Adventure on the Yukon

Three Juneau men compete in the world's longest canoe race, the Yukon River Quest

Posted: Tuesday, July 01, 2008

SKAGWAY - Men in their 40s and 50s don't normally pull all-nighters - let alone three in a row. But racing 460 miles in a red Voyageur canoe doesn't leave much time for sleeping.

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Courtesy Of Molly Dischner
Courtesy Of Molly Dischner

So three Juneau men went without sleep on Wednesday night. And they did it again Thursday and Friday nights, too.

Instead of sleeping, 54-year-old Bob Funk, 47-year-old Eric Nelson and 45-year-old Dave Sevdy were competing in the Yukon River Quest, a canoe and kayak race from Whitehorse to Dawson City in the Yukon Territory, with three other paddlers. The race is billed as the world's longest canoe race.

Going without sleep meant a faster finish for the team. The Juneau men weren't alone as few paddlers chose to snooze on the river's banks and risk letting the competition pass them.

By 6 a.m. Thursday morning, the men realized they had done more with their morning than most people do with an entire day. Sevdy took an accidental midnight swim after his team paddled more than 50 miles.

"It's easy to get a lot done when you get started the day before," said 43-year-old teammate Rolf Nelson, Eric's younger brother.

The midnight sun helped too, they said.

Although the sun set every night, it rose just a few hours later. And it never got fully dark, making navigation still possible for Eric Nelson.

The race started at 12:30 p.m. Wednesday and the team reached Dawson City 53 hours and 10 minutes later to place 27th out of the 70 teams competing. They also finished seventh among the 14 Voyageurs in the race.

They raced under the moniker of Kookas Kanootti. Eric Nelson said the word Kookas means big canoe in Finnish. The later part of the name is just as applicable, Rolf Nelson said, as it applied to the team instead of the vessel.

Most of the way, however, they referred to themselves simply as Team 79 - the number assigned to them by the Yukon River Marathon Paddling Association.

For Eric Nelson and Sevdy, the team captains, doing the Yukon is nothing new.

The pair raced in a tandem canoe in 2006 and Sevdy said he kayaked it alone two and a half times. He finished twice and scratched once.

They decided to try a Voyageur to see what it was like with six people paddling instead of just two.

"Our goal is to finish and have fun," Nelson said before they raced.

They didn't start out that close to the front.

The race began with a short run from the starting line in Whitehorse to the riverbank, where boats were packed and ready to go following three days of scrambling around town for supplies.

By the time Sevdy and his team were halfway to their boat, they could see the first Voyageurs paddling down the river. Once they got to the bright red ship, their support team was anxious for them to get going.

Along the way they listened to music - everything from country to Cuban covers of American pop - made bad puns, looked for wildlife and took just two short breaks in addition to the mandatory stops at Carmacks and Kirkman Creek campgrounds.

They also talked to fellow racers, paddling hard to catch up to them just for a brief exchange.

Sometimes they raced to catch up to what turned out to be logs. Other times, though, they actually caught up to some humans.

Just 35 miles away from Dawson City, Kookas Kanootti finally got close enough to the canoe ahead of them to try to pass. With 10 miles left, ground fog formed on the river when Eric Nelson told Sevdy which channel to steer them towards for the final portion of their paddle.

The Kookas Kanootti crew passed the tandem canoe team they had been talking with before they chose their route.

At the end, Kookas Kanootti cheered for the competitors that got them through the last few miles.

• Molly Dischner is an intern with the Skagway News and paddled with the Kookas Kanootti team during the race.

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