Queen’s professor kayaks to victory

Dr. Bob Ross and teammate Dave Hutchison win the Yukon River Quest

Queen’s Professor Dr. Bob Ross (left) and his racing partner Dave Hutchison finished first in the Yukon River Quest.
Queen’s Professor Dr. Bob Ross (left) and his racing partner Dave Hutchison finished first in the Yukon River Quest.
Credit: 
Photo Supplied by Anne Craig

While most professors spend their summers researching and relaxing, Dr. Bob Ross spent his on the unforgiving, subarctic Yukon River. 

After 44 hours and 51 minutes of racing, Dr. Ross, and his racing partner Dave Hutchinson, were named winners of the Yukon River Quest — the world’s longest canoe and kayak race. 

The Quest spans 715 kms, and is widely regarded as one of the top 10 endurance races in the world. 

This wasn’t the first time the 60 year old Kinesiology and Health Studies professor competed in the Quest. In 2012 he finished fifth in the solo division race as a single, and while he had higher aspirations in the following year, he had to miss out due to a shoulder injury.

When it came time to decide for this year’s event, Ross decided to make the transition into the tandem kayak.

“I had done it solo,” he said, “so I said let’s try the k-2 [a two-person kayak] and see if we can get a really good time and be competitive.”

After reading the summaries on the winners of the 2014 Yukon River Quest, Ross decided to email Dave Hutchison a solo kayaker from Montana,on a whim.

Ross said a major reason he chose Hutchison was his 35 years of experience as a whitewater kayaker. In this unforgiving race, where anything can happen, Ross knew Hutchison would give him an advantage.

“Flat-water paddlers like me try to avoid [whitewater kayaking],” said Ross. “He could read the current and the water a lot better than I could. I thought with his strengths in that area, and my strength in sheer endurance, that we would have a chance”.

To prepare for the race, which takes some paddlers up to 78 hours to finish, Dr. Ross trained year-round. 

He balanced 50 to 60 hours a week in the classroom with 20 hours of cardio and resistance training. Once spring arrived, he reduced his time in the gym to get 15 to 20 hours on the water. He also trained in Montana for three days near Hutchison’s home on the Yellowstone River.

“While it is not quite as big and strong as the Yukon [River],” Ross said, “it gave us a really good opportunity to practice together in a circumstance that was probably as close to the Yukon as you’re going to get without being there”.

The boat the team used prior to the race was a major advantage. 

“I can’t emphasize enough how important it is, or how much of a challenge it is for people who live far away from the Yukon to have a boat.”

After locating the owner of a boat that placed very well in a previous years race, Ross and Hutchison knew they would have a good chance.

While it usually takes hours and hours of practice together in a boat to become compatible, this team took no time. 

“It wasn’t that difficult really,” Ross said. “Since I was in the stern position, I told Dave to paddle his game. You steer us, don’t worry about me, and I’ll follow you.” 

During the race, the duo paddled non-stop, only taking the mandatory breaks at the 300- and 500-km marks.

“We had one rule really, that we would try to never stop paddling. Meaning that if either of us had to eat food, get changed, no matter the circumstance, we would never stop.”

While the weather eventually took its toll on the racers, the tandem found their biggest obstacle was the boat itself. Prior to the first mandatory rest-stop, the boat began to take on water. 

“I was having to stop paddling every two or three hours to take my sponge and get rid of it.”

During the last segment of the race, the team’s rudder pedal broke. To solve the problem, Hutchison tied an item in his bag around his foot to make the rudder go.

It was in-between these two issues that the team believes they distinguished themselves. 

“A difficult part of the race is going into the second night,” explained Ross. While many teams are tired, hungry and deprived of sleep, Ross and Hutchison motivated each other.

“We put in our iPod, took a 5-hour energy drink and picked it up while many other teams slowed down.”

It’s during this stretch that the team turned their 17-minute lead into 50.

A thunderstorm at the 650-km mark was the team’s final hurdle. 

“I think if we put our paddles down then ... we would have gone backwards because it was that strong of a wind,” Ross said.  

When the storm finally calmed, the race was over with Ross and Hutchison on top. 

“When you cross the finish line, it is all worth it,” Ross said. “It is an extraordinary feeling of accomplishment, and I think most people who finish the race feel that. It doesn’t matter if you come in first or fifth, everyone trains hard, and it is a huge reward.”

“Victory in a race like this is not in the hands, but it is in the heart.”

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