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At the beginning of the week we are each given a new name that only the people who were involved with that First Descents camp will remember us by.  I said my First Descents name, Malbec, with a half-smile as I tried to cover up the missing dental crown I had knocked off while biting into a burger twenty minutes before all the participants showed up.  I was a bit nervous as I hadn’t experienced this program before and I was missing a tooth, but quickly my nerves went away as I met the people I was going to spend the week with. They were the most confident, brave, open, and fun, group of people I have had the privilege to teach.  They also didn’t make fun of my tooth, immediately.  Guiding rafts and teaching kayaking has led me from the Northeast, to Alaska, Hawaii, Montana, California, and the Pacific Northwest.  Every place has allowed me to experience an array of guiding challenges, people, and memories.  Experiencing First Descents has been the most rewarding and fun experience I have had in a whitewater kayak and as an instructor.

                First Descents is an organization that aims to establish ongoing psychosocial supportive care for cancer patients by diving into outdoor adventure to provide lifechanging experiences.  For me, whitewater has always been therapeutic; a way to relieve stress, have fun, make friends, inspire purpose and drive, challenge myself, and explore the world around me.  I went into my first week as a First Descents instructor like I would any other beginner course by expecting to have a fun week teaching the basics and slowly progressing all of the participants into whitewater.  I had not expected to spend as much time as I did with the participants learning about their lives and forming strong connections.  The first day every one was a little apprehensive at breaking out of their shells, but by the last day we were all crying together. We told each other about some of the lowest times in our lives and were hanging around each other as if we had known everyone for years.  This program is life altering in the most positive of ways and I am stoked to be a part of it.

                First Descents gathers people who have never met each other but are tethered to one another by a difficult life event.  In my first program we had people from all over the United States, from Ireland, different age groups, hair colors, laughs, skin tones, voices, and minds.  All of these people had been through an immensely challenging event that most can’t understand and to see the powerful healing that occurred through the week filled my cup to the brim with respect, happiness, and lessons. I will know all of these people not by their real names, but by their First Descents names which forms a bond in its own way.  All of their names will embody facing a challenge in my mind and overcoming it.

                I have been involved in two weeks of First Descents and they were full of learning, laughter, facing fears, and growing as an individual.  We started on Sunday getting to know one another, getting everyone outfitted, and talking about the week to come.  The next day we went out on the Columbia River in an area of flat water to learn the basics of kayaking, flip over, play some games, and soak in the sun.  The biggest obstacle to learning whitewater is the fear of being upside down in a kayak which some people in the group expressed, but they stood up to that fear.  This was apparent throughout the week as every day we stepped up the challenge by getting into faster water and progressively more difficult rapids.  My favorite comment came after a participant flipped over in the river and said “That’s what I was I afraid of, I guess now I just have to send it!” Overcoming obstacles so we can live our best lives is what life is all about and what kayaking represents.    

                The best part of the program was that everyone, instructors and participants alike, were able to hang out after the day on the river during a group dinner. At dinner’s each night, I learned about everyone’s lives, what they feared, what their favorite parts of the day were, tailored my teaching to that, and had a great time.  On the last day it was awesome to see everyone paddling through a class III rapid with the poise of whitewater kayakers on a mission.  There are no shortcuts in whitewater and every participant earned their way down that rapid.  Whitewater involves hard work, commitment, learning, and fun which every participant exhibited to the best of their abilities.  I am stoked I was able to teach them the sport that I love and learn from everyone involved how to continue when life flips you over.    

  The power of a combined struggle, supportive community, and the outdoors is combination that has the immense potential to heal everyone who is open to it.  I will always be known as Malbec to that group and they will be known as their fun names, but they will also be known in my mind as the group that never gave up and opened themselves to an opportunity to grow and heal.  Thanks, First Descents for providing this life enriching setting and Wet Planet for hosting the camps. Thanks First Descents for providing this life enriching experience, I wish everyone could experience this program and have their own First Descents community.  

– Jair Cruikshank