Idaho residents Julie Kirk and Joshua Freedman have changed their plans for this summer. The scenery will be equally spectacular, the weather a bit warmer, but an entirely new challenge.
News that the COVID-19 pandemic had forced the sponsors of the Yukon 1000 across the Canadian wilderness to cancel this year’s event, which compelled the couple to seek out another challenge.
So, instead of making their way across the Great North this summer, Joshua and Julie will be paddling their way through some of the most picturesque wilderness waterways of the Deep South as participants in the Great Alabama 650. The course is a world apart from the Canadian Yukon wilderness.
Over the past eight years the Idaho couple had been regular participants in the Yukon River Quest, a twisting challenge through virtually untouched wilderness in the vast open terrain in Canada. They have placed as high as first place in their division.
Julie and Joshua had hoped to enhance the challenge this year by doubling their miles on the river when they applied to compete in the elite Yukon 1000, a course that follows the route of early pioneers in what has been billed as the longest boat race in the world.
The disappointing news of the COVID lockdown, however, did not deter them. Joshua quickly found another challenge they could answer. His solution was the Great Alabama 650, a test of strength, endurance and mental fortitude that takes river paddlers on what sponsors describe as “an epic adventure along the core section of the Alabama Scenic River Trail.”
“It may be less miles,” said Joshua, “but it is definitely more of a challenge. Both physically and emotionally.” He was thrilled with the new challenge, proclaiming he did not want to “flush all those hours of training down the toilet.” He added the Alabama course has the potential to be more challenging because the Yukon River flows at a consistent 9 to 13 miles per hour. The river course in Alabama has multiple stretches of still water that will require human propulsion.
Racers in Alabama will also be forced to exit the river for nine portages to get around nine dams on this year’s course. Julie has been designated as the coxswain for the race to allow Joshua to concentrate on navigation. “We were already seven months into our training for the Yukon when they pulled the plug,” said Joshua. He admitted that Julie is a “much better technical paddler,” but Julie said her partner’s training for Ironman competitions will be beneficial during the more grueling portions of the race.
According to Race Director Greg Wingo, the race in Alabama this September presents a unique challenge for both competitors and organizers. Greg is an ultra-runner who co-founded a trail running group in his native Birmington.
“When it comes to a paddle race, and specifically with our race where we have several different bodies of water, the logistics behind that are quite a bit more complicated,” he explained. “On top of that, there is a level of navigating and orienteering that’s involved for the paddlers that’s not quite as common in most running races.” Only three teams out of the 20 that began last year’s inaugural race made it to the finish line, he said.
The change in venue has not changed Joshua and Julie’s year-round zeal for their daily regimen of vigorous training. In addition to time on the river every morning near their home north of Bonners Ferry in North Idaho, Joshua continues to chop wood, work out at the gym and hone the navigational skills he first learned during his time as a SEAL in the Navy.
Meanwhile, Julie does aerobics to build up her stamina when she is not behind the counter of Mountain Mike’s, a local health food store.
“We are both knocking on the door of 60, so our workouts now include more yoga in addition to aerobics,” said Julie.
Joshua said they will begin to scale back from their twice-a-day routine as they get closer to the actual start date of the race.
“We’re also taking more supplements to help boost our endurance levels,” he said with a quiet laugh.
Julie is concerned that the drastic changes in temperature and humidity in Alabama in the heat of summer may pose more of a challenge than the actual river.
“Obviously, the Yukon is a much colder environment than Alabama, and so we'll be doing a lot of training during the heat of the day this summer (in Idaho),” Josh said when asked about the changes in preparation for the new challenge.
“The only element we will really need to work on that is different is heat tolerance.”
They explained the actual workouts are “not really much different” than their annual preparation for the Yukon. Julie said their time in kayaks on the river is primarily focused on strengthening the teamwork and the methods the couple has developed as tandem paddlers over the years.
Racers can never take any situation on the river for granted, said Joshua. He said participants have reported experiencing hallucinations along either course. That can be especially dangerous for teams hundreds of miles from civilization in Canada.
Based on his research from across the country, Josh anticipates even more perils in the Alabama waterway. Instead of an occasional bear foraging for salmon, the southern waters will have dangers with large teeth lurking below the surface of the water and ominous predators in the branches of trees along the bank.
As of now, the Great Alabama 650 is scheduled to start on September 16 on Weiss Lake in the northeast corner of the state and end at Fort Morgan on the shores of Mobile Bay. Rules of the race dictate that the race must be completed within 10 days.
A total of $22,500 in prize money will be divided among finishers in three separate categories: male, female and two-person teams.
The river course stretches from the white water at the headwaters to the ambling river delta. Greg cautions racers that “the race can pose a challenge to even the most experienced paddler.”
Racers, he said, who sign up for the solo division must have at least one “crewperson” to assist throughout the race to provide help along the journey. The race director is also grateful for the “trail angels,” people who live along the water who will be available to assist racers, offering snacks or a place for a hot shower.
“All along the trail, there are people that live close by and love this waterway and love to help out paddlers,” Greg said. “We’ve created a network of these angels to help out paddlers with pretty much anything on their route—acts of kindness that have been in place for decades. Now we’ll be utilizing them for this race.”
The angels and a host of other volunteers will be a major force in keeping the race running properly. Many of the volunteers will be stationed at portages along the course. Racers will be met on the shoreline, where they will be required to get out of their boat and take a compulsory break.
Most of these stations are at sites of dams and other places that will need to be bypassed on foot.
“Volunteers are absolutely critical for this race,” Greg said. “The primary responsibility of the volunteers at the portages will be to make sure racers get their mandatory time out of the water and to check on them.”
He said as the race proceeds and competitors spread out, more volunteers are needed to staff the stations, some hundreds of miles apart.
“At the beginning of the race this isn’t a huge deal because the racers are still close together, but as the days go by the racers spread out, based on their ability, pretty far, so we’ll need to man multiple portages over a couple of hundred miles, staffing them 24 hours a day,” Greg said.
Joshua and Julie will travel to Alabama with their own set of “trail angels.”
“My son, Ian, has been with us for five years in a row for the Yukon River Quest. He is planning on going with us to the Great Alabama 650 this year too,” said Julie. “He could not make it last year. “
Wayne and Wanda Wilkerson were on hand to support their friends at the first mandatory layover last year. They helped pull Joshua and Julie out of their boat, fed them both and put them to beds to sleep before the start of the next day.
“While we are sleeping, they clean out our boat, restock it with food and water, dry everything they can (pfds, spray skirts, jackets). They helped inspect our gear and boat with the race officials, and then they are there at the end to help us out of the boat and take care of us and our gear.”
Julie said her brother David and his wife Amy and her sister Tammy and her husband Scott helped pay the registration fee for the postponed race in the Yukon.
Donations of waterproof hats, gloves and socks from Sealskinz USA have helped Joshua and Julie prepare for the river race in Alabama.
“Nite Ize provided us with some waterproof bags and Peak Refuel is giving us our freeze-dried meals,” Julie added. “We are also especially grateful to our customers at Mountain Mike's for their loyalty to help us reach our goal.”
Julie and Joshua have one ultimate goal that guides them on their outdoor adventures. That is the challenge to finish the race and be able to plan for next year’s test of endurance.
“We work well together, but this will not be a walk in the park,” said Joshua with a straight face. “This is an entirely new challenge. Its’ all new to us.”
“We always try to find the silver lining,” Julie concluded. “The cancelation of the Yukon race may have been a blessing in disguise.”
Dan Aznoff is a freelance writer based in Mukilteo, Washington, dedicated to preserving the stories of past generations. He was a finalist for a Pulitzer Prize and has received acclamation for his work regarding sustainable energy. Aznoff is the author of three books that document colorful periods of history in the state of Washington. He can be reached at directly firstname.lastname@example.org.