YUKON RIVER CROSSING — Four members of the Grenadier Guards, the Queen’s guard, are descending the Yukon River by canoe with the intention of returning to England with the benchmark record for the fastest run, from source to sea, of the mighty river.
They embarked on June 12, from Lake Bennet in upper British Columbia paddling two canoes that they intend to scuttle July 11, at Emmonak near the Bering Sea. The expedition is the vision of its leader Captain Jon Frith, 43, who has served in the Grenadiers since he was 16.
“We don’t know if it will be the fastest run ever of the river,” said Captain Tom Bolitho, 28. “If we make our timetable, it will be the fastest run ever tracked by GPS.”
In times of peace, soldiers of the Royal Army are mandated to make adventure travel expeditions as a form of extreme training. Things like climbing Mount Everest and hiking to the Poles are among this heritage of the British Army, Bolitho said.
With military precision, in only a few minutes, they re-packed and loaded the canoes with their gear and the provisions necessary for the 2,000-mile expedition at the landing along the Dalton Highway. Capt. Frith spent the time gathering down-river intel from a fisherman who could share information about shortcuts and channels.
Frith, along with Bolitho, Guardsman Joe Haywood, 28 and Guardsman Alisdair Szyszko, 21, all have served in the precision units guarding the royal palaces, and details in Iraq, Afghanistan and the Southern Sudan. The three younger team members had only a few hours paddling experience before they started at the source in the mountains near Skagway.
“I came here with an open mind, and this is bigger than anything I’ve done before,” Haywood said.
The military leadership was weary about approving the expedition because of their limited canoe experience. But the argument was made that there is probably no one in England who knows the Yukon River better than Frith. He has competed five times in the Yukon 1,000 Canoe Race from Dawson City to the E.L. Patton Bridge on the Dalton Highway. Prior to the 2018 race, he bought the name and right to continue to organize and administrate the race for $1, from its founder Peter Coates. He plans for the bi-annual race to be his retirement avocation.
“It’s all new water for me from this point on. On my previous trips, when I got to this bridge it felt like unfinished business. I wanted to keep going,” Frith said, looking down river with a nautical explorer’s consternation. “I’m concerned that the currents will deplete and the winds will come up as we get closer to the sea. Every day you can experience all four seasons. Around every bend is a new challenge of headwinds, currents, whirlpools or bush fires.”
The crew had an overnight respite and enjoyed kitchen cooked meals at the Yukon River Camp before the final two-week leg of their quest. They pumped Yup’ik cook Cherilyn Brown, who grew up in the village of Nunam Iqua at the mouth of the great river, for information about food supplies and lodging at journey’s end.
“I’m impressed by Jon’s confidence,” camp supervisor Jeffery Groenke said. “They are benching-marking the time it takes to do this as the standard for those who will repeat the adventure, but it is not just about time and speed. He has passionate interest in building relationships with the people he meets who live along the river.”
They acquired their boats in Whitehorse. The Old Town Discovery is a bit of a freighter and the much faster Clipper is, well, a clipper.
Bolitho said they rotate seats frequently and everyone takes a turn at the bow and stern of each canoe. Much of their equipment and Arctic rations were procured from the military. Each member wears a heavy life vest that contains 24-hours worth of survival gear and supplies.
“One good thing is we have not seen a single piece of trash or plastic since we left Lake Bennet. The First Nations and others who live along the river respect it. It’s one of the cleanest places in the world, and I’m afraid in the rest of the world, people are less respectful of nature,” Frith said. “The people have been really, really helpful. Whenever we pass a fisherman they check that we are OK and tell us the distance to the next settlement just to help out.
“My wife and I are big travelers. It’s people who make the experiences great. There is an old school way here that hasn’t existed in my country since World War II. People here look out for each other,” he said.
Frith said the river has been different in each of his five runs to the bridge, and Groenke concurs, that with break-up each spring, new islands and sand bars form and others go away. It changes the currents, channels, water speed and whirlpools.
“Everyone on the river has a story. Every story is very interesting,” Guardsman Szyszko said.
“And, everyone has been hospitable,” Bolitho added.
They have averaged paddling 67-miles a day, and their longest day, the leg from Beaver to Yukon River Crossing, was 20-hours and 108 miles.
“I will be curious to know how this trip will change the thinking and direction in life for those three young men a week, a month, and a year after completion,” Groenke said. “They are doing this in their 20s and it is foreshadowing for an adventurous life. On the last 25% of the river, they probably won’t see another boat. It is a place where small mistakes can cost a life.”
The party hopes to finish at Emmonak on July 11. There is live tracking of their daily progress on their website.
“The river is a great leveler,” Bolitho said. “We are different ranks and experience but the river doesn’t discriminate.”
Freelance writer Gary Tomlin lives and works at the Yukon River Camp.