Beyond Expectations: Conquering the Yukon 1000's Wild Challenge

Beyond Expectations: Conquering the Yukon 1000's Wild Challenge

5 minutes

"A happy accident" is how Craig Sawyer and Scott 'Skip' Innes describe the events that led to their 1000-mile paddle through the remote wilderness of northern Canada. A chat about wanting to do something together—"but nothing extreme"—and a Google search at a local pub ended with completing an application for the world's longest unsupported survival paddle race. They didn't necessarily believe they would survive the Yukon 1000's rigorous selection process, but, as they would find out, being chosen was the least of the challenges between them and the finish line.  


Training Paddles and False Starts 

With ten months until the event began, Skip and Craig (Team SHAC) headed out on their first training paddle in the pouring rain. Dressed in ski jackets and board shorts, they got nowhere near the average miles needed to complete the race. Cramping badly, soaked through, and starving, the duo was undeterred. "It wasn't a case of, 'What have we done?'" says Craig. "It was a case of, 'Okay, we've got a few things to work out here, don't we?'" 

Despite their strict adherence to regimented training and preparation, Skip and Craig didn't get to the start in 2020 or 2021 as the event was canceled due to the pandemic. When they finally arrived in the Yukon in 2022, their dreams were broken again. Craig ended up with COVID-19 before the race started. Unable to fly home, they made the most of their situation. While Craig shivered under a pile of blankets in the hotel room, Skip met fellow paddlers Maureen and Glen Nolan from Ontario, Canada and agreed to drive their truck to the finish line. "I went running back to the hotel to tell Craig that we still had an adventure to go on," says Skip. 

 Paddling in the blue

After witnessing the finish line, Craig knew he had to return to complete the race the following year. Skip was a little less sure of his commitment to return, and it took him a few weeks at home to sort out how he felt. In the end, he made the decision for his kids. "When I really thought about it, I couldn't leave my story with the end being my kids seeing that I didn't go back and finish something that I started," he says. 


Conquering the Yukon 1000—Finally! 

Finally, on the start line with one other paddle board team (the kayakers and canoers start the following day and the two other paddle board teams didn’t show) in 2023, Craig and Skip felt returning to Whitehorse was a homecoming. Glen and Maureen had driven 11,000 kilometers across Canada to see them off, and as the four of them stood on the riverbank, Glen shared a Cree blessing. "I remember just focusing on the words that he was saying and not really hearing anything else," says Skip. “It was beautiful."  

Standing right next to him, Craig was repeating the mantra, "Don't get competitive, Craig. Don't get competitive, Craig,” in his head. 

Paddling in the mist

At home, Skip is the founder of an outdoor activity center who brings wilderness knowledge and experience to the team. Craig is a film director and a skilled strategist with sports nutrition and endurance training. Despite their different backgrounds, the two were able to support each other through tense situations and share the reins for navigation, managing camp, and anything else with a great deal of trust and respect. "I can't say how or why we knew that we'd be all right together, but that's why we ultimately chose each other to do something like this with," says Skip. 

Their race strategy was to spend not a minute longer than the mandatory six hours in camp each night. They would make their meals for the day and eat them on the river to take advantage of the moving water at all possible times, even rafting the boards together so one could take a power nap when needed while still making progress.  

 Taking a rest on the board

The 18 hours on the water each day were focused mainly on the map, the GPS, and making sure they didn't do anything to hurt themselves, given their remoteness. However, the beauty of the mountains, forests, and wildlife couldn’t be ignored. From their boards, Skip and Craig saw moose, bear, and even a lynx.  

The beginning and end of the trip were blistering hot, but at the halfway point the landscape became barren, and a proper storm hit. The thunder racketed around the mountains, amplifying the sound. When the rain broke, it was as though a bucket had been emptied on them. Ahead, they could see the sun breaking through the clouds, but the wall of weather kept pace with them, making for a long and soggy day. "The summer wind was biblical as well,” says Skip. “It makes the river look like an ocean in parts; it gets really choppy where it's blowing across." 

"Craig and I both absolutely, genuinely were blown away by the quality and performance of the equipment [Mustang Survival] provided us. It was a big part of the success of what we did. When the rain was thundering down, or one of us had been in, and we were cold, the kit they gave us pulled us through without question." 

 Floater hat and vest

A Suprise Ending for SUP Team SHAC 

When the race started, Team SHAC had found themselves out ahead. They had only looked back 12 hours in when they'd crossed the first massive lake; that was the last time they saw their competition. The first kayakers caught up with them late on the fifth day and—to their surprise—shared that the closest other paddle boarders were a day and a half behind.  

"When we applied, [our plan] was just to get through it," says Skip. "It was a massive challenge, and that's all it was. We didn't put any expectations on ourselves whatsoever. We just wanted to make the 10-day [cutoff]." Battling through scorching heat, torrential downpours, echoing thunderstorms, and unrelenting wind, Team SHAC finished first in their category (one of only two SUP teams to complete the race); they currently hold the fifth-fastest time—8 days, 13 hours, and 3 minutes—on paddleboards for the event and are the first British SUP paddlers to complete it.  

 Paddling to the finish

Photo: Aldis Toome

At the moment, Team SHAC doesn’t have any plans to compete together again, but won’t hesitate should the right event come up. Hopefully, the next time will be smooth sailing to the start line.  

Team SHAC Kit List: 

For more - follow Craig and Skip on Instagram


Author: Danielle Baker



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