The announcement came unexpectedly on November 6. The 2016 Yukon River Quest, the epic 715-kilometre endurance race that follows the twists and turns of the Yukon River from Whitehorse to Dawson City, would allow stand-up paddleboarders to compete for the very first time. Converts to the booming sport stood up and took notice: By November 13, all 10 SUP spots had been filled in the race registration.
The River Quest, which began in 1999, takes place on or close to the summer solstice each year, and paddlers take advantage of the near-constant daylight to race around the clock—peeing in buckets and bottles, swallowing caffeine pills and scarfing down energy bars. Competitors have been known to hallucinate from exhaustion, hardly stopping during the 40- to 80-hour race to sleep or to rest their tired muscles and stretch their legs. It’s a brutal task even with the stability of a sea kayak or the relative comforts of a canoe. Now imagine doing it standing up, balancing on a floating board.
It’s the world’s longest annual canoe or kayak race, and traditionally it has been open only to paddlers in solo, tandem, or big voyageur-style boats. Rowers have petitioned to be included in the past, but have been turned down. Stand-up paddlers, or SUPers, had made inquiries, too. “We just didn’t know enough about it to even consider it,” says Harry Kern of those earlier requests. Kern is the president of the Yukon River Marathon Paddling Association, which operates the race. “It just sounded on the edge, flimsy, and dangerous.”
But a lot can change in a couple of years. Since 2013, stand-up paddleboarding has been gaining traction in the Yukon and the Northwest Territories: primarily—but not exclusively—in the capital cities of Whitehorse and Yellowknife. By allowing SUPers to compete in 2016, the River Quest is catching the wave: The race organizers are choosing to embrace a new but growing sport.
And if the initial registration is any indication, stand-up devotees are reciprocating that love. On December 18, the YRMPA voted to open up two more SUP spots, and those were snapped up too. As of mid-February, there were five SUPers on a waiting list for the race, and the 12 already signed up outnumbered the racers who’d registered in other legacy categories. This first race down the river is poised to lure even more Northerners to the sport.
Stand-up paddleboarding has its origins in Hawaii, the birthplace of surfing and a longtime incubator for a whole array of human- and wave-powered water sports and games. It involves standing upright on an oversized surfboard and moving the board through the water using a long-handled paddle, similar to a canoe’s. As a mainstream North American sport, though, SUP is barely a decade old. (Matt Warshaw’s seminal 2005 The Encyclopedia of Surfing doesn’t even mention it.) And in the North? With a few exceptions, its adoption here can be dated to the summer of 2013.
That’s when Stuart Knaack bought six standup paddleboards and started testing the waters for a SUP-based business in and around Whitehorse. “And I’m glad I did,” he says, “because it’s just exploding.” The next summer, SUP Yukon launched more formally, and Knaack, 36, now offers rentals, lessons, day-long tours, even yoga and fitness classes that take place on standup boards. (Think lunges, planks, and sun salutations—all while balancing on an oversized surfboard.) He’s also working with the Recreation and Parks Association of Yukon to bring SUP to Teslin, Carcross, and Watson Lake—to start.
Though SUP can look intimidating to a newbie from the shore, Knaack actually attributes the sport’s growth in part to its low barrier to entry. “The learning curve is literally a 10-minute intro, right?” It’s mostly a matter of pairing a couple of familiar motions: a canoe-like paddle stroke with the act of balancing on an unstable, floating surface—like a dock, or a boat’s deck. In calm conditions, paddlers can get the hang of it surprisingly quickly.
Knaack got into stand-up paddling just a few years ago: He tried it for the first time in 2011, in New Zealand. He’d been traveling the world in search of surf, and he wasn’t immediately sold on surfing’s more sedate cousin. “I was kind of on the fence about it. I was like, yeah, this is cool, but I was pretty headstrong into surfing then.”
But unlike classic ocean surfing, SUP was something that Knaack—a Yukoner since he was a toddler—could bring home to Whitehorse with him. Stand-up paddling can be adapted for flat water, moving water, whitewater; for low-key exercise or long-distance expeditions. You can do it on the Yukon River just as easily as you can on Great Slave Lake.
Old Town Paddle & Co. got its start right around the same time as SUP Yukon. Over the past three years, the number of SUPers floating around Yellowknife’s Back and Yellowknife Bays is a testament to its success. In 2012, Benji Straker bought a stand-up paddleboard for his wife, as an anniversary gift, and soon treated himself to a board too. The next summer, Straker’s friend and suite tenant, Ivan Gloeden, joined them on the lake. “We’d be out paddling all the time, and people would come up to us,” says Gloeden, 34. “Kayakers would chase us down” to find out where they could get a board.
The pair worked up a business plan in the fall of 2013, and by summer 2014 they were operational—offering rentals, lessons, retail sales of gear and boards, and tours. Lessons have been the hot ticket: In 2015, courses advertised a month in advance would sell out within a couple of days.
“It’s incredible, to be honest,” Gloeden says. “When we started it, friends and family thought we were absolutely crazy—no one knew even what it was. But we just love doing it, and it seemed like there were enough people interested.”
Meanwhile, a veteran fishing guide has been using SUP to push into new territory. Jimmy Stewart works as a seasonal guide on the East Arm, based out of the remote Frontier Fishing Lodge.
In the offseason, he manufactures his own surfboards and paddleboards in Vancouver, and for the past four years he’s been bringing an inflatable stand-up board with him to use in his free time on Great Slave Lake. He says SUP fishing is “much more independent” than working from a motorboat.
“It just takes a different amount of concentration and focus, but you’d find it’s actually surprisingly easy once you catch it—you can really feel the fish,” says Stewart. “If you’re fighting a 15- or 20-pound fish—being up there and being able to feel the strength of the fish underneath your feet, you make a lot of adjustments. Every paddle that you make, you’re trying to mimic what your bait is doing behind you in the water.”
Inflatable, packable boards also allow Stewart to access areas that boats and vehicles can’t reach. Last summer, he brought his friend Eric Becks, who works in the diamond mines, out to Frontier with him to test-drive a SUP fishing tour. On Frontier’s blog, Becks recounts the “EPIC!” trip, where they “fished some of the best holes all while balancing on a 3’ by 11’ board...One of the best adrenaline rushes of my life hooking up with a monster that can actually pull you around!” The lodge hasn’t yet offered a formal SUP fishing option, but “we see it happening” sometime soon, says Stewart.
“How much bacon and how much coffee one man can consume over three days of stand-up paddling down the Yukon River.”
The inclusion of the SUPers in this year’s Yukon River Quest is an experiment: There will be no prize money for the winning stand-up paddler, although any paddler who makes it all the way to Dawson City will receive a finisher’s certificate. In lieu of prize money, the race is rolling some more cash and effort into beefing up its safety precautions—more observation points on shore, more safety boats. Solo racers, in any craft, are at the greatest risk of injury or harm from dehydration, hypothermia, or capsizing, and SUPers are even more vulnerable than kayakers or canoeists to falling into the cold water of the Yukon. SUP entrants are being vetted by the YRMPA board to ensure they have sufficient paddling and wilderness survival experience to attempt the race with a decent chance of success.
One of those entrants is lifelong Yukoner Stephen Waterreus, a 50 year-old massage therapist and veteran cross-country ski, mountain bike, and adventure racer. He’s been stand-up paddling “in a serious sort of way” for three years, but never for more than about three hours at a time. “And I’m happy to get off at that point and drink beer,” he says. Still, he was intrigued by the chance to be among the first SUPers ever to attempt the Yukon River Quest. Like the race organizers, he sees his entry into the race as an experiment—to see, as he puts it in his registration bio, “how much bacon and how much coffee one man can consume over three days of stand-up paddling down the Yukon River.”
“If it is possible to have fun standing for 60-plus hours,” he adds, “then I hope to achieve this.”