Epic adventures are nothing new to Chattanooga’s Ben Friberg. In August of 2012, he set the 24 hour distance world record for SUP by covering 238-miles on the Yukon River. Impressive certainly, but Friberg was only just getting started. In July 2014, Friberg returned to the Yukon to do something that no other stand up paddleboarder had ever done before: take part in the grueling expedition race known as the Yukon 1000. The Yukon 1000 is a full immersion into adventure, taking participants on a 7-12 day race that travels 500 miles across the Yukon Territory and 500 miles across Alaska.
Until this year, the event had been restricted to canoes and kayaks because, not only is it the longest paddle race in the world, but it is a completely self-supported event requiring backcountry survival skills and previous tundra experience. In order to convince the race director of the efficacy of using a SUP on a course that's seen only about 1/3 of its entrants finish, Friberg needed to be, well... convincing. His 24 hour distance world record and relative familiarity with the Yukon probably helped his case, but even still, the director thought he was a tad crazy. And understandably so -- the Yukon Territory is a wild, wild place that needs to be approached with humility. How would Friberg deal if he overturned the board, for example? A strong will was certainly needed from Friberg, but so too was good fortune.
Since the race requires entrants to form teams of at least two, Friberg paired with Kimberley Sutton, an experienced endurance athlete and paddler from Wilmington, NC. Using inflatable SUPs, each team member carried 60-100 lbs. of gear on their boards. The equipment list included zero degree sleeping bags, a 4 season tent, food, maps, a satellite phone, satellite tracking devices for checking in throughout the day, GPS devices, drysuits, dry-bags, mosquito nets, compasses, a stove and fuel, a filtration device, first aid supplies, a solar charger, and even a shotgun.
It’s an understatement to say there were challenges in planning for something like this - never mind actually enduring it - including how much food to take, how to handle a possible dunk into 30 degree water, how to keep warm in chilling air temperatures and headwinds, how to navigate the Yukon Flats where the river braids, and last but not least, how to psychologically deal with the sheer remoteness of the territory. Friberg described this sense of remoteness after his 24-hour paddle in 2012: “Barely visible through the low-hanging rain clouds are the flanks of spectacular mountains all around. The trees are getting noticeably smaller as the river winds its way toward the desolate tundra. My vision settles just in front of the board. I am alone with my thoughts and this chilling wind,” recalls Friberg.
The team requirement of the Yukon 1000 ended up being a boon for Friberg: “I would look over and see Kimberley and feel so happy to be with her. There were times when it would have been terrifying to be alone. I probably would have paddled through the night just out of fear.”
Sutton came into the event with plenty of endurance experience. She is an Ironman competitor and has paddled the Atlantic coast from North Carolina to South Carolina . “Kimberley’s attitude is infectious. She is upbeat and happy. She carried me along because she’s so tough,” says Friberg. The two drew confidence from one another - a confidence that came from knowing they had each other’s back.
The sheer magnitude of the experience, the physical, psychological, and logistical preparation involved might resonate for some, but it is the nature of one specific challenge that might surprise you: “The hardest part of the adventure was getting the boards, and gear to the Yukon undamaged,” he says. Friberg and Sutton had a massive amount of gear, which they mailed through the United States Postal Service and desperately hoped would make it unscathed and through customs. “I was so stoked that everything was okay that I wore a USPS emblem the whole way,” he reports.
Although there might have been some advantage in paddling at night, since the winds were diminished during this time and nights never got much darker than twilight, the two decided to camp each evening instead. At times, the headwinds or weather made this a challenging decision, but "once we started the event, we knew we’d finish, unless we blew out a shoulder or something," says Friberg. And the small comfort gained from a warm meal and a night's rest was needed to offset the feeling of uneasiness that would temporarily set in when the days would grow darker. It wasn't so much a fear of failing to complete the course, but rather a fear induced by the inherent vulnerabilities of being in such a lonely and harsh environment. “It's hard to explain.” Friberg says, “but it was real and I don't think either of us will forget it. Maybe it's the thing that drew us to sign up for the mission, yet at the same time the thing that commanded our respect in the moment.”
It was when they stopped, as each day came to a close and the sun started to set, that their efforts were laid out in front of them. "The odometer put forth the fruits of our efforts with honesty," says Friberg. The day-to-day mileage, big or small, was a drop in the bucket when compared with the bigger picture of completing the course. "We averaged about 100 miles a day, which was our original goal going into it. Two days were shorter than that due to inclement weather, but all the other days were longer, and we ended up finishing five days earlier than expected."
Friberg and Sutton finished the 1,000-mile course in 9 days, 12 hours, and 7 minutes. They technically came in last place, but this is an 'apples-to-oranges' kind of comparison, considering they were the only SUP team as well as the only solo team. (In their division, they finished first and last). The other 8 teams were comprised of 4 tandem canoes and 4 tandem kayaks, and the last canoe team only finished 10 minutes before Friberg and Sutton. Friberg’s greatest realization upon completing the event was that SUPs can be self-supporting. "The terrain was an honest test without any short cuts,” Friberg says. "It opened our minds to what else is possible. We learned a ton about what we can do from here on out."
What's next for Friberg? Not even he knows. It's nearly impossible to replicate an experience like that. "The Yukon is just too perfect of a place," he says. "That course is amazing. It's hard to move beyond and look for the next thing. I'll definitely go back though. Plus, there are numerous other rivers up there with amazing potential...."