Vail Valley’s First Descents enters new territory |

Vail Valley’s First Descents enters new territory

Brad Ludden
Vail, CO Colorado

VAIL VALLEY, Colorado – Ever since founding First Descents in Colorado’s Vail Valley, I have strongly believed that any young adult diagnosed with cancer should be able to attend and there shouldn’t be any reason that we can’t accommodate them.

Over the years, the demand for our programs has grown faster than we have been able to meet, which has lit a fire and encouraged us to continue to grow. Part of that growth has required us to find new locations to make our camp more accessible to more people.

I’m proud to say that after eight summers of running these programs, First Descents has just successfully completed its first program east of the Rocky Mountains – we were able to change the lives of many participants who wouldn’t have otherwise been able to attend.

There are a few key things that we look for in any expansion. The location has to have good access to various levels of whitewater, physical beauty, access to good medical facilities and a strong volunteer base to help us get through the week. White Lake, Wis.,., proved to have all of these things and more.

The first thing you will notice when you arrive in Wisconsin is that they are the friendliest people. They love cheese and the Green Bay Packers. From the security people at the airport to the guy giving directions at the gas station, they are the friendliest people around. This made for a great and dedicated volunteer crew that managed to get just about everything donated for the week.

I will admit that I was nervous about the whitewater when we chose this location. Being known for your flatlands doesn’t usually mean you have a lot of great whitewater, but there are a few hidden gems in Wisconsin.

We were based at a place called Bear Paw Outfitters in White Lake. If you’re ever in the Midwest and looking for a good paddling base, look no further – you don’t have to drive more than a few miles from White Lake for quality whitewater on the Wolf River.

The participants flew into Green Bay and we drove them the one and a half hours to Bear Paw. Ten newbies and five returning campers – the ratio we try to keep – showed up ready to paddle.

The first night around the campfire is the time to let them know the camp is the real deal.

“This is a kayak camp,” I explained to them. “We don’t make it easy because you have had cancer. This week will be filled with challenges and it’s up to you to face them.”

By facing them they will realize they are strong because of cancer; that they are not alone and they can do anything they set their minds to.

The next morning we wake up and head to the lake – that’s where the healing begins. We put them in their kayaks, talk them through some basics and then flip them over in the lake. It’s their job to figure out how to safely get out of the kayak under water and get to the surface. This is the first of many breakthroughs they will have at camp and their eyes are now wide open to what lies ahead.

The whitewater gradually progresses through out the week, getting harder each day. In Wisconsin, unlike many of our other locations, the rivers were shallow and the challenges weren’t the usual big waves and holes – they were rocks.

Campers had to learn how to maneuver between the rocks and when that didn’t work, they needed to figure out how to hit them without flipping over. As you can imagine, this was an interesting learning process. I also had to learn how to teach them these skills as it was a first for me, too.

As their skills on the water progressed, so did their connection off the water. I’m always amazed at how far the participants come in such a short time. Most of them show up as complete strangers and they leave as family after just one week.

The kayaking bonds them, and Wisconsin was no different. The evenings were filled with campfires at Bear Paw, volleyball, slack lining and conversations about treatments I never knew existed. I don’t know of any other place where young adults with cancer can push themselves so hard during the day and in the evening compare notes on their brain surgeries, amputations or tumor resections.

Towards the middle of the week, we always have an “alternative craft” day. We put them in inflatable kayaks – two-man kayaks with a staff in the back and rafts. Usually we just find a harder section of river in the area we’re already kayaked and run down that, but we didn’t really have that option in Wisconsin so we headed into the town of Wausau. We were given our very own “release” on the town’s whitewater course – a huge deal and the participants didn’t waste one drop of the water that flowed out of the damn.

One participant said it was the best organic theme park ride she had ever experienced.

The town came out to watch as First Descents lapped the 100-yard long section of whitewater over and over, pushing themselves, laughing, high-fiving, surfing and rolling.

The final challenge came at the end of the last day. We had been on the water three hours already and despite being tired, scraped up and cold, the participants were still determined. We came to the last rapid on the section and dubbed it “graduation rapid.”

We scouted it, showed them the line, set up safety for them and then told them to apply everything they had learned to get down it safely. I noticed one of our participants was crying – “cryaking” isn’t uncommon at First Descents – so I asked if she was OK and told her that she shouldn’t be scared.

“I’m not scared,” she told me. “I’m crying because I have never felt this much support in my life.”

Watching them paddle toward the rapid with fear in their eyes and then successfully getting themselves to the bottom and celebrating was the perfect end to an amazing week. It summed up the growth they experienced as kayakers, and the bond they created as survivors.

It proved that First Descents is as effective in the Midwest as it is in the Rockies, and that we would continue our push Eastward with the hopes of continuing to fulfill our mission.

Thanks to everyone who made it possible.

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