Mike Denny is getting used to long canoe trips.
He recently finished one of the world’s longest canoe races, the Yukon River Quest, which runs 740km or 460 miles every year. He finished third in his category: the solo canoe.
Denny first heard about the race when he and his father, Brian, attempted to reach New Orleans by canoe in 2005. That trip was scuppered in the northern United States. But he always remembered a suggestion he heard on that trip – to try the Race to the Midnight Sun, from Whitehorse to Dawson City.
So, this year, he did. He decided in February and raced last month.
Since 2005, he had hardly sat in a canoe, having been busy with life, which included a job at Polycorp Inc., in Elora, as well as buying a house and becoming a dad.
But the lure of the race proved too much. He said on his pre-race entry form he wanted to demonstrate to his son, Isaiah, born in 2006, “The hardest part in life is trying.” He became number 60 in the race program, and his solo team was called Salvation River.
This year, 79 teams from all over started the race, the third largest number in the race’s 11-year history. There were 18 teams in various categories that did not make the finish line. Denny said one of the paddlers became seriously ill due to the strenuous race, and the pre-race emergency fee the racers pay enabled a helicopter to take her out to safety to a hospital.
For Denny, the terrain was a big transition from the south to the north.
“It was crazy,” he said in an interview. “It just did not get dark. I got so sunburned. It was easy to stay awake because it was daylight.”
Denny said the total cost for his adventure was $4,000, but when he arrived, his luggage did not. Since he was planning to camp prior to the race to save cash, it suddenly added expenses for hotels – and he needed his gear before he could rent his canoe.
His luggage finally arrived a couple of hours prior to the registration deadline. The canoe he rented had special steering controlled by his feet, and it took a good bit of his time just to learn how to handle it. The race has a running start, and he said he nearly hit a photographer standing in the water.
And, he added, his training was not exactly up to snuff.
“Most people trained all year for this,” he said, adding he had been in a canoe five times since his 2005 trip. That trip did help in some ways, because he understood how to stow his gear so it was handy, and he knew how to be organized on the water.
On the other hand, all the other racers had support teams who carried food and gear along for their riders. Denny had to do everything alone.
There were full team canoes for a voyageur category, single and duo kayaks, single and duo canoes entered.
Denny finished third in his single canoe category with a time of 68 hours and 19 minutes, well under the required finish time, but too late to qualify for a cash prize. That cutoff is 58 hours. He did finish ahead of three other groups that completed the race, and the 18 who did not.
He said his goal was to complete the race prior to the 72 hour cutoff time.
The first day he found out just how tough the race would be, and by the time he finished it, “I was hurting everywhere. But the end of the race, everybody was looking for …” actually, they were looking for a bar called the Midnight Sun, where they partied until they melted.
He said he had charts and knew by the last day of the race that he would meet his goal of finishing on time. He had 140km left to go and relaxed.
“I had the time – and I gotta admit I was hurting,” he said.
At one point during the race he placed his solo canoe in the current and slept for nearly 3.5 hours. He said he wrapped his hand around his emergency kit in case of a disaster. He actually passed some other racers during that stretch.
“People woke me up at checkpoint four,” he said with a grin, adding there were “plenty of safety boats along the route.”
He noted, too, that while he expected his arms to be sore, they got into a rhythm, but the rest of his body ached.
But even things like an aching body cannot quell his desire to test himself.
Denny said he wants to do the race again next year, but this time, “I want to compete.”
He explained, “For four or five years, I’ve been trying to convince my brother and my dad to go with me. Both finally said no.”
But now, his brother, Adam, is intrigued.
“They all watched on line,” he said of the race. “Now, he says, ‘I guess I’ve got to compete.’ If not, I’ll go solo again – and try to do it under 60 hours.”
Denny said that now that he knows about the race, the river, and what is needed, it could be a big advantage next year.
“If he [Adam] is there, we’ll try for the record” of 44 hours for the two man canoe.”
No matter how well he does, Denny already has one memento of the race that he is proud of. As a finisher, he received a small silver canoe inscribed with the date and the race name. He noted that drinking a special cocktail at the end of the race at the bar (which he said was rough, given his condition) made him “part of the circle.”
He added that if he goes, he hopes this time it can be with a family, which can act as his support group, so he can canoe without having to haul all his gear along with him during the race. That might include warm clothing for nights, which, he said, were very cold. He woke one morning with ice on his paddle.
He noted that Polycorp was particularly good to him, giving him the time off to compete and, he said, it is now considering getting involved with Dragon Boat racing – since there is an expert paddler on staff.
Denny also noted that mental preparation is particularly important for the race. He said in a two-man canoe paddlers can keep up each other’s spirits, remind each other of goals and things they need to do, such as look after aching muscles they might have mentioned 30 minutes earlier.
Denny noted that there is a professional circuit and some of the racers take part in it, including a race down the Amazon.
But for now, his focus will remain the north.