Posted by: adamharmer | January 16, 2012

The Worlds Longest Canoe and Kayak Race – The Yukon 1000

“Dude you seem pretty keen on doing some suffering, do you fancy doing the Yukon 1000?”

A home made raft also making its way down the Yukon River

This is how it all started………a facebook message from a friend whom I hadn’t seen in 6 years.  I was looking for my next challenge and a quick google search found the website. Immediately I was hooked!

“Yukon 1000

Do you really want to do this?

1000 miles/1600km

7-12 days of solid paddling, 18 hours per day

The annual race is the longest canoe and kayak race in the world by far”

It took me a little while to comprehend what exactly was involved. The race in previous years had been won in around 6-7 days. I thought that we could do it in 8-9 days. My brain started doing the sums. 1600 km divided by 8 days equals 200 km a day. It was then that is dawned on me.

I’m an avid paddler and probably spend around 250-280 days a year in a boat, but I’d never kayaked 200 km in a day. I can’t even remember paddling 100 km in a day.

By this point it was too late….. I’d committed, my flights were booked and I was entered.

Weeks past by and I’d started to increase my paddling activity, sea kayaking around Anglesey, Scotland, Lands End, wherever I could get in the mileage. I even went to the gym, assisted by the famous Pete (Mr Motivator) Catterall. I managed to pick up heavy weights and put them back down in exactly the same place, I must be getting strong and paddle fit.

That was a good thing because by this point my race partner had decided that he wanted to complete the race in less than 7 days (and reading between the lines he wanted to win). So did I by this point, I was psyched.

Christmas came and went, the weather started to improve and my training continued to increase. Everyone I spoke to was telling me I was ‘stupid’, ‘that’s crazy’, ‘good luck’, it was starting to dawn on me maybe I had gone just a step too far this time. I’d run some fairly knarly rivers all over the world, I’ve seen my fair share of epics in the outdoors, but was this too much. Was I fit enough?

I didn’t want to let my race partner down. An old friend whom I had met during university days and raft guided with in New Zealand.  Simon Coward, originally from Australia, had settled in Calgary, Canada from where he runs a very successful kayaking business having paddled all over the world.  On arrival in Calgary it seemed that Simon felt the same. The last minute nerves had set in.

On my arrival in Canada we flew to Whitehorse in the Northern Territory of Yukon, also the race start. Simon had done a blinding job of organizing everything; internal flights, kayak hire, food and accommodation in Whitehorse. Everything was sorted…….….except our journey home. We had no idea how long the race would take.

The race was going to be epic. It started in Canada, crossed the Artic Circle and finished in Alaska. Studying it on google earth I realized the race was longer than the length of the UK, and I wanted to complete it in 7 days. Argh………………..

Race day came and we met the other teams. Unfortunately some had dropped out, but that didn’t matter we had a competition. A team of New Yorkers had travelled across the States with a ‘Voyageur’, a massive 6-person canoe. They were serious, they wanted to win. The day before they had been timing their start off the line to ensure the perfect get away. The other teams had all entered the race in previous years. We were the gumbies in a rented kayak, who hadn’t seen each other in 6 years, how could we win?

Boom the whistle blew. We gathered pace hitting a wicked 17 km/h. One by one we picked off the competition and made chase on the voyageur. We were in first place 15 minutes into the race, but could we maintain such a pace?

Race day preparations

We were paddling a tandem sea kayak, the Seaward Passat G3, with a big hatch between us full of food and all the equipment we needed for the race.

The rules were we had to be off the water by 23.15 each night and couldn’t be back on the water before 03.00, with a minimum of 6 hours rest each night. We were going to camp wherever we were when the time ran out; dirty islands, full of mosi’s, no toilets… this was no relaxing float trip.

Our food was measured to the ounce, we had been sponsored my Mountain Fuels in the UK with their special endurance food, special sachets of breakfast supplements, energy drinks and recovery shakes. Simon had brought us all the really bad foods, full of calories. Each persons daily ‘snack’ quota came to 5 bars of chocolate, 3 flapjacks or powerbars, 125g cheese, 3 pepperami sticks and 1 boiled egg……oh yeah and 1 orange.

The food was loaded into bear proof barrels.  Bears are a common sight in the Yukon and, although race rules stated that every competitor must carry bear spray, we weren’t taking any chances. If a bear came into our camp we were stuffed, we would have no food, probably a trashed boat and no way of raising help, it couldn’t happen.

The race was anxious. We were rushing down the river, desperately trying to keep in the fastest flow, always keeping an eye out over our shoulder for the following boats. The first day involved a 3 hour river paddle before entering Lake Labarge, a lake 50 km in length and with such a fetch that waves 6 foot can be encountered.

Our boat, food and bear proof containers

We popped onto the lake; the Voyageur was the only boat in sight still behind us. With a tail wind the waves started to pick up, surfing us down the face of the waves, splashing water all over the place. We were 4 hours into the race now and we were starting to get hungry.

We couldn’t stop though. If we stopped we might loose ground, if we stopped we might fall in (this actually happened to one of the kayaks in the race). We would nibble on chocolate, flapjack and drink from a camelback fastened on our shoulders.

3 hours into Lake Labarge the tail wind eased and the place became eerily quiet. We sneaked 30 seconds with spray decks off to grab our lunch from dry bags tucked between our knees. A short while later we noticed the clouds drawing in and what looked like a storm coming. Within minutes the storm was upon us and turned what was before a tail wind in to a head wind.  Waves increased and being the bow paddler I started to get very wet. At this time I was only wearing a thermal and board shorts and the waves were now crashing over my head. Unable to stop for fear of falling in I tucked my skirt in and decided to suffer on.

Stuffing my face with food before the winds increased on Lake Laberge

An hour later the wind eased and the end of Lake Labarge was now in sight. We drifted in to the start of the river and made decisions on where to camp that night. Every 30 minutes our plans were changing. We were flying along, overtaking our planned stops.

Our final resting place for the night was an ankle snapping, tree ridden riverbank. After shoring up the boat and moving our bear barrels to safety, I joined Simon fighting with the tent. The rain had started to lash down and all our kit, including sleeping bags, was getting soaked.  Nevertheless climbing into a soggy sleeping bag was a delight after 12 hours of continuous paddling.  5 hours later the alarm bell sounded.

Day 2 brought us a day of fast moving water. The scenery was amazing; spruce and pine trees for as far as the eye could see and emerald green water. We were also lucky enough to see black bear on the riverbank, beaver and moose.

We had no idea where we were on the river in relation to the other teams. After passing them early on day 1 we hadn’t seen another person.  The other teams had race crews, friends and family with cars in pursuit; Simon and I were in this on our own.

7 hours into the day we were still feeling good. We came into Carmacks, a small civilization of 2-3 hundred people, and Peter Coates the event organizer was standing on the bank waving us in.

The race rules stipulated that every boat must carry a spot device, a GPS tracker, which would allow not only the race invigilators, but also friends and family, to follow the teams progress over the internet.

He told us that the previous night we had been 30 minutes ahead of the Voyageur team.  Now neither Simon, nor I, had any experience of Voyagers. We had no idea of how fast they could travel, or how they handled, but with 6 people on their team versus our 2, a 30 minute difference didn’t sound like very much. We motored on.

About an hour or two after leaving Carmacks we entered the famous five-finger rapid, a section of grade 2 water. We chose the driest line on river right. Although this was the biggest white water we encountered on the trip the line was easy and the navigation on the lower river sections proved to be trickier.

Our food intake seemed quite steady during the day and 18 hours was starting to pass quite easily.

Day 3 saw the river change in character quite dramatically. The Yukon started to swell in volume and with this extra water came extra silt. The river lost its beautiful emerald colour and drinking from it now lost its charm. We now had to pump the water through a filter and store this in 10 litre dry bags kept between our feet. Space in our cockpits was rather tight.

The weather was also starting to improve. The showers had stopped and our kit was starting to dry.

We had mastered almost everything on the move now. We used milk cartons to pee into and emptied the contents over the side of our boat and prepared hot food by boiling water on the front of the kayak with a stove fixed onto the deck with gaffer tape. Boiling water and paddling was easy. We could pour the hot water into the dehydrated food bags, we had previously stashed between our knees, and were able to eat hot food on the move. The only problem being that Simon and I couldn’t reach each other so we balanced objects on our winged paddle blades to pass things between us.

Boiling water on the move

Our biggest boost on day 3 came from another boat who brought news of the other competitor’s positions. The rescue boat for team 3’s solo kayaker came whizzing past late that night with news that Monique had withdrawn from the race at five finger rapids with a broken hand. More importantly for us though the Voyageur was given as being about 3 hours behind us.

We slept well that night, without the fly sheet on and with plenty of space to spread out, making the most of the late setting sun to dry our clothes and equipment, although the sleeping bags never completely dried out.

Day 4 was a massive stepping-stone. We past Dawson, a famous gold mining town, and approximately the half way point on our journey, at 09.15, just as the town was starting its day. We didn’t have time to stop though and instead made the most of the fast moving water reaching our maximum speed of 24 km/h.

An amazing Yukon sunset close to the Arctic Circle

Later that day we also past Eagle, the border town for Alaska.  We had to stop here to authorize our entry into the USA. This was the only time we stopped during our designated paddling time. We talked over the phone to the border agents and made use of their facilities. The whole process took 40 minutes. However passing Eagle also gave us an extra hour due to the time zone differences. This meant a total of 19 hours between camps that day and 18 hours 20 minutes of paddling.  I was cheeky and got the border police to check our positions on the internet. We frightened ourselves with the knowledge that the chasing team was only 26 miles behind (we later realized this was a straight line difference and the true river distance was more like 76 km).

On Day 5 we entered the Yukon Flats, an area famous for its wildlife, and I got my first sighting of a grizzly. The area resounded with the sound of gunshots giving the place a rather sinister feel. We later worked out that this was the sound of permafrost melting and crashing into the river on the overhanging river bends, not a place to be in your kayak.

The flats are an area of very low-lying ground where the river braids into hundreds of channels. Making the right decisions were crucial here, get it wrong and the river would either dry up or worse still run into a log jam skewering us like kebabs.

The penultimate day saw us leave the Yukon flats past the settlements of Circle and Fort Yukon. Interestingly Fort Yukon is the only first nation settlement that sells alcohol (good job Simon and I were athletes, and not in second place, we would have never left).

Again the river was growing in size. Now over 1 km wide it would take 10 minutes to paddle from one side to the other. This was a problem for us because we made better time staying in the flow on the outside of the bends, travelling at around 13-14 km/h opposed to 9-10 km/h on the inside of the bend. This meant lots of weaving around the river to find the fastest water. The Voyageur, however, with 6 people and therefore more power would be able to cut the corners, thereby shortening the distance, and potentially enabling them to start closing the gap.

I remember laying in the tent that night trying desperately to work out our finishing time. It was all so close. If the river was fast moving we were in with a chance of grabbing the record.  If the river slowed, it might take us over 7 days. Neither of us wanted an extra night in the tent but all we could really do was continue to race for the end.

After 6 days of paddling fatigue had set in.  Simons’ hands were badly blistered and I had developed tenosynovitis, a swelling in my wrists caused by inflamed tendon sheaves. The pain was unbearable stopping me from paddling full bore. I became chief water collector and paddled as best I could.

Simon Coward with blistered and swollen fingers

Just before reaching the finish line we wondered whether anybody apart from Peter Coates the organizer would be there.  To our surprise there was quite a gathering, including a local reporter and the Voyageurs road crew. The finish line was marked by the huge Dalton Highway Bridge, which carries the important Alaskan oil pipeline over the river.

The end in sight, the Dalton Highway, Alaska

We had won! Simon and I were the winners of the world’s longest canoe and kayak race paddling over 1000 miles, in a time of 6 days 8 hours and 50 minutes. Very shortly after, the Voyageur crossed the line just 1 hour and 25minutes behind us, closing the gap in the last day by about 1 hour.

We were presented our medals and quickly consumed huge portions of burgers and fries before a very, very long sleep.

The winners medals

Would I do the race again? The answer would be a certain yes. Being on the Yukon was a true wilderness experience, the only noises being Mother Nature and the sound of our kayak cutting through the water. Simon was the best partner too, 6 years was a lot of catching up to do.

I won’t lie, we had some real low points but they were always followed by massive laughs and extreme fits of giggles as we hallucinated and joked ourselves down the river, comparing ourselves to the original pioneers of the Yukon River and the early settlers during the tough gold rush years.


I have to say a massive thank-you to our sponsors Darren at Mountain Fuels of S Wales, Summit to Sea the kayak specialists on Anglesey, N Wales and Aquabatics, Canada’s premier kayak shop in Calgary.

Below is a list of information for anyone looking to compete in the race

Day 1: start – Whitehorse 135km

Finish -10km before Hootalinqua river confluence

total distance : 135 km

Day 2: start -10km before Hootalinqua river confluence

Finish -2km past Minto

Days distance 249km (total of 384km)

Day 3: start – 2km past Minto

Finish – 2 km past 60 Mile river

Days distance – 231km (total of 615km)

Day 4: start – 2 km past 60 Mile river

Finish – 3hrs past Eagle

Days distance – 270km (total of 885km)

Day 5: start – 3hrs past Eagle

Finish – 3hrs past Circle

Days distance – 236km (total of 1125km)

Day 6: start – 3hrs past Circle

Finish – 2hours past Beaver

Days distance 212km (total of 1313km)

Day 7: start – 2hours past Beaver

Finish – Dalton Highway

Days distance 164km (total of 1497km)



  1. Adam

    You’re a legend fella. Just read this and was hooked – can’t quite decide if it was the fact it was the Yukon or that you beat everyone – or both. Who cares. Well done – thoroughly deserved.

    My missus and I hope to travel and paddle its entire length (from its source on top of the mountain) to sea . . . but that will be another time – and a lot less frantic than your trip.

    Huge respect


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