North

Record number of vessels take part in 21st Yukon River Quest

A record number of teams hit the water in Whitehorse on Wednesday for the 21st annual Yukon River Quest.

Competitors travelling in kayaks, canoes and stand-up paddleboards

Teams prepare at the start line of the Yukon River Quest in Whitehorse on Wednesday. (Philippe Morin/CBC)

A record number of teams hit the water in Whitehorse on Wednesday for the 21st annual Yukon River Quest.

This year, 117 vessels set forth on the 715-kilometre marathon down the Yukon River to Dawson City, breaking the record number of teams set last year with 106.

Paddlers have from noon Wednesday until 9 p.m. on Saturday to complete the competition, dubbed the "world's longest annual paddling race." 

"The start went pretty well," said Peter Coates, president of the Yukon River Marathon Paddling Association, the group behind the river quest. "There were no issues with boat inspections, no dramas."

Coates said times were a little slow at the start of the race, because water levels are low, "but that doesn't mean anything at this stage."

Canoes, kayaks and stand-up paddleboards — and individuals, pairs and larger teams — are eligible for the gruelling race. Stand-up paddleboards are a newer addition to the competition, and there are 10 in this year's race.

Bart de Zwart of Hawaii is a three-time champion in the stand-up paddleboard division. He's back for a fourth title this year.

"Almost everybody, even the fastest teams, they have some point where they're saying, like, 'Why did you sign up for this?' And, 'It's hard,' and, 'I'm tired and my muscles hurt,'" he said. 

"It's a mental thing. You have to be physically good, but mentally, you have to be stronger."

Seven-year-old Max Labelle, left, and nine-year-old Bree Labelle with their mother, Rachelle Zral at the start line of the Yukon River Quest on Wednesday. Zral is with Paddlers Abreast, a team of breast cancer survivors. (Philippe Morin/CBC)

Rachelle Zral is racing with Paddlers Abreast, a team of breast cancer survivors. She was at the starting line with her children, Bree and Max Labelle.

This is Zral's second time competing in the river quest. She finished treatment for cancer two years ago and raced for the first time last year.

Zral said she is paddling to show people that there is "life after cancer."

Racing has been an important part of her recovery, she said.

"Being amongst these people, these women of Paddlers Abreast, has been honestly the biggest moment in the healing journey from cancer," said Zral, fight back tears. "Being around strong women who have been through something, who so intimately understand — it has been life-changing."

Awards will be presented in Dawson City on Sunday.

Written by Sidney Cohen, with files from Philippe Morin

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