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Local canoe team set to take on Yukon River

The James Whalen 2.0 squad will compete in the Yukon River Quest next month.

THUNDER BAY – A group of 10 friends are about to embark on the adventure of a lifetime.

Eric Bongelli, Jordan Kamerman, Bailey Gleed, Carter Morash, Tim Baxter, Stu Maclean, Devin Van Elburg, Josh Newransky, Aaron Brecka and Zach Maclean are paddling together in a voyageur canoe for the Yukon River Quest, a 715-kilometre endurance canoe race that runs from June 26-29.

“We’re all good friends and we’ve been canoeing for a long time together, so it’ll be interesting to see how we stack up against everyone else up there,” Bongelli said.

“For me though, I think the best part is that even though we all have busy lives with our families and our jobs, the fact that we are all getting together to do this and be disconnected from what we normally do with something like this is pretty awesome.”

The group of friends have known each other for the last decade, with the majority of the team being born and raised in Thunder Bay.

Bongelli is originally from Guelph and moved here for his studies at Lakehead a little over a decade ago, while Van Elburg resides in Ottawa.

During the last few years, the group has gone on a variety of canoe trips together to various locations.

In 2023, Bongelli and a couple of friends tackled the Yukon River, which is where he first heard about the race.

“When I got back to Thunder Bay I asked my buddies, ‘Hey, who wants to do this?’ and surprisingly everybody put their hand up and said yes,” Bongelli said.

“I figured everybody would be interested and wanted to go, but I didn’t actually expect everybody to be able to commit right away . . . but they did.:

The Yukon River Quest starts in Whitehorse and wraps up in Dawson City.

Billed as the ‘world’s toughest and most alluring marathon paddling race,’ competitors compete in a four-person canoe, solo canoe, solo kayak, stand-up paddleboard, tandem canoe and tandem kayak categories.

“It’s a big race,” Bongelli said. “Obviously you have teams from Canada in it, but you also have people from the United States and from as far away as Australia taking part.

“When you look at the field, there’s people who are world record holders and there’s teams like ours who want to go out there, have a good time and say we did this.”

The team, which they are calling the James Whalen 2.0, has some experience with big canoe trips.

Some of the group tackled Wabakimi Lake and the Kopka River a few years ago, but the Yukon River is substantially longer.

“I ballparked things based upon what other teams have done in the past, and it’s probably about 20 to 30 hours from Whitehorse to get to the halfway rest point in Carmacks, then you have another 20 to 30 hours from there to get to Dawson City,” Bongelli said.

“I think the biggest difference from anything that we’ve done before is the fact that you are going to be sitting in the boat and trying to stay awake and paddle for probably close to 24 hours. Then after that rest period . . . you get back in and do it all again.”

The team members are each taking their own approach to training before they fly out to Whitehorse next month.

“Some of the guys have been hitting the gym and trying to get in better shape . . . and a couple of the guys are going in dry and just seeing what happens,” Bongelli said.

“Everyone’s got busy lives so it’s a bit of a mixed bag in terms of the preparation process, but we’re obviously going there to try our best. We’re not just going to take a casual trip down the river.”

The team – which also includes support crew Rylie Nellis, Lily Colquhoun, Anna Baxter and Angela Brecka – is also raising funds for PRO Kids Thunder Bay.

They’ve received support for their cause through sponsorship from Automation Now, KBM Outdoors, Holland Bakery, CE Strategies, Alietum Ice, Greenmantle, Alignment Chiropractic and Wayne Pittman Ford Lincoln in Guelph.

“We were brainstorming some different causes in Thunder Bay and we all kind of bonded through playing sports when we were younger,” Bongelli said.

“You build a lot of good friendships and have a lot of positive personal development in playing sports and PRO Kids’ whole motto is to provide opportunities for youth that may not have the means to do so.

“We want our trip to help raise awareness for people about PRO Kids and to give back to the community in this way. We’d be happy if anyone would be able to help them out.”

Anyone interested in following along with the team on their journey can do so by visiting their Instagram page.

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