Organizers of the Yukon River Quest have announced the date for the race will change going forward, moving the annual marathon race from mid-June to early July.
The decision was made after changing weather patterns resulted in mass flooding and threatened cancellation of the 715-kilometer (444-mile) wilderness paddling event two years in a row.
How The Yukon River Quest Is Shifting Course In A Changing Climate
“It was very, very challenging for us as an organizing team when it was that touch and go. It’s also tough for our racers. You have people come in from all over the world and they got here and things were so uncertain. We don’t want that to be a regular occurrence,” said Deb Bartlette, president of the Yukon River Quest board.
“I don’t think this is in any way going to make the race an easier paddle. What it will do is help us to lower the uncertainty that comes with those very volatile water levels that seems to be the norm now,” she said.
Traditionally the event takes place in mid-June. The 2023 race from Whitehorse to Dawson City will take place from July 4 to 7, accompanied by a new shorter leg to the halfway point.
Changing weather patterns are resulting in higher precipitation and snowpack in the Yukon and Alaska.
Annual warming in the region is projected to rise around two degrees Celsius in the next 50 years, according to a 2015 Yukon University research paper, and precipitation is projected to increase 10 to 20 percent in the same period.
In 2020 the River Quest was canceled due to COVID-19. In 2021, the Yukon declared a state of emergency due to flooding and the event was canceled the night before race day. The flooding situation repeated in 2022 and organizers were once again forced to make difficult last-minute decisions.
Paddlers were warned in advance that there would be more debris on the river, larger waves, sweepers to avoid and faster conditions. Beaches and other pull-outs normally available for breaks and emergencies were now underwater.
“We have so many things to consider that not everyone understands. It’s not just the conditions on the river,” explained Bartlette. “We have volunteer safety to think about, we have the communities along the way affected. How can we run a race if, say, Carmacks is being evacuated because of flooding? We can’t.”
“Just because [flooding] happened for the last two or three years doesn’t mean it’s happening next year. That’s true. But these kinds of high water events are going to be more frequent,” she said.
Fast water was a double-edged sword that benefited Eric Bräul’s four-man canoe team, who set a record time of 49 hours, eight minutes and 12 seconds during the 2022 race.
He said despite the advantage it offered his team, flooding made entering the race a tough decision for many and he supports the decision to change the date.
“People who want to set the record are going to be bummed about that decision, but it does make the race safer and more inclusive,” he said. “There are a lot of very good paddlers, who I think deserve to be included in the race and are perfectly capable of finishing the race, who pulled out because they were concerned about the flooding.”
The original race date took place during the week of the summer solstice, when the longest day of the year allows for nearly non-stop paddling. While the race will now take place two weeks later, Bartlette said the darkest hours of the race will still take place at twilight rather than nighttime.
“We don’t get actual darkness until later in July, so we’ll still have the midnight sun,” she said.