Paddlers spent a day on the river with friends and raised $8,000 for a local kayak camp for young adults with cancer at the third annual First Descents Paddle-a-Thon on the Colorado River Saturday.”My brother had cancer and passed away in December. He was supposed to go to camp this summer – I just wanted to help out in any way I could,” said Kelsey Flanagan, 15, of Centennial after her first lap.Flanagan, who participated in the fund-raiser with her parents and dog, said she was raising about $100 per lap on her first day in a hard kayak.Prior to the event, 52 kayakers, rafters and tubers gathered flat fee donations or pledges for each mile paddled. They put in at Rancho del Rio and paddled the five-mile stretch to State Bridge in Bond, where a free shuttle picked them up for their next lap. At the end of the day, participants celebrated at the State Bridge Restaurant and Lodge.”It’s a great way to get people out on the river and raise awareness for kayaking and the camp,” said Sari Chwalk, 25, a volunteer who has organized the event for the last two years. “I do it because it’s a great local organization – we’re helping kids all over the country.”Professional kayaker and Nike ACG athlete Brad Ludden, 23, founded First Descents kayak camp in 2001.”When I was 18, I went around the world kayaking,” Ludden said. “At the end of the trip I was telling my parents about my adventures and the places I’d been and I realized it was all a waste if I didn’t share it with others.”
As a teenager, Ludden, of Kalispell, Mont. volunteered at Eagle Mount Camp in Montana, teaching kayaking to children with cancer. This experience inspired First Descents, Ludden said.In its first year, First Descents hosted 14 young adults for a one-week camp. This summer – thanks to the success of previous summers, a spot on the Today Show in September, donations and continued community support from the Vail community – there is a waiting list and the camp plans to host three one-week camps, each with 14 campers.A ‘first descent’ is a paddler’s first successful navigation of a river or creek, and the camp uses this image as a metaphor to teach campers to negotiate the obstacles of their illness and everyday life challenges.With a 4 to 1 ratio of campers to counselors and a full-time medical staff, campers from age 15 to 25 learn to kayak and participate in horseback riding, a ropes course, rafting and other activities free of charge. The $2,000 it costs for each participant is raised through donations and two fund-raisers each year – the Paddle-a-Thon and the Golf and Garf miniature-golf tournament.Ludden, a three-year Vail Valley resident, said he is inspired by the transformations he sees in the campers.
“One kid was terminal, and he was like, ‘This sucks, I’m over it,'” Ludden said. “But by the end of the week he had color back in his face – he was more outgoing, talkative and supportive.”Ludden attributes such growth to the unique atmosphere at First Descents. “As a teen with cancer you’re pretty sheltered, but … kids need freedom to grow,” he said. “We want to give them respect and freedom so they can grow into themselves.”Kristin Diedrich, 36, a public health nurse in Vail and kayaker, saw the Paddle-a-Thon flyer at Mountain Quest Sports on her lunch break.
Within a week, Diedrich acquired a $1,300 sponsorship from Fly Vail Summer- an Eagle County program that aims to increase direct flights to Eagle from Dallas and Denver- and also arranged to have lunch donated by the Avon Bakery and Deli for her 10-person Paddle-a-Thon team.”It all fell together,” Diedrich said. “I wanted to get a collection of community agencies working together toward mutual health goals. It’s great – I get to paddle with friends, there’s free shuttles, First Descents gets money and Fly Vail gets PR.” Diedrich says she hopes to double participation and funds at next year’s event.Ludden says he thinks the Paddle-a-Thon has the potential to grow each year. “We want to make this our signature event – even national,” he said. “People come out to this fund-raiser and have fun. What’s better than raising money for a good cause doing something you love?”For more information on First Descents, log on to http://www.firstdescents.org.