Pengi on Washington's Klickitat River. Photo: Dave Costello

From June 13-19, C&K Online Editor Dave Costello volunteered as a camp photographer at a First Descents program in Hood River, Ore. The nonprofit organization helps young adult cancer survivors learn how to defy their cancer diagnoses, reclaim their lives, and to connect with others doing the same. Below is the fourth of five lessons learned from the weeklong camp. Click HERE to read the first, HERE to read the second, HERE to read the third, and HERE for the fifth.

By Dave Costello

"Pengi," short for Penguin, a 30 year-old graphic designer from Chicago, is sick. It's the second to last on-water day of our seven-day program, and she's running a fever. Her nose is as red as her fiery ginger hair. She's also recently had a brain tumor the size of an orange removed from her head. Needless to say, she's got more than a few good reasons not to go paddling today, but she loads her stuff into the van anyway. "I'm too excited not to go," she tells me, bubbly as the blue cartoon penguin on her T-shirt. "I'd just be mad at myself if I didn't."

'Great,' I think. 'Now I'm never going to be able to come up with a good reason not to go paddling without absolutely hating myself.'

On the river, the group is starting to run bigger rapids with actual moves that need to be made to avoid hazards. People are still swimming, but not nearly as frequently as the first day, and I notice that they're always eager to get back into their boats. They're improving, noticeably, and when I look through my lens at their faces, I see excitement and focus. Not fear.

The First Descents crew, ditching the heavy stuff. Photo: Dave Costello

Just before the takeout, we stop at a rocky beach. The instructors hand us markers and tell us to go pick out two hand-sized rocks. On one, they say, write all the things that are negative in your life—the heavy things that are weighing you down. On the other, write some of the positive things in your life right now—things that keep you afloat and that you want to keep.

We each go to our own private corners of the beach and begin to write. When I start my negative list on a large black stone, I can't help but notice how short and relatively pathetic it is compared to what those around me must be writing. I don't have cancer. So I write in a larger font to take up more space. All I can think to write on my positives stone is "my health". But it seems enough.

Once done writing, the instructors line us up on the beach and tell us to throw our negative, heavy stone into the river. "Let those things go," they say. "They're not worth your time." At this, 11 stones strike the surface of the water. "The good things, you should keep," they advise.

At the takeout, I ask Pengi how her day was. "Awesome!" she says, obviously happy. "I'm so glad I went paddling today."

"Me too," I tell her. And in that moment, she seems healthier than a lot of people I know.


Click HEREto read Costello's first dispatch, HERE to read the second,HERE for the third, and HERE for the fifth. Visit for more information about the program. First Descents is one of five philanthropic paddling programs nominated for the Paddle With Purpose category in the inaugural Canoe & Kayak Awards.