WHITE RIVER. HOUR 52.
Ingrid Wilcox peers past the nose of her yellow kayak at a miraculous sight: someone waving from the shore of the sun-speckled Yukon River. After three days and two nights of continuous paddling through rugged wilderness, she is finally closing in on Dawson City.
At 62, Wilcox is an unlikely veteran of the world's longest annual canoe and kayak race. The Yukon River Quest runs from Whitehorse to Dawson City. Its infamy within international endurance-racing circles stems from a gut-wrenching two-punch: paddlers must cover a massive distance - 746 kilometres, basically the same as racing from Toronto to Quebec City - on hardly any sleep.
Some competitors have Olympic credentials and arms like Popeye's, but Wilcox is a petit, grey-haired gardening expert with a titanium rod in her hip and a stent in her heart. Yet she has just endured torrential rain storms, and crossed a wind-lashed lake that's 50 kilometres wide.
Ten years ago, she entered the Yukon Quest determined to beat the clock. But a year after setting a course record for solo female kayakers, she felt a strange sensation in her chest during a training session, which led to heart surgery.
Now the race is her annual rebellion against health problems that have dogged her for her entire life. The life jacket that rubs the skin around her waist until its raw reminds her she is still alive. Simply finishing will stave off the question that whispers louder now with age: How much longer do I have?
Wilcox dips her carbon-fibre paddle into the water and pulls herself toward the waving figure - a tree stump. The hallucinations have begun.
WHITEHORSE. HOUR ZERO.
A steam boat's whistle - the Yukon version of a starter's pistol - echoes through Rotary Park on the east side of Whitehorse. Men and women stampede across a soggy field and leap into canoes and kayaks laden with Advil and Red Bull, fanning out on the rain-spattered river as spectators shout encouragement. It's noon. The Yukon River Quest has begun.
Over the next 80 hours, extraordinary dramas will unfold along the route north to Dawson. All 180 paddlers comprising 78 teams in solo, two-member tandem and voyageur vessels - which carry six to nine - will attempt to cover a course that normally takes two weeks. They will have just two chances to rest: a seven-hour break at the halfway mark; then, about 200 kilometres from the finish, a three-hour nap in a field.
By the third and final day, sleep-deprived paddlers will report seeing giant cans of tomato soup on shore and Renoir paintings in the trees. One in four typically quits early, forced out by hypothermia, exhaustion, blisters the size of grapes.
The River Quest began 12 years ago as a local fundraiser for the even more gruelling 1,000-mile Yukon Quest sled dog race between Whitehorse and Fairbanks, Alaska. The first year, 16 two-member teams made the running start, leaping into canoes to follow the historic route used by prospectors and those who followed them during the Klondike gold rush.
As word spread, the race earned a special place among the growing list of ultra-endurance paddling events. This year's crop of competitors hails from seven countries as well as Canada, and range in age from 20 to 71.
Many top paddlers gravitate to shorter races with bigger purses, but among this year's competitors are a handful of sponsored athletes, a couple former Olympians and six Texans defending their title as voyageur champions. This year they have showed up with a sleek, black, carbon-fibre canoe custom-built for the race. (More narrow on top, it allows them to flip their oars from side to side every 20 strokes, easing muscle fatigue without forcing them to shift their weight.)
The vast majority, however, are doctors and carpenters, university students, British soldiers and cancer survivors - recreational athletes on a mission: to have the race of a lifetime. Whether out to set a record or simply to finish, they have a common thread: Against the unforgiving backdrop of the Canadian sub-Arctic, they are drawn by a desire to face a mental and physical challenge unlike anything they must confront in daily life. "After you do something like this, and you go back to work, and some manager is like, 'Where are your TPS reports?' It just doesn't matter," says Carter Johnson, a lanky 32-year-old Californian and the heavy favourite among solo men kayakers.
Like the gold-crazed dreamers of the Klondike over a century ago, these modern adventurers are after treasure, but something more valuable than the cash prizes of up to $2,100. Forced to dig deeper than ever before, they wonder: What will I unearth?
LAKE LABARGE: HOUR 8.
Dawn Krog pops to the surface and gasps. Waves pound her against rocks. She spots her bobbing husband, also bug-eyed from frigid water of Lake Labarge.
"Never again," she vowed last year, when volunteers hauled her, too weak to stand, out of a tandem canoe in Dawson. The couple's impressive ninth-place overall result included a terrifying night when they narrowly avoided hypothermia - only because she forced her dazed husband to pause and put on warmer clothes.
Once back in Maine, the couple realized their 10-year marriage had been altered. Their trust in each other's instincts was now absolute. In his wife, a tiny 46-year-old bank employee, Brad Krog, an engineer, saw a level-headed lioness. They wrote down the story of their journey, then wept as they read it.
Not long after the Krogs drag their kayak to shore and peel off their wet clothes, they are met by Jeff Brady, a burly, bearded newspaper editor from Alaska who is on board one of a half-dozen safety boats crisscrossing the lake, searching for distress signals.
This is some of the worst racing weather Brady has seen since he helped to launch the River Quest. Lake Labarge is the most dangerous part of the race because the wind is so unpredictable. Today, it's reaching 25 knots and generating metre-high waves in the middle of the lake. Brady has spent two hours herding paddlers into a safety zone within 200 metres of shore. He watched a seasick carpenter from Victoria pull into a sheltered bay and throw up.
Seated in the red motorboat, Krog tucks his arm around his shivering wife, who wears three layers of fleece and is dwarfed by an oversized men's jacket. Oddly, they are beaming, even though they invested $12,000 to make the trip. It's not every day you can flirt with disaster, and be reminded of the importance of basic things like safety, warmth, and each other, Krog explains. "What happened out there is as exciting as it gets for me."
They plan to catch a ride to Carmacks, the first rest stop. Their heroics are over, but they can still be inspired by others.
"How about that Ingrid," Dawn Krog says of Wilcox. "Isn't she amazing?"
THE THIRTY MILE. HOUR 12.
Linda Rapp drops a pink carnation into the water and watches the current sweep it away. Seven women seated ahead of her in the voyageur canoe stop paddling.
Nine years ago, they had Edith in their boat. She was bookish, in her 50s, a mother of two, not your typical athlete. Rapp, a physical-education expert, had convinced her to join Paddlers Abreast, a crew of breast-cancer survivors from the Yukon. They huddled under a tarp during a downpour, sang songs to stay awake, shared celebratory beers in a hotel kitted out with an old saloon, forging a bond that went beyond a killer disease.
Two years later, Edith's husband sped down to Rotary Park in Whitehorse, catching Paddler's Abreast just as the race was about to begin. He handed them the ashes. They knew exactly where Edith would go.
This spot, where the river narrows and water flows quickly, is always peaceful. Spruce line the banks. Rapp can smell wolf willow wafting across the river.
The timing also makes it special. It's midnight when they arrive, having conquered Lake Labarge and mercifully gained the advantage of river current. The midnight sun has painted everything a dusky grey. In wool hats and fleece coats, the team is ready to paddle through their first cold night at a steady pace: 65 strokes a minute.
But Rapp asks them to pause. For the teammates who never met her, she tells Edith's story, and how she paddled even though quite ill.
Rapp is the only member of Paddlers Abreast who has done the race 10 years straight. She returns because she has watched the boat transform the women in it, teaching them that their bodies are capable of more than they ever imagined.
She has also watched it transform family members, and even strangers. Some, like a group of Australian breast-cancer survivors racing this year, have been inspired by the River of Life, a documentary about Paddlers Abreast produced by Werner Walcher for the National Film Board. Others are simply curious about their distinctive nine-metre canoe, with its blue and red moons painted by a first nations artist to symbolize women.
Rapp believes the canoe is a symbol of hope. She calls it "the spirit of the boat."
CARMACKS. HOUR 19
Justin Hearn races along a dock, smearing sunscreen on the chiselled chins of six beefy men. Gripping paddles, the members of Breaking Wind, who are from Jersey, one of Britain's Channel Islands, have 30 seconds before they can chase down the formidable Texans, who blasted off in first place six minutes ago. "Anyone missing a pee bottle?" Hearn shouts.
The riverside campground at Carmacks is the midway point of the race. Paddlers have seven hours to grab a coin-operated shower, a chocolate milkshake at the canteen and some sleep in a nearby hotel or tent - if they can, given the melee of racers arriving and taking off again.
Carmacks is also where most people "scratch," or quit.
Support people like Hearn try to make sure that doesn't happen. They are mothers, husbands, buddies and even grandkids of the paddlers. After carrying the boats on shore, they get on their knees and sponge out the urine of hard-core paddlers who refuse to stop when nature calls. They tote pills of every sort: Tums for indigestion, salt for energy, ibuprofen for muscle pain. They pack peanut-butter sandwiches and tuck people into bed. They offer back rubs and shoulders to lean on.
Most important, they deliver pep talks.
"Maybe I should scratch," Ingrid Wilcox says to her sister, Tina Torbick, sitting in her hotel room. She is weary. Her shoulders ache. She has sores around her waist. At her age, despite all her experience, this suddenly feels reckless.
People are always commenting on how miraculous it is that someone as frail as Wilcox can finish a race. Most don't realize that she trains year-round, swimming laps in winter and paddling the Yukon River all spring. Through experience, she also knows the tricks: what slow-flowing channels to avoid, and how pushing herself through a headwind is, in the long run, a waste of energy
But her greatest weapon, as Torbick well knows, is an iron will.
Growing up in Germany, Wilcox walked with braces, despite the polio diagnosis and doctors who said she'd spend her life in a wheelchair. As a young woman in the seventies, she travelled alone to the Yukon and fell in love with the territory. Later, with her husband, Frank, she set up a gardening and greenhouse business which she sold after he died in 2004.
Now she has one more thing to prove: If she finishes the River Quest this year, she will be the first solo kayaker to do so 1o times.
If you don't finish, Torbick reminds her, think about how you'll feel tomorrow.
Several hours later, she helps her sister ease back into the yellow kayak. Wilcox offers a cheery farewell to her fans, but the sight of her setting off all alone makes Torbick feel sad as well as proud.
"It does seem like this is the last time," she says.
FORT SELKIRK. Hour 37.
Allan Thomas is certain: This the stupidest thing he has ever done.
It all began on a lark. He and five buddies, all British soldiers and mostly in their 20s, had hopped a cheap flight from London looking for adventure. The Steelbacks wore water wings to the pre-race orientation meeting and packed Skittles for food.
"Let's pray, shall we?" Thomas had said as he sponged rainwater off the duct-taped seat of their rented old canoe. He was kidding. What's a little rain when you're British? Sleep deprivation is child's play when you've trained in Afghanistan and Iraq.
But it wasn't long before they realized some heavenly intervention could have helped. The Steelbacks lost their water supply shortly after Lake Labarge (a mystery culprit forgot to screw on the cap). Even before they crashed on the bare and dirty floor of the canteen in Carmacks (they didn't have a support crew and were too tired to put up the tent), one of the guys, in his dehydrated delirium, swore he'd seen a giant hampster in the woods.
Now, even as the morning sun warmed their bones after a second night on the river, and even though they had made it to the Fort Selkirk checkpoint at kilometre 455 - one of the most beautiful sections of the route with its soaring cliffs and historic buildings along the shore - morale had hit an all-time low.
A seemingly endless stream of boats had recently passed them - even a tiny grey-haired woman, paddling slow and steady all alone in her yellow kayak. She could have been his grandmother.
DAWSON CITY. Hour 61.
The noon sun bakes a small crowd gathered on a grassy hill over the river as it flows along Front Street, on the north side of Dawson City. Robyn Benincasa, a world-class adventure racer from California and the ninth person to finish, peers through binoculars.
Definitely a yellow kayak, she reports. A female.
All night, a circulating crowd of paddlers and support crew members has dawdled here, hollering and clapping as each racer finishes. The first to arrive was the voyageur crew from Texas, shadowed - as they had been throughout the race - by Carter Johnson, who blew away the men's solo kayak record with his time of 42 hours and 49 minutes - 95 minutes faster than the old mark and almost eight hours ahead of the next solo finisher. When he came out of the boat, the soles of his feet were pasty white - the most extreme case of bathtub skin anyone had seen.
And so it went through the night. The Jersey Boys came six hours later, raising their paddles in unison as Hearn, their support guy, dashed along the shore slinging Budweiser and Gatorade. Paddlers Abreast wiped away tears. The Steelbacks cracked the Stella tall boy they had carried 740 kilometres for that very moment. "I feel like I've been torn apart by a lion," Thomas says, grinning. Summoning a burst of steam, they passed a half-dozen teams after Fort Selkirk, finishing 27th.
Strangely, even after their ordeal, most of the top finishers are too wired to sleep. A few wander the wooden sidewalks of Dawson City, passing the old saloons and popping in for a drink at Diamond Tooth Gertie's casino. But they always seem to wind up back on the river, cheering the other paddlers as they trickle in.
With about half of the finishers still on the course (22 teams quit along the way), Wilcox comes in with a time - 61 hours and 34 minutes - that puts her in 35th place over all, and fourth among the six solo female kayakers. She's the oldest by two decades.
A herd of people rush to a lower bank. Dawn Krog breathes "incredible" as an exhausted but giddy Wilcox allows her proud sister and a race marshal to hoist her out of her kayak. "How's my hair?" she asks.
This is the last time, she announces. She has new adventures on her bucket list. Ten is a good number. Nothing more to prove.
But then, as she teeters up the bank, she adds: Maybe I will be back. In something easier, like a tandem kayak.