At the beginning of the week, we were each given a new name that only the people in our First Descents camp knew us by. I said my First Descents name, Malbec, with a half-smile as I tried to cover up the missing dental crown I had knocked off while biting into a burger twenty minutes before all the participants arrived. I was a bit nervous as I hadn’t experienced the program before and I was missing a tooth, but my nerves quickly went away as I met the group; the most confident, brave, open, and fun, crew of people I have had the privilege to teach. They also didn’t make fun of my tooth, immediately. Guiding rafts and teaching kayaking has led me from the Northeast to Alaska, Hawaii, Montana, California, and the Pacific Northwest. Every place has allowed me to experience an array of guiding challenges, people, and memories. Working for Wet Planet and experiencing First Descents has been the most rewarding and fun experience I have had as a beginner whitewater kayaking instructor and as a guide.
First Descents is an organization that aims to establish ongoing psychosocial supportive care for cancer patients by allowing them to dive into outdoor adventure. For me, whitewater has always been therapeutic; a way to relieve stress, have fun, make friends, inspire purpose and drive, challenge myself, and explore the world around me. I went into my first week as a First Descents instructor like I would any other beginner course, expecting to have a fun week teaching the basics and slowly progressing the participants into whitewater. I had not expected to spend as much time with the participants as I did, learning about their lives and forming strong connections. The first day everyone was a little apprehensive to break out of their shells, but by the last day, all of us were embracing, laughing and crying together. We told one another about some of the lowest times in our lives and were hanging out as if we had known everyone for years. This program is life altering in the most positive ways and I am beyond stoked to be a part of it.
First Descents gathers people who have never met but are tethered to one another by a very difficult life event and offers them a week breaking down boundaries, learning new sports, making new friends and memories. In my first program, we had people from all over the United States, from Ireland, different age groups, hair colors, laughs, skin tones, voices, and minds. All these people had been through an immensely challenging affair that most can’t understand, and to see the powerful healing that occurred throughout the week filled my cup to the brim with respect, happiness and lessons. I will know them all, not by their real names, but by their First Descents names, which forms a very special bond in its own way. In my mind, each of their names embodies facing a challenge and overcoming it.
I have been involved in two weeks of First Descents camp, and they were full of learning, laughter, facing fears, and growing as an individual, even for me. We started on Sunday, getting to know one another, getting everyone outfitted, and talking about the week to come. The next day we went out on the Columbia River. We paddled in an area of flat water to learn the basics of kayaking, to flip over, play some games, and soak in the sun. The biggest obstacle to learning whitewater is the fear of being upside down in a kayak, which some of the group expressed, but they stood up to that fear. This was apparent throughout the week as every day the group stepped up the challenge by getting into faster water and progressively more difficult rapids. My favorite comment came after a participant flipped over in the river and said, “That’s what I was I afraid of, but I guess now I just have to send it!”. Overcoming obstacles so we can live our best lives is what life is all about and what kayaking represents.
The best part of the program was that everyone, instructors, and participants alike, were able to hang out after a full day on the river during group dinners. At dinner each night, I had a great time learning about everyone’s lives, what they feared, what their favorite parts of the day were, and tailored my teaching to that. On the last day, it was awesome to see everyone paddling through a class III rapid with the poise of whitewater kayakers on a mission. There are no shortcuts in whitewater and every participant earned their way down that class III rapid. Whitewater involves hard work, commitment, learning, and fun, which every participant exhibited to the best of their ability. I am stoked I was able to teach them the sport that I love and learn from, and how to continue when life flips you over, but what I learned is that they already knew that.
The power of a combined struggle, supportive community, and the outdoors is a combination that has the immense potential to heal everyone open to it. To the groups I taught, I will always be known as Malbec and I’ll remember them by their fun names, but I will also remember them as the group that never gave up and opened themselves to an opportunity to grow and heal. Thanks, First Descents, for providing an unforgettably life-enriching setting and to Wet Planet for hosting these camps and other kids kayak camps like them.
Wet Planet has been hosting First Descents for the last 9 years. Campers start the 5-day camps with basic instruction and flat-water games during the first two days, go rafting on the third day and get to kayak whitewater out on the river on the last two days. This year the program included 5 weeks and more than 60 participants. Want to donate to First Descents? Click here.
It's hard to put into words what the experience meant to me but this is kind of what it felt like. Thank you to everyone who I met on this incredible adventure and especially to First Descents for making it possible. Music by Daxten – Washed Out
Posted by Daniel Benjamin Moorefield on Monday, June 18, 2018
Originally from Vermont, Jair Cruikshank travels far and wide to kayak on the river and in the ocean. He is currently in a trial period with Jackson Kayak to join their team, so this year he is planning on giving kayaking everything he has and having as much fun as possible. He is looking forward to teaching you what he knows and showing you the river!
Jair is also an International River Rescuer, Wilderness First Responder, certified Wildland firefighter, strong singer, and overall fun person to hang out with.
You too can join Jair and Wet Planet for beginner kayaker instruction, like First Descents, or advanced classes including our boofing and creeking clinics. We would love to get you on the water for your own life-changing experiences; you can even request to work with Jair!