Justin & Sienna's Yukon River Quest Adventure
Updated: Jul 26
Justin Schaay is a local Charleston ocean athlete who paddles and surfs our local waters. He owns the Charleston area Epic Kayaks dealership (check out surfskicharleston.com). He can provide invaluable advice, demos, lessons, and get you set up on the right equipment. Justin also organizes group paddles in the area sometimes including a Saturday morning loop around Sullivan's Island and Thursday evenings at the Wappoo Boat Landing. Other paddle craft besides surf skis, such as outrigger canoes and stand up paddle boards, are encouraged to join as well (everyone responsible for their own safety plan). Follow the "Surfski & Paddle Charleston" Facebook Group for group paddle announcements.
Justin also works as an Expedition guide for Quark Expeditions on their Antarctica trips primarily as the SUP guide, also runs paddle support, and is a safety driver. These Quark Antarctica expeditions typically start off in Ushuaia, South America and head across the Drake Channel to the Antarctic peninsula, then move around that area exploring and offering landings, zodiac cruises and paddle adventures.
He has many years of experience in long distance paddle races and events all over the world including participating in the M2O (Molokai to Oahu) downwind race on SUP, the Watertribe Everglades Challenge 300 miles Tampa to Key Largo on SUP and the Watertribe North Carolina Challenge on a Windsurfer, the Devils Isle Challenge on Bermuda, the Dusi Canoe Marathon in South Africa, and the Chattajack31 long distance race event in Chattanooga multiple times on SUP and surfski.
Justin has recently included his teenage daughter, Sienna, on some of these adventures sharing a double kayak with her in the Seventy 48 race in Seattle, the Chattajack 31, and most recently the Yukon River Quest race in Alaska.
The Yukon River Quest race recap below was written by Sienna Schaay. All pictures & captions provided by Justin Schaay, unless where otherwise noted. A big thank you to both Justin and Sienna for their contributions to the Charleston Ocean Athletes Journal:
The Yukon River Quest (YRQ) proved to be quite the race, especially with this years added challenge of high flood waters. There was a debate going on about whether or not the race would run which after the long journey we made would have been very disappointing. The YRQ is a 444 mile/715 kilometer endurance race from Whitehorse to Dawson City down the Yukon River. A variety of solo and teams compete in the race including sups, kayaks, canoes and voyagers. The race takes anywhere from 39 hours (the new race record) to 70 hours to complete. It started the morning of June 22nd in 2 different heats. There are also 10 hours of mandatory rest which racers split between 2 different campgrounds. Due to some of the stormier weather and the added struggles of a high water year 40% of teams did not end up finishing. Although everyone who even attempted deserves lots of praise.
We arrived in Whitehorse almost a week before the race started to finalize all of our gear and test out the new boat we were to be paddling. Up until the Friday before the race, we actually had no boat due to some major shipping delays. Luckily the shipment came in and we got to test out our race boat. Due to my short legs being unable to reach the foot pedals in the back of the boat, I swapped into the front seat in which I had never sat before. This change required some adjusting, but everything worked out well and I didn’t have my dad's head blocking my beautiful views of the Yukon River.
The day before the race all of the racers were sat down and given a presentation on the major risks we would face during this race. The major one was this year's high water that made it very hard to find places to stop along the river. Then came Wednesday, the official start day where racers were lined up 400 meters from the start and told to run down to our boats.
The race itself was quite the adventure. We encountered multiple thunderstorms and even watched a tree get struck by lightning while out on the water. We successfully made it through the ripping Five Finger rapids and the Lake Laberge which seemed to last an eternity. On the first night we were even rewarded with a beautiful sunset, although the Yukon is known for their “Midnight Sun” meaning the sunlight truly never disappears.
Once we had made the first two legs from the start to Carmacks and then from Carmacks to Minto, we were faced with the final leg of the race, which definitely proved to be the hardest. We were warned that due to flood waters there would be little chance of stopping on this last leg from Minto to the finish which was approximately 300 km long and took us roughly 20 hours to complete. We definitely struggled in the early morning hours after leaving at 11:30pm for this final leg. We turned on our speaker and played some music to try keep us awake. We welcomed any passing boat hoping for a chance to chat and even tried “sleep paddling”. The navigation during this part also became quite tricky because of the impressively large size of the river and multiple channels to choose from. My Dad’s favorite question was “Sienna what’s around the corner? Answer: Another corner! Fortunately we had some good company on this last leg and were joined by SUP paddler Lincoln Dews which helps lift one’s spirits.
After what felt like the longest home stretch we finally made it to the finish line in the old fashioned mining town of Dawson City. We congratulated our fellow finishers and had a great awards ceremony.
My dad and I, known as team SchaayVentures, paddled a double kayak and finished the race in 47 hours and 39 minutes. We placed 1st in the mixed K2, 4th in K2s and 18th overall. I was this year's youngest racer as well. We had quite the adventure and made many new friends along the way.
Shoutout to Epic paddlers Chris Lightbound and Stephen Ball for the company and encouragement on the lake and for their brave efforts to help rescue another paddler.