By Max Goodwin
Photos courtesy Emily McNeill
Nearly a month had passed since Emily McNeill had endured one of her life’s hardest, most amazing experiences.
She still felt tired. She didn’t want to admit it. Her boss had recently talked to her and helped her realize she might still need some time to recover.
In June, McNeill had entered the Yukon 1000, a kayak race on the Yukon River that flows between the U.S.-Canadian border. About 900 miles of paddling down a nearly impossible river to navigate through the unforgiving wilderness for over seven days with her racing partner, Dan Voss. They called their team McVossible.
The two of them paddled all day, each day, stopping only to sleep on rock islands in the river for six hours each night. The only food they ate was what they brought with them on the kayak, a mix of lightweight meals that could be stored in Ziplock bags and easily prepared.
There was part of McNeill that regretted having put herself through the whole ordeal. It took longer than she thought it would to overcome a lingering fatigue after returning from the Alaskan wilderness to the Kansas City suburbs, where she lives in south Overland Park.
“For anyone that does anything, that’s endurance,” McNeill says. “You have a sense of reward, but you’re also kind of angry with it for a while. I couldn’t figure out if I loved it or hated it.”
There were a lot of lessons learned while she was on the river. She felt unprepared for the challenges she encountered. “You shouldn’t learn it that much while you’re in the middle of something,” McNeill said.
She went through an irritable period when she didn’t want to discuss what happened on the Yukon. But that’s begun to change lately. She’s started opening up a little more about the race, what she did well, and what she would have done differently.
No comparing the Yukon
McNeill has paddled some of the biggest river races in the United States. She’s competed five times in the MR340, a race on the Missouri River from Kansas City to St. Louis. Her teammate, Voss, had been in the MR340 seven times and a longer race, the Great Alabama 650. Voss lives in Kansas City near the Plaza.
McNeill says those other river kayak races are an enjoyable experience compared to the Yukon 1000.
“So you’ve got your portages and things like that. But you also have ground crew, you have people that if you want a cheeseburger, they can go get you a cheeseburger,” McNeill said.
“The MR340 has people all along the river in these beautiful little small river towns that come out to watch.”
The Yukon 1000 was a different race, with survivability playing a much bigger part. This was entirely self-supported. Competitors couldn’t communicate with anybody, not through cell phones or strangers on the river.
“You went in with all of your food, all of your camp gear, all of your everything,” McNeill said. “So after you’re paddling 130 miles in one day, you still have to pull your boat out, get your gear out, get your bear stuff set up so that your bear safe. Set up your tent.”
Just two people, their kayak, and whatever gear they can fit on it. Paddling down the Yukon River, the third largest river in North America, through the backcountry of Alaska, crossing over the Arctic Circle where the sun does not completely set for the Summer Solstice.
Just entering the race is hard enough. Very few of the thousands of applications are accepted. When McNeill talked with the race director, she sensed that a dumb question would be enough to be told she wasn’t qualified.
If he doesn’t feel like you’re going to be able to survive out there and be smart, he may say you’re not fit for this,” McNeill said.
Surviving the Yukon
The journey starts at Whitehorse in British Columbia, Canada. It passes through Carmacks and Dawson City, and at the border is Eagle, Alaska, where there is just an American and Canadian flag to mark the boundary.
Competitors came from all over the world. Racing in three categories: kayak, canoe, and stand-up paddle board. All three are on the river at the same time. Out of 28 total teams, McVossible was one of only eight teams from the United States. Other teams came from Canada, Australia, England, Italy, and Estonia.
Teams had to keep a GPS tracking device in case an emergency evacuation was necessary, and they needed to be found on the river. Bears and moose are the first things most people think of, but there’s a lot to deal with out in the wilderness of the Yukon.
The night Voss and McNeill crossed the Arctic Circle, they stopped to set up camp at around midnight, and the sun was still on the horizon.
“It was neat,” McNeill said. “It was also disorienting.”
They slept on rock islands in the middle of the river, avoiding those where they could see moose and black bears. It’s nearly impossible to navigate a mapped route on the river. The islands are always changing with each annual flood from the snowmelt. Teams use printed versions of Google Maps to find their way.
“Google Earth doesn’t care to rescan these all the time. So, even though we made a route, we didn’t know necessarily that this is where these islands were anymore. And they weren’t,” McNeill said.
The silt of the Yukon River remains on each page of McNeill’s maps, as are her Sharpie notes to guide the water. Every four hours or so, they would turn the page to the next portion of the map. Each turn of the page was an eventful moment with so little for the mind to focus on outside of continuous paddling.
It wasn’t until day six that McNeill and Voss figured out the push of the water and where it would take them in relation to the islands.
“The water is going to take the big path. That’s the path of least resistance,” McNeill said. “But sometimes there are shortcuts, and you want to take the shortcut. If you don’t plan almost an hour ahead of time, it doesn’t matter. The water is going to push you where it wants to push you.”
At one point, McNeill and Voss came across a team that had become disoriented within the various fingers of the river that run through islands. Some teams didn’t finish the race. One team McNeill thought would come in the top three had to withdraw because of smoke from a wildfire rolling over the river and causing an asthmatic reaction.
Dalton Highway Bridge
As they neared the end of the race, they camped with another team of paddlers. They compared the distance they had calculated left in the race. They each had four different distances. McNeill had 49 miles left on her GPS, someone else had 63 miles, and another had 80 miles.
“Dan and I are looking at each other, and I’m like, ‘I can’t do another 80 miles. I need this to not go on for another entire day,” McNeill said.
Depending on the route taken, it can dramatically change the distance. The final distance ended up closer to what McNeill had it down as.
After seven days, seven hours, and 44 minutes, Team McVossible crossed the finish at the Dalton Highway Bridge. They finished in tenth place, sixth place in the kayak category.
“There is no award ceremony. There’s no trophy. There’s nothing when you’re done,” McNeill said. “The race director greets you, and then you’re done. You’re three hours north of Fairbanks at that Dalton Highway Bridge, and that’s it.”
Just the race director who hands them a coin, a t-shirt, and a beer. McNeill was lucky enough to have family and friends who could make the trip to see her finish. When she got off the water, she was looking forward to a shower more than anything.
Now, as McNeill has been back to her normal life for the past few months, she realizes most people she comes across daily don’t know what she went through on the Yukon River.
“And that’s fine,” McNeill said. “I know inside that I can do it. If I put my mind to something, I can do it.”
The experience has given McNeill a new perspective on her capabilities. From here on, whatever she does that tests her life, she has something to look back at and know that she’s made it through before.
She heard that there’s a Yukon 2000 in the works. It would go past the finish line and all the way to the Bering Sea. Dan already says he’s all in. It could take as long as four, maybe five, or six weeks to complete that journey. It wouldn’t happen until 2025.
“He’s so ready. He asked me, and I’m a hard no. No, no, no, no,” she emphasizes.
But if she still has the bug for kayaking in two or three years, she might consider the Yukon 1000 again. If she did, she says she would look at it more as a competitor this time. She wouldn’t want to endure to the finish line this time. She would want to try to win it.