Red Deer kayaker took on Yukon River

Stéphane Pilon’s kayaking partner did not let sleep interrupt his paddling.

Exhaustion, by far, was the biggest challenge of the Yukon River Quest, a 715-km gruel-a-thon from Whitehorse to Dawson City, said Pilon.

The Red Deer kayaker and paddling partner and brother-in-law, Mark Ma, only grabbed five hours of shut eye during their 61-hour test of endurance and sleep deprivation that wrapped up on Canada Day.

“At one point, he was paddling and fell asleep,” he said, of Ma, a Hong Kong firefighter. “He was paddling as he was sleeping.

“I couldn’t do that because I was at the back, and at the back you control the rudder.

“At no time was I allowed to do that but he did — for a very short time — but it was a good laugh.”

Besides the physical challenge of paddling for hundreds of kilometres, the race required mental toughness — fighting their own biological clocks and ignoring its persistent demands for sleep.

Eighty-eight kayakers, single and tandem; standing paddle boarders and canoeists from around the world set out on June 28 for the epic race. About one in five did not finish or “scratched.”

Pilon said his wife Sophia Wong met the pair at the halfway point and could see the toll the race had taken.

“She was saying she was betting I was going to scratch,” he said with a chuckle, “because it was tough.”

However, there was no quit in the two men and they completed the race, crossing the line in 56th place.

“The whole experience was really good. It was something I’ve always wanted to do.”

One of the most memorable parts of the experience was off the river. His race was also a fundraiser and about $7,000 has been collected so far for the Terry Fox Foundation. The names of cancer victims, survivors and battlers covered the kayak’s hull and provided a poignant reminder of how the disease has affected so many.

The race itself was eye-opening on many levels, says Pilon, general manager at the south-end Canadian Tire.

The winning tandem kayaking team finished about 17 hours ahead of them, a testament to the calibre of competition.

“The winners are something else,” he said.

Die-hard competitors had trained intensely, often with the help of coaches, and arrived armed with all of the tricks of the trade for endurance river races.

“They had tubes everywhere. They have tubes for food, tubes for water, tubes to relieve themselves.

It’s unbelievable.”

If he did it again, Pilon would consider joining one of the voyageur canoe teams to soak up the camaraderie of a bigger group.

The only down side of the experience was that he and Ma were so busy paddling they could not dwell on the spectacular scenery passing by or explore some of the fascinating on-shore sites.

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Red Deer’s Stéphane Pilon and kayaking partner Mark Ma paddled 715 km as part of the Yukon River Quest. (Contributed photos)

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