'Paddlers Abreast' team of cancer survivors marks 20 years in epic Yukon race

Team members change from year to year, but the goal of Yukon's Paddlers Abreast stays the same — to empower breast cancer survivors by competing in the epic Yukon River Quest.

'It just gives you that strength to say, you know what, I can do this.... I can get down that river'

Paddlers Abreast is a team of breast cancer survivors and supporters that competes annually in the 715-kilometre Yukon River Quest. This year marks the team's 20th annniversary. (Chris MacIntyre/CBC)

It was about a year after her diagnosis and treatment for breast cancer, and Ava Christl was thinking a lot about her recovery and about other women who shared similar experiences. Then an idea came.

"So in the middle of the night — you know, as these things go — you say, 'Why don't we do the Yukon River Quest?'" Christl recently recalled.

"And lo and behold, a bunch of women were crazy enough to say, 'That sounds like a good idea!' And so it began."

That was in 2001. Now, the group that Christl helped found — called Paddlers Abreast — is marking 20 years of paddling through adversity.

Later this month, they'll again enter all-female team of breast cancer survivors and supporters in the annual Yukon River Quest, an epic 715-kilometre paddling race from Whitehorse to Dawson City, Yukon. 

'We're doing something that propels us forward,' said Ava Christl, who helped found Paddlers Abreast in 2001 after her own diagnosis and treatment for breast cancer. (Chris MacIntyre/CBC)

Christl said she had no idea that the group would endure beyond that first successful race in 2001. But then spring came around the following year, the river was still rolling, and talk turned toward getting the gang back together again.

"People said, 'Are we going to do this again?' And we all looked at each other and said, OK! And away we went. And the next year, and the next year," she recalled.  

'Just try it'

Every year since then, an exhausted Paddlers Abreast team has arrived in Dawson City at race's end (except last year, when there was no race because of the pandemic). Team members change from year to year, but many paddlers have raced more than once.

Christl says more than 60 women have been part of the team at some point over the years.

Lynn Rice-Rideout is a breast cancer survivor who is now training for what will be her 14th race with Paddlers Abreast.

She says she first joined the group because she was looking for connection with others. She says she had never paddled in her life before that.

"When I saw the ad in the paper, my husband said, 'Just try it, you might like it.' So I did, and yeah I did," she recalled.

'Lots of stories, lots of laughter,' said Lynn Rice-Rideout, who's preparing for her 14th race with the team. (Chris MacIntyre/CBC)

The Yukon River Quest typically draws hardcore paddlers and adventure racers from around the world, but Paddlers Abreast has never been a team just for athletes. The group's aim is never to win the race — the goal is to tackle a challenge together, and share a journey.

Rice-Rideout says it's "spiritually healing."

But make no mistake — it's not just a leisurely float down the river for these women. They may not be out to win, but they still train hard for what is a long and grueling paddle through some remote northern wilderness. It's no small feat to make it to Dawson City in just a few days. 

"It just gives you that strength to say, you know what, I can do this, I can do this, I got this, I can get down that river," said Rice-Rideout.

"I mean, we have some intense moments, you know, where you have to really just dig in and focus. But there's lots of stories, lots of laughter, just to keep you happy, just to keep you mentally prepared."

Christl, who's been living in B.C. in recent years but has returned to Yukon this month to paddle with her old team, says she's so happy that the team carried on even after she moved away.

"God bless the women who kept this thing going. You know, I'm just so proud of everybody that's ever run the race," she said.

The team for this year's race. The 2021 Yukon River Quest begins in Whitehorse on June 23. (Chris MacIntyre/CBC)

She describes the race as a powerful, life-changing experience.

"It's life-affirming too, because we've all gone through this really close-to-death kind of experience, you know, and suddenly we're doing something that propels us forward," she said. 

"The river carries us, and the songs carry us, and we carry each other." 

The 22nd annual Yukon River Quest begins June 23 in Whitehorse.

Written by Paul Tukker with files from Chris MacIntyre


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