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Racers reflect on their attraction to an odyssey

The Yukon River Quest held a meet and greet Monday evening at the MacBride Museum prior to today’s race start.

By Morris Prokop on June 22, 2022

The Yukon River Quest held a meet and greet Monday evening at the MacBride Museum prior to today’s race start.

The Star was on hand to speak with the racers before their big day.

Holger Fischer, Brunn am Gebirge, Austria, Team 58, Old Danube Pirate, Men’s Solo Canoe:

According to Fischer, the Old Danube is the old flow bed of the Danube River, which runs through several countries in Europe.

“On this Old Danube, I do my training as well, and I was participating in the race three years ago in 2019 together with another chap of mine.

“We say it Old Danube Pirates and now it’s me left, and so I’m a Pirate only,” explained Fischer.

The remarkable aspect of Fischer is that he is 78 years young. It’s assumed that he is the oldest person in this year’s race.

“For me, personally, I do know that I am a bit out of age normally participating… but it’s a challenge for me and I’ve always done sports and done a lot of paddling… in the Yukon as well, so this was the reason why in 2019 I participated on the race and that was a tandem, and now I want to know how I did in solo canoe,” he said.

“There are lots of rivers I’ve done here. Just to name a few: the Takhini, the South MacMillan, the South Nahanni, the Hess River and so always alone in my solo boat.”

Fischer said the 2019 YRQ went well for his tandem canoe team.

“We finished after 62 hours, roughly, of paddling, so we were not the fastest, of course, but we managed… we had no problem, really. Otherwise, I wouldn’t be here again.”

Fischer said the high water levels for this year’s race don’t really concern him.

“Generally, I’m more a white-water paddler so I’m used to waves and rapids, rocks and so on.

“I don’t expect so much adrenaline now,” Fischer said.

“In the rivers smaller than the Yukon, you have strainers (wood perils) and sweepers (overhanging trees and branches) and logjams, so you must be careful anytime.”

As for Fischer’s goals for the race, “I want to be faster. I would say I need to be faster than I was last time because the river is higher.

“Of course, paddling alone is a bit more strenuous and maybe even takes generally more time, but I will see.”

Fischer added, “I’m thankful for the chance of coming back to Canada after not being allowed to participate in ’20 because of COVID-19 and the last time, it was meant to be only for Canadians.

“It was canceled anyway, evening before the race. This time, I do believe and hope, of course, it will happen.”

Goran Gustavsson from Villsh, Sweden Team 63, Kajaktiv, Men’s SUP and Anne-Marie Reichman-Totah from Makawao, Hawaii (but originally from Holland) Team 66, AM Totah, Women’s SUP.

The two participants are paddling together.

The obvious question was why they traveled so far to be in this race.

“We are separate teams but we are making a team together, due to the fact that we feel better about being a buddy on the water in unfamiliar territory….” related Reichman-Totah.

“Our minds got pondering when Christopher Parker from SUP racer, sent us a text in December, it’s like ‘Hey, come to the Yukon River Quest, would be great having you on the river’ and … something inside me got extremely excited without realizing what I was getting myself into but I was like ‘OK, I’ll pay $50, hold a spot, start training and see where this journey up in three months gets me before I had to commit and it’s been a roller coaster with feeling really good about it and really intimidated by it at the same time pretty much until today.”

“You think you’re ready, and then you’re like, ‘oh, gotta deal with that,’ and then it feels great on the water and you see eagles flying and you’re like so grateful to be here … and excited ,” Reichman-Totah added.

“This is an incredible adventure to take on and meet new people and connect with old friends.”

The two friends have known each other quite a while.

“There’s a SUP race in Holland – it’s a long distance race as well, 220 km, and that’s how we met … Anne-Marie started that race … that’s why I do these sort of races,” said Gustavsson.

“I try to find races that – it’s more than a race… you meet people, you socialize, from all over the world. That’s the great thing with these races. And everyone helps out.

“My first long distance, it was called Molokai to Wahoo, which was 50 km, but it was over open ocean, and there was currents and channels … but everybody experiences … pushing themselves over your limit and knowing that this person reached the finish line and I reached the finish line – you feel really connected,” recalled Reichman-Totah.

“It’s like everyone feels like the winner, everyone gets support, especially with this ultra-endurance, you want to be helpful.”

She added, “When we lose a little current, I have the image, ‘we finish in Dawson,’ so that’s definitely the goal and I think it has to be when you want to start on something like this.”

Gustavsson said they’re not concerned about the high water.

“I’m more concerned about the lake (Laberge) because on a SUP the wind can really, really hurt yourself… it’s like a sail.

“You stand up and – especially if you have a headwind or sidewind… you don’t have a rudder to deal with that.”

According to Reichman-Totah, they go about 11-12 km/h on their SUPs.

“We are decent paddlers. We just really hope to make all the cutoff lines and hope we can keep going – that’s really what we want… we want to have the opportunity to finish.”

Gustavsson added, “I want to see the bald eagle that we saw today. If we’re lucky, I want to see a bear on the side, or maybe a moose.

“This first time, we just want to get to know the river and finish. If there’s more opportunity there, I’d be psyched, but that’s not the primary focus,” said Reichman-Totah.

Gustavsson added, “It’s a beautiful place. It looks similar to Sweden. The mountains are a little bit higher and a little bit steeper … we have the mosquitoes back home as well, but it’s a lovely place to be here.”

Chief Bart Tsannie is from Hatchet Lake Denesuline (“The People”) First Nation, about 724 km northwest of Prince Albert, Sask. Team 147 is Hatchet Lake, Men’s Voyageur. Team members include Solomon Joseyounen, James Shaoulle, Joseph Dzeylion, Nap Kkaikka, Jeremy St. Pierre, and Robbie Denechazhe.

The team and their supporters traveled more than 3,700 km to get to Whitehorse.

“We have done it in 2008, and I was in there… and then in 2009 and then 2019, so these boys, they like competition and they’re pretty well known for paddling, too.

“But it’s a lack of training, because we don’t have a river like this here, it’s just an open lake, very big lake but the ice is always melting late up there,” related Tsannie.

“The whole community is right behind them, too and not just them, but a lot of First Nations in Saskatchewan are behind these boys here.”

Regarding the high water, Tsannie said, “It’s always a challenge. Where we come from, there’s hardly any rivers like this. They’ll probably take a little while to get used to this high water.”

They hadn’t had a chance to train on the Yukon River until Tuesday.

“If things go well, we’re gonna be at least top-three or top-five. We’re here to compete.”

Martin Ilumets is president/CEO of the Estonian Canoeing Association, which has nine racers, including Ilumets, in five boats, three tandem kayaks, one tandem canoe and one solo kayak.

When asked why they came all this way, Ilumets replied, “Because this is such a massive and natural place. We were here already in 2018… some of us and me personally was reading Jack London books and this is the place where it is… so this is, for us, quite exotic and a long trip to come here from Estonia.”

Regarding high water levels, Ilumets said, “Yes, of course we’re concerned and we understand the risks. We already had two trainings on this river from Whitehorse to Takhini River and we understand what kind of water level we have at the moment here.

“Our team (is) experienced to paddle marathons and big lakes overseas,” he added.

Regarding goals, Ilumets said, “We are supporting our girls. The girls are young and in very good condition…the goal is to win this in Woman K-2 class…there will also be very big competition in K-2 Men.

“There is Thomas de Jager who is the local and paddling every year and very tough paddler. So our K-2 One team should be first or second or third; we don’t know, but the goal is to get prize positions and of course the main goal is to get to Dawson City – on the river, not by car.”

Team 126, Huum Sauna Yukon Team Estonia, Women’s Tandem Kayak, is Linda Tetsmann and Anette Baum.

Another contender is Team 130, https://www.tyreorder.com, Elite Team, Men’s Tandem Kayak, featuring Indrek Kermon Rae and Andres Kaju.

Another Estonian racer of note is Marek Lindmaa, who is racing Tandem Kayak with Ilumets.

“He was making the TV show that was very popular in Estonia… Yukon River Quest and he was operating the show and afterwards when we came back home he said that he wants to participate in Yukon River Quest,” Ilumets recalled.

They will be making another TV show out of the 2022 YRQ.

“There was something about this place. I’ve heard that 90 per cent of people can’t wait when they can get out of here and 10 per cent can’t wait when they can come back here and I think I belong to the 10 per cent,” said Lindmaa.

“I was standing on the riverside and I said to myself, ‘one day, I will be back here,’ and now, the one day is today.

“My goal, and my partner Martin Ilumets’ goal, is to enjoy the race. Enjoy the nature, enjoy the river and let’s see where it brings us. Just enjoy.”

They are hoping to finish the race in 55 to 65 hours.

“You don’t know what happens, what the next corner brings to you, on this river,” said Lindmaa.

I added, “Yukon – it’s an amazing place, really. The Whitehorse, Dawson City, everything, the nature, I just feel like something here is what I enjoy and what is made for me. I don’t know what it is, but hopefully I will find out on the Yukon River Quest.”

Ilumets added, “It was like (a) logical step to come here from Estonia. It’s far away to fly here but it’s like adventure.

“It’s not only the race. It’s lovely people, nice country, very polite people here. It’s amazing. This is something that brings us back again and again, and we will be back here in the future as well.”

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