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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.
Mia Lewis serves as the Chef Manager for First Descents – a role she is truly grateful for. After raising her five children and being in the hair industry for 20 years, Mia became extremely curious about the food she was consuming and how it was impacting her body. This personal journey led her to the Natural Gourmet Institute (NGI) to fulfill her goal of sharing the healing properties of food with others.
Mia found First Descents shortly after she graduated from NGI in 2013 as a health supportive chef, and has been serving the organization ever since. She instantly saw how, just like outdoor adventure, food can help participants heal, inspire them to make lifestyle changes, and provide a new opportunity for “challenge by choice” by eating different/healthier food options that may be new to them.
After working nearly 40 programs with First Descents, Mia assumed an even more rewarding role in 2018 as Chef Manager. She has since grown the chef team from six people to more than 25 – all trained in supportive cooking. While she still gets out on programs, building this team has been one of her most rewarding experiences.
Mia’s journey to discover ways to nurture and heal the body didn’t stop with delicious food. During the pandemic, Mia was craving community and other ways to help people feel better in their bodies. This led her to pursue her 200-hour yoga teacher training certification and she is now not only teaching yoga in her local community, but is sprinkling it into FD programs as well.
The most joyful part of Mia’s job is knowing that she has been able to provide participants with the gift of nourishment. There is nothing quite like the feeling when she runs into a participant years down the line who are still eating plant-based or is feeling so much better because of diet changes they were inspired to make.
Kristin McMaster (aka “Tortuga”) joins FD from California as our Mental Health Resource Specialist. Kristin volunteered for FD back in 2011 while working as a Young Adult Oncology Social Worker and it was an experience that left a permanent mark on her heart. She has an unwavering belief in the strength of the wilderness to heal and help empower people facing challenges like a cancer diagnosis. Kristin received her Masters of Social Work from the University of Southern California with a concentration in Health and following the completion of her MSW program, she was recruited to build an AYAO psychosocial support program at UC Irvine’s Cancer Center. She is incredibly passionate about working with this population and is very excited to support our efforts here at FD in her new role. When she is not wearing her counselor’s hat you can find Kristin out in the ocean on her surfboard or roaming the beautiful trails of California!
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 ☺
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.
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!
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!
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!
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 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.
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.
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.
Big C bites. Let’s get outside!
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.
A crazy sendy skier, a social work sensei, a king of stoke, and a very below average climber, all walk in to a bar…
Bar tender says… hey Dino.. table for one?!
(All the people are just me)
As a wild child of the Colorado Rocky Mountains I was raised on the stoke of fresh mountain air, juice boxes, and adventure. Backpacking, skiing, climbing, mountain biking and simply living in the dirt with the worms are just some of the activities that I continue to love and push myself with!
Currently, I am on a lifelong mission to inspire myself and others to “live deeper”. In the pursuit of this mission I’ve been able to do some pretty rad things! In the last 5 years, I’ve lived in beautiful New Zealand, backpacked through the Alps of Europe, And explored much of the western U.S.
In my passion for mental health counseling and advocacy, I received a degree in Social Work from Colorado State University. Ive had the pleasure of working for many nonprofits including, Make A Wish and Hope Lives Breast Cancer Center. Over the last year, I moved to Utah to have seen the impacts of adventure’s healing power in my work as a Wilderness Therapy Guide.
I am a proud member of the Cancer Community and have seen first hand the power that hope and adventure can bring to individuals. Nothing makes me smile more than living deeper with our First Descents family!
JJ grew up in the flatlands of Ohio; despite being bound by a city, she always found the nooks of ravines & forests nearby to explore. Moving out west allowed expansive exploration of the greater peaks & valleys, canyons & rivers of this land. Pursuing the passion of exploring more outdoor spaces in combination with sharing & leading others in these powerful experiences paved the way for JJ’s professional path. Since 2010 she has continuously worked for various organizations leading multi-day hiking and backpacking trips through many landscapes. At 26, a diagnosis of Stage 3 Melanoma cancer created an unforeseen obstacle course of struggles through health, identity, career, and relationship. She found reconnection to body & ability through a First Descents kayaking program. Now as Lead Staff, First Descents is the path of a lifetime connecting people with the rhythms & wonders of nature while in good company with others who have also struggled with life’s obstacle courses.
I didn’t find my way to outdoor recreation until I found an indoor climbing gym in college. Better late than never! Climbing has been a big part of my life for the past 20 years, and over that time I’ve also become pretty keen on hiking, paragliding, and surfing. Those passions have taken me to beautiful outdoor spaces all over the world. When I’m not exploring the great outdoors, I’m working as a photographer and cinematographer in the Philadelphia area.
When I was 16, I was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma. Coincidentally that was the same year that First Descents was founded, but I wouldn’t discover its magic until 15 years later. It was in 2017 that I was lucky enough to experience an FD1 and spend an amazing week surfing with truly incredible people. After that, I knew that I wanted to get involved with FD however I could, and now here I am just a few years later, a part of one of the most special organizations I could ever imagine.
Marlena deCarion (aka “Luna”) is originally from the Bay Area, CA where she grew up backpacking with her father in the Sierras (her fav childhood memories). She found her long-term home in the Colorado Rockies where she has since filled her garage with kayaks, skis, backpacks, bikes, climbing gear, surfboards and pretty much any non-motorized sport that could get her outdoors.
As a former Outward Bound instructor and experiential educator, Marlena loves to create transformational learning experiences that help people tap into their human potential and overcome limiting beliefs.
She is also a Master Certified Coach, Faculty at the Co-Active Training Institute and a certified Mindfulness Teacher. Marlena has spent many years practicing meditation, positive psychology and trauma work. Diagnosed in 2018 with Stage 1 CLL, she is passionate about her own “Out Living It” lifestyle and sharing it with all of you.
Dylan began their life and spent their childhood in beautiful South-Western Colorado. Sandwiched between wild sprawling deserts and humbling snow capped peaks, they had the great privilege of finding constant joy and access to the outdoors. They moved to Rhode Island to receive their BFA in Furniture Design, and had the distinct joy of seeking unfamiliar backcountry and new outdoor communities around New England.
They find bringing queer groups to wilderness spaces very fulfillling, and you might see them climbing, surfing, hiking and urban nordic skiing in their bright green frog hat pictured above (a tribute to a childhood frogsuit halloween costume).
When not froloking in the great outdoors, you can find them in their makeshift studio making sculptures and furniture.
Kevin McDevitt (aka “Steinbeck”) has been working with First Descents since 2019. After growing up on the east coast, Steinbeck discovered the outdoor playgrounds of the West as an adult, and is now there to stay. He first experienced the healing power of adventure when he and his wife Stephanie (aka “Jane Austen”) embarked on a four month camping road trip while he was still recovering physically from his 2015 bone marrow transplant for Severe Aplastic Anemia and PNH. Later, he was introduced to First Descents in 2018 as a participant, kayaking the Rogue River–it was an incredibly rewarding challenge, a life-changing communal experience, and a crucial step on his journey back to wholeness. A year later, he took a job as Lead Staff and since then has run surf, cycling, and kayaking programs in his adopted home state of California. Outside of his First Descents work, Steinbeck is a writer and filmmaker–his favorite project thus far is “Good Blood,” a music video he produced, directed and starred in, to raise awareness for the bone marrow donor registry. When not writing, making movies, or leading FD programs, you can find Steinbeck hiking, mountain biking, SUPing, surfing, and plain ol’ out living it in Southern California, with Jane Austen and their two young sons.
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.
Hailing from the great state of Delaware, FD provides me with the chance to cook loving food for amazing people!
My passion and respect for all things culinary is amplified by our common nutrition mission, love of the outdoors and shared camaraderie.
If it not in the kitchen, come join me outside to kick a ball, read a book, or brush my pretend hair.
Bridget, aka Birdsh*t, loves cooking, laughter and bringing people together around food – all the things that make cooking with First Descents her dream job. She has been cooking since she was a little one on a hobby farm in Minnesota and hones her craft by a lot of practice, learning from other chefs, and a whole lot of trial and error.
Birdsh*t is part of the cancer community, she was diagnosed with stage 2 breast cancer at 33 and thankfully found First Descents a few years later and was a participant in a white water kayaking trip in Hood River Oregon. She joined the FD Chef team in 2016 and has happily been out cooking it on programs all over the USA.
When not cooking for FD, Birdsh*t works in Marketing, cooks for friends and neighbors, hangs out with her husband Jim “Benchy”, 2 hungry college kids, and travels as much as humanly possible.
Born and raised in NY the youngest of a big family where food, and community have always been a big part of life. Growing up our home was the hub of not only my immediate family but the community around us as well where all were always welcome. With little to no choice I’ve been a sous chef since I was a child by way of my mother, a passionate home cook and my oldest brother who’s been a chef and restaurant owner for the last 30 years. Honestly, I never thought I would end up in the kitchen career wise. That is until knowing how to prepare and cook delicious meals for my health coaching clients became of utmost importance. Having worked front of the house, running cafes and restaurants, a degree in Foods & Nutrition and a health coaching certificate in hand, I found that culinary school was the last missing piece to my education. Part of the last graduating class of The Natural Gourmet Institute where a lot of our FD chefs graduated from as well. I was inspired to attend the school for its focus on health supportive cooking and ideals. I knew I had found a home while attending.
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.
Always ready for my next adventure, I (Jonah “BigMo” Chasin) moved to NYC from Boston to attend the Natural Gourmet Institute (NGI) in 2001. Since then I have worked in restaurants, for caterers, and as a private Chef. For the past 12 years, I have been the Executive Chef at a private school for low income kids in Harlem. It is the first vegan school in NYC.
After learning about First Descents from many colleagues, I knew I had to get on board. Cooking healthy foods in gorgeous settings for beautiful humans combined with a little outdoor adventure is my recipe for happiness.
In my spare time I love traveling, snacks, cats, and laughs. I can’t wait to see you on the river!
Mo-Licious comes to FD from the culinary world. After losing her father to cancer, she trained at the Natural Gourmet Institute and vowed to learn how to create nourishing, fueling, health-supportive food that also happens to be delicious. Mo loves to share the healing properties of food and witness the magic that happens simply from standing around the kitchen or gathering at a table for a meal. Having recently moved to Denver from New York City, you can find her hiking, kayaking, and rock climbing in absolutely the wrong clothes.
Long time cook, culinary arts instructor and artist hailing from Brooklyn, NY. Inspired by my time with FD and so happy to be back this Summer 2022!
Leah Ferreira aka “¡Torta!” is a wild child of Mother Earth, a rolling stone, and a wahine warrior. Their culinary background is rooted to familia cooking lessons, and Kapi’olani’s Culinary Arts program in Oahu, HI. They believe that food is medicine; and cooking from the heart with intention and love makes the best recipe for delicious soul food! First Descent is the apex of all their passions: healthy, nourishing food, outdoor adventures, community building, and lots of free flowing aloha!
When “¡Torta!” is not Out Living It with First Descent they are living their best life through exploring nature, roaming the open forest roads, cycling, surfing, climbing, stretching, or spending time with choosen ohana and their sweet furry buddy, Atlas!