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‘You can’t deny the river’: Paddlers Abreast celebrates its 20th anniversary

Paddlers Abreast, the well-known voyageur canoe in the Yukon Quest, celebrates its 20th anniversary
Ava Christl founded Paddlers Abreast in 2001 and will paddle for the third time during 2021 Yukon River Quest. (John Tonin/Yukon News)

Paddlers Abreast, the well-known voyageur canoe in the Yukon River Quest, had a 20th anniversary celebration at the Robert Service Campground on June 2.

Paddlers Abreast is a group of breast cancer survivors from the Yukon and Northern British Columbia whose mission is to: “Provide an opportunity for personal growth while meeting a physical and mental challenge;

Provide an opportunity for a shared and supportive experience;

Create an understanding that those living with breast cancer can live full and active lives;

Create an opportunity for remembering those who do not survive this disease; and

Raise awareness for breast cancer.”

Since 2001, Paddlers Abreast has participated in the River Quest — a 715-kilometre canoe, kayak and SUP race from Whitehorse to Dawson City.

Ava Christl founded Paddlers Abreast and paddled in the 2001 and 2002 boats.

“In the beginning of course we didn’t know it would be a 20-year project but the next year we kind of looked at each other and said ‘who’s up to doing it again?’ and it started like that,” said Christl.

Eleven women paddled the Yukon River to Dawson City in 2001. Now, the boat has room for eight women, and Christl will be one of them.

“I moved away and was down on Vancouver Island for 15 years and when they said we’re going to run the race this year I said ‘I’m coming home and getting in the boat again’,” said Christl.

Last year’s Yukon River Quest was cancelled because of COVID-19 – it would have been the 20th anniversary for Paddlers Abreast then.

Being in the canoe, surrounded by strong women is a powerful experience, said Christl.

“It is a life-changing experience,” she said. “It is really a powerful life-affirming kind of experience. All of us, the camaraderie, the shared experiences, the stories that are told, the laughter and songs along the river it has been nothing but positive.”

Over the 20 years, Christl said she takes pride in knowing the ethos of Paddlers Abreast has remained the same.

“I am no athlete, but I do this,” said Christl. “It is not just for athletes; it’s for anyone who wants to have the experience.

“We said right from the beginning there’s room in the boat for all of us. We’ve held to that over all these 20 years and I’m really proud of that.”

The longest-tenured

Dawn Fralick has the distinction of being “the one who’s been in the boat the longest”.

“The one we are working on is number 15,” said Fralick. “I was in the first boat Ava got going and been in most of them since. You can’t deny the river. You got to go back.”

Fralick recounted her time in the first boat to working her 15th race.

“I hardly had my act together to get into that first boat,” said Fralick. “Life was happening and this was craziness. Each year you keep coming back and meet some new people but there are some tragedies along the way, some people don’t make it.”

The river keeps calling and Fralick said the boat will always join together and pull.

“It’s a tough race and we always keep saying sometimes you’re the powerful one and sometimes you’re the weak one that has to be carried,” said Fralick. “Both those positions are Ok. Those are the parts you get emotional about.

“Sometimes… sometimes the powerful ones are the ones that need to be carried too. Several women have reoccurrences at this time. You just get out there and pull the boat for them. It’s a good memory.”

Working on race three

Rachelle Zral, the current president of Paddlers Abreast, will be doing her third River Quest this year.

“I finished cancer treatment in 2017 and less than a year later I raced for the first time with the team,” said Zral. “It was a big deal. It was proving to myself that I was back to health and well.”

Through her cancer treatment Zral said her family was there cheering her on. Racing the River Quest gave them a different reason to cheer.

“Hearing your kids cheer you on, I don’t think there is anything that can fill a mom’s heart quite like that,” said Zral.

Zral said “that boat is magic” and has been the “biggest” part of her healing journey.

“The healing only starts when you are done treatment,” said Zral. “You are so actively involved in going through surgery, the chemo, the radiation, you don’t have time to process it.

“When it is all done its kind of like ‘Now what, how do I heal from this?’ Being around these women has done that for me.”

In support

The boat will also bring on supporters to flush out numbers.

“Thank God we don’t have eight new breast cancer survivors each year,” said Fralick.

Elizabeth Bosely and Pat McKenna are no strangers to the River Quest in a C2 (tandem canoe), but in 2006 they joined the Paddlers Abreast team.

“Witnessing the strength and courage that they had after all they had been through in their own physical, mental and emotional healing journeys as cancer survivors (was amazing),” said Bosely. “I loved that part of it, to be in the boat and support in any way possible.”

“They were really good to each other,” said McKenna. “It was a different way of paddling.”

If asked to join the boat again Bosely said she’d do it immediately.

“You had so much to gain from being witness to how encouraging, supportive and loving the women were to each other, that was a good life lesson,” said Bosely.

Bosely and McKenna were in the canoe when the movie River of Life was filmed.

The 2021 Yukon River Quest will go from June 23-26 beginning in Rotary Park.

Contact John Tonin at

Dawn Fralick has done the most Yukon River Quests, 15 after the completion of the 2021 race, as a part of Paddlers Abreast. (John Tonin/Yukon News)
Rachelle Zral said her children, Bree and Max Labelle, cheered her on through cancer treatment and the Yukon River Quest. (John Tonin/Yukon News)