Local kayak team faces stiffest test.
Emitt Witt and Bill Harris have competed in many kayak races.
But nothing like the one they’re preparing for later this month.
On July 21 Harris, a retired USGS employee from Dixon, and Witt, of Rolla who works at both the USGS and Missouri S&T, begin their trek in the Yukon 1,000, billed as the longest kayak race in the world.
The race begins on the Yukon River in Whitehorse, Yukon Territory, Canada and ends at the Dalton Highway in Alaska.
As its name suggests, the length of the race is approximately 1,000 miles and crosses the Arctic Circle twice.
“Very few participate in this race for a number of reasons,” Witt said. “But mostly because it is an expedition style race - where the participants have to be extremely fit for an endurance race and experienced in wilderness survival.”
Fewer than 20 teams compete in the event, held every other year. This year less than 10 teams are in the field. Of the teams that start, less than half usually finish for a number of reasons, including weather conditions; bear, wolf or moose attacks; sickness; severe injury; boat failure, or exhaustion.
“The Yukon River is pretty wild and woolly,” Witt said. “It’s pretty dangerous.”
The Rolla team will include a third person as well - Dan Vincent, who also works at USGS.
“While Bill and I will be the in-boat racers, our team really consists of three people - Bill, Danny and myself,” Witt said. “Danny has been our trusted third member of the team since we began this silly sport. He has served as the ground crew coordinator for all our races. Without his support, we would not have done as well as we have over the years.
“Danny’s job on this race is to be accessible to recuse personnel if needed and to transfer the vehicle to the finish line as well as help our slimy bodies into it for the drive to Fairbanks for a hot shower and a hotel room. His job is most important and represents one of the logistical challenges with doing this event. There are only two or three access points to the river from a motor vehicle, so he will not be able to support us even if it were allowed.”
Harris and Witt participated in the Missouri River 340 in 2010 as a scholarship fundraiser in memory of their friend and former USGS employee, Dr. Jeff Spooner.
Since then the duo have teamed in numerous races.
Twice Witt and Harris teamed to compete in the Missouri River 340, running from Kansas City to St. Charles. The duo finished sixth in the tandem race in 2010 and fourth in 2012.
Also in 2012 the two finished first in the 80-mile tandem Race For The Rivers event on the Missouri River.
Harris has also competed in some solo kayak races, including the Yukon 460 - the shorter version of the July 21 event.
“Bill did the Yukon 460 solo in 2011,” Witt said. “A member of your team is required to have done one of those races to qualify (for the July 21 race).”
The upcoming race will be by far the duo’s stiffest test.
“The race is totally unsupported, meaning we are required to carry everything for the duration of the race,” Witt said. “We are given two weeks to finish, but Bill and I plan to finish in seven days. This will require 18 hours of paddling per day with the mandatory six-hour stop each night at a pace of eight mph.
“We will be paddling a tandem kayak loaded with about 250 pounds of gear. We have participated in a large number of races since 2010, always placing with the top five finishers. We don’t know the capability of our competitors, but if they have invested time and money into doing this, they will be formidable. I look forward to meeting them.”
Witt and Harris will use the same kayak they used to claim sixth place in the Missouri River 340 in 2010 and fourth place in 2012. “During a race in Tennessee in May, we actually did that race with the boat loaded with all the same gear we plan to take on the Yukon 1,000,” Witt said. “And we took second place in the 46-mile event. The other competitors in that race wondered why we were loading the boat with sleeping bags, tents and bear containers full of food for a one-day race. We earned their respect when we finished second and explained to them the purpose of all our trouble. Now we have to do it for real!”
The daily conditions will be different this time, however.
“The weather on the Yukon River can be extreme,” Witt said. “I understand there are many severe thunderstorms, high winds and temperatures that can range from 30 to 70 degrees each day. The water is just above freezing since it is fed by glacial drainage. It is also extremely silty, which will require us to employ our survival skills to drink. It is a large river with discharge equivalent to the Mississippi River during flood stage.
“We have one Class 2 rapid we must negotiate and a 30-mile lake to cross that routinely has 2-to-3 foot seas. To top it all off, it rains most of the time up there - an icy-cold rain that soaks everything no matter how careful you are packing. One would think the six-hour mandatory stop would be a relief, but we will be almost too tired to set up camp dealing with clouds of mosquitos and black flies and feeding bears. Not a typical float trip on one of our local Ozark rivers.”
Those interested in following the Yukon 1000 race can do so by linking to the tracker on the Yukon 1000 webpage http://yukon1000.com/14y/results.php
“Both Bill and I are required to wear SPOT GPS trackers that feed the race website with our precise location,” Witt said. “These are neat safety devices that send a signal of our location every 30 minutes to a satellite, which subsequently updates various websites.
“If something were to happen to us or we got separated for some reason, we could push the SOS button and rescue will be forthcoming. Our team name is Sam McGee, after the famed poem ‘The Cremation of Sam McGee,’ by Robert Service.”