Marmagnar styling Graduation Rapid 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 fifth 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 fourth.

Having someone who has only been on the water for six days run a rapid blind—that is, without looking at it, and without anyone in front of them, showing them the line—isn't usually advisable. But at lunch on our last day on the river, I'm told we're going to do just that with our entire 11-person group of cancer survivors turned whitewater boaters.

It's "Graduation Rapid," a blissful Class II wave train with a few surfable waves that empties into a large, flat pool. You could send your grandmother down it in water wings, and she would probably pop up at the bottom just fine. But it's a little tricky to stay upright in a kayak through it. Everyone has to run it blind, and by themselves.

Wet Planet Rafting Volunteer Instructor Dave Porter, waiting in the eddy at Graduation Rapid. Photo: Dave Costello

It's a fairly intimidating prospect for novice paddlers who don't know what's around the next bend in the river. I'm frightened for them, as I paddle downstream to set up my camera to capture the coming display of courage and carnage.

Remarkably, few of the participants swim. One of those who does is "Marmagnar," a 21 year-old from Connecticut with Lymphoma. He'd changed his nickname from "Marmalard" to "Marmagnar" after learning what gnar means in the context of whitewater boating. His swim was on account of him throwing the brown claw—which he also had just learned—in the middle of the wave train. I see "The Gnar," as I like to call him, shouldering his boat up the shore back to the top.

"You running it again, Gnar?" I shout to him, over the whitewater.

"Hell Yes!" He replies, and walks on. He styles his second line.

We pull off the river just before the final rapid above our takeout, Ishy Pishy. It's a solid, pushy Class III, with a mandatory launch off a river-wide 4-foot high wave-hole at the bottom. It's by far the biggest thing we've seen all week.

"It's our challenge by choice rapid," says Heather Herbeck, our lead guide with Wet Planet. "You don't have to do it, and it's definitely bigger than anything you've run before," she tells us, "and there's a strong possibility you might swim…but after watching you all week, I think you all can do it. There's a calm pool below, and if you swim, we'll be there to pick you up when you wash into it. Up to you."

When she asks who wants to run it, everyone raises their hand. Everyone also swims on it too. But at the takeout, it's obvious Ishy Pishy was the highlight of the week, and the change I've seen in the group from first day freak-outs wet exiting on flat-water to voluntarily running a solid Class III rapid, has my head reeling.

"Just wait," Marmagnar tells me as we're loading up the van. "I'm going to go back home, get a boat, and in a few years, I'm going to be running the shit!"

"You already are, man," I say. "And you're styling it."


The First Descents, June 13-19, Hood River crew. Photo: Dave Costello

Click HEREto read Costello's first dispatch, HERE to read the second, here HERE for the third, and HERE for the fourth. 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.