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Wildfires cancel the Yukon River Quest
Seb Cou | Facebook

The World’s Longest Canoe Race Cut Short by Wildfires 

The Varieur's dream of completing the Yukon River Quest was abruptly halted by forest fires, an all-too-familiar issue for western Canadians

(The cover photo is from the winning team of Gaetan Plourde and Seb Courville facing the wildfire at Thirty Mile along the Yukon River)

Steve and Natasia Varieur’s dream of completing the coveted Yukon River Quest, a 715-km journey on the Yukon River from Whitehorse to Dawson City, Yukon, has ended prematurely.

But it wasn’t an accident or the father-daughter team from Canmore giving up that ended their race; it was something all too familiar to residents of western Canada: forest fires.

The annual long-distance paddling race, attracting participants from across the globe, had a great start under clear skies and warm weather on Wednesday, June 26, in Whitehorse.

Seventy-four teams of canoeists, kayakers, and stand-up paddleboarders from 12 countries embarked on their journey down the Yukon River. 

Most teams usually complete the journey in 50 to 70 hours, with one 10-hour mandatory layover in Carmacks.

However, on Thursday, organizers declared that this year’s race would conclude at Carmacks, less than halfway to Dawson.

“Yeah, it is disappointing, but you know, safety first,” remarked race marshal Stephen Mooney to CBC News.

In a statement, organizers explained that the race board’s decision followed consultations with Yukon government officials regarding wildfires near the North Klondike Highway south of Stewart Crossing. Over the past week, the fires have caused multiple highway closures, the main route between Whitehorse and Dawson.

Mooney noted that the highway conditions were the primary concern for the organizers. Although paddlers could safely navigate the river, there were worries about support vehicles passing through the active fire zone.

Paddlers in Whiehorse at the start of the Yukon River Quest
At the start line of the 2024 Yukon River Quest | Darwin Wiggett | oopoomoo

Racers Disappointed

Of course, the racers are disappointed that something they have dreamt about and trained for has been cut short. 

It’s not the first time the Yukon River Quest has been shortened or cancelled. 

According to Mooney, “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 to CBC News.

Next year will be a big one for the Yukon River Quest, as 2025 marks its 25th anniversary.

Steve Varieur took part in the inaugural Yukon River Quest in 1999.

In 2011, Steve paddled with Mike Bedard in the River Quest and took 6th place in Men’s Tandem Canoe

This was Natasia’s first Quest.

Natasia Varieur (right) doing last-minute preparations at the start line in Whitehorse
Natasia Varieur (right) doing last-minute preparations at the start line in Whitehorse | Darwin Wiggett | oopoomoo

Great Results!

Although Steve and Natasia might be disappointed by the shortened journey, they should be really proud of their results!

Of the 74 teams entered, 58 finished the abbreviated race to Carmacks before the cutoff time of 34 hours. Of the teams entered, 16 were scratched because they did not meet the mandatory times.

And what about team 24, the Varieurs?

They killed it, taking 3rd place in the Mixed Tandem Canoe category, 6th place in the Tandem Canoe category, and 14th overall. Wow!

With results like that, we hope they come back next year because they are contenders.

This year’s winners were team 44, Gaetan Plourde and Seb Courville from Ontario. 

It was Seb’s second time racing the Quest and Gaetan’s 14th time! In 2023, Seb and Jen Courville won the race with a winning time of 46 hours and 17 minutes.

Sebastian Corvallis (left) & Gaetan Plourde won the 2024 race overall with a time of 20:23:57 to Carmacks | Mark Kelly Photography
Sebastian Corvallis (left) & Gaetan Plourde won the 2024 race overall with a time of 20:23:57 to Carmacks | Mark Kelly Photography 

Changing Conditions

The Yukon River Quest is not the only event cancelled due to wildfires. 

Last year, events all across Canada were cancelled due to the incredible amount of smoke due to Canada’s worst fire season on record.

The Alberta and BC tourism industries have been negatively impacted by wildfires over the last few years.

The other famous Quest in the Yukon, the Yukon Quest dog sled race, hailed by many as the hardest dog sled race in the World, was also shortened this year due to a lack of snow and ice.

With winter events cancelled due to a warming climate and summer events cancelled due to increasing heat and wildfires, ultra-athletic outdoor events like the Yukon River Quest must adapt to quickly changing conditions.

Is the dream of participating in an epic canoe race now a thing of the past for people like the Vaniers?

Or can we slow the pace of the changing climate?

Time will tell.

Watch the video below for a taste of the River Quest’s start.

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