First Descents for kids who know uphill battles |

First Descents for kids who know uphill battles

Geraldine Haldner

For children with cancer, however, offering each other a helping hand is necessary in the quest for life itself.

A week-long paddling camp, known as First Descents, introduces young cancer patients to “the joy is in the journey,” camp founder Brad Ludden’s adopted motto. Ludden, a world-class kayaker, came up with the idea of hosting a kayak camp for children and young adults with cancer three years ago after summers spent volunteering at a camp for cancer patients in Montana.

His mother, Jinny Ludden, worked at the camp and remembers how Brad, while enjoying the competitive lifestyle, said to her “this is what I want to do.”

“He was 18 and had just travelled around the world kayaking and then sat down and came up with a business plan. He knew this is what he wanted to do to give back,” says Jinny Ludden while snapping pictures of a chaotic group of teenagers pulling on spray skirts and dry blouses at the Eagle-Vail Pavilion.

The 10 campers, ranging in age from 15 to 22, have only had one night to get to know each other and get friendly with the idea of sitting in a tippy device and maneuver it around moving streams of water.

Some look a bit pale and frail, but the true give-away for the special feat they face is their attitude.

Cancer has made them bold and compassionate. Everyone is helping everyone. Smiles and laughs abound and compliments are not far behind. No one appears fearful – but maybe a bit cautious.

“Feels good now,” says Jamie Ramirez, a 15-year-old cancer patient from Arvada, after folding her lanky frame into a purple-hued kayak and practicing removing the spray skirt from the boat – an exercise best compared to removing a tight rubber band stretched around a jar.

“When I get wet I’m not going to be so sure about this,” she says.

Ludden is all smiles himself as he moves about the colorful gathering. In its second year, First Descents has already made a name for itself as a camp that offers both empowerment and relaxation to children who know stress from a different angle.

Ludden sees kayaking as the perfect activity for cancer patients.

“You don’t have to be too aggressive, but you have to keep your balance,” he says. “Sometime you are challenged, and sometimes you just sit back and enjoy the scenery.”

Watching the 10 youngsters practice “strokes” and “wet exits” are volunteers and certified instructors, including: Annie Chamberlain, a professional kayaker from Oregon; Corey Nielsen, a former Olympic kayak coach for Panama; and Lizzie Burnett, a local kayaker.

Dr. Marc Slatkoff, a retired oncologist, says volunteering for First Descents has been one of the “most gratifying experiences” in his 26 years as a doctor caring for cancer patients.

“One of the saddest things I see is when people who are doing well get so emotionally crippled by a cancer diagnosis that they can’t grab and hold on to their lives,” he says, walking along the pond’s shore watching the boats float by. “It is a beautiful thing to see people with cancer get on with their lives –whether or not their are beating it or not. It’s life while it lasts.”

Jessica Hoehn, 17-year-old cancer patient from Maryland, can’t help but suppress a smile. The apple-cheeked blond with the self-depreciating humor has made friends and is taking a real shine to this sport.

“She is good,” says Matt Solomon, an instructor who doubles as paramedic. “Some of them just get it.

“They are just a bunch of ringers out to make us look bad,” he adds before waving at Drew Cheatwood from North Carolina.

By week’s end, Cheatwood will get his wish. Along with other activities, the group will mature and bond and take their newly-forged relationships on the Colorado River, one always looking out for the other.

In between fun and activities the camp attendees are also treated to inspirational talks and adventure presentations by speakers ranging from Olympic skiing star Picabo Street to local extreme skier Chris Anthony.

But on this sunny morning on the pond, the focus is on the journey.

“I just want to see what it will be like on the river,” says Cheatwood, who survived bone cancer in the leg at 15 and has been cancer free for two years.

“I can’t wait to get on the river,” he says before gliding off.

Donations to First Descents may be made to First Descents, P.O. Box 2193, Vail, CO, 81658.

For more information, visit

Support Local Journalism