The World’s Most Grueling Race Journeys 1,000 Miles Down the Yukon
Originally published by Smithsonian Magazine, June 2023. By Max Ufberg. Photographs by Rafal Gerszak.
In a test of skill and courage, competitors navigate dangerous river rapids, narrow channels and rummaging bears in the wilds of Alaska and Canada.
It’s not clear who first discovered the gold.
Even that word “discovered” is a misnomer. The local Tlingit and Tagish tribes were both well aware of its presence along the river decades before Westerners started drawing it from the ground; they’d simply had no use for the stuff. Perhaps it’s better to say it’s not clear who first exploited the gold—who helped inspire some 100,000 prospectors to make the arduous trip to the Yukon Territory in northwest Canada, a migration that became known as the Klondike Gold Rush.
Some say it was George Carmack, an enterprising American who had made a career searching for bullion in Canada and Alaska, who first found this lustrous natural resource along the bed of the Klondike River. Others credit Carmack’s brother-in-law, a Tagish man named Keish (better known to family and friends as “Skookum Jim”), who, some believe, ceded his right of excavation to Carmack out of fear that the Canadian government wouldn’t acknowledge an Indigenous claimant. Whatever the case, in 1896 Carmack staked the first federally recognized claim to the gold in that section of the tributary.
Word of the precious metal’s presence quickly spread through Canada and the United States. By 1897, the gold rush was in full effect, drawing in ramblers the world over, some of whom would go on to achieve phenomenal success and notoriety: people like former Washington governor John McGraw; the scout Frederick Russell Burnham; Frederick Trump, businessman and grandfather of America’s 45th president; and the novelist Jack London, who once wrote of the vast and mountainous region: “There you get your perspective.”
London’s sentiment still rings true, long after that gold-infused stampede has died down. The untouched grandeur of the Yukon is still as intoxicating as ever, and it still attracts thousands—only these days, many are seeking not wealth but pure adventure.
On a balmy July day, I sat with several dozen people in the Sternwheeler Hotel & Conference Center in downtown Whitehorse, a city of 28,000 on the territory’s southern edge, where a group of paddlers had come to break records and write themselves into the history of this landscape. It was here, among the chintzy chandeliers and brown carpeting, that preparations were underway for the world’s longest canoe race, a 1,000-mile odyssey down the Yukon River, and the event’s organizer, Jon Frith, was telling the competitors all the ways they might perish on their journey.
Jon Frith, the race’s organizer, in a motorboat after helping two paddlers who’d been forced to abandon their boat near the Five Finger Rapids. Rafal Gerszak.
A racer might capsize their boat and drown, explained Frith, a strict-seeming Brit, as he clicked slowly through a PowerPoint presentation. Or perhaps they’ll develop severe hypothermia. Hell, even a moose could do them in, if they’re unlucky enough to provoke the animal. “They’re big old things,” Frith said, “and they’ll just come running through the scrub.”
There are three divisions within the Yukon 1000: canoeing, kayaking and stand-up paddleboarding. Racers compete in teams of two; in the case of paddleboarding, competitors each ride a separate board. Over the next hour or so, Frith continued outlining the rules, which boil down to: paddle all day, pull off the river and rest for at least six hours, make the time checkpoint in Dawson City, and (this last one is important) don’t rely on outside help. Racers must have a GPS tracker and satellite phone—the former so Frith can keep tabs on everyone; the latter in the event that someone needs a helicopter rescue. “Think of the worst-case scenario and plan for it,” Frith said. “It is really, really remote out there.”
He’s not wrong. Starting in Whitehorse, paddlers must navigate the Yukon River through rapids and a shifting maze of channels and tributaries, called “braiding,” which occurs because of the river’s high sediment loads and highly erodible bank material.
As the race wears on, the route grows more and more remote, cut off from highways, spectators and hospitals. Racers have a maximum of nine days and 18 hours to complete the course; should they miss the cutoff time at the checkpoint, they’ll be disqualified. The race finishes in Alaska, about 130 miles northwest of Fairbanks. There’s no prize money—just bragging rights. For now, the record for the fastest time, set by kayak during the inaugural race in 2009, is 6 days 2 hours 11 minutes.
Toward the end of his sermon, excitement entered Frith’s voice as he told the crowd that, following an unusually rainy start to the summer, the Yukon River was moving faster than usual. Up to 11 miles per hour at its quickest points. “I expect records to be broken,” he said with a grin.
Simply getting a spot in the 2022 Yukon 1000 was more competitive than getting into an Ivy League university. Over 3,500 teams applied; only 40 were deemed fit for the journey, and a mere 24 actually started the race. Participants must demonstrate paddling ability and wilderness acumen, and in Frith’s words, must “be grown up about the whole thing.” That means demonstrating self-sufficiency on the river and showing complete deference to Frith and his handful of volunteers.
The racers each pay 3,150 Canadian dollars for entrance and come from all over the world. Most of them looked manic. At least, that’s how it seemed to me as I watched them prepare for launch the next morning. On the bank of the Yukon River in downtown Whitehorse, a small contingent of paddle-clutching fiends raced to secure sundry items to their vessels. Food, clothing, water purifiers, bear spray (also apparently effective on moose), maps, satellite phones—all lashed down to their respective conveyances.
Ella Oesterholt, left, and Janneke Smits of the Netherlands pump air into their stand-up paddleboards before embarking. Rafal Gerszak
Among the competitors scurrying about were kayakers Daniel Staudigel of Bend, Oregon, and Jason Magness of Tucson, Arizona—team name “Bend Racing”—who have been adventuring together for 20 years. They’ve won several international expedition contests, including the Everglades Challenge, and were featured on the 2020 Amazon Prime reality series “World’s Toughest Race: Eco-Challenge Fiji.”
Other competitors also boasted a history of derring-do. Stand-up paddlers Ella Oesterholt and Janneke Smits, veterans of the same competitive rafting team in the Netherlands. Or canoer Toby Fenwicke-Clennell, who rowed from the Canary Islands to Antigua in 39 days in 2016, and his paddling partner, Will Goodwin. Or stand-up paddleboard racer Scott Baste—half of “Pirates of the Yukon,” with his partner Bradley Friesen—who owns a paddling shop in the Florida Keys and gets on the water about “two hours, three hours every day.”
But not everybody was here to chase a world record; some were simply aiming to finish. One such competitor was Dean Redding of Bangor, Maine. Redding had wanted to compete in the stand-up paddleboard category a few years ago, but a metastatic cancer diagnosis put that idea on hold. Now, after a year of immunotherapy, the cancer was undetectable, and Redding felt strong enough to give the race an honest shot—not on a paddleboard, but in a canoe with his friend Mark Risinger. Redding told me he was looking for “any way I can find my bliss in nature.”
Finally, with everyone’s gear secured, Frith shouted for a huddle. One of the participants, Glenn Nolan, a member of the Cree Nation in Ontario, instructed everyone to take a thimble’s worth of tobacco and offer it to the river for guidance along the way—a Cree tradition. Then it was back to Frith, who sought to inspire the racers with a quotation from the British Canadian poet Robert Service, born in 1874, known as the Bard of the Yukon:
This is the law of the Yukon,
and ever she makes it plain:
“Send not your foolish and feeble;
send me your strong and your sane.”
By now it was about noon, and the atmosphere was a strange mix of communion and conquest. With a dash of chaos. A minute before Frith called the racers to their marks, a canoeist named Kelly Linklater (half of “Team Savage”) walked from the riverbank to the small grassy patch where the spectators stood to ask if I wouldn’t mind driving his truck the 589 miles to Fairbanks.
“Can I just … do that?” I asked him, already apprehensive about driving someone else’s vehicle across an international border into the States.
“It’s fine,” he assured me. “Just tell them you’re with the race when you get to the border.” As we spoke, his wife and teammate, Naomi Umphrey, yelled for him to get over to the starting line.
I muttered something about how I would get the car back to him in one piece. But by then he was already running back to the water’s edge.
Some of the teams paddled in silence; some chattered to stave off fatigue. Some played music on portable speakers: classic rock, jazz, rap. Over the coming days, they would slog through rain and lightning, and even a brief hailstorm. By the second day, a hierarchy had emerged, with Bend Racing already at the head of the pack, having pulled through some 210 miles of river.
I left Whitehorse at dawn the next day to drive about two hours to meet the racers—well, to see them—as they passed through the Five Finger Rapids, a challenging section that finds the river divided by basalt columns into five whitewater channels. Frith had met a local fisherman, Ray Falle, a few days before who promised he would take us out on his boat to get a more intimate view of the action.
Of course, Frith needed to be close by during that treacherous stretch—so what would he have done if he’d never met Falle? That’s just the way this goes, Frith assured me. It always works out.
He wasn’t wrong. After parking Linklater’s truck in a small clearing in a park a few miles from the rapids, I wandered to a secluded slipway and hopped aboard Falle’s worn, purple jet boat. In a matter of minutes he was zipping me and Frith over to a section adjacent to the rapids. This was to be one of the few—and final—vantage points we’d get of the teams; after they passed through Eagle (a border town on the Alaska side, another 360-some miles beyond our current location), the racers were totally alone, inaccessible to spectators, and even Frith could only catch the action via a series of tricky overlooks along the route—and his GPS screen.
Parked at the bank, surrounded by the sound of rushing water and jagged islands of rock, we waited for the crews. As we bobbed in the current, hitched by rope to a tree at the river’s edge, Frith stared out at the imposing rock formations jutting from the water. “These rocks could tell some tales, eh?” he mused.
Frith had spent 30 years as a soldier in the British Army, a veteran of combat in Bosnia, Afghanistan and Iraq. The military is behind him now; these days he’s a husband and father of two living outside Winchester, England. But part of him still yearns for the old excitement. Frith did his first Yukon 1000 in 2016, placing second overall; by 2018, he was running the event. “I’m pretty comfortable in chaos,” he told me that morning. “I get a thrill of it.”
Still, he is constantly on guard, lest he lose someone. “From start to finish I worry,” he told me. “And it’s not because I run the race; it’s because I like all these people. Their families are messaging me constantly. It’s a little micro-community, and you’re trying to reassure them that you’re looking after them.” He would spend his nights by the fire, checking the racers’ GPS signals and keeping a line open to the competitors’ families, sleeping just a few hours.
Teammates Jeff Kay and Steve Morrison on the shore of the Yukon River toward the end of the race. Rafal Gerszak
We’d all been studying the GPS trackers that morning on phones and computers, so it was no surprise when Bend Racing entered our sightline, shooting through the rapids far ahead of the competition, Magness and Staudigel paddling smoothly through the whitewater. We watched them until their kayak was again just a dot on the horizon and we were, once more, left with nothing but serenity and the conjecture of who might have traveled these waterways in centuries past. “If you came down here 1,000 years ago in a birch-bark canoe, nothing has changed,” Frith says. “The scenery hasn’t changed.” Only the quarry for these folks is different: not gold or fish, but a singular experience. In the 21st century, when much of the world has more money and better technology than it’s ever known, people long for suffering—at least, a controlled form of it.
Things didn’t get much easier for Bend Racing after that, nor for any of the other teams who trailed them by several hours. Wildfires had struck near Dawson City, creating a dense smoke that looked like something out of the Old Testament and obscured racers’ views. From there, each team faced its own demons, and some bowed out of the race. One pair, an American and an Australian, capsized about one-third of the way through, suffered hypothermia and had to exit early. Fortunately for them, their mishap came before they reached the point of total geographic isolation, and Frith was able to meet them at the water’s edge before Eagle; otherwise, they might have had to depend on a helicopter rescue. Another pair was disqualified, too, after they missed the cutoff time at the Dawson City checkpoint.
As the miles and hours ticked by, teams lost rations. They dealt with territorial animals: One especially sticky moment came on the fourth night, when Linklater and Umphrey woke up to the sounds of a bear riffling through their campsite, and Linklater, in his haste to spray the animal, accidentally unloaded the chemical deterrent inside the tent, much to his and his wife’s esophageal irritation.
Navigation appeared to be the most confounding element. The river’s braid bars—think sandbars, but less sandy—are in a constant state of flux, something maps can’t account for. In a river that is at points over 3,000 feet wide, the feeling is, according to Linklater, one of “a big lake with a lot of little creeks, and you don’t know where the channel is.”
And yet they got through it all. On July 8, at about 6:15 p.m., Bend Racing flicked off the ’80s music blaring from their speaker and arrived at the finish, a rocky shoreline northwest of Fairbanks, close to the Arctic Circle. Magness and Staudigel, covered in layers of sweat and grime, had finished the race in 5 days 11 hours 48 minutes. Frith had been right: A new record was set, 14 hours and 23 minutes faster than the previous time.
I watched them drift into view around the bend. They landed with little fanfare, just scattered cheering from the volunteers and disqualified racers assembled on the shore, plus the occasional glance from a local fisherman. Frith handed each of the men a beer and a small commemorative coin, the latter of which, in the spirit of his martial days in England, he asked that they only look at later, in a moment of privacy. And that was it. The racers chatted with Frith for a few minutes and quietly hauled their boats out of the water. The victors were humble and affable, a ragtag embodiment of the explorer ethos celebrated in another poem by Robert Service:
But by men with the hearts of Vikings, and the simple faith of a child;
Desperate, strong and resistless, unthrottled by fear or defeat,
Them will I gild with my treasure, them will I glut with my meat.
A short time later, both men were seated in a small rest station next to the Dalton Highway, wolfing down double cheeseburgers and marveling at what they’d just survived. The dinners of prepackaged ramen and peanut butter. The swarms of overzealous mosquitoes. The dull ache in their arms. “It’s one of the few places that I’ve been in the last few decades where you really feel alone—like, alone, alone,” Magness said between bites. Staudigel chimed in: “The easiest way to be where you want to be is to want to be where you are.”
The second-place team arrived around 19 hours later; third place, another hour or so after that; and about 26 hours after the winning team came Redding and Risinger, in sixth place. Speaking to Frith next to his canoe, Redding was, even now, appreciative. “I was up there at my best,” he said. “So, I thank you for that.”
The teams continued pouring in until finally, after seven days, 17 hours and 24 minutes, Umphrey and Linklater came into view, the last team to finish. Like the others, they’d endured the bears and the braids and the occasional bout of despair. But there was something else. Linklater had seen something out on the river. Someone, actually. He was sure of it.
The tall figure had appeared in the backwoods, to the right of the river. Linklater spotted him from his seat in the canoe. “You hear stories about people seeing this guy walking around in the bush,” he said. It took a few minutes before I realized he was talking about the mythical Sasquatch.
“I tried to shake it off: OK, man, you’re seeing things,” he recalled. When he craned his neck to get another glance at the creature, he saw that the being had, in a matter of seconds, inexplicably moved to the other side of the water. He didn’t mention anything to his wife until the next day, not wanting to cause her any additional stress.
Linklater has no idea whether what he saw was real; the creature exists in his Cree tradition, and he trusts his eyes. On the other hand, he knows as well as I do that exhaustion can lead to hallucination. All Linklater can do is chalk it up as one of the river’s many mysteries, something worth chasing again and again. Like the 19th-century miners whose trail they had traced, the paddlers had their own dreams and visions on the water. When I spoke with Linklater again in September, he’d just been encouraged to apply for the next Yukon 1000. I asked whether he was considering accepting this next challenge. He answered without pause: “I’m tempted.”
The fortitude of the competitors brings to mind the French literary theorist Roland Barthes, who wrote while watching the Tour de France in 1957: “The racer is at grips not with some natural difficulty but with a veritable theme of existence.”
Of course, Barthes was talking about the fanciest of sporting contests, a place where the luxury-watch-sponsored after-parties are as famous as the course itself. Here, there is no material reward for whoever successfully grapples, in the unforgiving Yukon, with the question of what keeps us alive.