SUP Yukon River Quest with Thomas Schillig

Thomas Schilling on an adventure / Photos: @schaienfotografie

715 kilometers of pure adventure – that’s the Yukon River Quest, a breathtaking SUP-category paddle race that pushes its daring participants to the limits of their endurance and wilderness experience. In the depths of the Canadian wilderness, this 50- to 60-hour challenge stretches far from any civilization and barely accessible via conventional roads.

In the midst of this challenge, as an ultra long distance paddler and now connoisseur of the Yukon, I am once again venturing into this adventure. I am fascinated by the aura of the Yukon River and am driven by the prospect of such epic long distance races. A race that tests not only the body but also the mind and makes adventurer’s hearts beat faster.

Never, ever will I do a race like that! – I said in 2016 when I heard that SUP are allowed to participate in the Yukon River Quest. On the one hand it is too exhausting and on the other hand much too stressful to rush through this beautiful nature like this. When I shot a documentary about Bart de Zwart and Alain de Sain at the Yukon River Quest in 2018, the enthusiasm really got a hold of me and I decided to sign up.

Time is completely redefined. You don’t count hours and kilometers. – At least not at the beginning. Rather, I set myself stage goals. The first part of the river, about 3h, is a warmup for the lake, and this is to be crossed in about 8h. Especially on the lake the field is still close together and you quickly get into conversation with other paddlers and find out that the lake is really the hardest part and all the others are about equally motivated to get to its end. After 4 hours of paddling on the lake, we have already reached the halfway point. – A fraction of the whole race. Two hours later, those 4h are already halved. – Yes, I personally pass my time with mathematical games. And when I reach the limit in the high waves, I turn on some motivating music.

A short incident interrupts my calculations. The leading Stand Up Paddler Christoph Webber in front of me is in the water and has trouble getting back on the SUP. The very high sideways waves with whitecaps have also brought him to his knees for quite some time and now he is trying to get up with wobbly legs. Together with a Voyager boat (8-person canoe) we help him back onto the board and make sure he can continue paddling. Now I lead the field of Stand Up Paddlers. I follow the Voyager for a few kilometers through the high waves. But I can’t keep this pace for long. When the waves calm down a bit I paddle my own speed again.

„If you’ve made it through the lake, you’ll make it through the rest 

You hear this sentence from many participants. Because once you are back on the river, it feels as fast as on a roller coaster. On this occasion, you can also rest, eat, drink and drift with the current a. Nevertheless, I make at the checkpoint at the end of the lake a short break on land to change my sweaty shirt, to represent the tired feet and to reload new food packages. 

At this moment I am already overtaken by Christoph with the SUP who is probably in good health again.

All respect! This man is already 68 years old, has completed the Yukon River Quest a few times in the 2-person canoe, but is only since last fall on the SUP!

I decide to do the refill of the food on the SUP, because I need to refill river water anyway and fortify it with sterilizing tablets and powdered drinks. But it was a bit of a rash decision to sit me down in the first available current and put the paddle down. Soon I end up, while I dedicate myself to my meal, in the first sweeping water completely outside of the current. That was not the plan!

Nevertheless, I was able to catch up with Christoph within an hour. From then on we paddled together. Every now and then a conversation makes paddling enormously entertaining. But without talking to each other, we developed a common paddling strategy. Every hour we knelt down for about 5 minutes to eat something and to relieve our feet. But we always had to continue our paddling in order not to end up backwards in a pile of wood or on a gravel bank. True to the motto, “If you go slower than the river will command you.”

This year the entire mandatory stop of 10 hours must be spent in Carmacks. In previous years, there were two places in which the 10 hours were divided. I have already thought a bit in advance how useful only a long break is, but I make the best of it. My strategy: The first part up to the break more intensively paddle and after 10 hours more rested start into the second part which I will approach more comfortably. … depending on the chasing field.

Unexpectedly fast I reach Carmacks. Even faster than in the record high water year 2022. I reach the finish before my planned time.

In Carmacks there is undisputedly the best burger in the world! – Without ifs and buts. At least that’s what all those who have slaved away for over 24 hours claim.

But I don’t feel like eating yet. My support team helps me stow and unload the SUP. The emergency equipment on the back of the SUP remains untouched while food, drink and clothes are refreshed on the front of the SUP. After a good 1h I lie showered in the camper and try to sleep. But it is too hot. – This is not only because of the monkey heat inside, but maybe because of the warming oil of the otherwise soothing massage. After 5 hours of dozing and tossing I give up and venture into the fresh air in the deck chair. Now I have one of those legendary burgers! and some pasta to strengthen me for the onward journey. I enjoy these 3-4 hours which I can spend comfortably in front of the camper to prepare myself.

“After 10 hours break back on the board needs some overcoming.”

Everything still hurts, I feel every muscle. But from my experience I know that this pain already subsides within 1-2 hours when lospaddling. If it really doesn’t work, I still have the possibility to stop in Minto. There is the last possible road access before the river turns into total wilderness. And as expected, paddling on becomes much easier after a short time.

Around midnight, our trio of 2 SUP and a solo kayak approach the infamous Five Finger Rapids. In gold rush times, many a paddle steamer crashed there. Today these rapids are whitewater level 2, with a maximum of level 3 at high tide. But this year these rapids are rather sobering calm and it is even possible to paddle them standing up.

A new day is dawning. I eagerly await the first rays of sunlight that come out very early but still only hesitantly behind the treetops. A few hours later I will curse this sun! – It is over 25°C, maybe even 30°C. The sun burns permanently from the left on head, shoulder and arms. Every 30 minutes I soak my headgear in the water. I would love to jump in.

“A reason not to do the race? – You miss the many historical sights”

At Fort Selkirk, about 10 hours after Carmacks, I decide to go ashore again. Because I know it’s the last opportunity to use a comfortable outhouse, stretch my legs and change clothes for the day and reload food packages. The place would be historically very interesting and a bit of sightseeing would be worthwhile. But I’m in a race and my next chaser probably not far behind.

And lo and behold! barely back on the water the Swede on the SUP greets friendly behind me.

We paddle together for about 3 hours before Göran Gustavson really turns on the heat and disappears into the distance.

Now I paddle again together with Christoph who gradually loses the desire for his brought food. At Thistle Creek I give him some of my nuts, pretzels, dried fruit and energy bars. Somehow I calculated way too high again and can’t eat this until Dawson anyway.

“Aren’t you getting tired, and when do you sleep?”

After the inflow of the White River, I suddenly have an incredible high. After hours of paddling and only 5 hours of sleep in Carmacks, an incredible energy builds up. Suddenly I just fly over the river I overtake solo kayakers and even 4-person canoes I leave behind me. Almost 50km, about 3.5h long I pull this through. My fellow paddler with whom I have paddled since the end of Lake Large, I now leave behind.

“Enjoy the last few hours on the river, because you deserve it.”

Finally I cross the finish line. 4 o’clock in the morning, it’s light as day. Okay, done!… That’s it? – Most people don’t scream with joy when they finally reach such a goal. Although everyone is happy that it is finished, the achievement of the goal seems somehow unreal in the first moment. That’s why I advise everyone: enjoy the river and nature once again on the last kilometers.

“What are you doing on the SUP all the time?”

Back to this question, I have to answer “I don’t really know anymore”. Reading maps, reading the river, playing mathematical games with times and kilometers, talking to paddlers, looking for and watching animals, thinking about life. But one thing I do know, this wonderful time went by way too fast.