Finding Strength and Redemption

The Blackfoot River Adventure with First Descents
A Class C RV sits next to a bank on the Blackfoot River in Montana.

“People always think that when you have cancer, it means you are strong because you just... have it. And really you are just going about your day-to-day life just trying to survive. There really is not any bravery or strength in it. And I think... that I decided to come on this trip, because I was looking for something to really make me feel strong.” - Joanna "Sporty Spice"

First Descents is a non-profit that provides life-changing outdoor adventures for young adults (ages 18-39) impacted by cancer and other serious health conditions (like Multiple Sclerosis).

This past summer, thirteen participants—all impacted by cancer—took a leap of faith and traveled to the fabled Blackfoot River in Montana.  First Descents' programs are by their very nature a special experience for participants, but this one was extra special.

The generous property owners at Cliffs Ranch offered a spectacular piece of their property right on the Blackfoot River. The only wrinkle? Facilities had not been constructed on the ranch. 

In order to make this program happen, we erected a mobile program on the ranch with self sustaining RVs for the participants. Most of these participants had never been to Montana, been on a river, stayed in an RV, or sat in a whitewater kayak.  But they were all up for the adventure.

Each participant had their own reason for attending.

“I love the outdoors, I had just finished treatment and was looking to recover and learn to be an adult again.”

John "Poppy"

True adventure is getting yourself into something and not being sure of the outcome.  By that definition, this was the biggest adventure of these young adults’ lives.

Whitewater kayaking is not an easy sport and one that by its very nature has risks.  As the participants developed their kayak skills, the river provided other lessons.

Everyone at First Descents gets a nickname, and once you get your First Descents nickname, it’s yours for life.  While it’s a fun way to address your new community, it has a bigger purpose—it allows you to leave your old self behind and become the person you want to be. 

“It’s just really nice to be out there with a whole bunch of amazing people… and getting all the energy from the river, the noises, the calm noises of the river, the birds chirping, which you don’t really see that in the city…”

Jennifer "Hobby Lobby"

“Being outdoors levels the playing field. It puts everybody in kind of this different relationship with their surroundings, and so ultimately we all stand on the same ground in the river. The river doesn't care who you are, it doesn't necessarily discriminate based on your story, and that is the ultimate equalizer.”

Willie “Sweet D” Kern, First Descents Director of Programming

Although most of these young adults came for the magnificent scenery and the challenge of kayaking, what they found was something much greater. The river, combined with the healing power of the outdoors, was a catalyst for the participants to see the world from a different perspective—to stop and connect with the natural world around them.

These were ordinary people doing extraordinary things. The river didn’t care that they were sick or why they didn’t feel strong.  So, every participant rose to the occasion and challenged themselves in their own way. Stretched themselves. Left the old version of them behind as they stepped into who they wanted to be.

The healing power of the outdoors and adventure is something that was felt by everyone on this program.

That week was filled with lots of time kayaking on the river, tears of joy, tears of frustration, laughter, and deep human connection. All the participants arrived as strangers, but left as a new family.

"Participating in First Descents helped me realize that I need to stop letting fear hold me back. Learning to let go and let the water lead me was such an empowering experience that I’ll never forget"

Kari “Garfield”

Out Living It

First Descents provides life-changing outdooradventures for young adults (ages 18 - 39) impacted bycancer and other serious health conditions.
A First Descents float sits on rocks next to the Blackfoot River.

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