Paddling past cancer
First Descents treats cancer with adventure

First Descents, now in its 11th year, was started by local paddler Corey Nielsen and friend and fellow paddler Brad Ludden, who was inspired by an aunt with cancer./Courtesy photo

by Jen Reeder

Eleven years ago, Durango’s Corey Nielsen was aiming to make the Olympic kayak team. While training in Sumatra, he found himself on a rickety bus with Montana’s Brad Ludden, who at the time was an up-and-coming expedition freestyle paddler. Nielsen was 27 and Ludden was just 18, but their shared love of the sport was an instant bond.

“We were way off the beaten path in the jungle,” Nielsen says. “We just hit it off – we became natural friends.” Ludden told Nielsen about his Aunt Lori, who had survived breast cancer as a young adult, and his subsequent experiences teaching kayaking to kids with cancer. He said he was hoping to start a camp for young adults with cancer, since no such camps existed for that demographic. Later, when Nielsen barely missed the cut at the Olympic trials, he jumped at the chance to join Ludden at First Descents, which Ludden has since founded to provide free outdoor adventure therapy to young adults with cancer.

“My entire career as an athlete was focused on doing first descents (navigating a portion of a river for the first time), on doing expeditions around the world,” Ludden says. “That sense of accomplishment in overcoming obstacles and challenges is really what I wanted to translate … I wanted that sense of accomplishment to come through (at First Descents).”

What started as one weeklong kayak camping trip for 15 young adults with cancer has grown to 27 programs, with more than 600 campers served since 2001. The camps now include not just kayaking but rock climbing, mountaineering and surfing, and take place across the country. The only requirements are that participants be age “18 to 39ish,” and have heard the words “You have cancer” at some point in their lives. The first camp is completely free thanks to grants, and private and corporate donations – there is even a travel scholarship for people who can’t afford the airfare to camp.

“We don’t ever ask for money. We just want people to come,” Nielsen says.

No experience is necessary – in fact, lack of experience is preferred.

“We’re getting people out of their comfort zones,” Nielsen says. “They’re not worried about cancer in the middle of a rapid; they’re right there. We don’t pull any punches: we don’t soften the rocks, we don’t shorten the climbs. This is real stuff,and it’s legitimate for anybody.”

The need is great, as the demographic First Descents serves continues to grow.

“There are 60,000 to 70,000 new young adult cancer diagnoses a year,” Nielsen says. “It’s the fastest growing, slowest treatment rate in the entire oncology spectrum. You’re out of your home, your body is growing, you’re trying to figure out the next 10 years of your life, you’ve got all these awkward things and then bam! You have cancer.”

Nielsen says one of the strengths of First Descents is that it’s all about sport and community. There aren’t therapists at the camps, though survivors can talk about their experiences around the campfire at night if they like. At the airport, they take on nicknames to create a new identity, like Giggles, Chunks (for a slender woman), Whale Shark and Wacky Chan.

“It’s the idea that they’re able to sort of check their identity at the door,” Nielsen says. “They leave cancer, they leave their entire previous world behind them.”

Members of First Descents paddle the Klickitat River, near Hood River, Ore. What started out as a kayak camp near Vail for young adults with cancer in 2001 has grown into 27 programs serving more than 600 campers./Courtesy Photo

“Tailz” is the nickname for Neil Taylor, a Vermont resident who attended his first kayaking camp last year. Taylor was a math and PE teacher, soccer coach and dorm leader at a boarding school for boys with learning disabilities when he was diagnosed with a malignant brain tumor three years ago. During his brain surgery, his optic nerve snapped, and he woke up blind.

“When I woke up from surgery, I thought it was the middle of the night because I opened my eyes and nothing changed. It was still black,” Taylor says. “I couldn’t move my hand because it was tied to the hospital bed. I thought I’d gone crazy – I didn’t know what was going on.”

Taylor spent his 29th birthday in the ICU with complications from his brain surgery, then spent time at a school learning how to live as a blind person. Obviously, his world was turned upside down. A former lacrosse star at the University of Vermont, he missed athletics and his former way of life.

“I love to ski, I love to mountain bike,” Taylor says. “Going blind made a huge void in my life because everything in life is visual. I can’t shoot darts, I can’t play pool, I can’t throw the lacrosse ball with my dad, I can’t shoot hoops with my brother or play tennis with my mom or enjoy art in a museum with my sister. So it was a huge loss.”

When a friend told Ludden about Taylor’s situation, he personally invited Taylor to attend a First Descents kayaking camp in Vail.

“I did that for a week, and it was just the best experience I’ve had in my whole life,” Taylor says. “Not only because it filled that void of physical activity, but even more important than that, I got to meet other cancer survivors. We’ll sit and laugh around the fire at camp First Descents about chemotherapy, about radiation, about constipation – things that you just couldn’t talk to normal people about. Nobody but another cancer survivor can understand what you’ve gone through, what you’re going through. That’s so special about First Descents.”

Taylor went to school for massage therapy and discovered a new talent. This year, he joined the staff at First Descents as the group’s massage therapist, traveling around the country to each camp.

“It’s like a dream come true,” Taylor says. “It’s so cool the opportunity that First Descents has given me – it saved my life. It’s given me things to look forward to, and it makes me happy. I’m so happy to be alive.”

Such passion by campers is what keeps First Descents growing. It’s even structured so that campers can “pay it forward” if they want to return. FD1 is for first-time campers, and is free. Returning campers to FD2 can enjoy another free week of adventure, though they are asked to participate in any fund-raising event to raise money for first-time campers – even $2 is acceptable. For a third camp, campers are asked to try to raise $1,000 to cover a first-time camper. Often it doesn’t take that long to give back – a recent FD1 rock climbing group in Moab is working together as a camp to sponsor next year’s Moab campers.

“When they come into FD1 mode, they’re victims of cancer. When they leave, they’re survivors. When they leave FD2, they’ve moved from survivor to master,” Nielsen says. “We’re really trying to facilitate the move from victim to survivor to master. That’s really what we want to create: a world full of cancer leaders, not just cancer victims. I want anyone who knows anyone who’s a young adult cancer survivor to connect with us.”

For more information about First Descents, visit



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