Wet Planet was proud to host its first First Descents camp of the summer during the week of June 15th. First Descents is a non-profit organization founded by professional kayaker Brad Ludden to offer week-long kayaking, climbing, and surfing camps for young adult cancer survivors.
At the beginning of the week everyone was still getting used to their camp names: Roux and Dixie, Man Cave and Poutine, Mario and Red Fox, Tushy and Saucy, Lizard and Bon-Bon, Bourbon and Chocolate and Katia. By the end of the week everyone had become lifelong friends. No one—campers, camp staff, or instructors—can spend a week at a First Descents camp and not have their life forever changed in a positive way.
On day 1 everyone was just getting acquainted—with each other, and with whitewater kayaks that at first can be challenging to paddle in a straight line or keep upright.
By day 2 campers start to get to know each other better, beyond what the weather’s like where they’re from, and they also get better acquainted with how to get their boats from A to B in whitewater.
On day 3—the day of the raft trip—everyone gets a “challenge by choice” option of jumping off a concrete bridge into the frigid water of the White Salmon River. This was the moment that the group really started to bond. For many of the campers, jumping off the bridge presents a significant challenge, and the cheers, shouts of encouragement, and triumphant smiles were the highlight of the day.
On days 4 and 5, campers were running whitewater with grace and confidence—and the occasional unplanned swim—having built their skills progressively since the beginning of camp. Besides running Graduation Rapid—in which campers each run an unfamiliar rapid completely on their own without any coaching from instructors—the culminating experience of the river days is (optional) Ishi Pishi rapid, a maelstrom of class III whitewater. On day 1 the campers would have felt sick to their stomach looking at this rapid, but after a week of experience in kayaks, campers have the confidence to take it on. Not all campers managed to stay upright in Ishi Pishi, but each and every one came out of the rapid with huge smiles and whoops of excitement.
If the rapids and other challenges on the river were the highlight of each day, then dinner and campfire at the Panorama Lodge was the highlight of each evening. This was an opportunity for campers to reflect upon the challenges of the day, to get to know each other much more in depth, and to be vulnerable as they talked about the challenges that they have faced since diagnosis and treatment. There were tears and lots of laughter, but it wasn’t a time for campers to dwell on their problems. Cancer is an unavoidable fact of life, but it’s not what defines who they are or what they’re capable of.
This is the 5th consecutive year that I’ve been an instructor for First Descents camps and the 6th consecutive year that Wet Planet has hosted First Descents kayaking camps. The part that I enjoy most is watching the group start out as a collection of individuals at the beginning of the week and become a cohesive group by the end of the week. On day 1 it was all awkward smiles and nervous laughter, but by the time the week was over, it was hard to remember that there was ever a time when we weren’t all old friends. This is one of the most amazing things about a week with First Descents, and this is why we look forward every year to partnering with this incredible organization.
Check out First Descent’s rafting trip down the White Salmon on Day 3 here! (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CCcVds9dafg&feature=youtu.be)
The author, Steve White, is Wet Planet’s kayak school manager and whitewater enthusiast.