Paddlers brave Yukon River Quest

Seven local outriggers went beyond their familiar home of Skaha Lake into the Yukon wilderness to partake in an annual 715 km race.

The team takes in the view of the river at Dawson City after completing the race. Left to right:  Ginette Shirrmeister

The team takes in the view of the river at Dawson City after completing the race. Left to right: Ginette Shirrmeister

Sleep deprivation, physical and mental exhaustion, frigid temperatures and attacks by somewhat questionable sea monsters didn’t stop a crew of Penticton paddlers from a first-place finish in the Yukon River Quest.

Tina Hoeben, Ginette Schirrmeister, Ian and Andrew MacPhail, Stacey Kemp, Lauren Meads and Stephan Samoyloff, all members of the Penticton Paddling Club, spent 46 hours, 34 minutes and 48 seconds on the Yukon River. Their team, the Skaha ha ha ha, paddled its way to the number one spot on the podium for its category and an eighth overall finish.

The race, which ran from June 27 to July 1, had 68 teams, five of which were in the local crew’s category. However, even in the face of so much competition, Hoeben said her team was sure it would do well after passing three other boats in the first 15 minutes of the race.

The river quest is an annual 715 kilometre race through the Yukon wilderness, with teams starting out in Whitehorse and making their way to Dawson City, only taking two rests. The race, which is billed as the longest annual canoe and kayak race in the world, can take its toll on those participating – of the 68 teams that set out, 14 didn’t cross the finish line.

The group began training last October, which Hoeben said was vital to prepare them for the upcoming hardships.

Aside from the physical strain of constantly rowing — Hoeben’s team had at least six people paddling at all times — and the chill from rowing through the night, Hoeben said there were other stresses.

“You get super tired, and your brain kind of goes foggy, it’s hard to focus and you start having hallucinations,” she said. “There were a number of us who had hallucinations. Ginette was seeing things come out of the water, and I was seeing things in the landscape that would transform. I’d start to see faces or I’d start to see herds of mammoths in the landscape.”

However, when the strain and fatigue brought the team to the brink, Hoeben said the team’s spirit kept them going.

“There were some huge high points where we laughed a lot and we sang songs, and there was a lot of team morale and team spirit. When people were going through a low point, there was always someone to keep paddling, and keep the boat moving and keep the spirit going, and there was a lot of coming together and supporting people in that way.”

Hoeben recalled one of the few times the entire team stopped paddling during the race.

“One of our team members saw a sea monster jumping out of the water, so we all stopped and had to laugh, except for him,” she said. “There was a little branch that was wavering in the current and he thought it was a sea monster.

As well, crew-member Kemp said the team got a huge boost in morale at the first rest stop, where they were surprised by photos and cards from their families wishing them luck.

Despite the lows and highs, the hardships and the competition, Kemp said she learned a lot about herself.

“One of the things that amazed me was how you can feel  that you can’t go on, and you give it a bit of time, and you’re back,” she said.

For Hoeben, the lessons they learned about themselves on the river go beyond the race.

“This kind of speaks to more than just that race, it speaks to other times and points in your life when you think you’re done, and you realize that there’s a lot left,” she said.