Katie Sather & the Eight of Hearts


The 66-year old retired minister who led a team of women in a 715 km paddle across Canada’s fiercest wilderness

Picture a still lake on a warm summer morning. The air above the lake is cool, the sun is warm on your back as you paddle steadily, enjoying the gentle breeze.

The Yukon River Quest is nothing like that.

The brutal 715 km paddle into the Canadian wilderness is the world’s longest canoe and kayak race. Teams paddle for tens of hours, battling the elements, fighting fatigue, and trying to stay warm as they race to the finish line in Dawson City.

Not exactly where you’d expect to see a 66-year-old retired minister?

Think again.

Retired minister and textile artist, Katie Stein Sather is a 66-year-old ultra-marathon canoe racer with over 40 years of paddling experience.

Currently Commodore of the Pitt Meadows Paddling Club, Katie paddled from Rocky Mountain House, Alberta to Thunder Bay, BC in 2008. She then went on to successfully complete the Yukon River Quest,. Katie has since completed the Yukon River Quest four years in a row, twice while leading a team of women.

Her team the Eight of Hearts, consisted of women aged 58 to 71, completed the race which normally takes recreational canoeists 14 days, in 52 hours.

We asked Katie to share her experiences in paddling across Canada, the lessons she’s learnt, and her advice to other women.

When and where did you start your paddling journey?

I moved to Alberta when my husband got a job there. His employer had children who were slightly younger than me and were still paddling competitively, and so we just joined them.

When I moved back to B.C for a job, I was busy and didn't connect with a club almost until I was retired. It was a few years before I retired that I got wind of a brigade, a canoe trip, that was going to paddle from Rocky Mountain House, Alberta to Thunder Bay.  So I joined it, and that’s what got me back into canoeing.

What do you find the most challenging about paddling right now? What kind of mental or physical obstacles do you need to overcome in order to really succeed in the sport?

For me, it's always the people element. I've organized several teams, and it's always the people element that is hardest. We've always had someone who joins towards the end, and it’s been a struggle to get them on the same page. They don’t feel like part of the team yet, and so that process of getting different people with different temperaments working together properly has been the biggest challenge for me.

What kind of physical challenges did you face when you started? How demanding of a sport is paddling?

Paddling is one of those sports that lets you take it at the pace you want to.

Now, at one point in my life, I was still trying to fit in, you know? Trying to keep up. Trying to do things right, whatever right is, even if I didn’t really quite know what right was. So that in itself has been a challenge.

Sometimes it's been weather related. The big trip I did in 2008, Rocky Mountain House to Thunder Bay, there was some very long days, challenging days, whether it was the wind or the weather, or just the fact that we were paddling for long, long days.

The Yukon River Quest is its own particular challenge. The  race starts at noon and you the first leg is 24 hours. So you’re paddling overnight and you've already gotten up early so that you can get your boat in the water at 7:30. That's been a challenge, powering through the fatigue to keep yourself mentally alert enough to keep going.

I realize now that this quest is a spiritual journey, a quest for spiritual completion. This journey takes me through fear, through the trials and tribulations of a difficult challenge, and leads to me that ephemeral focus of mind that is at least part of the spiritual experience of finding and knowing what some people know as god, or completion.

What advice would you give to women who want to take up paddling?

I always felt like I wasn’t quite good enough, despite having instructor status, I felt like I was masquerading. And I realize now that well, I’m just fine, thank you very much. I always felt a little like, "Gee, I'm not really strong enough," but I wasn't in the right group of people that said, "Well, let's work out. Let's get stronger." I had my own insecurities but the culture back then didn’t help.

If you can find a girls' group that's doing this kind of stuff, go for it, but don't let the lack of it stop you either. Finding the right group is important; finding people that teach you what to do, how to do it, and will support you along the way, and learn to believe in yourself.

Katie combines her passion for paddling with her passion for quilting on her blog, providing an incredibly unique perspective on her Yukon adventures.

Follow her adventures here!

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