First Descents Returns to Montana

By Beacon Staff

Brad Ludden is coming home. But it’s not to rest. The man never rests.

Ludden, a Kalispell native, is one of the top professional kayakers in the world and the founder of First Descents, a program that provides free outdoor therapy for adults with cancer. He started the program 10 years ago when he was 18 years old and today it brings him to multiple states across the nation. This week, First Descents comes to Glacier National Park.

There are three separate week-long First Descents camps scheduled at Glacier. The first camp began on July 5 and runs through July 11, while the second one is from July 12-18. The final session is July 19-25. The camps are held at a site at Big Creek one week and at the Columbia Mountain cabins near Columbia Falls the other two weeks.

Ludden said First Descents serves as a support group for a cancer demographic that receives the least amount of attention: adults between the ages of 18-39. He said the support group is a “big part of the healing,” but another major part of the healing process is the challenge of kayaking.

“They see that cancer hasn’t made them tired, it hasn’t made them weak,” Ludden said.

Young adults with cancer are often “under-supported and underserved,” Ludden said. It’s the fastest-growing demographic of cancer with the lowest cure rates. On top of that, Ludden said it’s an extremely difficult age to develop cancer, a time when careers and adult lives are just taking off.

“It’s arguably the hardest time in someone’s life to have cancer,” Ludden said.

When Ludden was a teenager, he witnessed his aunt’s battle with cancer. By the time he was 18, the kayaking prodigy knew he wanted to make it his mission to provide care for the cancer-stricken. It made sense to incorporate his love of kayaking. So First Descents was born in Vail and has rapidly grown since.

During the initial years of First Descents, Ludden said the program had an annual budget of 25,000 to 30,000 at the most. Today it operates with a $600,000 budget, four full-time employees and a number of part-time workers. This year, the camps are spread out across six states. But Ludden isn’t satisfied.

“As far as I’m concerned, we’re not even close to where we need to be,” Ludden said.

In no state is First Descents more ingrained than Ludden’s Montana. The three weeks of camp at Glacier National Park are more than at any other location. And Ludden said the support in the Flathead Valley is unparalleled. Ludden’s parents still live in the area and will be volunteering at the camp.

“The support we have in Flathead Valley is overwhelming,” Ludden said. “It’s really inspiring.”

When Ludden’s not involved with First Descents, which isn’t often, he’s scouring the planet for untouched waters to satisfy his taste for extreme kayaking. At 28, he has been a fixture in the kayaking world for more than a decade. He also has a documentary coming out at the end of the summer that will feature both his kayaking adventures and his work with First Descents.

With a nonstop schedule that keeps him constantly on the move, Ludden is thankful for the moments he gets to spend back home.

“I look for any excuse to get back to Montana,” he said. “And I of course love those program, so it’s kind of a win-win for me.”

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