Josh Friedman and Julie Kirk, Moyie Springs, spent eight months on the Kootenai River preparing for the Yukon 1000, a new challenge after their seventh Race to the Midnight Sun in 2019, the 444-mile Yukon River Quest. When the Yukon 1000 was cancelled in May due to COVID-19 and the border closures, they spent a month wondering if all that work had been for naught.
World-class athletes both, Julie, owner of Mountain Mike’s Health Food Store, 6486 South Main Street, Bonners Ferry, and Josh, a retired Navy SEAL, found another race and went back to the water.
After another four months training, they leave this Saturday for their next ultra endurance kayak race, but they’ll be traveling southeast, not northwest, to be one of 16 of the world’s elite paddlers who’ll set out at 10 a.m. Saturday, September 26, on the Great Alabama 650, the world’s longest annual paddle race.
They’ll traverse a series of scenic rivers from Weiss Lake in the northeast corner of the state south to Fort Morgan in Mobile Bay on the Gulf of Mexico in a nearly non-stop exertion with nine portages around dams and not a single mandatory layover, just 45-minute rests at each portage.
Last year on the first year of the new route, only three teams finished, prompting organizers this year to vet the 16 teams that will compete, choosing only the best active paddlers on the world scene in hopes of making the race more competitive.
Instead of fighting the cold and fast waters of the Yukon River, Josh and Julie will be facing heat and humidity, with overnight lows in the 70s expected, mosquitoes, chiggers, water moccasins and alligators, and mostly slow, languid water, nights lit part way by a full moon part of the way, with one Class 4 rapid that last year dumped every racing boat that crossed it.
“This will be harder than the Yukon 650,” Julie said, “but we plan to get to the end even if we have to drag the boat!”
One of the traditions she looks forward comes at checkpoint one in the town of Wetumpka, about halfway through just north of Montgomery, where high school art teacher Adriane Duvall and her students present each racer who makes it that far with a hand painted commemorative paddle, a cherished item that must be earned as they aren’t for sale.
“With hardly any river flow, this is going to be all us, all arms,” Josh said.
To qualify, racers have to finish in under 10 days, and Josh and Julie will be shooting to finish in six days, but will be happy with eight. That means almost constant paddling, day and night, catching catnaps when possible.
When they were accepted for the Great Alabama 650, they went back on the waters of the Kootenai, but altered their training regimen to focus on night paddling, hitting the water at all hours of darkness, sometimes from dusk until dawn, to get used to it.
“After awhile, your eyes adjust, and by design there’ll be a full moon during the race, but it is challenging,” Julie said.
One dark night, a loud “CRACK!” ripped the night.
“It startled me, it was so close and I couldn’t see anything,” said Josh, who mans the bow and is responsible for spotting and avoiding obstacles, especially submerged logs and branches capable of overturning or ripping the bottom out of their kayak. “It turned out it was a beaver. If we hear anything like that in Alabama, it will probably be an alligator!”
There will be 16 teams, and Josh and Julie will be one of four in the team category.
As in each of their Yukon races, support from home keeps them both paddling through the pain, the mental and physical exhaustion and the disorientation that comes with pushing yourself to the most extreme exertion.
This year, Julie’s sister and her husband and daughter will accompany Josh and Julie as their support crew, and they all encourage fans and folks from home to follow their progress on the race tracker on the Great Alabama 650 website.
“When it gets tough, knowing people are watching us keeps us both going,” both agreed.