5 Reasons:
Why First Descents is paddling’s best charity

By Matthew Sturdevant

This summer ended with First Descents coming to Canada for the first time. The decade-old, ever-expanding nonprofit uses kayaking to clear the heads of people who escaped a deadly disease, and helps them navigate chutes and boulders to the next stage of their lives. By all accounts, it’s a powerful program for campers, volunteers and staff in this burgeoning phenomenon within the paddling community.

C&K and Five2Nine Productions’ Mike McKay explore the weeklong camp for young-adult cancer survivors on Ontario’s Madawaska River, and show through their eyes why the program is the best thing since plastic boats in this latest episode of Currents TV, McKay’s documentary-style online series about whitewater life. Click here to see more series episodes.

First Descents/Allison Vickerd

IT’S FREE: Funded by donations from individuals, organizations and businesses, participants don’t pay a cent. First Descents Founder/CEO Brad Ludden says he wouldn’t want anything to do with the program if it didn’t strip away cost barriers for people burdened with gargantuan medical expenses.

A METAPHOR: Ludden and co-founder Corey Nielsen hatched the program idea 10 years ago. “I think that after our very, very first camp—FD1—we instantly recognized that the river is just this beautiful metaphor for healing, for change,” Nielsen says in the film. “We’ve got the past, the present and the future, and it’s kind of your choice what you want to do with it.”

BUILDING BONDS: Young adults with cancer typically aren’t surrounded by their peers. First Descents brings them together in an environment that’s fun and uplifting.

CONFIDENCE: FD volunteer Bryan McKenzie says the use of nicknames allows people a new persona during the FD metamorphosis—one that ends with newly minted paddlers gracefully maneuvering down rapids and through waves.

BLOOMING AND BOOMING: First Descents started in 2001 with a $10,000 grant from Nike and one weeklong camp. A decade later, it is a $1.67 million enterprise with 27 camps in seven states and Canada. In 2012, the Denver-based nonprofit hopes to expand further internationally for a total of 35 to 40 camps. Sure, the curriculum now includes surfing and rock climbing, but Ludden knows his roots. “I can say with confidence that we’ll always keep kayaking as our core competency because that is who we are,” Ludden says. “Our focus is, ‘How do we make our programs even better and get them to more people in need?'”