There is a moment when every novice kayaker must decide whether to be rescued or to save himself. He is paddling through white water but because he tilted too far to the right, or swiveled around to look for his friend, or simply lost his focus, he flips over. As quick as a snap of the fingers, he is submerged, swinging like the pendulum on a grandfather clock as he tries mightily to right himself, perhaps glimpsing the surface before gravity pulls him back under. He is submerged, upside-down.
Because he is skirted into his boat (i.e., strapped in), he can avoid drowning only two ways: by extracting himself from the kayak (known as a "wet exit"), hoping to hold onto his gear while someone else stops his boat from continuing down the river, or by waiting for another kayaker to "T-rescue" him. A T-rescue involves a nearby kayaker paddling toward the overturned boat at a perpendicular angle until the boats are touching in a T-shape, so his boat can provide leverage for the upside-down kayaker to grab hold and right himself. It is the preferred method of rescue because of its simplicity when executed correctly.
Perhaps the scariest of the moments in this process -- and there are several -- are the few seconds during which the submerged kayaker must wait for his rescue. Those seconds can feel like minutes, especially when the kayaker, unable to see or steer as he is carried forward upside-down, is threatened by the possibility of crashing into a rock before help arrives. His life is in another's hands, as evidenced by the sign he gives to call for a rescue: brushing his hands along the sides of his boat, literally reaching for his rescuer and hoping that he will be there.
That mixture of fear, dependency and hope for survival is perhaps better understood by the young adult participants of First Descents than any other kayakers in the world. They have already lived it -- before they ever step into a kayak.
Brad Ludden's broad shoulders, chiseled triceps and boyish good looks offer the strongest evidence as to his first and, up until this year, primary profession. By the age of 16, Ludden was one of the nation's leading professional kayakers. Seven years later, he'd won world titles as well as sponsors and endorsement deals, including Nike. Still, the 29-year-old says his most profound moment came years earlier in 1994, when his aunt was diagnosed with breast cancer. "Until then, cancer had just been a word to me," Ludden says. "But when someone you love gets it, it's really intense."
He began volunteering at a local organization that provided recreational activities for children with cancer, teaching kayaking in a local pond, and saw how much the patients loved the challenge. Ludden began looking for ways to volunteer through outdoor adventure therapy, but was surprised to find that no organization existed. So he started his own.
First Descents began as one weeklong session in Vail Valley in 2001, a close drive from Ludden's home in Eagle, Colo. To enlist inaugural campers, Ludden visited local doctors, oncologists and social workers, asking them to refer young adult patients who were physically well enough to attend a weeklong kayaking camp. The experience would be entirely paid for -- the campers needed only to show up.
"One of my most nervous times in this whole process was waiting for them to arrive," Ludden says of that first session. "I worried, 'Will they like me? I don't have cancer; will they trust me?' But after that first week, one of the campers told me it had been the best week of her life. After that, I knew I'd do this forever."
The drive to the 7W ranch outside of Vail, one of two main camp locations for First Descents, ascends almost 9,000 feet after the Dotsero exit off I-70. The two-lane road winds up the mountain through lush green meadows, fields of wild flowers and fenced-in pastures speckled with cows and deer. The entrance to 7W (loaned to First Descents for summer use by the ranch owners) is marked by a long gravel driveway. After entering through the wooden gate posts, a small pond sits to the right, surrounded by wooden fences and pots of large impatiens and geraniums. Small cabins form a semicircle to the left of the main lodge: There are two or three campers to a cabin, each with its own bathroom, front porch and a small heater for the cool Colorado summer nights.
Fifteen campers, ranging in age from 19 to 43 (FD allows campers between ages 18 and 40, with a few exceptions on the higher end), four staffers, three guides and several volunteers attended the last session in July. They have traveled from as far as Canada and as close as Carbondale, Colo., for a week of beautiful scenery, new friends and a transformation from novice to accomplished kayakers -- all free of charge.
Their only common link? Cancer. Every participant has either battled or is currently undergoing treatment. Everything from Stage Two non-Hodgkin's lymphoma to myeloma will be present over an entire summer, which in 2010 set a new record of 250 participants over 14 weeklong summer sessions.
Upon arriving, each camper is christened with a nickname and the use of "real" (aka birth) names is prohibited. In fact, most campers won't know their own roommate's name until the final day. Even the staff is known only by nicknames including: Smelly, the camp director, Dogbite, a 33-year-old staff volunteer who battled and beat testicular cancer almost 15 years ago, and the Camp Moms -- Bubby and Kinder -- named for their roles not only as chefs but also matriarchs. Two of the campers, Hottiebucks and Cowgirl, have returned from last year. Everyone else is new -- and most of them are more than a little nervous.
Tailz grew up in rural Vermont with one passion: sports. He and his twin brother, Jackson, competed in almost every sport possible until they left for college -- Jackson to Hofstra University on a lacrosse scholarship, Tailz to the University of Vermont to play D-I lacrosse, as well.
At the age of 28, Tailz returned home to teach math and P.E. at a local private school for boys with learning disabilities. He began having bad headaches, which he shrugged off until his girlfriend insisted he visit the doctor. His doctor gave him an MRI and called later that week with the results: Tailz had an aggressive brain tumor the size of a large orange. The tumor was malignant.
A few weeks later, Tailz had surgery to remove the tumor. The night before his surgery, he suffered multiple seizures, so doctors had to anaesthetize him during surgery rather than keep him awake -- which meant they'd be able to remove less of the tumor than they'd hoped (70 percent rather than 90 percent).
The next morning, Tailz awoke to darkness. Because of the tumor's location, his surgeons had to unexpectedly clip his optic nerve. He was now blind, paralyzed on the entire left side of his body (some movement has since returned) and still had a partial brain tumor. He spent 10 weeks in the ICU, hooked to a machine so he could breathe, and wondered if he'd survive. Without sight, did he even want to?
"The blindness was so hard to accept," Tailz says. "I remember a blind man came to talk to me and I didn't want to hear a word he said. I was despondent to think that without being able to see, I would lose sports."
One day last spring, Tailz received an e-mail from a friend who told him about First Descents. Ludden had heard about Tailz, and while he realized the first-ever blind participant might bring unforeseen challenges, he was determined to have Tailz as a camper.
Arriving at First Descents in mid-July, Tailz bonded with his group, feeling an immediate kinship he'd rarely experienced before. Five of his fellow 17 campers had brain tumors. He says he wasn't scared of being on the water because "you can just feel. That's what's so cool about kayaking that so many other sports lack -- it's about the fluidness and feeling the way the water is taking you." To teach him, Ludden paddled backward down the river in front of Tailz while yelling out instructions: "Quick paddle left! Back-paddle right!"
On the fourth day, while descending Class 2 rapids, Tailz flipped. He wet-exited but was in shallow waters and slammed his head (all participants wear helmets) into a large rock. When Ludden helped Tailz back into his kayak, he asked the camper if perhaps he wanted another guide with them as an extra set of eyes and hands. Ever the competitive athlete, Tailz had four words for Ludden: "Don't f---ing coddle me." By the time Tailz descended the final rapid alone, the entire group watched, tears streaming down their faces.
"I've been doing this for 10 years, and watching a blind kayaker with cancer come down the river was the most memorable moment of my life," Ludden says. "To have Tailz tell me that was the first time he'd actually felt like anything again and that this experience was the best thing he'd ever done…" Ludden pauses, his emotions taking hold.
"Being blind has created a huge void in my life," Tailz says afterward. "That's why First Descents is so awesome. Just to be given that opportunity to get back into sports, it was surreal. I was finally an athlete again. And then to have talks around the campfire about chemo, radiation, constipation, everything. You can't talk to people who don't have cancer about those things, who haven't gone through similar s---, and have them really understand."
When First Descents began, Ludden had a minimal budget. His mother served as the first Camp Mom and he enlisted a fellow pro kayaking friend as his co-instructor, working for free. Ludden continued his grassroots, "no amount is too small" fundraising methodology as the program's popularity increased. He established a board of directors in 2001 to assist in guiding and growing the nonprofit organization.
The tipping point came seven years later when, in 2008, First Descents jumped from five programs to nine and from two locations to five. Mountaineering and climbing camps have been added alongside kayaking. Staff members are no longer solely volunteers and the kayaking guides are contracted local outfitters. First Descents hopes to expand to hold as many as 40 programs next year and to grow internationally, while still keeping the program free of cost for all participants. This year's budget was more than $1 million, yet the largest single donation to date in First Descents history is $25,000.
"We were founded on people giving what they could -- campers writing a $25 check that they can barely afford," Ludden says. "We're all about small donations for a big cause."
That philosophy has been embodied this year through the efforts of Ryan Sutter, perhaps best known for winning "Bachelorette" Trista's heart on the hit ABC reality series. After befriending Ludden several years ago, Sutter decided this past February to embark upon arguably the nation's most difficult athletic calendar: his self-created 10-10-10 Challenge, competing in 10 major endurance events throughout 2010, including the Leadville 100, the Lake Placid Ironman and the New York City Marathon, in conjunction with asking each supporter to donate $10 to First Descents, now in its 10th year.
With seven out of the 10 events now completed, the 6-foot-2 former Division I college football safety reported in mid-August that his body was feeling the aches and pains (he's also started seeing a chiropractor).
"As hard as it is for me to recover, it's 10 times harder for those who've gone through cancer," Sutter says from his home in Avon, Colo. "This has given me a tremendous opportunity to see how something like cancer, or in my case, taking on a really big challenge, has an effect on so many aspects of your life. It gives me perspective of what these young adults with cancer have gone through and has driven me to do as much as I can for this organization."
The first step for the campers on Day 1 is being outfitted. After gear assembly, the campers trek to the pond to familiarize themselves with the kayaks and learn wet exits. "I think I'll just drown instead," says Southpaw, a former D-I college basketball player who describes his experience in a sidebar here, while laughing nervously after watching the demonstration.
When Smelly asks for a volunteer to try a solo wet exit, silence ensues. Finally Gidget, a 5-foot-7 New York City native with peach-fuzz hair as a result of her current fight against Stage IV breast cancer, smiles her megawatt grin, which she later revealed was not out of excitement but total fear. "I'll try it," she says, and the entire group cheers moments later after her successful emersion.
Smurfette, a barely 5-foot-tall strawberry blonde with a gymnast's strong, compact build, tries next. She wet-exits successfully but looks more shaky than excited after stepping out of the pond. "This brings back the feeling of, 'This might not be OK, this might not end well,'" Smurfette says quietly to several nearby co-campers.
Smurfette describes herself as a born risk-taker. At 23, she and her husband moved from the East Coast comforts of family and friends to the mountains of Colorado. An energetic woman with a big smile, a freckled face and a love of outdoor activities, Smurfette says she felt young, fearless and empowered. "I loved the adrenaline of not always knowing what the outcome was going to be," Smurfette says. "I lived my life in the fast lane -- packed with stress and adventure."
After suffering a bad cold several months following their move, doctors found a swollen lymph node in her neck. They removed and biopsied the node as a precaution, only to discover that it was Hodgkin's lymphoma. She was two months shy of her 24th birthday.
As soon as she heard "cancer," Smurfette's carefree attitude disappeared. She endured months of chemotherapy, after which doctors gave her a positive prognosis. The cancer was in remission -- still, she wondered how long she really had. She suddenly feared the challenges she had loved and questioned every choice, wondering if this would be the activity, the day that killed her.
Before cancer, she'd planned to go back to school and obtain a nursing degree. Now she worried that "chemo brain" (chemotherapy often decreases short-term memory and word recall in patients) would mean she'd misread a diagnosis or forget how to dress a patient's wounds. She has yet to apply to nursing school.
Given her love of the outdoors, she'd also wanted to try kayaking. But she didn't have the equipment and feared that, even if she did, she'd drown while trying to learn to kayak. Once she was accepted to First Descents, Smurfette almost canceled because she was so afraid she wouldn't be able to step into the boat.
Chance to reflect by the campfire
On Monday night, the second evening at camp, everyone gathered around the campfire (a nightly tradition) as the sun set low behind the mountains. The air was cool -- temperatures in the high 50s -- and many participants wrapped themselves in fleeces and sweaters.
"Name one thing that you think cancer took away from you and one thing you think it has given you," Mateo, one of the counselors, says.
Mateo was diagnosed with Burkitt's lymphoma at 16 and struggled with trying to balance his treatments with "normal" teenage life. He says the first time he really felt himself again was months later while attending the second-ever session of First Descents. Now he works as a kayaking instructor and a First Descents counselor while also working toward a doctoral degree. He will run as a part of Team First Descents in the New York City Marathon in November, another initiative FD has begun this year to increase donations and awareness by encouraging young adults to start fundraising teams in their own cities and towns across the country.
Smurfette responded to Mateo's question, talking about the unavoidable fear that cancer introduced in her life. She tried to explain how, while beating cancer often inspires survivors to embrace a new, fearless attitude, she had adopted the opposite. Cancer hadn't taken away her life but she worried that fear might instead. A fear that would manifest itself while she was on the water.
The second water day is easier for some campers. They paddle down relatively calm waters, learning to maneuver inside the kayak. Wooley, Hottiebucks and several others try flipping and wet exiting while others sit fixed inside their kayaks. Day 3 is the only "off-water" day, with participants choosing between hiking the mountains, riding horses or hanging out at the lodge reading and talking over cups of hot tea and card games.
For Gelato, Day 3 was a welcome reprieve. In February 2009, while living in Washington, D.C., she was diagnosed with thyroid cancer. In addition to several surgeries, she underwent multiple rounds of radioactive iodine treatments, which meant spending the night in a hospital isolation room, showering constantly and drinking water throughout the night to prevent the radiation from settling into other areas of her body. She had to adopt a low-iodine, restrictive diet, painstakingly preparing all of her own foods, including staples such as bread and milk.
Though her prognosis is very good, Gelato still must take a synthetic thyroid hormone pill every day for the rest of her life, which helps to regulate her metabolism and energy levels. But since every patient's hormones function differently, finding the right level is a constant challenge. She faces habitual exhaustion, all while trying to maintain a "normal" 27-year-old's life. She will move to Chicago in a few weeks to begin a graduate program in clinical social work and hopes to one day establish a counseling program for young adults facing cancer.
A 5-foot-5, thin brunette with fair skin and a sharp sense of humor, Gelato was often the group comedian -- off the water. But inside a kayak, she was quiet, nervous and uncomfortable. After flipping during an early rapid on the fourth day, she broke into tears, overwhelmed. That's when she decided to ask for help. "I remember sitting at the bottom of the rapids, thinking, 'OK, I can either push through this alone and stress myself out, or I can ask for help,'" Gelato says. "I decided to ask for help and climbed into a tandem kayak. After a while in the tandem, I found that I was actually able to relax a little and enjoy myself."
Establishing trust is an essential tenet of First Descents, particularly for the counselors and guides who recognize that not every camper will love kayaking. It's a challenging sport, ripe with unfamiliar positioning and obstacles that, even when kayaking as a group, are usually faced alone.
"Kayaking is without a doubt the best program we can offer," Ludden says. "It has that element of fear but it's also a chance for them to succeed by week's end and achieve that one major thing." It's also an endeavor that, albeit on a smaller scale, parallels battling cancer.
"After I was diagnosed, I was facing two back-to-back surgeries and a long, lonely recovery period," Gelato says. "So I sent an e-mail to my friends asking them to send e-mails or stop by for visits. Having to ask for their company felt odd at first, but ultimately I was so glad I did. Many of my friends were eager to connect with me and their companionship helped a great deal. Similarly, kayaking on the Colorado River was very stressful. But riding in a tandem kayak relieved a lot of the stress and allowed me to enjoy the other campers and the breathtaking scenery."
The final day began with the campers divided into four groups paddling together before a lunch stop on a riverbank. As they finished and gathered their gear, Smelly told the campers they had reached the week's culmination: a solo trip down Graduation Rapid. "You are ready for this," Smelly reminded them as they sat together on the calm waters.
As Smurfette paddled toward the rapids, she says she reminded herself of the amazing accomplishment of beating cancer. The mere thought of sitting in a kayak had terrified her a week ago. Now, about to face a series of rapids alone, she wouldn't let herself be afraid. "I may not overcome all of my fears in my life, but because of First Descents I've learned to treasure the opportunities that will face me while I try," Smurfette says.
'Raise your paddle'
After each camper had descended the last rapid, M.C., the lead guide, left his boat and walked ashore to bring the van down the loading dock. He turned around, looking at the first group of paddlers still sitting in their kayaks and talking excitedly about what they'd accomplished.
Today was not about hair falling out during the first semester of college, nor waking up vomiting with a numbing paralysis, nor the intravenous drip of chemotherapy treatments in a cold, unfeeling hospital room. Today was: Keeper's cool, smooth paddle strokes through the Colorado River as he aimed for eddies; Floyd, her bright pink-dyed hair hidden beneath her helmet, thrusting her lithe frame to the right side of her kayak so she could attempt a roll; Cannada completing Graduation Rapid and turning to grin at the crowd cheering her on before accidentally flipping; splash fights among new friends who, perhaps better than anyone, understood how quickly the carefree feeling of youth can be stolen. And how your journey back may happen the minute you are in remission, but it may also wait until you are kayaking on the splendid waters of the Colorado with a community unlike any you've known before.
"I've always been one of those people who wanted to be part of something bigger than myself," Keeper says after returning home. "I believe First Descents and the case for young cancer fighters and survivors has finally given me a cause to fight for. I was very lucky to overcome being diagnosed and going through treatment five years ago, and I know I can be there for someone else who's gone through the same thing." He has already established Team First Descents Boston and plans to raise funds for FD while taking part in an upcoming 5K run.
Several participants' prognoses aren't as fortunate as Keeper's. They will go home to continued physical pain and exhaustion. They will face unexpected diagnoses, controversial treatments and inadequate health care plans. They will continue to fight tumors. One of last summer's First Descents participants, Casey "Rocky" Beaupre, lost her three-year battle with acute lymphoblastic leukemia this past spring. She was 19. Still others will find themselves in remission, counting each day as one more removed from cancer.
"Here at camp, people with cancer are the majority and people without cancer are the minority," Mateo says. "Where else does that happen?"
Before telling the campers to exit the lake, M.C. pauses. He smiles his wide, toothy grin as the rest of the group returns his smile, waiting for whatever challenge he might offer. Six days after having never set foot in a kayak, they'd conquered Colorado rapids -- collectively and alone. Invincibility, for the moment, was theirs.
"Raise your paddle if you're a kayaker!" M.C. calls out, his booming voice echoing across the mountain canyons under a cloudless, brilliant blue sky.
Not a moment's hesitation.
Every paddle soars into the air.
Anna Katherine Clemmons writes for ESPN The Magazine and ESPN.com.