She’s ready to paddle 444 miles across Canada
By R.E. Graswich
There is no easy way to train for a race that requires two or three days in a kayak paddling 444 miles though the pristine wilds of the Canadian Yukon. For practice, there’s a 100-mile paddle event on the Sacramento River from Redding to Chico. But that’s hardly the same.
So how does Marsha Arnold, a 63-year-old case management nurse at Sutter Medical Center, get ready for the most difficult physical challenge of her life?
“You just have to be ready to paddle,” she says.
The Canadian adventure, called the Yukon River Quest, defies practice and preparation. It runs from Whitehorse to Dawson City and is staged over four days, June 26–29. The hardest part comes early, 41 miles after shoving off from Whitehorse, when the paddlers enter Lake Laberge, where the Yukon widens to 3 miles and resembles the North Atlantic on a cold day.
Waves rise without warning. They can swamp kayaks, canoes and fishing boats. The water is frozen much of the year. It thaws, but never warms up, not even in late June. Laberge is 30 miles long. The sight of its northern tip, where the shorelines come into focus and the water returns to something like a river, is a welcome vision for Yukon River Quest competitors. And they still have 373 miles to paddle.
Arnold has been kayaking since age 30 when she trained for Eppie’s Great Race, the legendary local mélange of running, cycling and paddling. She quit smoking and cast aside her bad eating habits. Encouraged by her husband Doug Arnold, a former Navy pilot, she got serious in 2011. Somehow, she was drawn to events that make 5-kilometer races and half-marathons seem like warm-ups.
For Marsha, the number 100 holds a special appeal. She has participated in numerous running, cycling and paddle events that stretch for 100 (or more) miles. She completed an ironman event, where participants swim 2.4 miles, cycle 112 miles and run 26.2 miles in one day. She ran the Vermont 100 Endurance Race and Boston Marathon. The California 100 kayak race—Redding to Chico—is a favorite.
“I love ultras,” she says. “But I realized I really don’t like running anymore. So my husband and I gravitated to cycling and kayaking.”
Despite her breathtaking athletic achievements, Arnold looks and acts like a normal person from East Sacramento. She is a grandmother, petite, soft-spoken and shy. When she realizes she is talking about herself, she stops and apologizes. She would rather listen than talk.
To prepare for the Yukon River Quest, she was assisted by the tight little paddling community in Sacramento. She acquired a two-page list of equipment and supplies, from sunscreen, bug coils and bandages to camping gear. As for the kayak, she will rent one at Whitehorse.
Strategic training is almost impossible. Friends told Arnold not to enter the California 100 in May. They warned of injury risk. She entered anyway.
“Training is tricky,” Arnold says. “It’s difficult to translate theory into what your body says it needs.”
She needed a paddling partner. Her husband is 10 years older, and has begun to limit his activities to cycling and photography. He will lend support and document the Yukon experience.
As a partner, she found Elaine Baden, a veteran kayaker from Richmond. Baden attempted the Yukon race in 2017. For a while, Arnold wasn’t sure the partnership would hold water.
“At first, I was saying, ‘I’m doing this to finish,’ and she’s saying, ‘I’m doing this to win.’ That’s a big difference,” Arnold says. But as the race draws near, the women have found common ground for the chilly Yukon River. The goal is to paddle for two days and reach Dawson City safe, sound and proud.