Thursday, September 16, 2010

My Week at First Descents

I attended First Descents Camp 44 (a whitewater kayaking camp for young adult cancer survivors) in Glacier National Park from July 4-10th. This was my second year at First Descents and although my schedule was really busy, I decided to make time and go again. That was the best decision I have made this year.

Several of my fellow campers and staff from First Descents Camp 32 last year were also attending Camp 44. There were many new faces to meet and laugh with again. At camp we all get a nickname, mine is Giddy Up. It is amazing that you can spend a week with people and become such close friends, without ever knowing their real names!

The week started again on Lake McDonald in Glacier National Park. We learned (or practiced) the wet exit, an essential skill if you happen to be upside down in a whitewater kayak. I also practiced a couple of t-rescues. I like the t-rescue better. When your kayak flips upside down, if you bang your boat and wait, another boat may come up to you and you can grab onto their boat and flip yourself up. I spent a lot of time upside down at camp last year and became very good at t-rescues. I practiced a few t-rescues with "Bad Santa" but the water was cold (okay, I am a wuss) so I spent most of my time on Lake McDonald practicing paddle strokes.

This year we were able to paddle down McDonald Creek and I was really excited to see McDonald Creek. We were chased off the lake by a lightning storm last year. On Tuesday we went out on real moving water. The big difference I noticed in myself this year was that I was a lot more relaxed in my kayak. This was very helpful as I spent considerably less time upside down. On Tuesday I did flip on one eddy line (where the current of the river changes). I waited a really long time for a t-rescue (my counselor did not know me or my capacity to sit still under water so she was waiting for me to wet exit) and when I was finally t-rescued, a gallon of water came out of my nose (according to my fellow kayakers). But even after that, I was calm and happy on the river.

Wednesday was alternative craft day. We paddle Class II and III rapids on the Middle Fork of the Flathead River in tupo duos (hard shell kayaks for two people) and IK boats (inflatable kayaks) for two people. Alternative craft day is always one of the most fun days of the week. I went in a tupo duo with Casper, one of my counselors from last year and had a blast paddling with her. I also went in the IK boats with several of my fellow campers.

Thursday we were back in our kayaks on a slightly larger river than we paddled Tuesday. My big achievement was that I did not flip over once :) But I also had a lot of fun. At the end of the day, the staff was talking about what to do on Friday, our graduation day. Should we paddle an easy river? Or do we go back to the Middle Fork of the Flathead River and get totally challenged by the river?

We went back to the Middle Fork of the Flathead River for our final day of whitewater kayaking.

I flipped over twice right off the bat. Once I went over a rock and leaned the wrong way. T-rescue, thanks Iceman. Then we were in swirly water and I stopped paddling. T-rescue, thanks Iceman. Was I a little nervous about the day ahead? I think so. We hit the first set of rapids and I started calming down. I picked challenging lines (not always on purpose) and got through the rapids in fine form. Some extra time spent working on eddy lines with Iowa on Thursday had proved very helpful as we eddied out after rapids.

We arrived at a big set of rapids. I forget the name, but there were three ways through it. Left, right or center. Iceman said that there was a big hole in the center rapid and that it would probably flip us (the campers) over but it would spit us right out (it would flip us because of our inexperience). I did not want to try it, but my friend Stryka did and I thought, why not? I followed Tush, one of my favorite counselors from last year, down the rapid and into the hole.

And immediately flipped over.

Tush told me to hang out if I flipped but my first thought as I was underwater was, I need to get the hell out of here. That’s never happened before; I am usually pretty comfortable underwater. Then I looked around. The water was crazy and angry. I decided to hang out, at least I was in my kayak. If I did a wet exit, I would need to swim in that angry hole. I waited for a long time (my friend Patch said it was 24 seconds - this is all on video and he counted).

Finally I felt something. I started a t-rescue and heard Tush say, "don't flip me over!" I continued the t-rescue and Tush said that I had t-rescued off her paddle. Fortunately, I did not flip her over! My paddle was not in sight and we were headed for another hole so Tush sent me on my way and I hand paddled out of it. At that point I ran into Patch, who gave me his paddle and went and got mine.

The rest of the rapids passed by without any underwater activities :) It should probably be noted that Stryka flipped in the hole in her kayak too and Bubbles flipped in her IK boat while trying to avoid my upside down kayak. I have not seen the video of my "carnage in the hole" but the staff said it was the best camper carnage they had seen in awhile.

I would be remiss if I did not mention my fellow campers at First Descents. I cannot begin to tell you how great it is to spend a week with other young adult cancer survivors who really "get it." They have walked the same path I did and know the same fears that I am so familiar with. And honestly, compared to many of my fellow campers, my cancer journey was a cake walk. Don't get me wrong, it was not fun and I hated chemotherapy, but in the big picture of cancer, I got off pretty easy. The friends I have made at First Descents are friends for life. They are wonderful people and I am truly lucky to have them in my life. Through email and facebook we are able to keep in touch and I really hope to see some of them in person before camp next year.

You may be wondering, how you can help out with First Descents? There are two easy ways:
1. Visit and click on "Donate Now"
2. Attend the 2nd Annual Fun In The Forest Trail Ride in Natchaug State Forest in Eastford on October 16th. All proceeds benefit First Descents!

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