A River Runs Through It | Cancer Survivors Tackle Whitewater

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Cancer takes so much from so many.

This ultimate malady is completely indiscriminate- it cares not about age, hygiene, diet, sex, race, wealth, or beauty. There is often no rhyme or reason to its choice in victims, and it is absolutely prolific. In the US in 2015, 1,660,000 new cases of cancer will be diagnosed, and 590,000 Americans will die from the disease. That is a massive metropolitan city each year, snuffed out. Even scarier is the fact that these statistics are going nowhere but up. Modern technology, with all its advances, is completely outgunned by this insidious force.

Cancer has taken a lot from me. When I was 11 years old, my Uncle Derek was diagnosed with Malignant Melanoma, and was given seven months to live. In spite of the fact that he had a newborn daughter and wife at home, he gave me a life-altering final gift- two unforgettable weekends whitewater kayaking on the Ottawa River in Canada. On the river, he was a strong, confident superhero, doing things I never thought possible. But at the end of the day and away from my sight, he was receiving blood transfusions to have the strength to paddle. I didn’t think it was possible, but he passed away that November.

My family’s relationship with cancer unfortunately didn’t end with Derek. My Opa (grandfather) died of the disease shortly before my birth. Another uncle was recently diagnosed, and just a year ago I sat in the hospital waiting room while my dad underwent testicular surgery. I also had my own scare with the disease when I found a 10 mm tumor (which turned out to be benign) in my brain.

I first heard about First Descents when I was 16. A world-class kayaker named Brad Ludden founded this organization to give young cancer survivors healing and confidence through outdoor sport. He believed in the holistic idea that community, good food, and rewarding experiences could combat the disease just as drugs and surgery do. The moment I saw this organization, I knew I wanted to get involved.

I am finally realizing that goal!

Today I start a week-long kayaking program in Hood River, Oregon serving in the volunteer role of Camp Photographer. Our home base for the week is as idyllic as they come… the Panorama Lodge overlooks rolling vineyards and the monolith of Mount Hood, an 8,000 foot cone volcano. The owner of this lodge lost her husband to cancer, and makes it possible for First Descents to use the house for four weeks every year.

As the participants arrive, the staff encourages each person to find a nickname, and engages the group to help. Some great ones come out of the woodwork immediately… Mr. Myagi, Grasshopper, Calypso, JMo, Magic, MIA. After a bit of discussion, we land on “Flow” for me. I think I can get used to that… I am always seeking flow on the river, and definitely love to hit the dance flo!

Nicknames represent a powerful tradition at First Descents. For so long, these young adults have been defined by cancer. They are in the prime of their lives, and cancer throws everything into chaos. Instead of developing careers, meeting life partners, and buying homes, they suffocate under a mountain of medical debt and are unsure if the treatments will even work. Life-altering procedures that permanently change their bodies occur. But this week isn’t part of that life, and they aren’t the same people here. It’s time to simply live… without medical bills, pain, or pity. It’s a rebirth into a new world alongside people who understand. And we don’t know each other’s real names.

After dinner and an equipment orientation, we reconvene on the porch of the Panorama for the evening tradition of “campfire.” The flanks of Mount Hood light up with warm alpenglow in the background, and we sit in a circle. Patch, one of our lead staff, opens with the question, “why are you here?” Our group’s bond begins to form as the stories and perspectives surface. Some of us are in remission, some are terminal, some have just had traumatic surgeries, and others have had cancer virtually their entire lives. Almost all of the volunteers and lead staff have powerful histories with the disease, and some have been ravaged by chemo themselves. A short silence follows each person’s words, and then we all acknowledge their contribution by quietly snapping our fingers.

The next day is an important one. Participants will have their first upside down experience in a kayak! After a delicious breakfast by professional chefs Newbie and Hashtag, we are on our way to the Hood River Event Site with Taylor Swift thumping through the speakers.

The Event Site is a wonder of outdoor sport. In the summertime, flags thwack violently sideways from the warm wind ripping through the Columbia River Gorge. Boards and sails litter the park as kiteboarders and windsurfers prepare to get their fix of this world-famous wind, and over 100 bright kites fly over the water in all directions. It is an overwhelming setting, but our group stays cool and listens carefully to kayak instructors Pika, Potatoe, Roots, and Smooth as they begin their kayak instruction for the week. Much to our amusement, Pika is picked up in her kayak on dry land, flips upside down, and falls out of her boat to demonstrate how to safely exit underwater.

Before they know it, the participants are sitting on the beach in their boats. Like lemmings, they are pulled out one by one onto the water, and calmly instructed on how to escape from their kayaks when upside down. The faces are priceless as they grapple with claustrophobia and the very normal human fear of drowning. Magic provides the day’s highlight as he specifically requests Patch to pull him out into the water. In spite of clear visual terror, Magic steels up, flips over, and kicks his way out of the boat. As soon as he breaks the surface, his response is equal parts shock and celebration! Battling cancer since the age of 12, Magic has just overcome a huge milestone… the first of many this week.

At campfire that night, we reflect on the day of flipping over, flopping like fish out of our boats, and then playing group games in our kayaks to develop boat control and skills. Morning makes a powerful statement when she says, “I’ve been afraid for a long, long time. I’m afraid of cancer, afraid of the treatment, afraid for my children’s future. I’ve been afraid so much in my life… I’m done being afraid. I’m ready to hit these rapids.”

The next few days will be spent on the Klickitat River on the Washington side of the Columbia. As we pile out of the vans, Patch leads the group in one of the greatest FD traditions… the dance party warm up! Top 40 Pop blasts from the speakers, and we all take turns showcasing our dance moves for the group to copy.
I am starting to learn how awesome it is to be Camp Photographer. It is my job to capture a lifetime experience for these participants. I get free range to do this… I am not limited to any particular group or place. I am with these incredible people for the entire week… eating all meals with them, staying in the Panorama, and having the opportunity to connect with each individual. I use my GoPro, DSLR, and drone, and as the week goes on, I become more and more passionate. Each day, I can feel a rising adrenaline rush inside that I’ve felt very few times in my life.

On the river, everyone steps up their games. The participants are engaged and attentive, and the instructors are calmly drawing on decades of kayaking experience to pass on their knowledge. After some practice eddy turns, the groups are yipping and hollering through their first whitewater rapids! Each participant has a different style… some like to charge through the waves full speed with a look of determination in their eyes, and others prefer the more relaxing approach, floating sideways and “rafting up” by grabbing instructor boats. But it’s evident that everyone has entered this experience with open hearts, and is allowing the beauty and power of the river to cleanse their spirits and their bodies. Our ride home is quiet as the afterglow of sunshine, laughter, and sore muscles sets in.

Every night for me is challenging… I grapple with balancing the group activities of yoga, dinner, and campfire with my work of importing, labeling, and editing photos and videos. I cannot seem to rip myself away from spending time with these individuals who are quickly becoming lifetime friends. I have yet to go to sleep before 1:30 AM, and wake up after 6:30 AM.

As the week goes on, I can’t believe how courageous the participants are. They trust their guides fully to deliver them through these hectic environments. Whether they are in a raft plummeting off of 10 foot Husum Falls or in their own kayaks crashing through waves, the joy of being in the present moment and sucking the marrow out of life overcomes any fear that they have. The motto of First Descents is “Out Living It,” and that is exactly what they’re doing. The energy and camaraderie in the group is indescribable. I smile as I hear plans being set for future meetups around the country.

Magic and I are developing an incredible bond. He’s 23 years old, and his background as a Latter Day Saint means that he hasn’t been exposed to many of the things that the rest of us are used to. He is starting to look to me as somewhat of an older brother, and I am trying to gently and supportively push him out of his comfort zone. He is making incredible strides, busting out dance moves with the girls, and pushing his body on the river so far beyond anything that he’s experienced in the past. While I am editing late one night, Magic gives me an incredible gift- a small travel Bible to keep with me during kayaking competitions. The beauty and energy of this week is compounding and my heart feels like it’s about to burst.

On the last paddling day, we pull over on a rock beach just below a large rapid. Patch gathers the group and tells us that we all carry things with us that shape who we are as human beings. Some of these things are positive and bring us joy, happiness, love, and fulfillment, while everyone has aspects of themselves that they’d prefer to let go of. Patch asks us each to find one river rock that we really like, and another one that we’re not crazy about. We are given markers and asked to list all of the best, most beautiful aspects of our lives on the positive rock, and the things that we’d prefer to let go of on the other rock.

After a 20 minute period of sitting and listening to the river in silent reflection, the participants bring their rocks to the river’s edge. On Patch’s queue, they hold the positive rock over their hearts with their left hand, and all at once send the negative rocks sailing out into the river with all their might. Some yell triumphantly while others look into the distance silently. It feels to me like a permanent bond has just been sealed between all of us… we may not see each other very often in the future, but I know we’ll all be there for one another as the adventure of life continues to unfold.

Downstream, we tackle the biggest rapid of the river, a chaotic class III. The participants summon all of their skills and confidence from the past week, and charge into the rapid! After the celebrations have occurred and the swimmers have been rescued, we float downstream towards the takeout. Magic paddles up to me and asks, “Flow, do you want to see my rock?” I respond, “I’d love to Magic.” As I look at the beautiful intricacies of the rock and his own handwriting and illustration, I notice that everything surrounds a few central words- “Child of God.”

Cancer has taken so much from all of us, but just like the FD participants, I get to conduct my own daily rock ceremony. I alone have the choice to keep all that brings me joy and happiness, and let go of any pain, sadness, and hatred. Cancer has permanently changed me, my friends, and my family, but as humans we have the opportunity to rise and convert negative energy into positive.

Without Uncle Derek’s paddling legacy, I wouldn’t have been turned on to a sport that has given me so much self-confidence and a network of incredible friends. I never would have become a professional kayaker, writer, or drone videographer. I never would have moved to my hometown or met my beautiful bride. And I never would have taken the time to experience one of the best weeks of my life with these new friends. While I came to help them, they have given me so much more in return. I come out of this with a resolve never to pass up an opportunity to tell someone that I love them, and a deep desire to live life to the fullest. The effects of this week will reverberate and direct me forever.

Cancer takes so much from us, but if we choose to, we can take even more back. Love and life will always win in the end.


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