Call me Captain Ducky. I’m descending the emerald green waters of the most remote piece of water in the Lower 48: the Middle Fork of the Salmon River, which runs 104 miles through Idaho. The whitewater boat I pilot is known as an inflatable ducky, an ignoble name for such a worthy vessel—of which I have some mastery.
It’s late July 2014, and we put in at Indian Creek, 75 miles from the finish. On our first day, the Salmon deceives us, meandering slow and easy. But now we pinball through frothy rapids. I’m on my maiden trip with First Descents, in a group of 15. Currently, 14 of us bunch in an eddy above a particularly scary-looking wave. We watch Milly “Austin” Hernandez, a 34-year-old cancer survivor, attempt to punch her bright blue, less-than-stable kayak through Class III Tappan Falls, which can best be described as meaty. Such rapids consume boaters who don’t know how to Eskimo roll their kayaks—and Austin clearly does not. But she goes in anyway. Pushing her boat into the frothing waves, she pulls valiantly through a paddle stroke before pausing and flipping.
Chorus: “Oh, shit!”
Austin is dark-haired, slim, and pretty. In 2010, she was diagnosed with stage III breast cancer. She’s now in remission, after six months of chemo, a double mastectomy, three months of radiation, and more chemo. Somewhere in there, she connected with First Descents, doing her first trip in 2012. This one, an “FDX” (for program vets), is her third.
Pro kayaker Brad Ludden founded First Descents in 2001. His trial trip was down a flat stretch of water near Vail, Colorado. Surfing, rock climbing, and mountaineering trips followed. Last year First Descents operated in 12 states and several countries. To date, 3,000 18- to 39-year-old adults have participated.
There was a hole in cancer support networks and First Descents filled it. Young adults with cancer face uniquely difficult struggles. In the prime of their lives—attending college, marrying, having children—they are suddenly arrested. “The goal isn’t to turn these folks into professional kayakers,” says Land Heflin, owner of First Descents outfitter Tarkio Kayak Adventures, “but to give them an incredible experience.” Many say that the aftermath of cancer is nearly as difficult as cancer. First Descents removes them from the struggles, puts them in awe-inspiring settings, and invites them to push their daring. A recent Stanford University study shows that First Descents participants—after a weeklong program—showed enhanced body image, self-compassion, and self-esteem. The study showed a need for continued support closer to home.
Enter First Descents Tributaries, community-based groups created to serve alumni and prospective participants. The weekend programs, set near urban areas, are designed to give similar experiences to those whose health, schedules, or other obligations prevent them from heading out on longer excursions. “They create a culture of consistency, allowing me to get some of the FD magic at home,” says FD participant Kathy “Rev” Smith. There’s also FDRock, for participants’ caregivers, and FD40+, the same adventures now offered to participants ages 40 to 49.
I’ve been an outdoors person my entire life—you should seriously see me pilot a Ducky—but what I witness on the Salmon River is simply stunning. As Austin pops up below Tappan Falls, I expect her to freak out. Instead, she grins as she orients herself, grabs her paddle, and—with the help of guide Corey “Daryl” Nielsen—swims to shore. Upon arrival, she shouts, “AWESOME!”
Here’s what awesome! means to Austin: “I knew that Daryl was close by to save me, but being around First Descents participants makes me feel stronger and more willing to go for it. The waves kind of resemble cancer. They try to bring you down, terrify you, and make you fall, but you just have to keep on paddling to make it through. And even if you fall, it gives you a sense of accomplishment, because at least you went down with a fight.”
What We Do—A Sampling
Whitewater Kayaking | Missoula, MT
Game Plan: Groups bunk at Tarkio River Lodge, a peeled-log building with a wraparound porch above the Clark Fork River. A beach serves as classroom, where seasoned instructors demonstrate how to paddle kayaks designed for stability and river running. Practice on Class II rapids leads to a day trip through Alberton Gorge, a Missoula favorite known for dramatic cliffs, playful eddies, and wildlife sightings. Trips run in late summer to capitalize on warmer water temps.
Your Guide: “We’re heartfelt but humorous, just like First Descents,” says Land Heflin, who owns outfitter Tarkio Kayak Adventures with his wife Erica. teamtarkio.com
Rock Climbing | Moab, UT
Game Plan: Ancient geologic forces shaped the sandstone arches, sculpted rock formations, plateaus, and plunging cliffs in Moab’s dramatic landscape. Those same features make it a key destination for rock climbers. The week starts with safe top-roped climbs and gradually progresses to multi-pitch climbs. Downtime includes a trip to Arches National Park.
Your Guide: “Climbing is a medium for transformation,” says Bob Chase, a Colorado Mountain School guide with a background in adventure therapy. “When you put on a harness and belay someone, trust builds quickly.” coloradomountainschool.com
Surfing | Outer Banks, NC
Game Plan: The barrier islands that run 200 miles along North Carolina’s coast are constantly reshaped by ocean storms. Which makes it ideal for surfing. Knee and waist-high waves are common, but when weather moves in waves grow in mass and power. Traveling to beaches between sleepy coastal communities—meaning there’s no crowded lineup for waves—First Descents participants learn to read waves, paddle in properly—and pop up on a board.
Your Guide: “Surfing is primordial. All of the ocean’s energy gets channeled through you,” says Rob Farmer, owner of Farmdog Surf School, which offers NSSIA-certified instructors, beach access, wetsuits, and a quiver of 11 different sized boards. “Waves are products of the Earth spinning on its axis. It’s a cosmic thing.” farmdogsurfschool.com
Surfing | Santa Cruz, CA
Game Plan: Surf culture here dates back to 1885, when a trio of Hawaiian princes rode redwood boards off the beach. That legacy thrives because Santa Cruz sits on a peninsula that catches both north and south swells. One of its many golden beaches always has surf, from beginner-friendly Cowell’s Beach, to the monster waves at Mavericks. First Descents groups bed down at an actual lighthouse just north of Santa Cruz, a prime staging ground for chasing waves in the healthy waters of the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary.
Your Guide: Corey Nielsen, a First Descents Global Experience Director with a surfing habit, will lead this year’s trip with Richard Schmidt, who’s run a Santa Cruz surf school for 30 years. “Richard understands our passion for surfing,” says Nielsen. “He’s dedicated to sharing that with people who don’t have any experience with the ocean.” richardschmidt.com OLI