Kayaking for the Soul

By Beacon Staff

At 18 years old you were graduating high school or moving away to college. Twenty-five years old, thinking about that first professional job, getting married, maybe at 35 you’ve bought a house with a back yard for your kids. At 39, you’re probably still paying off your student loans.

Imagine factoring cancer into the equation.

“First Descents” works with cancer survivors and patients from 18 to 39 years old.

“These young adults are getting hit when life is hard enough,” says founder Brad Ludden. “They’re moving out, un-or-underinsured, trying to find a mate … We recognize that this age group needs something to get them back on their feet.”

Napoleon was a Division I soccer player and had just turned 20 when he found out he had a malignant tumor in his leg. He’s requested to use the nickname he got at First Descent. The operation and radiation used to rid him of the tumor ended his soccer career.

Seven years later he is cancer free. Napoleon found out about the camp through a link on Lance Armstrong’s “Tour of Hope” Web site. Last year Napoleon came to Montana.

“When I got there, I was greeted by a couple folks,” he says. “ I knew, when I met them, it was going to be one of the funnest weeks of my life.”

The participants came from all over the country. Napoleon recalls conversations about people and places punctuated with cancer anecdotes none of his friends or family could relate to back home: “Me and another camper were talking about where we’re from – but we’ve also had these surgeries that few will ever have, and dealt with the setbacks they caused.”

Ludden, a pro-kayaker and Kalispell native, started researching his idea of an adventure summer camp for cancer survivors when he was 18. He launched his first summer camp two years later, in 2001.

First Descents currently hosts four camps a summer, two in Glacier National Park and two in Vail, Colo.

“Our goal is eight in ’08,” says Executive Director Allan Goldberg, who spent the past year traveling to medical centers across the country to spread the word about the program.

“We had one doctor actually, literally prescribe First Descents on a prescription pad,” Goldberg recounts. Its mantra is “get back, go beyond,” an ethic the organization encourages through its six-day camps.

First Descents camps teach whitewater kayaking, rafting, and rock climbing, among other sports. Participants regain their physical confidence. And they don’t have to pay for it.

First Descents is a non-profit organization. The cost of the camps, activities, and medical staff is all covered through donations, corporate sponsorships, and fundraisers.

A Paddle-a-thon, boat race, and kayaking poker run in Bigfork are part of an upcoming fundraiser. The First Descents River Festival starts at noon on Saturday, June 30, and wraps up with an after-party at the Garden Bar at 5:30 p.m.

“There will be competitions, but it’s more focused on getting families out,” Ludden says. Paddlers can sign up online and start collecting pledges, or anyone can register the day of the event. The kayak poker involves paddling around Bigfork Bay, picking up cards at different spots and then testing your hand at the finish. A “create your own” raft race will see how well your homemade vessel gets you from point A to point B, with food, music, and a raffle. The goal is $50,000.

Camp participants are recruited or recommended by doctors and through word of mouth. First Descents has an online application, as well as information about donating at www.firstdescents.org.