Cancer patients find strength on the water
August 17, 2007
RADIUM, Colo. ” Justin Hill didn’t see the turkey vultures circling low over the Colorado River, or hear the chugging of a train laboring up the river’s embankment.
He wasn’t focused on anything beyond the roar of the Class Two rapids he was navigating in his kayak.
Hill cut sharply left to avoid a protruding boulder, swiveled right to avoid a drop-off and emerged on the other side of the froth. He raised his paddle over his head and pumped it three times in triumph.
For the moment, the 27-year-old wasn’t thinking about the cancer that had spread to his throat ” nearly choking him to death before it was discovered ” or the chemotherapy that awaited him back home in Fraser.
“I feel invigorated,” Hill said. “Like nothing can stop me ” not even cancer.”
And that’s the premise of First Descents ” to give cancer patients a sense of empowerment over their disease. The program, designed for those 18 or older, is a weeklong camp that offers participants a chance to share what they’re going through and then tackle another scary obstacle ” running rapids in a kayak.
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“We get them on the water and let them find themselves again,” said Allan Goldberg, executive director of First Descents and a cancer survivor. “We show them they’re not as fragile as they think they are. Cancer may be a part of their lives, but it doesn’t define them.”
Hill and 13 other cancer patients took part in a recent kayaking camp that culminated with a five-mile jaunt down the Colorado River, its medium-sized rapids capable of dumping anyone at any moment.
“It’s not a Disney ride,” Goldberg said. “You’ve got to find the strength in yourself. When they do, they feel like a million bucks.”
First Descents was founded in 2001 by professional kayaker Brad Ludden. He saw what his aunt, Lori Pederson, went through with breast cancer ” she’s now in remission ” and he wanted to set up a program to restore cancer patients’ confidence.
“It’s about making these people recognize that cancer doesn’t make them weaker,” Ludden said. “They can do anything because of what they’ve been through.”
Campers stay in a lodge just outside Vail and enjoy other outdoor activities, including rock climbing, fishing and hiking. They swap stories on the bus rides to the river and at night when they hang out together.
“I got a little down when I found out I had this disease,” said Art Ballew, a 29-year-old from of Avon who was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma in October. “But then I was able to meet other people going through the same thing I am. I’m learning how they survived and how they go on with their lives and how they’re making the best of it. It gives me confidence.”
Ballew glanced around at his fellow kayakers slipping on their spray skirts and helmets, preparing to launch down the river.
“I’ve found a new family through this,” he said. “They’ve taught me I’m able to do about anything I want when I set my mind to it.”
The group’s expedition down a portion of the Colorado River near Radium _ a small town about 120 miles northwest of Denver ” was the 19th installment of First Descents, and the first without Ludden running the show. With the program on the rise, he’s taking himself out of the equation.
This year, First Descents held four weeklong camps ” two in Kalispell, Mont., and two more in Vail Valley.
Next summer, the plan is for nine camps ” including one in California along the Salmon River. They also hope to start a rock climbing camp in Jackson Hole, Wyo.
Ludden envisions outdoor camps all over the world within the next few years. The program has already had more than 300 cancer patients from all over the nation take part.
“We’ve created a model for this to succeed,” said Ludden, who in 2000 became the first kayaker to be sponsored by Nike. The company even made him his own line of kayaking shoes.
Ludden has seen the world thanks to his kayak. He’s plunged over a steep waterfall in a remote river in Madagascar and paddled down a river full of piranhas in Venezuela.
“I’ve been able to run the best whitewater in the world, but this is what I’m most proud of,” Ludden said of First Descents.
He’s trained his counselors well. Thatcher Bean, 20, is a former camper turned semipro kayaker. Bean, diagnosed with blood cell cancer when he was 9, called up Ludden four years ago and asked if he could help.
“Brad said, ‘Come down and just do some boating with us,'” said Bean, who’s been cancer free for almost 10 years. “He said it was good to have kids in the camp who’ve gone full cycle. I did that and loved it.”
After spending eight months in Uganda kayaking the White Nile ” a premier spot that Ludden recommended ” Bean returned to camp as a counselor.
Yet he’s still a camper at heart. He’ll bob up and down on the front of his kayak in calmer water and joke with everyone. When Hill didn’t see an upcoming set of rocks, Bean said, “Watch out. They’re not as soft as they look.”
First Descents costs virtually nothing for the campers. Most of the money is raised through private and corporate donations, fundraisers and grants. Each camper’s stay costs around $1,000.
“We don’t want money to be a factor,” said Goldberg, whose organization offers travel scholarships for campers who can’t afford air fare. “If they can get on the boat, we’re going to get them down the river.”
The program has an onsite medical staff, including an oncologist who doubles as a kayaker.
“I do nothing else that enriches my life as much as this,” said Marc “Doc” Slatkoff, a retired oncologist who moved to Vail from North Carolina. “We’ve got a great thing going here.”
Tina McCauley, a 38-year-old from Arvada, was diagnosed with skin cancer in November. She heard about First Descents through a counselor at a Denver hospital and decided to try it. She was tentative the first day, but looked like a veteran at the end, negotiating a bubbling set of rapids with little difficulty.
“I don’t know if I would’ve ever tried this in my life, but I’m glad I did,” she said. “I’m really enjoying it.”
Dave Flanagan, a jack-of-all-trades staffer who rides ahead in a support boat, couldn’t suppress his grin as he stared back at the convoy of kayakers attacking the rapids.
Flanagan and his wife, Laura, got involved through their son, Sean, a kayaker who planned to become a counselor for Ludden before dying of bone cancer in December 2003. He was 18.
“Taking Sean to the camp (the summer before he died) was the last thing we did as a father and son,” Flanagan said, who sits in the back of the boat so no one can see the tears rolling down his face. “It chokes me up being out here on the river. But I don’t want to be anywhere else.
“This is where Sean would want to be.”