July 10, 2007

The Yukon Adventure Challenge

I apologize for the exceptional delay between blog postings. You see, I've been waiting to get some pictures to include with this entry. That, and I've been busy, so I haven't had much time to sit down and write about it. This has caused a back-log with all my other entries, prompting concerned e-mails and telephone calls from my Mum and other Michael's Meanderings readers. Again, I apologize. Hopefully this entry, and the profusion of entries to follow, will make up for my blog neglect.

Most of the pictures that you see in this entry were taken by Mike Tribes. Four of the pictures near the end were taken by my brother, Tim, and some of the pictures were taken by Donna Kno, as in, "I donna know who took 'em" so, sorry if I can't give you credit where credit is due.

And now, without further delay...

The Yukon Adventure Challenge

One day, as I was suffering on the couch from one of the many plagues brought home by Jade from the daycare, I got an e-mail from Mike T, asking if I'd be interested in joining his adventure race team. I said I was. I'd never done an adventure race before and didn't really know what to expect. I'd done everything in an adventure race, just not back-to back.

Training for the race was fun. The increase in activity kicked my metabolism back into overdrive - I was eating like I did when I was in high school and I was full of energy. It felt good.I was also fun to get to know my other team mates, Jay and Ryan, and our back-up team mates and "support crew", Mac and Tammera. Of course, Nanuq loved getting out a little more, too.

Our team met down at the Tourism & Culture building in the early afternoon for the gear check and orienteering test. We passed on both counts.

We met again later in the afternoon, this time with all of the other teams, for our race orientation. There, we received the maps and the listing of race checkpoints and transition areas. We were also informed that "The race starts at 6:00. Since the starting line is in Carcross, the bus leaves here at 4:30am. Be here by 4:00."

Excited that we finally had the race route (which had long been kept a secret by the organizers) we left the orientation to rearrange our race gear and to plot out the race route on our maps.

Our team captain, the Mighty Mike T.

Jay chows down and plots out our route.

Tammera assembles and protects the maps.

Ryan and I check out the route in "3-D" on Google Earth.

I finally made it to bed around midnight, but I didn't sleep well. There were a million thoughts running through my mind. What would the race be like? Was I ready? Was there something I'd forgotten? Would I let my team down?

My sleep was restless and, with far too little of it, my alarm went off at 3:30. Mike T picked me up at 4:00 and we were on the bus for 4:30.

As the bus made its way to Carcross, some of the racers were full of nervous excitement. I tried to sleep, with my head resting on a backpack, but was mostly unsuccessful. I kept plotting the race route in my mind, over and over and over again, trying to imagine what the conditions would be like. I knew we were going to have to cross the Coast Range and there was still a fair bit of snow in some of the mountains. Should we have brought snowshoes? There was no sense in worrying about it; it was too late now.

Excited race participants on the bus to Carcross.

Me, looking a little blurry-eyed at 5:00 am.

It was cold when we got off the bus and it was difficult not to bundle up in warmer clothes. The air temperature felt like it was near-freezing. The race was about to start and overdressing would just mean lost time removing clothes after the race had started.

After a group photo with all the two- and four-person teams, the race started at 6:00. With a mad dash, loaded with lifejackets, paddles and backpacks, we ran through Carcross and down to the beach on Bennett Lake to claim our canoes.

The participants. Only about half of the teams would finish the race.

The mad dash to the canoes.

The lake was calm, with small swells, but with barely a ripple, making paddling easy. The competitors were strung along the lake, with clear leaders and clear followers. Our team started out in the middle of the pack but we gained on the leaders and it wasn't long before we were near the front.

And we're off, paddling towards the West Arm.

There were eight checkpoints along the race route. By the time we reached Checkpoint 1 at the end of the West Arm of Bennet Lake, were were the third team in and the second of the four-person teams. The West Arm of Bennet Lake was absolutely beautiful and, after three hours of hard and steady paddling, I would have loved to stop and enjoy it and the many clear creeks feeding into the lake but, alas, we were in a race and we were doing well. We stuffed food into our mouthes, changed into hiking clothes, ditched our lifejackets, donned our climbing harnesses, grabbed our helmets and backpacks and dashed up a valley on the west side of the West Arm towards Checkpoint 2.

One of the smiling volunteers and Checkpoint 1.

Checkpoint 2 was the Tyrolean traverse, which is, essentially, a zip line without the zip. I don't know how deep the canyon was, but it was narrow, deep and impressive. The water raged below, the creek swollen from the snow melting high up in the mountains. Mike T was across first, followed by Ryan, then Jay, and then me.

The traverse.

Jay completes the traverse.

I hopped on the line and started pulling hand-over-hand. I could feel the weight of my backpack pulling me down. Had I not tightened my harness enough? It seemed dangerously loose. I desperately wanted to look down at the torrent of water below, but was a little concerned about tipping any further back in my harness than I already was. I took a quick glance, turned my head back up, and kept pulling. It would have been so easy to become entranced by the amazing view.

I pull myself across the lines.

We later heard that one of the competitors ripped a stomach muscle on the traverse causing his intestines to protrude. It wasn't a hernia - it was a torn stomach muscle. They managed to get him back safely. Apparently, the traverse was installed and supervised by the fire department, so everyone was in good hands.

By the time I made it to the other side, our team was in second place and first place among the four-person teams. Our spirits high, we started on the hike up the valley.

And so, the hike begins!

Although they came in handy later, I can't say I was very fond of the walking sticks at first.

The hike started out fast, but quickly became a slog through thick willows and rough terrain. We heard voices above us in the valley and struck for higher ground. The other teams were gaining on us quickly. Some had likely passed us. The higher ground was quicker, but hotter and harder on the feet. We were walking on steep, loose rock. We found ourselves surrounded by a few teams, which was disheartening, especially since it didn't seem like we were gaining on any of them. In fact, it seemed like we were still getting gained on. We pushed on.

I had to be careful of my knee, which I somehow injured on a Terry Fox run several years ago. I was babying it because there were a lot more miles to go and a lot of climbing to do and I could feel the old injury acting up. One of my team mates called for a stop to take care of an emerging blister. After that was taken care of, we started hiking again.

The walk along the slope was relentless, and one of my legs started feeling shorter than the other. The sun beat down hard and I was hot. Less than halfway through the trek, I had finished my three litres of water. I started grabbing snow and stuffing it under my hat to keep my head cool. Fortunately, we found a spring and we all, gratefully, filled our water bottles.

Rocks, rocks, rocks and more rocks., tasty spring water.

We were still in the valley, and, as it narrowed, the teams were getting bunched-up. As we passed, we watched one team head up the slope ridge, into a pass. Did they know something we didn't? According to our map, we still had a ways to go before it was time to cross over the mountains. We later learned that they had plotted their next checkpoint incorrectly and ended up dropping out of the race.

A caribou (bottom centre) trots down the mountain to greet us.

Eventually, we reached the pass where we had to cross over the mountain range. We walked up the snow pack, then up some rocks and steep alpine tundra, and then up into a small pass in the mountain ridge that was full of snow. The snow was firm, but it was softening in the afternoon sun. I stepped in the packed footprints of the people who went before me. It was a steep and non-stop ascent. The view back down the valley was astonishing and I desperately wanted to stop and enjoy it, but we had to keep pushing on. As we climbed, I dropped my water bottle and was afraid I would never see it again and it rolled down the slope. Fortunately, it stopped on a level bit of dirt that had been dug out by ground squirrels.

Climb, climb, climb...

Jay takes a quick break.

Like a modern day Chilkoot Pass...

...we all go over the top.

We stopped all too briefly for a rest and snack break. I could feel myself lagging behind. I was hot, tired, worried about my knee, and I just wanted to enjoy the view goshdarnit!

Stopping for a quick snack break and...

a quick look at the view. This shot looks down the valley from which we came.

Looking up the valley, where we wouldn't be going.

We crested the pass and walked and skied down the snow on the north side of the range. For some reason, the snow was softer on the north side and, without warning, entire legs would disappear into the snowpack. Our feet were sopping wet and our shins started to get scratched up, even with pants on.

We made it to the top and now...

...we go down!

Down, down, down we went, through the snow. Following in the footsteps of others became less and less of a useful strategy as the snow got softer. We crossed a creek bed, which was mostly buried in snow, and then we crossed over an old rock slide, which was also mostly buried in snow (and also just waiting to break somebody's leg(s)), and then we made our way down to Checkpoint 3.

Can you find the person hidden in the rocks?

There's a few of them hidden in there.

Approaching the lake. The rock slide and valley that we descended are in the background.

Checkpoint 3 was located on a lake in the bowl near the top of another valley. Two volunteers had taken a full twelve hours to hike into the spot where we had to hike out of in only a few hours. By the time we reached Checkpoint 3, we had been hiking for over twelve hours already.

The lake, with the the valley in the background.

Checkpoint 3.

After a quick snack, we were on our way again. We found out that we weren't doing as badly as we had thought. Apparently, we were in third place for the four person teams. Buoyed by this pleasant news, we loaded our packs back onto our backs and made our way down the valley and through the willows.

By this point, as the sun began to "set" behind the mountains, I noticed that the left side of my body was starting to burn. It seemed like the course planners had nefariously planned the route so that the sun would always be at our left. I pulled down my shirt sleeves, knowing that it was already too late. I took yet another long drink, hoping that the extra hydration would help alleviate the affects of burn.

The valley was full of moraines and route-finding became a balancing act of sorts. We were trying to find the right mix of uphill and downhill, willow-avoidance, and cold, wet stream-avoidance. Near a "hang" in the valley, we crossed the main stream to the other side of the valley. The stream was cold and rushing, overflowing the banks in most spots. Fortunately, we were able to pick up some moose trails and followed them quickly down the valley, sometimes losing them, but usually picking up new ones soon afterwards. There was another four-person team hot on our tails now, encouraging us to go faster.

Crossing a creek.

As the valley narrowed and the moose trails disappeared, we found ourselves pinned between the raging creek and a steep bank. We grimaced as we watched the other team literally jogging along the level high ground on the other side of the creek. We had crossed the creek because we reasoned that there wouldn't be a better place later on, since creeks from other valleys would be feeding into the creek we had just crossed. I hoped that we were right.

After climbing the bank, we hit clearer ground and started making better time. We began following caribou trails, which were fast and generally straight. We were getting closer and closer to Checkpoint 4 - the Transition Area. At Checkpoint 4, we could finally stop walking and switch to our bikes. Our spirits were high as we trotted along, wondering about the team that was on the other side of the creek.

And then it happened. One of our team members, Jay, stumbled and sprained her ankle. We patched it up, grimly aware that the rest of the walk out could be difficult and long. It was starting to get dusky in the narrow valley, and it would likely be dark by the time we got out. There was every likelihood that the race was over for us.

I was disappointed but not devastated. I could feel the wear on my knee and, since I didn't know what was causing the problem, I didn't want to push it too hard and cause permanent damage. Now, however, I was now facing a new problem - I had to go to the bathroom, and not in a good way.

I "lightened my load" while my team mates distributed gear from Jay's backpack. Because my bag was a little larger, I got the bulky gear, but it was all light stuff. It was Mike T who took the real weight from the pack.

With Jay's ankle taped, we walked slowly along the caribou trails and cautiously crossed the creeks. The more we walked, the better Jay's ankle worked, but we had lost valuable time. We followed a good trail along the main creek, but it eventually became too overgrown to use. Our injured team member suggested we strike for higher ground, which we did. We found a good hand-cut trail on the high ground and started making excellent time, but I had to stop the team again. My stomach was really not behaving.

It gets dark.

By the time I was done, two other teams had caught up to us on the trail. We all trotted down the trail together. It was starting to get dark.

In a valley, on a cold night, sound can travel pretty far. We heard dogs barking at Checkpoint 4, but it was deceptive. The trail disappeared and, like a long snake made of people, the teams played "follow the leader" through the marshy valley bottom towards the third bridge on the Annie Lake Road.

By the time we emerged at the bridge, it was dark. It was well past midnight and, likely, the end of our race. I couldn't decide if I was ready to quit or not. I was exhausted, but it seemed too early to give up. The state of Jay's ankle weighed heavily on all of our minds. The decision to quit still hadn't been made, so we waited quietly and patiently for Jay to decide what she felt was best.


Our support crew was at the transition area. Sorely and tenderly, we changed out of our wet clothes into newer, warmer ones. Our bikes were lined up on the ground in front of us, and we stared at them wile we shoved food into our mouths, waiting for our injured team mate's call. We were prepared to accept the outcome, no matter what it was, but nobody was saying very much.

Getting ready for the bike ride.

After half-an-hour, it was suggested that we try to bike to Checkpoint 5, which was located on the Annie Lake Road at the Alligator Lake Road turn-off. Jay was willing to try and by the time we left, we had been at the transition area for three-quarters-of-an-hour. Of the mass of teams that had arrived at the same time, we were the last to leave.

The ride was mostly downhill and in the dark. There were potato-sized stones along the road, so we were cautious. We could only rely so much on our bike lights. I had to stop more than once to take care of my angry digestive system, but I was always able to catch up to my team.

To our surprise, we passed one of the other teams on our way down the road. The sky started to brighten and we turned off our bike lights. As the sun rose, so did the feelings of sleepiness within us. One of our team members started to have slight hallucinations (or, at the very least, was dreaming while he was "awake"). I could see Jay falling asleep, and I tried to keep her awake, even though I was falling asleep, too.

Eventually, I did fall asleep. I was woken before I fell by the wobbling of my front tire. I looked around and there were houses around me - I had no recollection of biking into the midst of houses. Scared by my almost-mishap, I stepped off my bike and waited for the rest of the team to catch up.

I tried to fight the sleep, but it was hard. We were all ready to quit by the time we reached Checkpoint 5, but nobody was willing to say anything. We agreed on a fifteen minute nap. We lay down on the ground, but now, for some reason, none of us could sleep. Still, the fifteen minutes had been refreshing. When Mike T announced, "OK, let's go!" with much gusto, we mindlessly climbed back on our bikes to tackle the uphill and muddy Alligator Lake Road. There was no turning back now - once we started on the trail, we were committed to finishing it. We had no other choice. There was no other way out.

Attempting to get some sleep.

Riding a dry section of the Alligator Lake Road.

The sun rose higher and higher into the sky as we climbed higher and higher up the road. The team that we had passed was now right behind us, but we hoped that we were leaving them behind again.

I was still sleepy and knew that, if I could have just a few minutes of sleep, I would be fresher, more alert, and more raring to go. I biked ahead and, after I had gained suitable ground, crawled off my bike for a nap while I waited for the rest of the team to catch up. This strategy worked, and I could feel myself getting more alert.

The trail was muddy and we spent a lot of time off our bikes, walking them around the muddles (which are just like puddles, but are really muddy and you can never tell how deep they really are until you're in them). It seemed like Checkpoint 6 was forever away, but we finally made it. Finally.

We had to cross a creek to get to the checkpoint. I did it by walking my bike across. Two of my team mates attempted to ride it. Both went over their handlebars. As we left the Checkpoint, the other team arrived. We were still in third place for the four-person teams, but would we be in third place for long?

After Checkpoint 6, we rode up the "Coal Lake Road Connector", which is an ATV path that goes uphill then downhill and uphill and downhill (and so on) before narrowing in a field of shoulder-high willows, disappearing altogether, and eventually reappearing before becoming an uphill bike-push to Checkpoint 7 on the Coal Lake Road.

The Coal Lake Road Connector.

A wonderful little bit of downhill.

A lot of willows.

Ryan pushes his bike up to the Coal Lake Road.

One of many great views, this one looking back along the Coal Lake Road Connector.

Mike T shoves some food into his mouth. Did you notice that a lot these pictures show us with food in our mouths?

At one point on the "Connector", I had to stop again to tend to my stomach. In my haste to catch up with my team, I stood to pedal hard. Unfortunately, I did this on a downhill slope and leaned too far forward. I inherently knew it was not something I should do and, when when my tire hit the root, scolded myself it. I flipped over my handlebars, with the bike landing on top of me. My head would have stayed clear of the ground, but the extra grith of my helmet caught the dirt and pushed the helmet into my cheekbone. I lay on the ground for a few moments, further scolding myself for my lapse in judgement and, at the same time, mentally checking all of my body parts to make sure they were still attached and functional. I had given my right thigh a Charlie horse, banged my left knee (not the knee I had injured on the Terry Fox run), and my cheekbone was sore. Other than that, I was just a little shaken, so I stirred myself from off the ground and got back in the saddle again.

It was a good feeling, making it to Checkpoint 7. We were now on the Coal Lake Road and it was all downhill from there. Or so we thought. And so we were told.

Never believe someone who rode an ATV when they tell you that there's isn't much of an uphill climb.

We rode. The road out was longer than we expected and there was a lot more uphill than we could have believed. With the other team still not far behind, and exhaustion rearing its ugly head, we were at a low point (in terms of our morale, not our altitude). For me, it didn't help that I had to go to the out-outhouse yet again. Fortunately, it would be the last time on the race that I would have to stop, which was just as well, because I was out of toilet paper and old willow and scrub birch leaves don't do a very effective job.

Mike T, somehow, summoned the energy to push our injured team mate's bike up the hills, along with his own. Ryan and I looked at each other, wondering how on earth he did it. Eventually, Ryan helped out for a few of the hills. I don't know how either of them did it.

As much uphill as there was, there was also the downhill. Unfortunately, the downhill was littered with grapefruit-sized stones, so it was neither fast nor fun.

My spirits picked-up when I was the start to the final descent on the Coal Lake Road. I was familiar with this section of the road and, for pretty much the first time on the entire race route, knew how long it was. I was ahead of my team again, and took a nap in a patch of moss and grass while I waited for them to catch up. I wanted to be fresh for the fast and fun downhill run to come.

Even though the end was in sight, everyone was prepared to quit. We were spent. Nobody was looking forward to the final paddle from Checkpoint 8 at McRae Landing to Rotary Park, and then the portage at Schwatka Lake, around the dam.

As I woke from my nap, I turned to see Mike T sitting on the moss beside me. He looked very, very rough. Something was wrong. I asked him what it was.

During our trip on the "Coal Lake Connector", when he was lifting two bikes through the willows, he had clipped the back of his knee with one of the bikes. It was a tiny cut, but now it was starting to get infected. He took some painkillers and waited for them to kick in.

As we waited, we saw the team that had been dogging us. We hopped back onto our bikes and bombed down the hill.

The nap had invigorated me and I was now wide awake and rarin' to go. It wasn't long before we caught up with Jay and Ryan, who had chosen to keep going. Unfortunately, it also wasn't long before the team that had been dogging us, passed us. We were now in fourth place. A decision still had to be made about whether or not we were going to quit at Checkpoint 8, but we were so close to the finish line now that it seemed foolish not to finish.

The ride down the Mount Sima road, over the highway, and down the McRae landing road was easy and refreshing. We hurried through the transition area and into the canoes. The other team was well ahead of us now.

Before the race, we had developed a sail system. It was easy to rig and the wind was in our favour, so we chose to go with it. It took a little extra time, but we weren't in danger of losing our position, so we decided to try it. It worked for the first little while, but the wind got too strong and the stem of the mast broke and the sail fell into the water. We gathered it, disconnected our canoes, and paddled hard.

Through Miles Canyon, I cursed (in my mind) the "Captain" of the MV Schwatka. He leaned out of his cabin, shouting (in an exceptionally rude manner) for us to get out of his way, as he proceeded up the Canyon. To this day, I question the credentials and the competency of the MV Schwatka's riverboat "captain" because he ignored two of the cardinal rules of marine navigation: non-powered vessels have the right-of-way, and, downstream vessels always have the right-of-way. If you happen to know the "Captain" of the MV Schwatka, please remind him of this.

Anyway, we shot through Miles Canyon to Schwatka lake. We were in river canoes, which tend to be "pigs" on a lake - requiring more effort to paddle than a trimmer canoe with a sharper bow. Fortunately, the wind was strong and it blew us down the lake towards the dam. We steadily gained on the team ahead of us. As it turns out, when it came to paddling, we were a strong team.

So close! Soooo close!

Paddling on the home stretch.

At the portage, Mike T and Ryan rigged a sling system and carried both canoes at once to the bridge on the Millenium Trail while Jay and I carried the packs and gear. To my surprise, my legs barely worked when I got out of the canoe. There were as stiff as boards, and I had a hard time keeping up as we walked the portage.

We arrived at the bridge just as the other team was departing. We hopped in and were on our way on the last portion on the race before Rotary Park.

We picked our route well, and were flying down the Yukon River. We weren't fast enough to catch the other team, but we were close. I smiled when I saw Norris and my brother running along the bank of the river, cheering us on. We beached the canoes at Rotary Park and ran/hobbled to the finish line. We were done. We had finished the 167 km race in 35 hours and 22 minutes (You can see the race results here), coming in fourth place by only three minutes.

The McHales, the evil, evil course organizers (or so I thought at the time).

For almost the entire adventure race, I wondered what could ever possess someone to put themselves through another one. I could forgive anyone for trying it once, but who on earth would anyone ever do that to themselves again? But after we crossed the finish line, I understood. It's the sense of accomplishment and of knowing how far you can push yourself, if you ever really need to. It's also the bond that you make with your team when you're faced with a challenge. But mostly, it the sense of peace that you get when you see your smiling family and know that you'll soon be back in the comfort of a loving home.

Back with the family.

As I crawled into the car, I ached all over, I desperately wanted a greasy hamburger, and I needed a place where I could lie down for twelve hours or more. That was all I needed - the bare essentials.

I couldn't have been happier.

The team.

I was filthy. I was sore all over. I was sunburned on the left side of my body. I was growing a big bruise on my right thigh and I hadn't realised that I had cut my left knee, which started to swell and was slightly infected for a couple of days. I got off easy. After a few days in hibernation, I was as good as new.

Jay's ankle was a deep, frightening purple. I don't know how she managed will herself through the rest of the race. If I had seen my ankle that purple, I would have had serious concerns that it was ready for amputation. It's healing, though she hasn't been running on it as of late.

From our team, Mike T got the worst of it. The little cut on the back of his knee got so infected, that his leg swelled to practically twice its width. The infection spread until it ranged from the top of his thigh down. Conventional antibiotics weren't doing the trick, so he had to be checked into the hospital and put onto an antibiotic IV drip. Even with the range of antibiotics he received, the effect on the infection was limited. He just recently stopped making visits to the hospital.

Apparently, one of the competitors from another team also got an infection, which turned into flesh-eating disease. I don't know about the flesh-eating disease guy, but I know that Mike T has already decided that he'll do it again.

Maybe I will too.


1234567890 said...

Holy cow Michael, I got tired just reading about that. Good job!

Speaka said...

Congratulations! Well done!

Anonymous said...

Holy Shamoly! That is "Le Defi du General" on ACID! Well done!!

Anonymous said...

Wow! OK.....the write-up and photos were worth waiting for.
Great team work....and it's good to know you're not the only crazy one up there.
And just for the record, there was only one phone call from Mom, and only after I'd fielded several questions as to when you were going to post on your blog again.

Anonymous said...

Well done. You've joined the ranks of the crazy non-quitters.
Ya'll took care of our Alaskan team so we'll host you at our Aug 11 race. (