Yukon River Quest paddling race cut short because of wildfires

Organizers of the Yukon River Quest are cutting this year's race short because of wildfires in the central territory.

The annual long-distance paddling race, which draws competitors from around the world, began on Wednesday in Whitehorse with 74 teams of canoeists, kayakers and stand-up paddle-boarders setting off down the Yukon River.

Typically, the race is a 715-kilometre haul all the way to Dawson City, Yukon, but organizers announced on Thursday that this year's race would end instead at Carmacks, which is less than halfway to Dawson.

"Yeah, it is disappointing but you know, safety first," said race marshal Stephen Mooney.

Organizers said in a statement that the race board made the decision after talking with Yukon government officials about the wildfires near the North Klondike Highway south of Stewart Crossing. Those fires have prompted the closure of the highway — which connects Whitehorse and Dawson — several times over the last week, and on Wednesday an evacuation alert was issued for Stewart Crossing.

Mooney said the highway conditions were the main concern for race organizers. Even if paddlers were safe travelling on the river, organizers were concerned about support vehicles trying to get through the active fire zone.

The decision to halt the race early was "actually not that difficult," Mooney said.

2024 Yukon River Quest race marshal Stephen Mooney in Whitehorse, June 2024.
The decision to halt the race early was 'actually not that difficult,' said race marshal Stephen Mooney. (George Maratos/CBC)

"When you speak to Wildland Fire and they tell you that travel between the communities Pelly [Crossing] and Stewart [Crossing] was 'essential services only' ... we do not consider this race 'essential service.'"

The race had also seen a temporary halt the night before, at the north end of Lake Laberge, because of fire activity just downriver from there. Organizers texted the ten teams that were past the Lower Laberge checkpoint to pull off the river and wait. They were then allowed to carry on once Wildland Fire officials determined that the fire downriver had calmed enough for paddlers to safely carry on.

The first team — a duo from Ontario in a canoe — arrived at the Carmacks checkpoint just before 8 a.m. on Thursday and by early afternoon dozens more teams had also arrived. Most of the rest were expected to reach Carmacks throughout the afternoon and evening.

Paddlers ready to leave Whitehorse in the 2024 Yukon River Quest, June 26, 2024.
Paddlers ready to leave Whitehorse at the start of the race on Wednesday. There were 74 teams in the race this year. (Camille Vernet/Radio-Canada)

Organizers said the race times to Carmacks will be the final results, and awards would be handed out on Friday morning.

Yukon fire information officer Mike Fancie said the decision to end the race early was up to the event organizers.

"I don't think that it's fire activity that, in and of itself, would make it unsafe for paddlers to have to leave the river," Fancie said.

"But it's obviously up to the River Quest what the risk is that they're willing to tolerate, with regards to the race that they're organizing."

Mooney said he's going to encourage some of the visiting racers to make the most of things and maybe spend some time exploring the southern territory instead of Dawson City.

He's also hoping for better luck next year, after several disruptions to the race in recent years.

"We've had COVID, we've had high water that we've cancelled races — you know, I was joking locusts and frogs maybe next year," he said.