Brad Ludden still looks like Brad Ludden. His healthy, muscular physique still resembles a professional athlete’s. His arms still look capable of powering through world-class whitewater. Those gentlemanly, poster-boy looks, the ones that helped earn the Kalispell native the title of “Bachelor of the Year” by Cosmopolitan magazine in 2008, appear intact. And his close friends, like Whitefish Mayor John Muhlfeld, still see him as the affable, charismatic, motivated man he’s always been.
But Ludden feels changed. At 31 his adventurous career as a world-class professional kayaker has crested. Two years ago he unofficially retired from the sport to officially take over First Descents, the nonprofit organization he founded when he was 20 that provides free outdoor adventure camps as therapy to young adults fighting or surviving cancer. Nowadays when Ludden is on the water it’s more “soul boating,” trips with friends and family or for First Descents camps instead of dangerous excursions that feed adrenaline.
“I’ve just been kind of reshaping my identity,” he says. “I’m not trying to kill myself as much anymore. I’m trying to be a little more responsible and get out there for the right reasons.”
He continues, “It’s never an easy transition. But it’s actually been easy for me. I’ve been really lucky.”
It’s a summertime evening at Whitefish City Beach and Ludden has just arrived. He and two friends hop out of a bright van decorated with colorful doodles and the words “Out Living It” scrawled across the side. It’s the new First Descents Mobile, a decked-out van for employees to tour the country and appear at events and festivals. Four kayaks and two mountain bikes cling to the roof and rear. Inside there’s a minifridge, sink, flat-screen television, sound system and pullout bed. There’s still that new-car smell but it’s giving way to an odor of used wetsuits and other gear.
Ludden is using the new wheels to tour Montana and return home for a brief chance to catch up with old friends and spend time his parents, Chuck and Jinny. He’s at City Beach to support a friend who is holding a paddleboard demo for his business Paddlefish Sports. Ludden is a little late but has a good excuse. Mountain biking with the mayor can be venturesome. He’s got the bruise to prove it and he gently touches his lower back, the result of a good wipeout. It’s all good, though. Not surprising for someone who’s triumphed over some of the baddest waters in the world.
Since he was 9 years old, kayaking has defined Ludden. By 12 he was already competing internationally. By 18 he was out of Flathead High School and signed professionally. By 20 he was one of the most renowned and beloved kayakers in the world and part a wave of athletes leading the sport into the mainstream. He appeared on magazine covers, blazed through murderous rapids starring in outdoor adventure films and became Nike’s first sponsored kayaker. His enviable life included a half-million dollar home near Vail and a single-engine Cessna.
A large part of his identity was tied to his pursuit of first descents, meaning successfully kayaking a river or section that’s never been done.
But those days are behind him. He’s found a new descent, and he’s still immersed in it.
The board of trustees for First Descents asked Ludden in 2010 to give up his volunteer status and become the organization’s paid CEO. It meant more responsibility, more work and, most notably, the end of extreme kayaking.
“It was sad for sure. It’s hard to give up that piece of yourself and that freedom,” he says. “But at the same time I feel like I didn’t really leave anything on the field. I kayaked all over the world and did all the rivers I’ve ever wanted to do. I really lived that part of my life.”
As CEO, Ludden accepted new challenges and obligations that a lot of 20-somethings might skirt. But he’s always been older than his years.
“How many times do you find a 20-year-old who has that vision (to begin a nonprofit organization) and can look beyond what he’s dealing with at that point in time?” said Muhlfeld, who’s known Ludden almost 10 years.
Inspiration came at an early age. After watching his young aunt battle cancer, Ludden decided to join the fight. At the age of 20, he founded First Descents. That first year he took 10 people in kayaks down rivers in Colorado. He didn’t know what to expect or where it would go; he just wanted to share his passion with those who needed a boost of confidence in themselves and their bodies.
“We don’t claim any physical cure to cancer but we do try to empower people to live beyond it, live on your own terms and regain your own life,” he says.
Eleven years later, First Descents has grown into an organization even more recognizable than its founder. Based in Denver, where Ludden now lives, First Descents now offers 50 programs in North, Central and South America. The organization provides tiered programs for survivors who can return and keep improving their skills in kayaking, surfing and rock climbing.
“I honestly never thought it would become this,” he says. “Just the reach we’re having is something I’m really proud of.”
As a sign of its growing stature within the cancer community, two doctors, including one associated with Stanford University, recently began a formal research study measuring the psychological effects of the First Descents experience.
“I take it very seriously and very personally. I have a lot of myself invested in this,” Ludden says. “I feel I have a little more weight on my shoulders now, but it’s a good weight and it’s a good evolution.”
His decision to bow out of an exciting career of kayaking hasn’t gone unnoticed.
Doug Ammons of Missoula has been a well-known world-class expedition kayaker for almost four decades and was named by Outside Magazine as one of the 10 greatest adventurers since 1900. Ammons has never met Ludden, but he said the young man’s reputation precedes him. Ammons credits Ludden with expanding the sport by traveling the world and being one of the early paddlers filmed on wild expeditions.
“He did some very hard paddling and was certainly well respected and very well known,” Ammons says.
But that’s not what stands out most about Ludden, according to Ammons.
“To me the remarkable thing,” Ammons says, “is that instead of living the dream, which is a very self-referential thing – it’s fun, it’s like having a permanent summer vacation – but instead of falling into that trap he reinvented himself and took this sport and he made it into something greater. He made it into something he could give to other people who have very serious health problems. To give somebody back their confidence about their physical presence and abilities is a remarkable gift.”
Two weeks ago, an elite group of kayakers descended on the North Fork of the Payette River in Idaho for the first-ever North Fork Championship kayaking competition. A few years ago, Ludden probably would have been front and center in the spotlight. Instead he was riding the Lochsa River with his mom and dad. After that he hit the road spreading the word for First Descents. It’s exactly what he wants to be doing.
“First Descents has really grown into something that fits my life so well and makes me so happy,” he says, standing on Whitefish City Beach. “It’s just an amazing thing.”
Life has indeed changed. But being back in Montana seems to ground him, remind where he came from and who he is.
“This is still home. Every turn brings back memories,” he says. “It’s a good feeling.”
Some things never change.
For more information about First Descents, visit www.firstdescents.org.
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