First Descents Diary: Installment 1


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I am in Garden Valley, Idaho, grateful to be attending a First Descents (FD) whitewater kayaking camp for young adult cancer survivors. During a two hour mechanical delay in LAX, where I started my trip, I enjoyed the carpets’ stale popcorn odor, ate a cardboard sandwich and remembered that it’s good when the airline announces you won’t be leaving until the problems your plane is having are fixed. Eventually the turboprop puddle jumper was ready and we were on our way.

I’m a brain cancer survivor, 2 ½ years past my best prognosis. So far everything has worked out for me in, spite of any gratuitous worrying along the way. But just because I know this doesn’t mean I always believe my good fortune will continue. I hope my time in Idaho as a second year First Descents camper help will fortify my confidence and faith so that they increasingly supplant my fears. That’s what happened last year when I went to and FD camp in California.

I spent a lot of time before leaving Southern California this year worrying, mostly about things that didn’t really need my attention. When I worried about rolling over in my kayak and breaking something important, I remembered that First Descents got me through camp in 2008 with all of my fingers, toes, larger appendages and faculties working just fine. I knew that the neophyte and seasoned Kayakers attracted to this experience share do no harm as our common ethos. I knew the founders of First Descents understand that if their campers go through the ordeal of learning to whitewater kayak in a fun and safe environment, some will return to do it again, and some will become the spokespeople and fundraisers FD needs to make this empowering experience available to other young adult cancer survivors.

I remembered to trust that I would be in good hands here in Idaho, even while I scrambled to redesignate the beneficiaries for my life insurance policies before leaving. I buzzed from task to task, fighting survivor’s fatigue and confusion, wondering why I over-commit and why I invariably feel completely exhausted by the time I leave for a vacation.

I recalled feeling exhausted when I arrived at my 2008 FD camp, and how I left that camp with a new understanding of living in the moment. Splashing through challenging whitewater rapids and then floating down beautiful stretches of calm with wonderful new friends leaves no time for non-productive reveries. But the lesson of remaining in the moment is quite difficult to abide in the hustle bustle United States. I begin my second FD camp thirsty to further internalize what I discovered last year.

My 2008 First Descents Camp began at the airport in California, where FD founders Brad Ludden and Corey Nielsen picked me and 3 other campers up. Once our luggage was stowed and in the van they asked, “What are your Nicknames?”

“I’m NoMo Chemo Man on my softball team,” I said.

They both shrugged appreciatively. “NoMo,” Corey said, “is your name here.”

“And the rest of you?” Brad asked. “Better tell us, or we’ll choose one for you. I am Crotch, Corey’s Rot.”

Right from the start, the leadership of First Descents’ Camps communicates that being with FD is going to be a fun, challenging and playful experience. Campers begin by shedding their birth names for the rest of the camp. We don’t know each other by any other handles than the nicknames we pick for ourselves or ones that get picked for us. Renaming is a metaphor for leaving behind our “sick” cancer patient identities and reclaiming the fun decisive empowered selves that many of us lost during the rigors of treatment…

(Stay tuned at PL for installment #2!)

To donate in Harvey’s name (and learn more) Click here

Staff Post
Staff Post
Paddlers writing about all things paddling.


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