Thursday, April 17, 2014 · 8:44 a.m.

Paddling through the record books

Chattanooga man readies for 24-hour SUP trip in Yukon Territory

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Ben Friberg, a 34-year-old Chattanooga native, will attempt to set the world distance record for stand-up paddleboarding in a 24-hour period next week on the Yukon River in Canada. (Photo: Staff)

Ben Friberg won’t set an alarm the night before. He’ll let his body rest on a bed in Whitehorse, Canada, as long as it deems necessary. He’ll wake up at 8, 9, maybe 10, when the anxiety becomes too much. He’ll pull out the list he’s already written, detailed enough to avoid any second guessing.

Eat breakfast.

Brush your teeth.

Pull on the suit.

Relax. Relax. Relax.

Then he’ll hit the water. And that won’t be an option anymore.

On either Tuesday, Wednesday or Thursday of next week, Friberg, a 34-year-old Chattanooga native, will begin a 24-hour stand-up paddleboarding (SUP) trip along the Yukon River. He’s expecting to go more than 200 miles. He’ll almost certainly shatter the current Guinness World Record for a 24-hour SUP trip.

Friberg’s board is a little longer than a surfboard, but lighter and designed to be faster on flat water. At the front it comes to a point, about six inches thick, “like a battleship,” as he describes it. In the back, it widens and flattens. On top, a rectangle a little larger than a doormat is lined with a thin layer of padding for grip. 

“For me, it’s more like a canoe except you’re standing,” Friberg says.

Underneath the Market Street Bridge in Chattanooga, Friberg stands on the board with what looks like a canoe paddle in his gloved hands. He digs the paddle into the Tennessee River, taking a sharp turn and coasting into the shore, careful to avoid a line of rocks just below the surface.

Friberg runs the Heritage Funeral Home, which has long been a family business, during the day. He has spent almost every evening for the last three months circling Maclellan Island beneath the Hunter Museum and weaving between bridge supports. 

Thursday’s session with Michael Phillips, a training partner and owner of Chattanooga SUP, was one of Friberg’s last before he flies to the Yukon Territory.

Sunday, he’ll plane hop to Whitehorse, in the southwestern corner of Canada. He’ll meet up with Dan Gavere, Mike Stenzig and Brandon Ward. 

The group has been assembled over the last eight or nine months, the time it has taken Friberg to plan for the trip. 

Gavere, in his early 40s, is one of SUP’s most recognizable names. He’s a professional athlete who’s made his living in kayaking, kite boarding, surfing and stand-up paddleboarding for years. Friberg had heard his name by the time he was a teenager. The two exchanged messages over the years, and agreed to collaborate in Alaska.

Stenzig, a founder of UpNorth Adventures, knows the area and the river as well as anyone. He drove the support boat when Andy Corra set the 24-hour kayaking distance record in 2010. He’ll do the same for Friberg and Gavere. 

Ward will record the trip from the boat alongside Stenzig. The riders will carry GPS tracking devices, and the whole trip can be viewed from their website. The support boat will also carry logbooks and witness books, another form of verification for Guinness.

Friberg says 120 miles has been done on the Yukon before, but Guinness recognizes 60 miles as the official mark.

“I don’t have any doubt that either of us will be able to hit 200,” Friberg said. “In the right conditions, if our bodies do what they’re supposed to do, then I think we could even hit 250.”

Ben Friberg. (Photo: Staff)

Among Friberg’s first stops once he reaches Canada will be a check on his board, which made the trip north a week ahead of its rider.

The board Friberg trains on in the Tennessee River is worth an estimated $2,000. The custom-made board he’ll ride on the Yukon is worth double that. Friberg took it in a van to St. Louis, where he handed it gently to a friend who was already planning on making the drive to Whitehorse. Friberg has since seen visual evidence that the craft has safely arrived.

“Probably the hardest part of the mission, so far, is getting a board 3,600 miles from Chattanooga to the Yukon Territory and getting in there in one piece,” Friberg said. “They’re very fragile. That was probably a two-month process. I was not comfortable just turning it over to a shipping company.”

Stenzig has been watching the weather. Once everyone’s in the Yukon, they’ll decide which day is best, based on wind, temperature and river conditions, for departure. They’ll take the boat 60 miles on to Lake Laberge, then paddle into the river from there. 

It’ll be the first time Friberg’s ever seen the Yukon River.

“I’ve paddled many rivers—hundreds, probably thousands of rivers in my lifetime—but the Yukon River is very different,” Friberg said. “There’s not any other river in the world like it, that I’m aware of.”

Friberg was paddling during summer camps before he was a teenager. He started kayaking the Ocoee rapids when he was 13. He first got into SUP as a new way to float the Ocoee four years ago. Now, it’s the only way he’ll get on the whitewater track outside of Cleveland. But with the paddleboard, he’s mostly stayed on flat water recently. In the last few years he’s taken to the Hiwassee River, going the 80 miles back to Chattanooga over a few days. Once, he did the full trip in 23 hours, 50 minutes. 

“When you stand-up paddle, when you do it properly, you’re really using your whole body,” Friberg said. “You’re using all your core. You’re not really using your hands and your arm muscles, yet it’s your hands that have to hold on to the paddle. All of that energy has to go through your wrists to your paddle. Once you start getting into hour 12, eventually you’re going to start to feel that pain in your wrists and your fingers. When I did my last 24-hour interval, that was the most painful thing.”

The Yukon River will bring the same pains, but an entirely new set of elements. For stretches of up to 400 miles, it runs unregulated by dams, allowing flows of more than twice what the Tennessee River averages. The snowpacks from a heavy winter are melting and raising the water levels even higher. 

There are rapids, but not the rocky shoals that can tear up a boat on the Ocoee. The biggest obstacle will be boils—mingling currents that can throw a paddler from his board.

Temperatures are expected to dip into the 40s next week in Whitehorse, while water temps will be in the 30s. Hypothermia was never a concern on the Hiwassee. It will be next week.

“It could be your stomach, your joints, hitting a rock in the river, it could be hypothermia,” Friberg said.

Friberg hasn’t seen bears on his Tennessee trips, either. In the twilight that constitutes a northern summer night, Friberg and Gavere could see any kind of wildlife.

“This is the part of the world that Jack London was famous for writing about,” Friberg said. “It’s very isolated. … I was asking a friend up there what the odds are that we’ll see a brown bear. He said, ‘You have a 100 percent chance of seeing many large brown bears.’ We may see some moose. Sometimes there could be some elk crossing the river. 

“I hope we’ll have the strength to look to the side every once in awhile.”

For the first three hours on the water, Friberg will eat mostly carbohydrates-heavy snacks. After the first eighth of the trip, though, he’ll stick to protein.

At around 12 hours, Friberg expects to be in full tunnel vision. He said paddlers can slip into a feeling similar to a runner’s high, where adrenaline overpowers the aches. The most important thing is to keep consistent form, to not let fatigue bother technique.

The support boat will be there the entire trip. Food and a change of clothes will be available if needed. 

After the 200-plus miles on the board are completed, Friberg and Gavere will crawl back into the boat with what energy remains. It could still be another 100-mile trip to a takeout point. 

Friberg’s return to Chattanooga is likely dependent on what day the paddling begins. 

The wait, though, before another mission comes into focus, won’t be long.

“(Gavere and I) will probably do more things together in the future,” Friberg said. “We’ve already talked about a couple of things to do in the future for the next little mission.”

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