Gordon Warnica's & Allan Billard's Yukon Adventure

July 20 - 29, 2009

There are strange things done in the midnight sun
By the men who moil for gold;
The arctic trails have their secret tales
that would make your blood run cold;
The Northern Lights have seen queer sights,
But the queerest they ever did see
Was that night on the marge of Lake Lebarge
I cremated Sam McGee.

Well it is time to sit down and summarize our little adventure into the wilds of Yukon and Alaska and above the Arctic Circle. This little adventure starts as all of these things do, by someone tickling our funny bones back in the winter. I stumbled onto the home page of “The World’s Longest Canoe Race”, and almost as a joke e-mailed Allan to see what he might be doing in July of ’09. It just sort of grew from that.

As with all of these things, the planning and training are the fun part of it. We have been on the water since the ice went out in the middle of March. We think we probably did about 1000 miles in training. We got our workouts up to about 4 hours per day and tried to do the 4s on consecutive days. We were pretty confident we could do this, we just had no idea what the competition would be like.

Arriving by air into Whitehorse on the Friday preceding the Monday start we assumed we could acclimatize in the 3 nights leading up to race day. Just how do you sleep with the lights on?

We were welcomed by the race director who started to go over all our gear and food and use of the SPOT device. He wondered how we were getting all the publicity as CBC had already given him the contacts #’s for us to get a hold of them. It turns out we were the only Canadian team in the event and as such attracting some bit of fame even in Whitehorse.

Sunday was weigh-in time and final check in for all the safety gear we would have to have for this event. We needed food for 17 days and that was estimated by the race director to be 40lbs per person. He had figured on 10 days of racing and up to 7 days stationary on the river on account of rain or high winds or whatever. Our food weighed in at 40Kgs total or 88lbs. The canoe was suddenly getting very heavy.

Monday, race day, dawned sunny and warm. Lots of nervous anticipation. There were teams from Britain and from the States. The Brits were all kayaking and the Americans were all canoeing. The first boat in the water was the Voyageur canoe with 7 paddlers and, wow, could they make that thing fly.

All canoes needed full cover spray skirts. Half were probably rented boats and half had been brought up by the competitors . Some teams were from Alaska and the Voyageur were all from New York. The rest of the canoes were from Florida and Wisconsin.

At the start, the young Hendron Kayak and the Voyageur were off like a rocket. We dueled a kayak for the length of the river (about 30 miles) 2 hours and 45 minutes but seemed to have a problem reading the water. We just are not used to reading the water of a fast river that is anywhere from a quarter mile to a mile wide and this would be a harbinger of things to come.

We entered Lake Laberge and were in 5th with 2 kayaks, the Voyageur and 1 canoe just ahead by a couple of 100 yards. Now all of our training was 4 hours or less at a time but we actually only paddled for 40 minutes before having to portage. Now we had 3, 4 even 5 hours without breaks and this was tough. After a couple of hours more on the big lake (6 miles wide and 42 miles long), we pulled into shore for a break and to have a whiz. Again the same thing about 3 hours later. We came off the lake still in 5th and no one in site behind us.

We were beat and started looking for a place to camp. At about 7:30, high on a bank on the left we spotted a site and pulled over for the night. Canoes started going by us. They don’t stop. Up early the next morning and on the water by 0600, we were off again. We passed a canoe that passed us as we were on shore and 1 canoe passed us (later to withdraw).

We pulled onto the river bank at a sandy spot to see huge Grizzly tracks. Now we were going to spend nights on sand bars and only after checking out to see if any tracks were visible.

It seems that the only time anyone passed us is when we stop for the night. We need about 8 or 9 hours on shore and these guys are using the minimum 6 hours only.

You get up in the morning and paddle until you stop for the night. Oh we stopped for whizzes every 3 or 4 hours but I couldn’t stay in the boat any longer than that. Geeze as it was, I could hardly stand or get out of the canoe after 3 or 4 hours.

We went through the controls and passed US Customs without any problems and had heard that there were boats not more than 6 hours ahead of us and at Dawson (upon calling home found that there was a boat about 6 hours behind us). We knew we had no penalty minutes but that was little consolation. This river is so huge (up to 5 miles wide) and ever-changing that it is very difficult to find the right line. Sometimes in the centre, sometimes right next to the bank. With the GPS we found that on occasion we were moving 11.3 miles per hour when paddling and sometimes without paddling as much as 6.3 mph, but these were exceptions.

You know what it is like when you ask someone how much farther and you get wildly different distances. This was the same. One fellow told us it was 70 miles each between the next towns and only 30 miles from the last town to the finish, we thought 3 x 70 + 30 = 240 miles A couple of really good days. Then we find it is 3 x 80 + 40 = 280 miles No way in 2 days. Of course this is across the dreaded “Yukon Flats” about 2 days of paddling when you can’t even find the main stream because of very flat terrain and many islands. The current slows and even with maps and a GPS it was catch as catch can. In one stretch we paddled 1 ½ miles and it only took us an hour.

This is going on all at the same time as huge forest fires which are hindering our visibility. We were actually within a couple of hundred yards of the flames.

Did we see any wild life? A cow moose and her calf, a black bear, a porcupine swimming across the river just ahead of us, lots of beavers, thousands of terns and gulls which were very upset at us for coming so close to their young on shore that hadn’t yet learned how to fly. We were actually dive bombed many times and we were still a half mile from shore. We did see more grizzly tracks but managed to stay clear of them although the natives said that they were probably up farther in the woods eating berries and not too worried about not having any fresh meat.

In spite of the fact that on a clear day you could see the bridge (finish line) from 2 or 3 miles away we didn’t see it until maybe 5 minutes from finishing because of the smoke.

For weather, we had hot sunny days (high 20’s and maybe even the 30’s) and warm nights. We had a total of 3 hours of rain, which actually started quite nice and gentle. As we were enjoying the rain, it opened up and turned very cool. By the time we got our rain gear on, we were cold (shivering cold). Luckily we turned into a camp that had a propane stove and a wood stove so we turned on the propane stove right away and within minutes even had a good fire in the wood stove. An hour later, we were warm and dry and back out on the river.

For lunches or whatever you call the food you eat when not safely on shore, we had bagels with cream cheese or peanut butter every 3 hours and chocolate bars and beef jerky and dried mangoes. Lots of water probably 3 litres a day. Our treat upon making shore was a hard boiled egg. It took us about an hour to set up the tent and eat and get into our sleeping bags and almost the same time to take down the tent have breakfast and pack up.

We have to thank our spouses for letting us go off on this little adventure. We surely have to thank Anthony Kuhn (Oopala) who I met while hiking the Appalachian Trail in ’03. He had actually canoed the whole river in ’01 and graciously loaned us his maps. It took him 31 days to do what it took us 9 days 7 hours and 48 minutes to do.

We met lots of natives who were wonderful in giving us information on the river ahead and offered us salmon and invited us to parties along the river. In Fort Yukon we hitched a ride to the airport to get to a pay phone (it didn’t work) and we hitched back and in each case, the first vehicle by gave us a lift. We scrounged water and never had to carry it more than 100 yards.

This would be an awesome canoe trip for someone to do in a month. The bugs while on the river or on one the sand bars were hardly noticeable. It is easy paddling. We didn’t have time to check out the historic sites and to see much of Dawson, but that would add tremendously to the whole experience. There are lots of people on the river and while you are in the wilderness help is never very far away.

For a short 5 minute video of the event, see Yukon100 or You Tube

I am sure there will be lots of still pictures to come. If you have questions I don’t know if I have the answers but I can say it was by far the toughest thing I have even done or will do. The Voice of Reason must be listened too. It was very tough, but we are so amazed at what can be done by a couple of guys just out for some fun.

Gordon aka Gimp and Allan aka Huts

Canoe Results

1. Price & Olson (Ardie Olson & Rod Price, GA & FL-USA): 06 days, 08:54:00

2. The Dueling Banjos (Josia Freeman & Ben Couturier, Alaska): 07 days, 00:18:00

3. Frozen Hobos (Jonathan Morgan & Ben Schmidt, Alaska): 07 days, 08:07:00

4. Yukon Due (Roland Ring-Jarvi & Bob Carrigan, MN-USA): 07 days, 11:27:00

5. We Must Be Nuts (Larry Seethaler & Brenda Forsythe, Alaska): 07 days, 11:55:00

6. Tim X Two (Tim Van Nest Sr & Jr, MI & Alaska): 07 days, 12:32:00

7. Northern Current (Cristan McLain & Alex McLain, Alaska): 07 days, 22:34:00

8. Best of the Mediocre (David Dahl & Doug Berg, MN-USA): 08 days, 03:46:00

9. Gonzos (Gordon Warnica & Allan Billard, Nova Scotia): 09 days, 07:48:00

10. Tanned, Rested & Ready (Bob Polk & Trent Herbst, ID-USA): 10 days, 04:40:00

The Aching Joints (Bob Lee & Jeff Lee, Alaska): DNF (Chose to become tourists)

Fruit Loops (Mary Houck & John Ders, NY-USA): DNF (Medical problems)

MAC & Tractorboy (Brian McDonnell & Andrew Jillings, NY-USA): DNF (Sick paddler)