Have you ever flown across the country by yourself to try something totally new with a group of 15 strangers? Each year, groups of First Descents participants do just that, but they have one thing linking them together before they even arrive – a cancer diagnosis in their young adult years.
This past week, I had the privilege of joining Wet Planet’s expert team of kayak instructors in teaching beginner whitewater kayaking to one such group. Before we even got on the river, I watched as the “FD magic” took hold. Everyone who attends an FD camp receives a funny nickname, used so exclusively that no one even knows each other’s real names. While it might seem trivial from the outside, nicknames are incredibly important in the FD culture because they allow participants to take on an identity outside of their cancer diagnosis. In the week that follows, you get to watch this group of fighters push one another. They work hard and laugh harder.
On the river, days are a mix of challenge and fun. While participants are learning the beginner kayaking basics, they are constantly pushing themselves both mentally and physically. While some are more deterred by the fear of being upside down, others have to push through physical limitations that have come along with their cancer diagnoses. As an instructor, I can teach the physical skills, but determination isn’t something that can be taught, and this group had it in spades. I love watching a new kayaker’s face burst into a smile when their first ferry clicks, or when they feel the current grab their bow as they successfully peel out into the current. It was amazing to share in the joy and accomplishment that students felt when something finally clicked.
Off the river, instructors are invited to group dinner and campfire. We have the opportunity to get to know incredible individuals from all over the country, and this is one of my favorite parts about first descents camps. We share stories, laughter, and sometimes tears. By the end of the week, it truly feels like a new family. These evenings are a time to reflect on how the day went overall. As instructors, we have the chance to listen to how the day went for our students, which is a unique opportunity and gives us the insight we need to tailor the instruction to the students. One of the most common themes was that people doubted themselves at first, but by sticking with it and giving it their all, they surprised themselves with how much they progressed by the end of the week.
As each day went on, I noticed that my mental progression throughout the week mirrored that of the participants. I have been involved with First Descents in a variety of roles since 2015, but instructing on a camp was a first for me. This is my second season as a whitewater kayak instructor, so I felt both lucky and nervous stepping into such an important role, especially knowing how much impact I could have on their experience. When you’re new at something, there’s often a voice of doubt that creeps in, but as I watched my students succeed, I gained confidence as an instructor. Like my students, I gave it my all and tried to shower everyone with positivity and encouragement, and really share the stoke.
The final day, participants have the opportunity to run their first class III rapid, Ishy Pishy. The anticipation builds, and nerves rise as we pull over to scout the rapid. This is the biggest rapid any of them have seen thus far, so as they scout the rapid they can look at it first and choose whether or not they want to run it. My group of five watched as another group went first, and saw three people in a row flip. While some people might have walked away after seeing others upside down, my entire group stepped up to the plate. We talked through the mistakes of the first group logically, and the students drew upon the skills they had learned throughout the week to choose a line that would make them successful. All five in my group ran it. All five made it to the bottom of the rapid upright. One of them even burst into tears of joy.
It is an incredible feeling to share in that accomplishment with my students and to watch them go from never having sat in a whitewater kayak to running their first class III rapid. As instructors, not only do we get to help them become kayakers, we are a part of how they shape their identities post-cancer, and that is what is most rewarding about being a part of First Descents camps.
You don’t have to be part of the First Descents Program to have a unique story. We all whitewater kayak for different reasons, but a lot of times it comes back to the rewards of rising to the physical and mental challenge, the ever-changing character of rivers, and being part of the amazing community of friends and family that come with being a whitewater kayaker. What we enjoy about teaching all levels of kayaking is that we get to see and experience the spark that originally fueled our passions time and time again, and we get to share and bring more people into our wonderful community every week with our lessons and courses. Whether you’ve never sat in a whitewater kayak before, or you’re simply trying to improve your skills, Wet Planet has a course for you. So, give us a call, visit our website, and join us on the river!
Author Sharon Saltoon is originally from LA, California. She first started whitewater kayaking on a trip with First Descents on the Clark Fork River in the summer of 2015. Enamored with the sport and drawn to the community, she continued to pursue kayaking where she lived in Denver. Eventually, the draw of year-round kayaking brought her to the Gorge in October of 2018, where she worked as a ski instructor for the winter at Mt. Hood. She is looking forward to pursuing both kayaking and climbing goals during her first summer in the Gorge. She is incredibly stoked for her first season at Wet Planet and making the most of all that the PNW has to offer!