First Descents fights cancer while battling rough rapids

July 20, 2011

Every summer across the county, young adults ages 18-39 fighting cancer gather to learn how to kayak, to plunge through the raging, icy waters of Class III rapids.

They don't get any special treatment, or any pity.

"When they are running rapids on the river the river doesn't know they have cancer and it doesn't treat them any differently," says Val Kryshak, a camp director for First Descents, which organizes the camps.

Last month First Descents came to the Gorge, basing out of Hood River while it hit the Klickitat and White Salmon rivers.

First Descents was founded by professional kayaker Brad Ludden following his aunt's diagnoses with cancer to give cancer fighters a life-changing experience and to allow them a chance to bond over something other than cancer.

"He felt she needed to get out and identify with more than just that," Kryshak said.

A first descent describes the first time a river has been successfully navigated by a kayaker. In the case of the First Descents participants, the river may have been done before, but they have likely never been in kayak.

The First Descents camp gives them a week of free kayaking to take on the river with fellow cancer fighters.

"About half of them go out there taking chemo pills every day," photographer Ross Herr said. "Some of them don't know what the next six weeks will bring. This gives them a week of feeling normal."

Most of the kayakers start out with zero kayaking experience and day one of the camp is on a nearby lake where they spend four hours learning how to kayak. The next day is slowly moving water. And by day three the group is running Class II rapids.

On the final day, the campers are given a "challenge by choice" where they can tackle a Class III?rapid if they so choose.

Once they have completed the first camp, campers can return for another, more advanced camp, but they have to help fundraise. The fundraising helps pay for more people to attend the beginner camps.

Being thrown into an unfamiliar environment and being expected to learn how to navigate the river causes a quick bond among the new kayakers.

"By day two they are all best friends," Kryshak said.

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