One year ago, Kathy O'Daniel had never set foot in a canoe.
For the rest of this week, paddling is her life.
O'Daniel, 54, a fourth-grade teacher at Mendenhall River Community School, is one of two Juneau residents participating in the sixth annual Yukon River Quest. The 460-mile canoe and kayak race starts today in Whitehorse, Yukon Territory, and ends in Dawson City.
"I go between stark fear and raging excitement, (but) it's mostly excitement," O'Daniel said last week.
Solo kayaker David Sevdy, 41, is the other Juneauite in the race. He competed in - and completed - the 2002 Quest. This year's race boasts a record field of 51 teams.
O'Daniel will be paddling a canoe with her brother, John O'Daniel, 52, who runs the hardware store in Skagway. John O'Daniel is a veteran of several Quests, and a family gathering shortly after last year's race sparked the formation of the "Skagway Siblings" team.
"Last Fourth of July he came back from the race, and I said, 'I'd love to do that,'" Kathy O'Daniel said. "And he said, 'so do it.'"
O'Daniel got a canoe, and over the past year she has "done Auke Lake to death." Last summer she also participated in a "family float" on the Yukon from Whitehorse to Carmacks, and she has canoed on lakes near a family cottage in Carcross.
The siblings secured use of the Skagway Alpine Club canoe, purchased two years ago by several Skagway businesses so that the town would always have an entry in the race. It provided motivation all winter long, O'Daniel said, because it is stored at her brother's shop.
The Yukon River Quest's ties to the Klondike Gold Rush - it grew out of the Dyea-to-Dawson races of 1998's gold rush centennial celebrations - also provided motivation for O'Daniel. Her great-grandfather was a Skagway pioneer, and the era is part of her classroom curriculum.
"I teach about Alaska and about the Klondike Gold Rush," she said. "I thought this is a way of becoming part of that."
O'Daniel recently faced another hurdle - she had a lumpectomy last week - but said that, no matter what her doctors said, she was going to be with her brother at the starting line today. Her husband, Bob Deitrick, is part of the support team that will drive to the finish in Dawson. Her students will be monitoring her progress on the race Web site, www.yukonriverquest.com.
Sevdy, who works at Valley Lumber, is making his second trip to the Quest. In 2002 he was the last racer to reach Dawson City - crossing the finish line in just over four days - but he was one of just three solo kayakers to finish the race out of the eight who started.
"It was a lot of fun," he said. "The current was a lot slower than I expected (and) it's a long way to go without sleeping if you don't get your naps in.
"One of the other (solo kayakers) fell asleep the first night and woke up swimming. That was a good motivation" to stop for naps.
Sevdy said he'll pack lighter this year, beyond the safety supplies and other gear that race officials require in each boat.
There are two main obstacles on the course - Lake Laberge and Five Finger Rapids.
On a calm day, crossing the flat water of Lake Laberge requires a lot of work. On a windy day, the lake can become dangerously choppy. Race officials keep close tabs on teams as they paddle the lake.
Five Finger Rapids - located north of Carmacks where the Yukon River breaks into channels around several rock pillars - was well-known for perilous passages in the days of sternwheelers. It's no less intimidating today.
"You get there, and there are standing waves that look like they're four feet high," Sevdy said. "I was up to my nose in foam."
From that point on, it's a wilderness float to Dawson City. The race record is just over 44 hours, not counting mandatory layovers. Most teams average 55 to 70 hours.
O'Daniel and Sevdy are not looking to break any race records. Sevdy hopes to shave some hours off his 2002 finish time, while O'Daniel wants to complete the year-long journey taken by herself, her family and her students.
"I just want to finish and make my husband, my family and my fourth-graders proud of me - and have a good time," O'Daniel said.
Andrew Krueger can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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