A morning swim in the Yukon river. The event that pretty much put a halt to Dan Rogan and I being competitive early in the race.
Dan and I were up and moving early on Day 2 of the Yukon 1000. We were running in 3rd place for canoes after the first day of racing. We launched approximately 4am from the campsite and were moving down the river pretty quick although we were still waking up. Part of racing on a river is trying to find faster currents than your competitors without zig zagging too much. Often the faster currents are on the outside with the occasional inside current and almost always a steady middle current. Running the faster outside current can come with risks associated with it though like, strainers, haystacks, and whirlpools. The latter of which is what sent us swimming at 4:30 in the morning.
We were rounding the outside bend of a turn and moving 10+ mph through some rougher water when we got a little further outside of the bend than we wanted to and hit a whirlpool that was hidden behind haystacks. The whirlpool swallowed the bow of our canoe and sent us immediately into the fridged river. Thankfully, our speed pushed us through the whirlpool no problem and nothing got stuck, at least not in the whirlpool. The Yukon river flows through mountain terrain with large cliffs and lots of cut banks meaning that while the whirlpool kicked us out, we were effectively stuck in the river with only one way to go. Down stream.
Dan and I swam for 20 minutes in the cold water with the fast moving current taking us approximately a mile from where we first flipped. We tried multiple times to land in those 20 minutes but each time, our potential landing was a worse option than being in the water because of the many strainers. We finally managed to find a landing in a stand of flooded trees that we pulled the canoe into. I was the coldest I have ever been and was starting to lose fine motor function. Not a good feeling. Keep in mind that we were finally getting out of the water around 5am meaning the outside temperature was not that much warmer than the water so we really were in serious risk of hypothermia. As soon as the boat was secure we threw out sleeping bags, stripped wet clothing, and got into our bags asap. It took me about 30 minutes once in my bag to stop shivering and another 30 to feel comfortable again. After that we remained in our bags for another hour to regain some rest, eat some food, and to wait for the weather to warm.
After warming up, I told Dan that I was the most nervous I have ever been about getting into a canoe. The idea of hitting another hidden whirlpool or other obstacle was a nerve racking one after the mornings events. Had we swamped again we almost definitely would have had to scratch just due to body energy lost warming back up after swimming. With that in mind, we took our time to make sure that we were fully recovered, fed, and hydrated before getting back into the boat. A rushed re-entry could have been bad. We took our time to ease back into our rhythm once in the boat and it was a while before we were bold enough to ride any currents after dumping.
All in all, we lost about 3.5 hours in the swim as well as a ton of energy, and some food. That accident put us in last place as every team passed us during our time in sleeping bags. 3.5 hours would not have stopped us from being more competitive in the long run but the mental and physical drain from the swim was. It's hard to bounce back from mild hypothermia and be competitive in the same day of racing so it took us a day or two to get our rhythm and start catching teams again. After talking with other competitors we learned of another team racing this year that scratched on their first Yukon 1000 after hitting that same whirlpool. Our ability to persevere and keep moving is something I'm really happy with and I think Dan and I made a great team.
We were disappointed we didn't get to leave it all on the field for the race but after the crash we focused on finishing, and enjoying the long paddle. Both of which we did! Looking back, we did just about everything right and things went about as smooth as they could have given the situation and we were able to continue.
Dan and I both agree that had we not been wearing Personal Flotation Devices/lifejackets that the situation would have looked much different and it would have been a real fight for our life. One which one or both of us may have not survived . It was the simple act of wearing our PFD that gave us a shot at a safe recovery. So if you are reading this and want to take away a lesson, let that be that you should always wear your PFD and that you should always be prepared for the environmental factors for the places you are traveling.
We did a short interview with the race director after the finish about the incident so that he could share a little bit about the dangers of the race and to scare people a little bit into making sure future racers know what they are signing up for. The wilderness is a beautiful, scenic, and dangerous place. We are grateful that through our wilderness medical training and experience with the BSA that we were both calm, cool (maybe too cool), and collected in the accident. We worked hard to not let the incident define the trip. Sometimes, things happen and you have to roll with them the best you can. We did that, and had an absolutely amazing race while coming in 12th of 18 despite the crash!. We are still bouncing around Alaska and so I still haven't looked at the few pictures I managed to take but I'll be sharing some more of those and some of the good stories soon.
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