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World's Longest Paddle

By: Mike Campbell, McClatchy Newspapers

ANCHORAGE (MCT) - Hand it to any race that blares this headline atop its home page:

"Do you really want to do this?"

Paddlers unfulfilled by the 400-mile distance of the 10-year old Yukon River Quest this summer will have a lengthier option - the longest paddle race in the world.

The 1,000-mile Yukon 1000 continues a north country tradition of exceptionally long races - whether it's by sled dog (Iditarod and Yukon Quest), snowmachine (Tesoro Irondog) or riverboat (Yukon 800).

Entrants in the newest ultra-long event can expect to paddle 18 hours a day for seven to 10 days from Whitehorse, Yukon, to where the trans-Alaska oil pipeline crosses the Dalton Highway.

About half the race will be in the Yukon, half in Alaska.

Though entries are just starting to trickle in, race director Peter Coates of Whitehorse said he expects a full field of 50 entries, the limit he believes the race can handle.

"We've got about a dozen teams committed," said Coates, who has served as both a competitor and race marshal in the Yukon River Quest.

Seward canoeists Cristan and Alex McLain make up one team, the Northern Current.

Beyond simply being longer, the new race differs from the Yukon River Quest in several key ways.

- There will be no checkpoints or safety boats in the Yukon 1000. Racers, who must travel in tandem boats or have a partner if traveling in a solo boat, will basically be on their own.

- The shorter Yukon River Quest offers $35,000 in prize money; the Yukon River 1000 does not.

- Each Yukon River 1000 team must carry a satellite personal tracking device called a SPOT. The 7-ounce units, which cost about $150, have a built in GPS receiver and transmitter that allow the holder to send one-way text or e-mail messages in areas with no cell phone or Internet access. It also acts as a satellite emergency locator.

- Instead of racing continuously as is permitted on the Quest, Yukon River 1000 paddlers must stop for six hours each night. Using the SPOT device, teams must check in by 11:15 p.m. and remain in that location for at least six hours before checking back in and continuing. Any team that moves during that period will be penalized. Teams must also check in at least once every six hours during the day.

"Everything is done electronically," said Coates, a 53-year-old computer programmer. "Every night, we'll have results of where people are. We have a software program written that will automatically update a map on Google Earth. You'll be able to watch the boats move down the river."

The race, which begins July 20, 2009, ends at midnight Aug. 7. After that, race organizers will no longer be responsible for monitoring SPOT messages.

Each team will provide race organizers with the name and number of an emergency contact, who will be notified by race officials if their team does not check in at the required times.

"That's the limit of our involvement (as race organizers)," Coates said.

Using SPOT devices to check on teams alleviates the need for checkpoints but requires racers to be self-sufficient, he said.

"We are very much relying on technology," Coates said. "It's very much a hands-off race.

"We expect people to know what they're doing. You have to be equipped for and behave like you're on a solo trip through the wilderness."

Larry Seethaler of Anchorage, a former Mayor's Marathon champion, has raced in all 10 Yukon River Quests. He and partner Greg Tibbetts of Juneau are leaning toward trying the longer race, he said, though they haven't signed up yet.

"Neither of us has gone any farther than Dawson (on the Yukon River)," Seethaler said. "It intrigues me. Greg was intrigued by the concept too.

"I kind of think because you have to hang it up after 18 hours, it may physically be easier."

Jeff Brady, president of the Yukon River Quest, is curious how the new race will work out and he can envision it benefitting his race too.

"I don't think we'll be hurt by it at all," he said. "Ours is more of a race, rather than an expedition."

A prerequisite of the Yukon River 1000 is running the Quest - or a similarly long race - first.

"So," Brady said, "it actually has the potential of increasing paddlers in our event. The only down side is we won't be able to call ourselves the world longest anymore."

One reason for the SPOT devices is that it's nearly impossible to get volunteers willing to give up two weeks of their lives, Coates said.

"It's going to be interesting to see how it'll be pulled off with the SPOT devices," Brady said. "Every year, we have some sort of situation where it's good (safety boats) are around - especially on Lake Lebarge, where racers can get hypothermic."

Every Yukon 1000 racer must have at least 44 pounds of food at the start and teams are required to carry such survival gear as sleeping bags, tents, stoves, fuel and a fire-starting kit.

"It's perfectly likely after the first 100 kilometers they may never see another competitor again," Coates said. "It's going to be a rather lonely race."

That's one of the reasons Coates decided not to allow solo competitors.

"I didn't want a solo boat traveling by itself," he said. "If you're in a tandem boat and you flip, there are two of you; that makes a huge difference when you're in the middle of nowhere."

© 2008, Anchorage Daily News (Anchorage, Alaska).
Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

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