An adventurer at heart, traveling the world and going places seldom seen is what drives me. Whether I’m sitting in the seat of a kayak, in a harness on a big wall, or off on some stretch of deserted beach surfing, my love of the outdoors in only surpassed by the love I have for my 2 boys. Most days you can find me in an eddy paddling a beautiful stretch of river with my mates. Capturing those moments with my camera makes it come alive later. I’m a kayak athlete and lover of the outdoors. I feel super lucky and priveledge to live this life.
I was lucky enough to grow up rafting the spectacular desert canyons of southern Utah, and eventually followed the call of the river (and a bachelor’s degree in environmental science) to the Pacific Northwest. Since then, I’ve been traveling, adventuring, and teaching kayaking around the western U.S. (and the world, when I can swing it!) I found First Descents back in 2011 as a safety kayaker in Glacier, Montana, and can’t believe I’m lucky enough to work as part of the Lead Staff team now! I can’t imagine a more perfect setting for finding healing and community than the river, rock, or ocean.
I’m also lucky enough to call the playground that is White Salmon, Washington my home, and spend most of my time there playing outside, lending a hand with environmental education in local schools, and figuring out how I can spend more time playing outside.
Born and raised in small town New England, Ashlee (aka Rainier), the youngest of three siblings, spent most of her childhood bouncing between the soccer field, basketball court, and ice rink. Cancer first entered her life as a freshman in high school, challenging her personal dreams and ambitions and introducing her to the world of medicine. Following Rainier’s graduation from nursing school, an immense desire for adventure motivated her to drive 3300 miles cross country to start a career in Seattle as a pediatric Hematology/Oncology and Stem Cell Transplant nurse. The beautiful state of Washington – complete with rivers, lakes, mountains, volcanoes and the like – enabled Rainier to develop a deep appreciation for the great outdoors.
After learning of First Descents by way of a magazine article, Rainier volunteered as medical staff for her first program in 2011. It took just one week climbing in the Rockies with First Descents to fall head-over-heels in love with all that is FD. Currently a full time pediatric nurse at The Children’s Hospital of Colorado, Rainier will be returning for yet another laughter-filled summer as Lead Staff. Forever an outdoor enthusiast and camp nurse at heart, Rainier spends her free time rock climbing, kayaking, volunteering, and preparing for life’s next great adventure ☺
Willie (aka Sweet D) was raised in northern New England and beyond as a skier, a boater, a biker, and ultimately a lover of all things wild. He is a self-proclaimed river runner respected by generations of paddlers who is also recognized internationally as a voice of conservation, communication and safety on the river.
Over the last two and a half decades, he has assembled a portfolio of kayak descents from the Americas to Asia and often on first descents of the worlds most technically and logistically challenging runs. For some, most notably he was a member of the expedition that became the first to run the legendary “Upper Gorges” of the Great Bend of the Yarlung Tsangpo.
In addition to becoming one of the foremost expedition paddlers, Willie has also worked developing eco-tourism and guide training programs in Asia for over a decade. He has worked on both sides of the lens for several adventure documentaries. And throughout, he has taught and coached with a host of accredited experiential, alternative and outdoor educational programs. Willie speaks publicly in favor of the protection of cultural and natural heritage and he has guided on and around rivers for as long as he can remember.
I was diagnosed with an extremely rare pelvic sarcoma at the age of 22. Several years into my cancer journey I went on my first FD trip rock climbing in Colorado (something I had never done before). The trip was life changing and opened up a whole new way of living for me. I went on to travel to Thailand and Ireland as a participant, and served as a general support volunteer on several programs.
My involvement ultimately led me to a lead staff position and I couldn’t be more grateful to pay the “FD magic” forward. I feel at peace and at home in the outdoors, and can relate to being scared out of my mind on the side of a cliff, or headed into a rapid. But oh boy…that feeling on the other side. When I’m not spending time with amazing humans on FD trips, you’ll find me in a yoga or spin class, hanging with my adorable nephews, finding a new hike in New England, or doing my day job running social media and digital content for a healthcare company.
Raised in the northern village of Barrow, Alaska, I developed a diverse passion for the outdoors and a love for “Alaskan” life. With the help of my folks, I spent an abundant amount of time outdoors throughout Alaska. In 2009, I earned the title of United States Marine, and in 2013 I made the challenging decision to leave the Marine Corps and pursue an education at Penn State University.
For the last eight years, I have been developing as a professional guide and outdoor educator collectively running expeditions on mountains and rivers throughout the United States. I was exposed to First Descents through the outfitter side of their experiences and quickly made it a mission to prioritize staying involved. Nowadays, I get the opportunity to facilitate trips for FD and introduce new folks every season to our wacky, fun, and adventurous community!
Aloha! I am a life-long Californian, and the ocean has always been my home. I live in Santa Cruz with my four-legged sidekick “Big”. We play, eat, camp, surf, groove, paddle, mountain bike, and chase a hell of a lot of Frisbees on the beach.
My professional field includes public health, safety, and education, but my true passions are playing outdoors, breathing the air, and encouraging others to experience the wonder, and healing power, of nature.
Fate led me to First Descents in 2008, and after ten years of volunteering as medical staff, I am honored to become a member of the very talented lead staff. I am looking forward to leaning in for the laughs, the love, and spreading the “FD magic” with this amazing community of inspiring individuals.
In 2009, Mia “Veggetti” Lewis enrolled in a local culinary school, but soon realized she was looking for so much more than learning the basics of food preparation and cooking. Mia wanted to learn the healing properties of food. The Natural Gourmet Institute (NGI) in New York City held the answers to the many questions. And so began Mia’s culinary journey.
Upon graduation from NGI, Mia completed her internship in Berkeley, CA at the Three Stone Hearth, a unique model for community-scale food preparation and processing. Soon after, she was hired as a Chef for First Descents. Mia never imagined that being a chef could give her the opportunities and experiences as it has. Cooking for FD connected her with a world outside of herself. Since 2013, Veggetti has worked nearly 40 programs as a Lead Chef and for the 2018 season will step into the roll as the First Descents Chef Manager. When Veggetti is not traveling with FD, she works as a private health-supportive chef in Delaware.
For Veggetti, cooking comes from a place of peace, a place where her spirit and love of healing and creativity come together to provide healthy and delicious meals for others.
Growing up on the West coast of Florida, I did not have any true river or wilderness experience until I found the healing power of adventure with First Descents in 2012 as a participant and Burkitt’s Lymphoma survivor. Since then, I’ve been chasing the opportunity to pay it forward through life-changing experiences as a camp mom, photog, one of the former leaders of the Orlando Tributary (hence, the ears), and now as lead staff. I followed my heart and the sound of whitewater to Richmond, Virginia, where you can find me paddling, hiking, climbing, backpacking, losing my mind to the wonder of changing seasons, and napping with my cat. When I’m not Out Living It, I am humbly helping others find purpose and connection as a therapist and mental health crusader. I couldn’t be more honored to be a member of this team and work alongside such an epic group of humans. There’s no feeling I love more than the total exhaustion of a day spent whole-heartedly living and loving with my FD tribe. Let’s send it!
Having always been a fan of the sunshine, outdoors, and all water activities, First Descents was a natural fit for Bryan “This Guy” Pandorf after being diagnosed with Hogkins Lyphoma in 2015. Since then, This Guy’s stayed active in the FD community and continues to strive to #Outliveit, ironically, to a point of maybe his detriment. With his persistent nudging and short relative distance to HQ, we were basically forced to hire him. He brings a unique energy, nitwitty wit, consistent tone-deaf singing, and an infectious laugh that makes him tough not to love.
After living his entire life in New York State, Nader “Mogul” Jamal chose to accept a job as a ski instructor in Vail, Colorado shortly after finishing treatment for Stage III Colon cancer. One season soon became both a career and lifestyle and after a few years living in Colorado, Mogul embarked on his first FD experience as a participant on a kayak trip. His love of whitewater was evident on the first day and the connections made with other like-minded people has made a tremendous impact on various internal and external aspects of his life. Mogul still works as a full time ski and snowboard instructor during the winter and when he’s not with FD he spends his summers guiding multi day whitewater raft and stand up paddle board trips on the Yampa and Green rivers in Dinosaur National Monument.
I am originally from Laguna Hills in Southern California, but growing up in a military family, my favorite place we were stationed in was Guam. At a young age, I was exposed to exploring the reefs around the island where I snorkeled in the evenings after school. In college I was an athlete at the University of Houston-Victoria where I played outfield on the baseball team for two years. Towards the end of my sophomore year I was diagnosed with stage III Hodgkin Lymphoma just days before our conference tournament. My doctor denied my first application for an FD program, and after impatiently waiting for over a year, I attended the 2018 ice climbing program in Ouray, CO. I was instantly hooked on the way FD is out living it on every adventure with laughs, love, FD magic, and the healing power nature has to offer. I am a full time cyber security student at the University of Texas at San Antonio. When I am not in class, I am chasing adventures with my local FD family. I’m stoked to see you outside and get your adventure on!
The outdoors are my home. I feel more at home wondering in the woods than I do walking down a city street. While sports such as biking, skiing, climbing, surfing, etc. are my modes of fun in the outdoors and gravity is my buddy, just walking in the forest can reset my happy button. I grew up at the foot of Mt Shasta and now live in Durango Colorado with my husband and my two sons. I’m looking forward to interacting, discovering, exploring and challenging myself in the outdoors with First Descents and its family. Forgive me now if I point out forest fairies in the middle of crazy hard climb, foam mermaids in the middle of a wave while surfing or just stop to look at the lines in the river for a moment. Also, a little piece of insider info: I’m afraid of heights while climbing and big waves when surfing. With that said, the outdoors and adventure are a big part of my life and I can’t wait to share that with FD peeps!
I grew up in the shadow of the Rocky Mountains and I have been fortunate to call Colorado my home for over 28 years. As I was growing up, I rarely missed an opportunity to try any new activity on the mountain or in the water. Whether backpacking in the deep wilderness, snowboarding the high alpine slopes, or scaling 14,000-foot peaks, my love for the great outdoors continues to grow stronger by the day. This passion became intertwined with my love for First Descents after I was diagnosed with Non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma at the age of 24. Since attending my first program with FD in 2014, I have tried to selflessly serve other young adults impacted by cancer and share revel in the natural beauty of the world with them. Today you can still find me exploring various mountains, rivers, lakes, and beaches around the country where I’ll be hiking, kayaking, snowboarding, or climbing my way through the wilderness trying to fill my heart with the peace and joyfulness that only nature can provide. I currently live in Centennial, Colorado where I also work part-time at a brewery while I pursue a career in aviation and spend time Out Living It with my FD family!
I was born and raised in Massachusetts but moved to North Carolina for college. After graduating with a degree in Outdoor Recreation I found work with the military running their outdoor adventure department, taking military members and their families out on day, weekend, and multi-day trips rock climbing, hiking, skiing, paddling, etc. I was fortunate enough to be mobile with my work, living and working in Colorado, California, Tennessee, Wyoming, and Germany. Spending so much time with the military, inevitably you meet some great people and thus I met my wife while teaching her to surf in California, and we are now career military.
I found First Descents in 2012 after working for a program taking disabled veterans whitewater kayaking. I have been with them ever since with the exception of the few years living in Germany. I love the mission of high adventure and pushing beyond what one thinks they are capable of, regardless of their physical and mental state, diagnosis, or life situation. Our participants that I get to meet become fast friends, and inspire and rejuvenate me each year to live life to the fullest.
I originally never grew up in New England, a place that will always be dear to me; the Hermit Thrush is my favorite soundtrack. Luckily, I discovered this little bird is also out west, so I can bounce back and forth and never lose my tunes. Google it and listen for it. The YouTube by Lang Elliot is great.
People think I like kayaking, skiing, surfing, and climbing. I actually prefer rivers, snow, oceans, and mountains; the games just provide the necessary tools and skills to immerse. People think I’ve been a camp counselor, climbing guide, Outward Bound instructor, photographer, river guide, catski guide…I just like being outside with people.
Originally from Auburn, AL, Clara moved to Denver, CO to persue a bachelor’s degree in Culinary Nutrition. She began her journey with First Descents through an internship collaboration with Johnson & Wales University. This unique opportunity to share her passion for cooking and nutrition in beautiful outdoor settings with an incredible culture of people has influenced the trajectory of her career.
Since 2013 Clara has contributed to over 30 week long programs and helped to shape the nutrition program for First Descents. She is currently pursuing a master’s degree in Nutrition Science, as well as a dietetic internship, through Samford University in Birmingham, AL.
Julia (aka Nomad) believes in the deliciousness and powers of eating real, whole foods: simple, balanced dishes and flavors, all with a nutritional punch. She has been cooking with First Descents since 2015.
Upon being prescribed a restricted diet, Julia hesitantly embraced the change, and began experimenting in her Brooklyn apartment. She soon realized it wasn’t impossible to eat well within the given restraints. Inspired to help others redefine their relationships with food, Julia focused on creating nourishing, feel-good meals for individuals with varying health hurdles.
A departure from the photo world, and subsequent training and certification from The Natural Gourmet Institute in 2012, led Julia to a variety of NYC’s health-focused, plant-based kitchens. Not long after, Julia was tasked with the creation of the opening menu and kitchen management of Philadelphia’s first organic, plant-based, gluten-free, dairy-free eatery.
Love of travel and a desire for new experiences moved Julia to California, where she first discovered the beauty that is FD. She has continued to expand her cooking repertoire while working as a Health-Supportive Private Chef, and is super grateful for the opportunity to share her passion with all of the friendly faces of FD.
Big City is a chef and educator based in Brooklyn, New York. Although she is a city girl, she loves being outdoors and takes up any opportunity to hike in the mountains or be on the river. While cooking for First Descents you can frequently find her exchanging recipes with participants, singing and dancing in the kitchen or riding down rapids in the big rubber ducky.
In culinary school, I learned how to prepare food to help people feel their best. I especially love cooking with First Descents because they bring my favorite ingredients to the table: community, adventure, and fun. It’s also the few times a year I get to escape NYC and live out my outdoorsy alter-ego dreams. Good food, enjoyed with great company, surrounded by mountains, trees, and fresh air, what could be better?
After a life altering illness left Rachel wheelchair bound for two years in her early 20s, she decided to live “out living it” long before she knew what that was. Having always had a passion for sharing love and community through food, Rachel embarked on a journey to a nutritionally based culinary school in Denver, Colorado in 2013. The Universe knew exactly what it was doing… Having called her own health challenges her darkest hour and her biggest blessing, the entire mission of First Descents immediately resonated in Rachel‘s heart.
2013 was her first program and she has never looked back- working as a lead chef for First Descents on locations across the country. Aside from being a certified natural foods chef and licensed massage therapist specializing in clinical movement, Rachel is an avid outdoors woman. She raises and trains upland game hunting dogs and can be found cooking and guiding hunts in rural South Dakota in the fall. Her passion truly lies in giving back to “special population“ young adults that are so dear to her heart.
For Rachel, or “Wizard” as she is known among the First Descents community, food is love. Food is that “holiday at grandmas”, loved up from the inside emotion. Food is indulgence and healing. Her mission is to share love, indulgence, and deliciousness in a way that facilitates healing to body and soul.