For the third summer in a row, I attended one of First Descents whitewater kayaking camps for young adult cancer survivors in Montana. This year, as in the past, I came close to canceling the trip.
I won’t pretend that the last year has been easy. I have had some incredibly great opportunities, along with huge losses, and a hectic schedule. As I waded through grief over the winter, the application process opened up for First Descents camps and I applied. A few months later I bought a non-refundable plane ticket, knowing that I might later feel the urge to stay home.
As the date for camp drew nearer, I wondered why I was going for a third year. I am two years out of chemotherapy, busy with work and an all-consuming equestrian hobby.
But I have also felt constantly pulled in a million different directions over the past few months. I’m sure you all know that feeling, the to-do list keeps getting longer, but there is only so much of yourself to go around. In trying to keep up with myself, I often have days when I am overbooked from before sunrise to well after sunset. I have chosen this path, and it allows me to follow my dreams with my horses, but sometimes I wonder why I can’t be satisfied with less.
I arrived in Montana overtired, with a briefcase full of projects to be completed. I knew that we would only have power at camp for a few hours a day (Big Creek is still run on a generator), but wanted to at least catch up on a few things.
First Descents is best known for pushing young adult cancer survivors out of their comfort zone and teaching them how to live again after cancer has completely knocked “normal” out of our worlds. Whitewater kayaking was and still is outside of my comfort zone, but after two years of camps, I wasn’t as scared as I had been in the past.
Instead of looking to be pushed out of my comfort zone, I wanted to have fun with life again. I didn’t need First Descents to challenge me; I have challenged myself enough over the last six months to last quite awhile. I really needed First Descents to put the joy back into my life – to recharge my soul.
This camp was only for returning campers. We all “got” what First Descents was about, and although some campers had not kayaked before (they had attended a rock climbing camp), we were all ready for the week ahead.
I’m not sure if I was nervous about kayaking because it had been a year, or if my underwater gymnastics from last year were still haunting me a bit, but I was really nervous sitting in my kayak. Again I questioned why I wasn’t home, riding a horse, but the decision had been made.
We went up to Bowman Lake, a truly spectacular place and did our wet exits. The water was chilly. We paddled around the lake a bit, working on paddle strokes, and I finally started to relax. When it was time to practice our rolls, I didn’t want to do it. I hadn’t rolled a kayak in two years and the instructor’s explanation didn’t sound like the instruction I had on Lake Beseck in Middlefield. I paddled over to one of the safety boaters who has been at camp with me all three years. His explanation of eddy lines allowed me to finally grasp the concept and successfully eddy in and out without flipping over last year. I showed him what I had been taught; it was the same as the explanation the instructor had just given. My nerves were jumbling everything up. I rolled my kayak twice and called it good.
As the week wore on and I had uneventful days on the water, I started to loosen back up. While I avoided some of the heavier cancer conversations, I loved laughing and singing along to the IPods as we drove to and from rivers. Three of the campers had been at one or both of my previous two camps; the other 7 were strangers. They quickly became part of my FD family. Many of the staff are friends from previous camps and their presence is always welcome.
I found myself worrying less about the projects that were still sitting in my briefcase, the horses that weren’t getting worked and the various other trivial matters of my personal and professional life. I found myself living more in the moment and enjoying every moment with my fellow campers.
I started talking about cancer again, and its devastating effects on my friends over the past year. More importantly, I was listening the stories of my fellow campers. Again, I was reminded that although cancer sucks, my road to “survivorship” was relatively easy. And I found comraderie with two other Hodgkin lymphoma survivors, whose stories were eerily similar to my own.
By Friday, I was wondering where the week had gone, and wishing I did not have to go home in two days. The rivers had been high all week because of the heavy snowfall over the winter and the North Fork of the Flathead River was going to be the same. Nine campers were kayaking on Friday. We had two rafts and probably 15 experienced kayakers out there to keep us safe.
My safety boater for the day was “Junior”. At camp in 2009, I had adopted him as my “brother from another mother” and we had been joking around all week this year. We laughed and goofed off down the river. The water was high, the waves were fun, I didn’t take the hardest lines, but I didn’t skirt past the challenges or have any “underwater gymnastics” either.
It was exactly what I needed. When we took our kayaks off the river, I had a huge grin on my face.
At campfire that night, we had the candle ceremony where we remember friends and family who have lost their battle with cancer and honor their memories. I thought about Flash and Nickname, who were at my camp in 2009. I felt a wave of grief for the loss of Sue and Katrina. I cried again for the loss of all of them, but with my FD family right there – also crying for their losses.
And so it is, that First Descents is what we, the campers and staff, needed it to be. In my first two years I needed to be challenged to live life to the fullest again. This year, I needed a safe place to recharge my soul and have fun again. I returned to Connecticut with a greater sense of peace than I have felt in quite some time.
My to-do list is just as long as it was when I left. The horses haven’t been worked in eight days and the briefcase is still full of projects. But all of that is okay, because the big picture is a whole lot clearer and the fun is back. Thank you First Descents!