Dawsons survive Yukon River Quest

Huge effort: Woronora's Steve and Kate Dawson competing in the Yukon River Quest. Picture: Supplied
Huge effort: Woronora's Steve and Kate Dawson competing in the Yukon River Quest. Picture: Supplied

Woronora's 'awesome Dawsons' are home after ticking yet another international marathon kayak race off their bucket list.

Steve, 49, and Kate, 46, finished second in class (mixed tandem kayak) and 25th overall in the 706km Yukon River Quest, with a time of 55 hours and 33 minutes.

The event, in the remote Yukon Territory, started on June 26, just over two weeks after the pair finished the 418km Texas Water Safari. They posted 44 hours and 33 minutes, sharing a four-man canoe with two American teammates.

The Kiwi-born duo were not the only Australian residents in the Yukon adventure. One, a stand-up paddleboarder from Perth, crossed the line after paddling for 70 hours and 39 minutes.

While happy to have completed the event, the Dawsons had hoped for a faster time. A friend gave them a good luck charm to carry in their races and Steve dropped it at the start line. He believes that despite all their preparation - and finding the charm again - it may have been an omen of things to come.

"It was much colder at night than we expected. Our clothing wasn't as effective as we hoped and being cold really sapped our pace on the first day after we got very wet in a stormy lake crossing."

The pair had to work within the constraints of the gear they had taken with them or that they could get over there. That meant the kayak wasn't set up the way they would choose it to be, if it was their own.

One major problem was the tracking device, which proved to be faulty. It transmitted an SOS, which led to the Royal Canadian Mounted Police contacting race organisers to see if the Dawsons needed to be rescued. They lost time resetting the device. Then they began suffering from shoulder problems after a particularly hard stretch of paddling. They were 300km from the end in a very remote area. It was either finish the race, or face a very expensive rescue.

"We decided to have a rest on a bar in the middle of the river. We chose that spot because it's bear country. We figured bears are less likely to be in the middle of the river than on a riverbank.

"After an hour's sleep, we were shivering uncontrollably but the rest resolved our shoulder problems. It also put us on warning that the workload was taking its toll. We made the decision to focus on finishing and worry about our time and overall standings later."

Steve says the final bad moment came when a race volunteer said they had 36km to go to the finish. It was actually 69km. The Dawsons suggested he meant miles but he was emphatic. They were right and he was wrong.

"We were well into the realm of hallucinations from sleep deprivation by that stage. Kate had seen elephants - and there aren't any in the Yukon. I had seen a medieval knight in full jousting armour and lance following us on horseback!"

When they covered the 36km and realised they still had another 33km to go, morale was very low. They contemplated simply drifting to the finish line with the current, but preparation, discipline and pride decided otherwise, and they kept paddling.

They were among 87 who finished the race, after 116 boats started, but don't be fooled into thinking they had company on the water. Aside from the difficulty of fighting a headwind for 19 hours and 250km, the hardest part of the event was the loneliness.

"We would often paddle for four or five hours without seeing anyone. The boats in front were pulling away from us, and we were doing the same to the boats behind us. Each hour increased the distances. We only really saw other paddlers during the rest stops."

Steve says the paddling can be as hard or as easy as you want to make it. There is a cut-off point, to be counted as a finisher, and he says you could reach it with an average paddle speed and help from the current - but the distances are just mind-boggling.

"Your destination is beyond your visual horizon. And it's not just the length. In places, the riverbed is a couple of miles wide with islands in the middle sporting fully grown forests of trees.

"So it is hard, but it's not insurmountable. There were a lot of people there who came from all walks of life, looking for a challenge, and they completed it."

The best part was crossing the finish line in Dawson, a quirky little 'wild west' gold-rush town that Steve has wanted to visit since he first looked it up in an atlas at primary school. He never thought he would arrive there by kayak.

The pair packed up and headed to their hotel at 5am for a shower, breakfast and some sleep before returning to the finish line to cheer on their fellow paddlers.

"There were a few Aussies out there who got a real kick from hearing 'Aussie, Aussie Aussie' yelled from the riverbank."

Would they do it again? They're still in two minds about that because there are so many ultra-marathon paddles around the world they want to try. Then again, it would be good to go back, knowing what they know now, and with even more preparation, to see if they can improve on their result.