The Yukon River Quest kicked off in Whitehorse Wednesday with the biggest international contingent in the race’s 16-year history.

Sixty-six teams and 153 paddlers will race by canoe, kayak and voyageur canoe to Dawson City, 700 kilometres downstream, billed as the longest annual canoe and kayak marathon in the world. 

“We have paddlers from 12 different countries including the Netherlands, Belgium, Norway…” says organizer Valerie Ross.

A father and son duo from Guatemala decided to enter after seeing a TV documentary about the quest.

Son Alejandro Aguirre says they talked about the idea with high hopes of going for gold and finishing in under 55 hours.

Alejandro Aguirre

Alejandro Aguirre travelled from Guatemala with his father to enter the race after seeing a TV documentary about it. 'I hope we can finish. I hope we get to the end.' (CBC)

“Once we actually started paddling and training and seeing the guys and hearing stories here in Whitehorse, I say I hope we can finish. I hope we get to the end. It doesn’t matter the time, it doesn’t matter who is behind us or in front of us. Just have a good time.”

Others, like Britain’s Shaun Thrower, come back year after year, this time to compete in the tandem category.

“Last time I did it single and it really, really hurt me and I said I wouldn't do it single again.”

Even after that vow, however, he says it’s a race that’s hard to resist.

“It's kind of the call of the wilderness, a unique place, a unique race and I think once you get over the hurt, you get back to your country and you start reflecting on the race and your feelings change about it,” he says.

The race began at noon Wednesday from Rotary Peace Park in Whitehorse. The first paddler is expected to cross the finish line Friday in Dawson City.

Between now and then comes sleep deprivation, beautiful country and extreme adventure.

“It's pushing yourself to the limit,” says Thrower. “I mean, you see everyone, whether they come in the winning spot or they come in last place, they're usually pretty spent by the time they get to Dawson.”