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First Descents International: FDx New Zealand

By: Jamie "Alpha" Stec & Linda "Punky" Shak

In 2015 fate brought the two of us together for a week of white water kayaking with First Descents in Tarkio, Montana. It was our first experience with FD, and with kayaking, and we were completely hooked on both. One day on the river, our lead staff Pedro shared how he would love to take a group of alumni to New Zealand to kayak and adventure around on New Zealand’s Southern Island.  From the moment Pedro planted that seed of idea, we were determined to make it happen.

We left Montana feeling changed and empowered by this groundbreaking organization and the bonds we had formed. Within months we started to brainstorm for an epic FDX on the other side of the world. We spent hours on the phone with Pedro, dreaming up the itinerary, and then, from our homes in San Francisco and Detroit started to book reservations, convert gas prices and distances from metric to imperial, and create shared Google docs detailing budgets and itineraries in hopes that First Descents would approve our proposal for an FDX NZ.

In January 2018, this dream was realized.  Ten young adult cancer survivors, along with our fearless leader Pedro, travelled eight thousand miles to the bottom of the world for what could only be called a once-in-a-lifetime adventure.

There’s always a certain amount of trepidation that comes with travel, especially traveling with strangers. But what we didn’t fully grasp was that these weren’t truly strangers: as part of the FD tribe they would be our new family within no time. Family with whom we would be squeezed into a van traversing many kilometers, sleeping on top of one another in hostels, and supporting one another on the river rapids, on challenging hikes, on scary cliff jumps into waterfalls and swimming holes, and simply connecting on the day to day experiences of being a person living with cancer, and doing their best to out live it.

An international FDX is similar to an week-long program in many ways: campfires, awards, adventures, and the perfect mix of tears and laughter. It’s also different in some exciting ways: you have more time to do more.  There were so many opportunities to see different parts of New Zealand, how both the locals and tourists experience it, and to wander off occasionally on our own adventures, from botanical gardens to restaurants, tattoo parlors to ice cream shops. 

A true highlight–and one of the main reasons for our trip to New Zealand–was the opportunity to go kayaking with the New Zealand Kayak School. Our days started in our boats in a pool, working intensely on our rolls. The instructors employed inner tubes, tow ropes, iPad videos and slow motion replay of our performance to get many of us to roll unaided. We can’t put into words what an experience it was to have some of the best kayaking instruction in the world in one of the most beautiful places in the world. The one thing that made it even more impactful and memorable was that we were able to experience it with people who had been through similar health issues, and who were doing their damnedest to be more than those diagnoses. The rivers we ran were both kind and cruel to us, and in those beautiful moments on the river, we learned about our own resilience.

The other unforgettable portion of the trip was the time we spent in and around Milford Sound. Never before have we been surrounded by so much natural beauty. And we were here with Pedro, who’s not just the king of adventure, but had spent a season working in Milford Sound. So while the other tourists were bussed in for a brief day-cruise, we got Pedro’s behind-the-scenes VIP tour of Milford Sound. We hiked trails, both marked and unmarked. We went exploring to find all the best swimming holes and on secret expeditions to breathtaking waterfalls. We barrelled off a dock into cold saltwater, surrounded by glacial fjords, and walked along a cove at low tide, inspecting rocks and driftwood, letting the shadows of the cliffs fall across our paths as we took moments to be alone, and reflect on everything it took for us to get here. We were…out living it.

Our last morning in the sound was going to be spent sea kayaking through Milford Sound to the Tasmin Sea.  We woke up at 4:00am to pouring rain, thinking that the experience would be at least uncomfortable, if not a total disaster.  We suited up and our guides led us into the water in the dark, wet morning. But as we began to paddle, the rain caused the towering cliffs on either side of us to be dynamic with waterfalls, more than we could count, everywhere we could see. As the morning progressed, the rain abated, and the nocturnal fur seals made their way back to the cliffside rocks, to sleep off their night of swimming and fish hunting. They performed for us, barking and diving off of the rocks in front of our boats. We paddled to the sea. It took our breath away.


When it was all said and done, we had toured the south island, swimming and tramping, boating down rivers and out to sea. We challenged ourselves in a variety of ways, and opened our hearts to each other in moments of fear, exuberance, and quiet contemplation. We danced and sang. We jumped off of very high things.  We pushed ourselves–and each other–to conquer our fears.  We learned that the things that often felt the most terrifying in the beginning, ended up being the most powerful and life-affirming experiences. And that it’s not about where you are, but who you are with.

What started as a seed of an idea on a river in Montana culminated with ten people on a lake eight thousand miles away, accepting the small pieces of baci string that Pedro pulled out of his knapsack. First Descents left its mark on our hearts, once again.


We would like to extend our gratitude to our guides at the New Zealand Kayak School and Rosco’s Milford Kayak for embracing us and showing us the best of New Zealand. And to Blakefish, Blue Sparrow, Bonneville, Didi, Gazelle, Maverick, Postal, Slipstitch, and of course, our Pedro…we are the kings of summer!

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