The FD crew paddling through the meat on Washington's Main White Salmon. 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 second of five lessons learned from the weeklong camp. Click HERE to read the first, HERE for the third,HERE for the fourth, and HERE for the fifth.

By Dave Costello

Washington's White Salmon River is a six mile Class III/IV whitewater rollercoaster, ripping nonstop through a heavily forested, moss-covered gorge. "Dropping into something like this can be a life-changing experience for someone who's never paddled before," says Heather Herbeck of Wet Planet Rafting, who's worked with the First Descents program in Hood River since it started in 2001. We're waiting in a small eddy, cameras ready, as four rafts full of cancer survivors barrel toward the river-wide six foot-high wave hole in front of us.

The FD crew rafting on Washington's Main White Salmon. Photo: Dave Costello

I can hear the first raft before I can see them. Everyone's shouting at the top of their lungs in excitement. They've just successfully paddled roughly three miles of continuous whitewater, bigger than they've ever experienced before—and they're raucously stoked. Then I see through my telephoto lens the looks on their faces change from pure joy to abject terror as they notice the imposing wall of whitewater rising up in front of them. For a moment, they all stop paddling. Then I hear the guide shout a simple order, loud and clear. "PADDLE FORWARD!"

Instantly, and in unison, the entire raft digs their paddles deep into the water and builds up enough speed to launch themselves up and over the imposing wave. The next three rafts manage to do the same with no one going for a swim. And no one's more surprised than the participants, who are by now completely unable to contain their enthusiasm.

"I want to be able to do that in a kayak!" says "Bird," a 39-year-old mother and writer from Minnesota, whose cancer is currently in remission. "I totally get now what you guys have been saying when you keep shouting at us to 'keep paddling.' We just shot right through that! You just gotta keep going, I guess." Then she asks me. "Do you know any place I could get a used kayak for cheap?" I know her life, at least, has just changed for the better.


Visit for more information about the program, click HERE to read Costello's first dispatch, and stay tuned for the next three river lessons. First Descents is one of five philanthropic paddling programs nominated for the Paddle With Purpose category in the inaugural Canoe &Kayak Awards. Click HERE to read the first lesson, HERE for the third,HERE for the fourth, and HERE for the fifth.