Cancer, Kayaking and First Descents

I have shared my experiences working with First Descents each year and this year is no different.  I choose to share my experience with this organization to each of you because it is a “life changing” week for everyone who’s involved.

First Descents (FD) is a non-profit organization that provides outdoor experiences to cancer survivors.  The adventures that FD provides are whitewater kayaking, surfing and climbing.  FD is a 5 day “camp” where people from all over the United States, who have gone through ANY type of cancer, can attend for FREE . . . yes, that’s right . . . FREE!  

I have been involved with this organization for over 8 years.  This year I had the pleasure of leading a kayak camp in Glacier National Forest.  I could go on and on about my experiences with these camps, but I will only pick the top 3 reasons why I love being a part of FD and sharing my passion of kayaking with these amazing survivors.

  1. Bonds made.  I see the same thing at every camp.  Day #1, the participants walk into the program with an “uneasy” look on their face, intimidated by not knowing anyone or anything about the week.  But, by Day #3 that totally reverses.  I’ve never seen this NOT happen!!!  By Day #3 there is chit chat between folks that makes it seem like we’ve known each other for years.  

I think kayaking helps create these quick bonds between people.  When you’re on the river, you are independent, yet you rely on your team for safety, encouragement, support and “high-fives”.  

  1. Empowerment.  When I witness these cancer participants go from the Big Apple (surrounded by tall buildings) to a little town in Montana (surrounded by tall mountains), it never fails to see the amazement in their faces.  Attending an FD camp brings many people to the outdoors for their first time.  And each time I hear whispers among one another, “When I get home, I’m going to find my own outdoor adventure!”

Kayaking empowers as well.  We are in charge of our own craft.  Sure, we could go down the river in a raft . . . maybe have a guide do all the work to get us down  . . . . BUT, we choose the kayak and we choose to put the pieces of the puzzle together ourselves (with the support of our team).

  1. Lives changed.  Adventures happen when there is a bit of “unknown” and a bit of “risk”.  This is scary to many.  During the first few days of camp, I see hesitation.  I see people wanting to stay in their “safe zone”.  But, with what FD offers and how the outfitters encourage and trust is made . . . as the camp goes on, people take on challenges.  

Kayaking is full of decision-making, challenges to face head on and try to figure out plan B, C and D.  Kayaking teaches us that when the “water starts to churn”, that we remain focused and relaxed and with the support of our team to hold safety, we get through.  Is it always a good line through that challenging rapid?  Maybe?  Maybe not!  But, bottom line . . . we get through and we are changed on the downstream side.

I look forward to many more adventures with FD and many personal adventures with all of my kayaking buddies.  Both are life-changing . . . both are empowering . . . and, both create bonds that will never break.

See you on the river.

Heather Herbeck

Team JK

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