A voyager team makes its way down the Yukon River during the Yukon River Quest. (Jillian Rogers)

A voyager team makes its way down the Yukon River during the Yukon River Quest. (Jillian Rogers)

A couple of Skagway teams will represent the Upper Lynn Canal in a record field during this year’s Yukon River Quest. The 444-mile race runs from Whitehorse to Dawson City and this year is celebrating its 18th year. Paddlers will board their crafts and shove off Wednesday at noon in Whitehorse.

The Yukon River Quest is touted as the longest marathon paddling event in the world. It started in 1997 as the Dyea to Dawson Race with athletes running up and over the Chilkoot Trail, then hopping in a canoe on Bennett Lake and paddling all the way to Dawson. The idea was hatched by Skagway’s Jeff Brady and Buckwheat Donahue. But after two years of that, the historic trail took too much of a beating, so the Chilkoot was cut out of the race. In 1999, the race reemerged as the Yukon River Quest, a furious, nearly nonstop paddle from the Yukon’s capital to the Capital of the Klondike. That year, 17 teams started. This year, 94 teams will be at the start line. That equals 236 paddlers representing 14 different countries.

“We had 100 and then people dropped out,” says Harry Kern, the president of the Yukon River Marathon Paddling Association board.

He’s been involved in the event, in one capacity or another, since its inception. He says this year, along with solo and tandem canoeists and kayakers, and voyager canoes, there will be a Stand Up Paddleboard category. The number of entrants has fluctuated over the years, and Kern says, he’s not surprised the race is on the upswing again.

“Now we’re seeing a resurgence – between the good American economy and the cheap Canadian dollar,” Kern says. “And then, of course, we’re just a great place to want to come to. Plus we have stand-up paddlers this year as well, which are drawing a lot of attention from everybody.”

The stand-up paddleboarders, like the contestants sitting in their boats, will have to have certain gear with them onboard. And they’ll be able to replenish supplies at the mandatory seven-hour stop in Carmacks, about halfway through the course. There’s also a three-hour required stop further down the river, but teams can stop and rest wherever they like. As for the added challenge of standing versus sitting for 60-plus hours on the river:

“It’s sorta like the mushers, only it’s not as long and it’s warmer,” Kern says. “The mushers doing the Quest and the Iditarod, they’re standing up for a lot longer. They do take breaks, but you can also sit down on your paddleboard on your load, and you can kneel down.”

The paddleboard category is “experimental” and organizers have only allowed 11 participants in the class for its debut. These are competitors who are not taking the race sitting down, Kern says.

“The biggest muscles in your body are holding you up there, and you’re not trapped inside your container like a kayak,” he says. “In a kayak, especially a solo kayak, you’re stuck in this container, and you’ve got an L-shaped body for 24 hours at a time. I can show you lots of pictures in Carmacks of guys crawling out of their kayaks, and it takes two people to get them out of the kayak and at least two people to stand them up. You can tell the kayakers in Dawson, ‘cause they’re the guys bent over looking for nickels, right?”

Kern says he’s just as curious as anyone else to see how the stand-up paddlers will do, but he says, he thinks they’ll be just fine.

On the mostly-mellow river route, racers will encounter two sets of rapids – the first set is Class II, or Class III if the river is high, and second set can be avoided. But perhaps the biggest challenge is the famous Lake Laberge. On a calm day, no problem, but the massive lake can see whitecaps in minutes when a stiff breeze kicks up. Support boats are on the river at all times to offer aid if need be, and teams are monitored closely on the lake.

“Chasing the race in a boat, I get to see people go down and up, and down and up all the way along the course, and it’s just really interesting to watch people improve,” says Kern. “By the time they get to Dawson, they’ve got a big sense of accomplishment, and they’ve gotten through something personally. And there are many, many stories like that every year of people that overcome all kinds of internal stuff. It makes you feel good to be a part of that.”

Founder Brady, who has four River Quest finishes under his belt, will take on the race in a canoe  with his son, Danny. Also from Skagway, a voyager team captained by AJ Conley called Maggio’s Magic. The team of six is paddling in memory of beloved Skagway pilot Chris Maggio who died last month in a helicopter crash.

The Yukon River Quest hits the water at noon on Wednesday in a mass start at Rotary Peace Park in Whitehorse. Oh, and paddlers will be competing for about $28,000 US in prize money. More information at yukonriverquest.ca.