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Jon Heshka

Yukon River Quest engages risk management consultant

The Yukon River Quest (YRQ) faces many risks and challenges.

By Morris Prokop on June 20, 2022

The Yukon River Quest (YRQ) faces many risks and challenges.

As a result, the YRQ organizers hired Jon Heshka, a risk management consultant, to, according to Heshka, assist them in their risk management practices for this and future races.

“Assessment is just one part of that. In the arena of risk management, there are many layers to it. And it involves identification of the hazards or perils or risks and then the assessment – that is how bad they are, and then the employment of the most appropriate strategy and response to it,” explained Heshka.

Heshka is an associate professor in the Adventure Studies Department and has also served as the Associate Dean of Law at Thompson Rivers University (TRU) in Kamloops, BC. His areas of expertise include adventure sport risk management.

He trained and coordinated search and rescue full-time for most of the ‘90s and managed Petzl’s rescue & rope access division in the U.S. for three years.

He has two graduate degrees specializing in adventure education and risk and sports law.

“What we did, effectively, was went through a process of identifying the greatest hazards to the race. And there were three, four, five major categories of hazards that would imperil the race and there was a consultative process to work with the board as a whole, as well as individuals on the board to identify ‘how bad are these risks’, that is, ‘how much of a threat does it put the race under?’ and appreciating that any organization has limited or finite resources, then we went after the big ones.”

The process took about six to seven months.

“We know full well that we have accomplished a lot … but it’s not anywhere near done. That’s gonna be probably another two or three years until it’s at a place that everyone’s really comfortable with,” related Heshka.

He explained why such a long timeframe was involved.

“Because the race is north of 700 kilometres and it’s being run entirely by a board of volunteers and it takes time to do it properly.

“As the race has been around 20 years, risk management practices and expectations – societal expectations of what people expect when they participate in a race – has evolved and changed over the years, so Rome wasn’t built in a day, and it’s commendable that the board has taken the steps that they have,” Heshka added.

He was asked if this race is any riskier than other years.

“Obviously, the biggest known hazard that hadn’t been present before 1999 is COVID and we think that public health authorities have done a fine job in addressing that.

“The next greatest hazard of course is flooding and there are plans in place to address that. Is this race riskier?

Absolutely not. The risks are omnipresent. They’re always the same. It’s the capacity of the race organizers to respond to those and in that light, I would say the race is in a better position now than in years past.”

Heshka explained why he felt that way.

“There are contingency plans in place that – people are thinking ahead. Oftentimes in major sporting events, very hard decisions are made too late in the game. There isn’t enough attention paid in advance of known hazards and people kind of hang onto hope too long.

“Here are two examples for you. In 2007, one of the world’s greatest marathons got slammed by a widely-forecasted heat wave. This is the Chicago Marathon, there’s 36,000 runners … they ran shy on supplies, one runner died, there were nearly 200 trips to the ER and three and half hours into the race it was cancelled.

“Last year, the California Ironman Triathlon, in the presence of flooding conditions and torrential downpours that again, were not only forecast and projected, and experienced, the race was cancelled one hour before the gun was to go off.

“Now these are races - like, the Chicago Marathon, it’s sponsor then was a giant bank called LaSalle Bank. Ironman California is a for-profit company that makes oodles and oodles of money. And if companies or race organizers like that can get it so wrong, it says a lot about things, right?

“And so how is the Yukon River Quest shaping up? I think It’s shaping up great ... my contract with them ended March 31, but I’ve been in contact with them since, and they’ve got their fingers on the pulse of the known hazards, and whether that’s COVID or flooding or fire or air quality – or a myriad of other things – and contingency plans have been fluid,” said Heshka.

He said there are ways to mitigate the risk factors involved.

“There are four main strategies for dealing with risk. It can be eliminated so that would manifest itself by cancelling the race or suspending it mid-course.

“The risk can be transferred back to the participants and oftentimes we see this in the use of waivers or releases of liability and signage and notices and education.

“It can be retained, simply saying ‘hey’ – if memory serves me right here, the Yukon River Quest has in its vision and mission statement – it defines itself as an epic and world-class paddling event.

“The last thing would be – it can be minimized. And so if you remove the suspending or canceling of the race, the other strategies come into the fore. In other words,’this is an epic and world-class paddling race’ or ‘there are inherent risks’ and the people who participate are apprised of those risks and I think the Yukon River Quest has done a much better job at communicating risk to its participants.

“And then of course there are other operational wheels in motion for the race on how we can mitigate it if the water levels are higher than historical norms.”

Heshka added “I say no to a lot of respectable work, but this one was interesting, and it’s a cause I believe in because it’s in the North, and it’s run by volunteers and they’re trying to make something great happen.

“I think it’s pretty cool and I was pretty proud just to play a role in it.”

Comments (2)

Up 2 Down 1

Groucho d'North on Jun 24, 2022 at 10:27 am

There is also a significant risk in driving to Dawson City, the difference between driving and paddling is the drivers have passed a test to confirm they are capable to perform the feat safely, yet things can still go sideways at times. Risk is part of the game, just like mountain climbing, but policies and provisions can be made to limit the affects of the various risks. Paxillum Emptor

Up 3 Down 2

John on Jun 22, 2022 at 5:34 pm

A real good book about paddling the Yukon River is 'Drifting Home' written by - Pierre Berton.
Born in Whitehorse and raised in Dawson. A real good book written by a home boy.

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