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 connect with others doing the same. Below is the first of five lessons learned from the weeklong camp. Click HERE to read the second lesson, HERE for the third, HERE for the fourth, and HERE for the fifth.

By Dave Costello

Balanced with my camera on a partially submerged rock in the middle of a Class II rapid on Washington's Klickitat River, I'm not sure what to think of the scene in front of me. Everyone's swimming—next to the kayaks they're supposed to be paddling.

One after another, I watch as nearly every one of the 11 First Descents participants on this week's introduction to whitewater kayaking course takes their turn catching an edge, flipping over, wet-exiting, and bumping feet first down their first, shallow rapid. It's Day 2, and they look absolutely terrified.

"Feet up!" I yell, still snapping photos while watching Wet Planet's volunteer instructors cheerily corral the swimmers into the large, calm eddy. 'My God,' I think. 'We're torturing cancer patients.' Then I start to wonder if this whole ‘using whitewater as a tool for personal growth and empowerment’ thing is really such a good idea. I mean, scaring people is how you're supposed to cure the hiccups. Not cancer.

The First Descents crew on the Klickitat River. Photo: Dave Costello

Out the corner of my eye I see "Down Town," a 28-year-old handyman, mountain biker and snowboarder from Whitefish, Mont., who has a cancerous tumor, walk back upriver with his boat on his shoulder. Everyone at camp gets a nickname. (Mine, rather predictably, is "Elvis.”) I watch for the second time as he launches from the top of the rapid, catches an edge and flips over. He doesn't swim this time, though. He waits for the T-rescue from the instructor behind him, just as he and the rest of the group had practiced the day before on the lake. He's grinning from ear to ear when he pops up. Everybody cheers.

"Way to hold out for that rescue," I tell him when I get back in my boat and catch up with the group downstream, impressed at the newbie kayaker’s calm under pressure.

"It was easier than I expected," He tells me. "I was actually pretty afraid of swimming before I did, but then it wasn't all that bad. I figured, 'What's the worst that's going to happen? I'll just swim again,' so I was able to hold out a little longer, and it worked out."

His words remind me of something I had been told by a paddling mentor of mine years ago when I was just learning how to paddle, and swimming every other time I sat in a boat. "We're all just in between swims anyway," I tell him. He nods knowingly, and I realize swimming down this small rapid in southern Washington on this sunny day might not have been such a bad idea after all.

— Elvis

Visit for more information about the program, and stay tuned for the next four 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 second, HERE for the third, HERE for the fourth, and HERE for the fifth.