Courageous kayakers |

Courageous kayakers

Claire Eskwith

Professional kayaker Brad Ludden started the camp in 2001 as a way to help the community and give back to the sport in which he is an icon.

“It ultimately came down to the fact that I have had so many awesome experiences through traveling and kayaking and been so fortunate in my life that I wanted to share that fortune with other people,” Ludden says.

“I knew that I wanted to continue a career in professional kayaking, but that career would never make me happy or fulfilled if I didn’t share some of that fortune with people that needed it,” he says.

The locally-hosted overnight camp has gained national attention, attracting youth from all over the United States and even being covered by the NBC Today Show, which plans to air a segment on the First Descents program in September.

After volunteering at Montana’s Eagle Mountain oncology camp, Ludden says he developed the desire to become further involved within the cancer community via kayaking.

What emerged from that desire was the First Descents camp, which offers young adults with cancer the opportunity to learn how to kayak and experience a wide range of other Rocky Mountains activities.

Strong students

Those who attend First Descents are all in different stages of various types of cancer and come to participate in the program for free thanks to dedicated volunteers and local and corporate sponsors.

The week-long camp sessions are limited to around 14 campers from the ages of about 15 to 25.

Camper Danielle Eichner, 18, who was diagnosed with leukemia in 1996, first attended the program in 2002.

“You’ve been through all this stuff, and you can say you’re tough, but I was scared of needles all through treatment even though I’ve been through 2 1/2 years of being poked constantly,” says Eichner. “Up here I don’t know how they get you do the things they do. It’s amazing. There was one kid who didn’t want to be on the river, and by the end of the day, he was in the water too.”

Ludden says the camp uses teamwork exercises, rafting, horseback riding, fly-fishing and, of course, kayaking as vehicles to help campers overcome obstacles and build confidence not only on the river, but in everyday life.

“It is an opportunity for campers to have their own responsibility and their own freedom and use it to overcome their fears and face their own challenges,” says Ludden. “Ultimately, that really shapes and molds a person and makes them become who they want to be and gives them the tools they need in life to succeed.”

Creating a camp

Ludden has been a professional kayaker since the age of 14, and has an impressive history in the sport, having traveled to over 40 countries and claimed several prestigious titles, including: two-time junior free-style medalist; three-time 7-Mountain Games champion; and national champion.

He spent over a year organizing his ideas for the camp, but when the concept for First Descents was complete, he found himself with no place to host the program.

Luckily, fellow kayaker Ian Anderson is also the director of communications for the Vail Valley Chamber and Tourism Bureau. With the help of local volunteers such as Anderson and sponsors – such as Nike ACG – First Descents was set in motion.

Anderson, now chairman of the camp’s board of directors, says he immediately shared Ludden’s passion for the program and its campers.

Because the camp sessions are limited to such a small number of campers, Anderson says the groups quickly develop a family bond.

Campers are in constant interaction with committed counselors who are all talented and established kayakers, Anderson says.

“In the past three years, we have yet to have a camper who couldn’t get out in a kayak and get on the water,” says Anderson. “I am a former kayak instructor, and in terms of a group of beginning kayakers, these campers really learn faster than anyone else I’ve ever worked with.”

Anderson says most of those who attend the camp for the first time have never kayaked before and leave the program with the ability to navigate through Class 3 rapids.

This summer, the 7-W Ranch near Sweet Water donated its property to the camp, which enabled the program to offer a wide range of outdoor activities as well as convenient access to the Colorado River.

The 7-W Ranch plans to again donate its land to the camp next summer, and Ludden says the success of the camp thus far proves that the program can continue to grow.

“I’d like to see it expand and grow to reach 1,000 campers per summer in various parts of the world to offer the same amazing experience to as many young adults with cancer as possible,” says Ludden. “It’s a huge demographic that needs support and I want to give it to them.”

Those interested in supporting the First Descents program can participate in fundraising events such as the local Golf’n Garf golf tournament and the First Descents Paddle-a-Thon, both coming up in 2004.

For more information, contact the First Descents program at 476-9400 or