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HIGH WATER – Breaking Wind, a voyageur canoe from Great Britain, competes in the Yukon River Quest on June 26, 2019.

Yukon River Quest watching water levels after issuing advisories

With water levels rising and a flood warning in effect for the Yukon River at Carmacks, prompting the Yukon River Quest (YRQ) to issue two high water advisories this week, the Star contacted YRQ President Deb Bartlette to get her take on the situation.

By Morris Prokop on June 17, 2022

With water levels rising and a flood warning in effect for the Yukon River at Carmacks, prompting the Yukon River Quest (YRQ) to issue two high water advisories this week, the Star contacted YRQ President Deb Bartlette to get her take on the situation.

The obvious question was why put out the advisory.

“Well, the water’s high and that means that paddlers should have good skills for paddling in higher water,” explained Bartlette.

“We know from experience that sometimes racers, particularly from outside the Yukon, come and don’t quite understand what it means to paddle a northern wilderness river in any year. In a year where the water flow is higher, and it takes a little more skill to be able to paddle that, those people should not be paddling.

“And in spite of the amount of communicating we have done since, gosh, January – before January, on what kind of risks and conditions one can encounter when paddling a northern wilderness river, in addition to what kinds of challenges there are with high water flow, we wanted to emphasize that message again, that it is important that paddlers have the skills and abilities to paddle in those kinds of conditions ... thanks to all the rain in the last four days, that water is higher at this point in the year than was anticipated and so those skills are even more important.”

Bartlette said there hasn’t been a significant drop in the number of racers due to the high water advisory.

“Not yet. In fact, I just checked with ... our race director, whose handling all these inquiries. As of this minute, only one team has dropped. However, we know that people are discussing it right now, so, yeah, we do anticipate that additional teams will be dropping out.

“It’s pretty standard for people to be dropping out leading up to the race and even the day of, for a whole bunch of reasons. We are anticipating more people dropping out and that’s not a bad thing, given that it’s a more challenging year to paddle – more skills are required. Not everyone should be paddling,” she added.

When asked what kind of reaction she’s gotten from the racers, Bartlette said “People are busy doing that assessment, from what we can see and making the determination whether they have the skills and comfort level to be out on the water.

“And of course, one of the challenges for all of us is that it’s a continually evolving situation. Every day, there’s new information comes up, we’re busy as an organization, as a race, evaluating that on a pretty much constant basis and the racers are doing the same thing.”

She has spoken with Risk Assessment Consultant Jon Heshka regarding the situation.

“Yes, we have and that’s part of getting the support and information that we need ... he is still working with us when we need him to be.”

One of the racers had suggested promoting the half-race to Carmacks as an alternative for some lesser-experienced teams.

“One of the critical places that we’re watching closely is Carmacks and then the section of the river from Hootalinqua, which is where the Teslin (River) joins the Yukon (River), from there to Carmacks is where conditions are likely going to be the most challenging,” said Bartlette.

“Between water levels, water flow rate and debris in the water, those are the three things to watch ... the paddlers are going to need to be very aware of and have the skills to deal with, so just doing from Whitehorse to Carmacks would not change the kind of evaluation work we’re doing right now, looking at the different variables. That wouldn’t change that at all.”

Are there any circumstances in which you’d cancel the race?

“There is a number of factors we look at and a number of different possibilities and yes, race cancellation is one of them,” related Bartlette.

“The other thing – we (who) live here are quite aware of is things are changing quickly. So it has apparently stopped raining, which is good in terms of water levels for everyone in the Yukon. Now it looks like it’s going to get a lot warmer. That will increase melt rate. Rain may come back and it’s not so much what’s happening in Whitehorse as what’s happening in southern Yukon, because that feeds – and in the middle where the Teslin, Pelly and Stewart Rivers feed into the Yukon ... because the situation can change rapidly, because conditions related to melt and water levels can change rapidly, that’s why we need to constantly evaluate this. We do not wish to cancel, but it is one of the scenarios we need to consider as conditions keep changing.

“I know people would like us to be able to say it’s going to 100 per cent be this or 100 per cent be that and – we can’t do that. It wouldn’t be responsible for us to do that because we need to look at how things are changing and evolving,” explained Bartlette.

In addition to giving a shout-out to the countless hours volunteers spend to put on the race, Bartlette mentioned that they may have to look at changing the start date of the race in the future.

“After several years in a row of heavy snow winters and high water levels, maybe in the future, we need to look at altering our start times or something ... all of us, as Yukoners I mean, we’re looking at things like sliding clay cliffs and frequent high water and huge amounts of snow and if this is the new normal, what does it mean for the many kinds of activities like this and events like this that take place in the Yukon? So we’ll worry about that later, but it’s certainly a equation that’s on a lot of people’s minds, I think.”

Bartlette added “We have to consider it being light enough to be able to paddle through the night and again, that’s something for future discussion. Right now, we’re really focused on doing all this evaluation of different variables and aspects of the race as we move along here but yeah ... I anticipate there will be some discussion on that after this year’s event.”

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