June 15, 2010

The Yukon Adventure Challenge (of sorts)

I wanted to enter this year's Yukon Adventure Challenge but pulling together a four-person or even two-person team proved to be too much of a challenge. I had some potential teammates lined up, but they all backed out before we even got registered.

Since I couldn't participate as an entrant, I offered to help with the event itself. My assignment was to man one of the checkpoints from about 3:30 am to about 8:00 am on the Saturday morning. I packed my bivvy sack, a thermos full of piping-hot tea, some grub, and set out around midnight, hoping to get some sleep onsite before my assignment started.

It has been far too long since I slept out in the open. (I would say that I slept under the stars except that we don't really have any at this time of year.) It was fantastic. It's something I need to do more often.

Even though I only had a couple of hours, I woke refreshed and ready for duty.

The participants, when they started arriving at the checkpoint, were about four to five hours into the race (having started at midnight). The had run from the visitor centre downtown to the East side of Schwatka Lake. From there, they had paddled upriver, thorough Miles Canyon, to Macrae Landing. At Macrae Landing they hopped on their bikes and rode to the Mary Lake Quarry, where the checkpoint was located.

At least two of the teams were having severe bike problems by that point. One bike was so damaged that a replacement bike had to be brought in by their support crew. Another team spent a good thirty minutes fixing a broken link on a chain. After the last team left, it was so bright out that I decided to go home and get the rest of my sleep in the darkness of my bedroom.

The day went well, even with my messed-up sleep schedule. By late evening, Fawn and I were snuggled on the couch watching a movie when I got a phone call from the race organizer. There were three teams unaccounted for (and several hours overdue), and the two people who were manning the checkpoint at the end of Fish Lake (where the teams were scheduled to arrive) were tired and ready to call it a night. Could I take their place, maybe spending the night at the remote end of the lake?

You betchya.

With Fawn's help, I packed a drybag and enough food for the night and part of the next day and drove up to Fish Lake where the boat was waiting.

It was approaching 11:00 pm when I arrived. The wind was gusting down the lake, blowing directly on to the boat launch. The conditions were not pleasant.

I looked with dismay as the former checkpoint staffers loaded a Zodiac onto their trailer. "I don't get to use the Zodiac?" I asked.

Alas, it was not to be. I was stuck with the rental boat, an open Starcraft aluminum. I was not pleased with the circumstances, from a safety perspective, and immediately started wishing I'd brought my own boat. In fact, I started driving down the road to get it before I thought about how long it would take to bring it back and get it launched. The racers waiting at the checkpoint were not likely prepared to a long, cold, wait. I said I would give the aluminum boat a try, but if it didn't feel safe when I was out on the water, would insist on getting my own boat.

I weighted down the bow of the boat so it wouldn't flip in the wind. Nanuq jumped in to help out. Heading dead-on into the waves the boat skimmed nicely. I rode straight on until I reached the far end of the lake where the mountains provided some shelter from the wind and where the waves were not as high. Then, I followed the shoreline to the checkpoint. I was damp from the boat's spray and my forehead was icy cold from the water and wind. My arm was cramping from the awkward position I had to sit in to handle the throttle.

When I arrived at the checkpoint, there was a team already waiting to be taken down the lake. The racers were supposed to paddle down the lake but, because the conditions were not pleasant, and because the conditions didn't allow for the canoes to be towed to the end of the lake, the race organizer wisely turned the Fish Lake section into a shuttled leg. I was the shuttle.

The racers, a team of two, were cold. I gave one of them Nanuq's blanket and pulled one out of my bedroll for the other racer, if he needed it. The ride in was cold and windy. The ride out was just plain wet. Water splashing off the bow blew up and into the boat and all over me. I was wearing six layers to stay warm, all of which were quickly soaked through. I could wring out my pants and fill a canteen.

I dropped the racers off and received word that another team - previously unaccounted for - was four kilometers from the checkpoint. After some bailing, I launched the boat again for the forty-five minute ride back to the checkpoint. I wasn't entered in the race, but that doesn't mean the weekend was without challenge!

Fortunately, wearing six layers meant I was well-protected from the wind. I hoped that, on the ride back to the checkpoint, the wind would dry me off a little but it was not to be. When I arrived I was cold and soaked through. I pulled out my Liard Firebox to make a fire but my hands were so numb I could barely grip a match. What normally takes me one match took eight, but it was worth it. The warmth of the fire was wonderful. I started drying out my gloves and my outermost layer. I hovered over the hot coals to dry out the rest of my clothes. If I needed to, I could always strip down and crawl into my still-dry bivvy sack.

A little after 1:00, as I continued to dry my clothes while eating a little snack, I heard voices down the valley. It was about as dark as it was going to get and, although there was still some light in the sky the going wouldn't have been easy and it would have been hard to them to find their way. I had brought a fife along - something small and light to play around with during the wait - and worked on playing a few notes. I'm used to playing brass instruments, not finicky little woodwinds. They racers heard the fife and started calling. They were soooo relieved to see the checkpoint and even more relieved to see that they wouldn't have to canoe the lake. They had been going for over twenty-four hours and still had a long way to go.

I was hesitant to take the four-person team all at once but knew that I could keep the boat on the sheltered side of the mountains and drop two of them off at an easy-to-find-in-the-dusk location if it wasn't safe enough to cross. Fortunately, the wind had died down enough that I was willing to cross and got the team to the end of the lake. The third team, I had learned, had turned back part way through the hiking portion and woudln't need to be shuttled.

With my clothes soaked through and my services no longer needed, I returned home.

It was past 3:00 am by the time I rolled into bed, grateful for a warm and loving wife who was willing to snuggle up against my cold and clammy skin.

On Sunday, I paid a brief visit to the Yukon Adventure Challenge banquet where I got to hear a few of the participants' stories. After that, Jade and I met up with Eric and his two oldest at the family drop-in at the Polarettes Gym.

Who knew they had family drop-in gymnastics in Whitehorse? With rings and trampolines and bars to swing from and giant foam pads and a way-too-fun foam pit? It was a perfect way for Jade to have fun while working on her gross motor skills and it was a great chance for me to roll around and have fun while getting a bit of exercise myself. Alas, it was the last drop-in until September - but we'll be back! If more Whitehorse parents knew about it, I suspect the place would be packed.

On Sunday night, Fawn and I finished watching the movie we had started on Saturday night. All-in-all, the weekend didn't go as I had originally hoped, but it was still a darned good weekend. I was looking for some challenge and excitement and I got it.

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