The outsider’s guide to Paddlers Abreast

I grew up in Quebec City and from the age of five I was determined to be a teacher. Everything I was doing, or just about everything, was geared to become a teacher.

I grew up in Quebec City and from the age of five I was determined to be a teacher. Everything I was doing, or just about everything, was geared to become a teacher.

To me, being a teacher means trying and learning about tons of things and living out of your comfort zone – if you fall, get up and carry on.

After 23 years teaching, I’m still madly in love with it. I strive to learn something new every day, and am determined to continue.

After teaching in Montreal and in Fort St. John, I came here to teach for a year or two.

You’ve heard the story before, 19 years later, with a five-year stop in Toronto, I’m still teaching at Whitehorse Elementary in French Immersion. I’m the proud mom of three beautiful children, working on my thesis in school administration with the University of Manitoba and training on the side for all kinds of events the Yukon can offer.

Determination, mental and emotional strength, out of comfort zone, fall, perseverance – these are the powerful impressions that cross my mind when I see these woman on the side of the pool at the Canada Games Centre, or on the river and Schwatka Lake in the Paddlers Abreast voyageur canoe.

I learned more about them while I was a support crew for another team in the 2004 Yukon River Quest.

I can tell you that, back then, when Paddlers Abreast pulled into Carmacks and Dawson, I felt speechless and overwhelmed when confronted by so much power in one boat.

To me, there was something mystic, sacred about it. Something that left me questioning the necessities of life. The boat of determination. The idea that that particular boat, like no other, is paddled by cancer survivors and cancer supporters was enough to keep a knot in my throat and tears in my eyes, remembering both my grandmamans, my maman, aunts, my brother, a student, many friends and colleagues who have died way, way too young from this ugly disease.

It was a boat of hope. These paddlers are an example of the endless possibility of what people can achieve and provide to those going through cancer either as patient or supporter.

Little would I know that one day I would be one of the crew.

And that is where the tale starts.

DAY 1:

One Thursday night, I came home from a children-family play to the bipping sound of my answering machine.

A friend had asked if she could recommend me to Linda Rapp – she wanted me to be part of the Paddlers Abreast 2010 team.

I just couldn’t believe it. Why me? Why not all of these other women who would do anything to be part of this adventure? I thought I hadn’t heard the message properly. I played it again and again and again, realizing it was actually on my machine, in my home and from my friend.

Too good too be true.

I was elated, and filled with too many questions. I couldn’t think straight. I phoned my friend to let her know she could give my info to Linda, and to get more details. Actually, I guess I just needed that friend, who could not do the race due to other commitments, to share this amazing moment.

After hanging up, I got ready for bed because I was exhausted from the day of play and from hearing the most incredible news. But I couldn’t sleep. I tossed and turned, trying to picture myself paddling in the voyageur canoe during the Yukon River Quest.

DAY 2:

Another bipping sound! I ran to the phone thinking Rapp was calling me, only to realize it was my alarm clock.

I arrived at school with only one idea in mind – letting the office secretary know it is essential that if Linda Rapp phones, you have to get me.

And she did.

I had to ask her, Why me?

I don’t have breast cancer. I’m not a breast cancer survivor.

Over the years, certain team members have been touched by cancer in a different way – not as a breast cancer survivor, but as a supporter.

Then it struck me again, all of these amazing people in my life – family, friends, colleagues – who have either survived cancer, are going through it or have passed away from it. Actually, I’ve just learned my godmother has been diagnosed.

The picture became clearer – this was the most unexpected and greatest honour of my lifetime to be included as part of such a project.

Rapp was sending me a schedule and we were to meet on Sunday morning for a 9 a.m. start from Rotary Peace Park.

DAY 3:

Got up way too early, but I just couldn’t sleep anymore. I had butterflies in my stomach.

I started to get the water, snacks and appropriate clothing Rapp had recommended, ate a breakfast of toast and oatmeal and, eventually, made it Rotary Park.

There, seven angels welcomed me.

I was blown away by the energy that carried me for that first paddle (my previous experience being almost none) down the river for seven hours at 65 strokes a minute.

On shore, I met Karin, who’s health prevents her from paddling at the moment. She handed me foamies for my butt and a life jacket, gave me a big hug and thanked me. I thought I should thank her.

Later, I’d learn I was replacing Peggy, who’s not healthy enough to run the river this year.

I just had time to switch from running shoes to sandals and to hook my bag in the boat before we launched. Blaine, Rapp’s husband said to the team, “You’re four minutes late.”

We had to paddle hard to catch up, but it wasn’t easy.

I learned a lot after seven hours on the river, including how to paddle properly, to switch sides every 20 minutes, to call paddle in or out and even mastering the proper technique of peeing overboard.

It was sunny, the river was low, we saw wildlife and we powered across a choppy Lake Laberge.

When finished, I felt absolutely fantastic.

I always believed events happen at a certain time and for a certain reason in life.

Today, that’s truer than ever.

I realize doing something this significant will help and support people who need hope.

But to achieve it, training is necessary. And that’s more demanding than you might imagine.

We train three times a week, spending about three hours paddling on Tuesdays and Thursdays and doing a much longer paddle on Sunday. We paddle 65 strokes a minute and, now that I know the technique, I can handle it physically.

The hardest part has been the emotional training.

Every paddling session means getting in a canoe with seven other woman who have endured their worst nightmare.

Each story could choke you up – and there are seven such stories with you in the boat.

And actually, for some, it’s multiplied as they also supported or went through the death of close ones.

Even if I survived as a cancer supporter, it is not the same.

That emotional training also means to me being able, every single time, to handle the fact that it brings back the memory of both my grandmaman, 63, my maman, 56, my brother, 45, a student, 6, my aunts, close friends and colleagues who battled as hard as they could and are no longer here.

I miss them all so much.

And apart from listening and caring for them as much as I could, I was helpless.

Every time it’s living through the memory of learning a loved one has been diagnosed and all the crap that followed until the deadly phone call and the rage and the anger and the questions with no answers.

There is also the joy for the ones who have survived and regained a productive life.

It took but a few minutes to realize I would need a strategy to avoid drowning in these waves of negative emotions.

I know it is fine to have these emotions, but they would not help me getting to Dawson.

So I reviewed hundreds of photos, mentally recording fond memories of special people I’ve known to help me deal with the pain we sometimes encounter in the boat. After all, even though we are supportive of one another in every way, that mental voyage I have to make every time as an outsider is the biggest challenge in my training.

But I am part of the most incredible, amazing, daring, strongest, supportive, coolest and determined team on the river. Paddlers Abreast is simply the best.

There are several people in my life who have had cancer. They have, in their way, made me who I am today.

I’m inside the canoe, but outside cancer.

And I thank the 2010 Paddlers Abreast team for welcoming me the way they did, accepting me, as an outsider, and believing I was up to the challenge.

Editor’s note: This is part of series of profiles we’re running on the Paddlers Abreast team in advance of the Yukon River Quest.