on the back and go home.’ There’s no big party.”
Keep pace with the race: www.yukon1000.com