A Mother’s Love | Lina Augaitis Navigates the 444-mile Yukon River Quest with Baby in Tow

mantle yukon river quest
Photo: Andrew Dye

A Mother's Love

Lina Augaitis Navigates the 444-mile Yukon River Quest with Baby in Tow

We recently explored how growing participation in SUP river racing is pushing the sport's distance boundaries. In this SUP magazine exclusive, world champion Lina Augaitis shares her experiences of taking on the daunting Yukon River Quest, with her husband and baby in tow. —Phil White

Was I ready? Yes and no. I was stressed for days before the start wondering if I was bringing the right gear, clothes and food. The weather really changes throughout the 444 mile course. I would have few chances to breastfeed Tav during the race, so I figured out how to use a breast pump and paddle at the same time – but would it work?

Lina's rig. Judging from her results, she packed the right essentials. Photo: Andrew Augaitis
Lina's rig. Judging from her results, she packed the right essentials. Photo: Andrew Dye

We had a beautiful day to start the race. I was at the front with Bart [de Zwart] and Norm [Hann] for a while and eventually found my place amongst the SUPs, which was about fifth or sixth. We paddled on the river for about three hours before entering Lake Laberge and got lucky with the conditions. First there was a slight headwind, followed by no wind, a slight side/headwind again and then a nice downwind to finish off the 37 miles of lake paddling. After arriving at the checkpoint at 10:15 pm I got off my board to pee and put on some warmer clothes for the night. I also pumped for the first time.

The next 30 miles is a wonderful part of the river with quick flow and amazing scenery. For a while I paddled amongst other boats and eventually caught up to Andre [Le Geyt] on his SUP. Then I took a different route around an island and didn't see any other paddlers for hours.

Lina launches from a checkpoint along the 444-mile journey on the Yukon River. Photo: Andrew Augaitis
Lina launches from a checkpoint along the 444-mile journey on the Yukon River. Photo: Andrew Dye

During the mandatory seven hour break at Carmacks I had a different experience from my fellow racers. I held my son, Tav, after he'd had lots of milk and showered puke all over the clothes I was going to wear for the second half of the race. Before leaving Carmacks again on minimal sleep, I ate some pasta, fed Tav, brushed my teeth, and got my food organized for the 217 mile second stage.

I left at 10 pm and my first challenge was to get through Five Finger Rapids. Though it was smaller than when I did the YRQ in 2011, I still went through on my knees. That night was cold and lonely. It was the beginning of a maze of islands and I was starting to get annoyed that I was alone for so long. I didn't have anyone to push me so it got tougher to paddle hard.

The next significant moment was likely the most memorable part of the race – in a slightly frightening way. It was 1:30 am when I got to where the White and Yukon rivers join. I was on my own and my GPS had stopped working. I'd just downed a 5 Hour Energy and in my exhausted yet caffeinated state was having trouble distinguishing between reality and hallucinations. I imagined yellow canoes and saw Gold Rush era people posing on the shore banks, all while I was trying to keep paddling. Then a yellow Voyager canoe appeared and I sprinted for it like I was at Lost Mills. I was so scared of being alone again that I didn't eat or drink. I just paddled hard toward that boat.

Lina with a celebratory starfish pose at the finish line. Photo: Andrew Augaitis
Lina with a celebratory starfish pose at the finish line. Photo: Andrew Augaitis

When they finally disappeared I sat down and cried. At the next checkpoint a volunteer told me it'd take another eight hours to get to the finish in Dawson City and I almost lost it. But I had no choice but to keep going and so got back on my board. When I saw cheering friends and family at the finish line what I'd accomplished hit home: 60 hours on the river, the first woman to finish the race – plus seven pumpings for Tay!

What a journey, what an experience. I proved to myself I can make decisions out in the wild on moving water. In the end, the whole family survived the challenges that come with a mom wanting to paddle the Yukon River Quest and taking her six-month old along. And if we can do that, we can do anything!