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Quite the Quest

Pemberton coach Hugh Fisher and three PCA alums win division in Yukon paddling marathon

A crew of Pemberton Canoe Association (PCA) alums and coach Hugh Fisher teamed up to tackle the Yukon River Quest from June 26 to 29.

Fisher, along with George McLeod, Heather Hellevang and Sydney van Loon, completed the 715-kilometre contest up the Yukon River from Whitehorse to Dawson City, handily winning the mixed C4 division, taking second among all C4 teams and placing seventh overall in a time of 47 hours, 23 minutes and five seconds (47:23:05). That was about 2:23 back of the winning team.

"It's every bit as tough as I thought it would be, and more. It's a body-wrecking experience, for sure," Fisher, 63, said. "It really does take it out of you. It's a hard event to train for because who can train for something that's three days, basically continuous, of anything?"

The team, dubbed An old guy, two young women and someone else, got off to a quick start, sitting fifth at the first checkpoint, but sat seventh the rest of the journey, seeing few other competitors for much of the way.

Fisher, who had covered the canoe with plastic, said that preparation helped weather an early storm and briefly launch the team to nearly the front of the race.

"The hardest time in the whole race was when we were on Lake Laberge, about halfway down, (and) a thunderstorm came over," Fisher said. "There were big, huge waves from the side. No canoes do well when you're getting a side wave, so we had to turn into it.

"There was too much water in the boat. We had to go in, bail it dry, get dry clothes on and then get going again."

The foursome paddled for nearly 19 hours on the first day before reaching the Carmacks checkpoint, where teams had to stop for at least seven hours. The team's support crew, made up of the wives of Fisher and van Loon and Hellevang's fiancé, had set up camp and allowed the paddlers to get as much rest as possible before setting off again.

As draining as the first day was, the second day required only a three-hour stoppage at the Coffee Creek checkpoint, which any competitive team would minimize.

"That second day, you're not really getting a rest. It's more like 30 hours," Fisher said.

Along the route, there were some gorgeous and odd sights with the nature in the area, Fisher recalled. On one night, there were swaths of moths near the water during the twilight hours as the team navigated the river's quickest rapids, while another saw a supportive beaver cheering the team on.

"They warn you that you'll hallucinate, but we went by this one spot and there's this very big fat beaver sitting back on its haunches, looking more like an orang-utan than a beaver, but just sitting there clapping," he said. "It wasn't just me. All of us looked at it. Lots of beavers slap their tails, but this guy was on the side for sure, we all saw it."

McLeod, meanwhile, said the amazing sights along the river and paddling through the night with the sun out were unforgettable experiences and even helped him to carry on when the going got tough.

"That race for me was all about mental and physical toughness. It was pain management the whole time, trying to stay positive, and we managed to do that. It wasn't hard all the time, there were just moments that your body was giving up on you and your brain was wanting to quit," he said. "Then you'd see the sun just over the horizon and you'd see the intense beauty that would take that away.

"Plus, you're committed to your team and the last thing you want to do is let them down."

Upon approaching the line, the 27-year-old McLeod said all four teammates were thrilled with what they'd accomplished.

"We wanted to be friends at the end of the race. We wanted to be under 50 hours and we wanted to be first in our class," he said.

The team's creation had its rocky moments trying to find a fourth. Van Loon, a 30-year-old Whitehorse resident who completed the race in both 2015 and 2017, recruited Fisher and Hellevang easily, but tracking down McLeod was a bit tougher.

"For George and Syd and I, a lot of our fun is that type of fun where you have that challenge, and you want to do what people don't think we can do," Hellevang said.

After Fisher combed his contacts for a fourth without success, he circled back to PCA grads, asking McLeod's brother Bill, who accepted. However, after about a month of training, Bill injured himself and asked George to take his place. While George had hoped to race it with his brother, he was glad to finally take on the race.

To train, Fisher and McLeod would complete 100-km paddles between D'Arcy and Lilllooet, or take laps between Lions Bay and Squamish, training for at least eight hours at a time.

Hellevang, meanwhile, is set to tie the knot this summer, but couldn't pass up an opportunity to take part in a race she'd wanted to do for years, noting that her teammates also had important commitments in their lives. She borrowed a paddling machine from a relative, and could more easily fit training into her schedule.

"If you're testing a new fuelling system it's really useful to have it there at home. There were a couple times that I wasn't able to go and do a race on a weekend because I had a family commitment. I still need to fit in that 12-hour paddle on that day, so you start at 2 in the morning and finish at 2 in the afternoon so you can still make the event," the 33-year-old Pemberton resident said.

While only Fisher and McLeod trained together, it was clear that the coach's instructions set in well—the paddling was seamless once all four came together.

"It wasn't until we all arrived here that we had some paddling together, but the great part for me was that the other three were all kids in the dragonboat program in Pemberton, so they all paddle the same way," Fisher said.