Adventure Heals in Montana
First Descents rises up to outdo the perils of cancer, one paddle at a time.
By Bruce Northam
“Healing the way, you need to, scientifically or emotionally.” -- Brad Ludden
This is a tale about putting outdoor medicine to work.
Every employee at the outdoor adventure company First Descents is nicknamed (Fruit Boots, Buckets, the office dog Sloan Dog Millionaire, and more).
Brad Ludden was nicknamed Man Salmon when several of his capsized river kayaker participants needed help getting to shore to right their kayaks. This required Brad to repeatedly paddle mightily upstream like a determined salmon, and the rest is history since the company’s inauguration in 2001.
Brad’s aunt was stricken with cancer when he was 13. She survived, but that battle deeply affected Brad and it shows in how his incredibly charitable life mission evolved.
This wasn’t the first or last time Brad, a Montana native, has helped people in need. And here’s where it gets really good.
Life Changing Outdoor Adventures
First Descents, based in Northwest Montana, provides life-changing outdoor adventures for young adults (age 18-39) impacted by or surviving cancer.
Ninety-five percent of the participants have survived or are currently fighting some form of cancer while the other five-percent are a caregiver.
None of the participants have to pay to experience what First Descents has to offer—world-class surfing, whitewater kayaking, and rock and ice climbing.
This dude is an angel in fresh-air exhilaration mode. Raised in Kalispell, Montana, Brad lived in Colorado for 14 years while honing his skills as a professional whitewater kayaker.
He returned to Kalispell to care for his ailing mom in 2013. Brad’s mom passed away last year; he hasn’t left his hometown, and now can’t imagine doing it.
First Descents operates with a few core beliefs, namely that cancer doesn’t have to define someone—and that it can be an opportunity to form deep meaningful connections with other people and nature.
Brad testifies that “Adventure heals…and that laughter is medicine.” His company is about a sense of community and getting involved.
Despite 70,000 new cancer diagnoses in the U.S. each year, one of the most common challenges young adults with cancer face after diagnosis are feelings of isolation and alienation.
Through outdoor adventure, First Descents found a way to bring people with shared experiences together in such a strong and significant way that it can feel more like a family than a group of friends on a similar mission.
This outfitter embraces a culture of philanthropy, recognizing that we all need help at times and that we can all help others at times. As it is with life, this brand of outdoor therapy offers the chance to lean on your cohorts through challenges and to be there to support them through theirs.
First Descents also created FDX (First Descents Experience) to provide continued support for alumni, and more vitally, to foster peer to peer fundraising initiatives with a primary goal of “FUNd-raising” and paying it forward to First Descents on behalf of the young adult cancer community.
The FDX program collectively plans and secures trips at extremely affordable rates, then sets fundraising goals that surpass the total cost of the program. FDX trips have a heavy focus on adventure—and are hosted all over the world—allowing the participants to experience not only a new outdoor adventure but also new cultures and places that they might not otherwise be able to behold.
Another notable addition to their program offerings is FDtribs (short for tributaries). FDtribs are essentially adventure support communities based in major cities throughout the U.S.A.
FDtribs offers a variety of ongoing adventure support services that range from an evening of climbing each month in a local rock gym to four-day backcountry river and hut trips. Using this model, every FDX program is a First Descents experience as well as a way to contribute back to the First Descents mission to help young adults in need.
Their goal is to make adventure and connection more accessible in an effort to reach more young adults with cancer more often.
First Descents inspires and pushes its partakers beyond their limits in some of the most stunningly beautiful settings on Earth.
Brad’s empathy ticked up a notch when he added, “Everyone has a passion and that passion has the potential to help someone in need. Seek to find and connect those two things and you can create a lot of positive change in the world.”
Love Life Again
Simply put, this company gives young people who are fighting and surviving cancer the option to once again love life. They are no longer alone in their diagnosis and mutually discover that when they are pushed way outside of their comfort zones beautiful things happen.
Out here, young adults with cancer find their cancer family, and then they find a home for their hearts. Brad’s philosophy about helping people in need—more like going through the toughest thing they or anyone ever will—seems to boil down to this: “As long as you're alive, you’re in a position to help someone else.”
How Participants Feel
Here are some quotes from cancer patients who have taken First Descents journeys.
"Cancer steals your joy, your money, your future and your identity. After diagnosis, you fight, not cancer and treatment, which are endured with prayers but to reclaim living. First Descents, honestly seemed too good to be true. An adventure where I didn't need to worry about money or planning, where I could just be me and I can be myself here, even the cancer-y parts."
"This week has been a breath of fresh air after the long exhale of achieving remission. I’ve challenged myself surfing!!! I’ve made fast friends and I’ve laughed. I didn't think I can capture how deeply this trip makes me feel well. Thank You!" --Cinnamon, 2015 participant
"P.S Have you ever stood on a surfboard riding a wave to the shore? It's glorious! Thanks for making it possible."
"I am a single mom of three young kids, and since I was diagnosed two years ago I have never done anything like this for myself. This week, after two years of being very, very angry at cancer for driving my marriage apart and completely stressing me and my family out, I have chosen to forgive cancer.
This is the most amazing gift I could have ever been given, and I thank you from the bottom of my heart. I know that I will return to my kids a new woman full of hope, optimism, happiness, and love. Thank you, thank you."
In an increasingly troubled world, Brad Ludden and his amazing crew got at least a few things right.
Watch a video about First Descents.
This story was written with the assistance of Montana Tourism, but the opinions are the author's own.
Bruce Northam is the author of The Directions to Happiness, a 135-country quest for life lessons, and a Chicken Soup for the traveler — with balls. He lives in New York City. Bruce’s show, American Detour, reveals the travel writer’s journey. His alternative keynote presentation, Directions to Your Destination, reveals the many shades of the travel industry and how to entice travelers. His other live performance, Street Anthropology, is an ode to freestyle wandering. Visit AmericanDetour.com.