third time’s the charm: first descents, montana, july 2011

They say the third time’s the charm.  But how can I possibly measure my most recent trip to the divine land of First Descents love and laughter against my previous sojourns?  It’s simply not appropriate.  So maybe all I can do it report, from the current front-lines.

My own cancer experience continues to recede, however slowly and grudgingly.  I would venture to say my body is once again, almost completely my own.  I hate to break it to you, my dear disease, but all you have ultimately served to do is make me a stronger and fiercer version of the person I used to be.  These words actually escaped my lips the other day, “I feel younger now than I did when I was 26.”

The Montana Family

Attribute that last statement in large part to the week I just spent in Montana, in the rivers and lakes of Glacier, with an outrageously beautiful group of young adults, many of whom have yet to see 30.  The energy, defiance and intelligence they exuded quite literally revitalized me.

Dance party, Going-to-the-Sun Road

Never mind that many of these extraordinary people are battling, or have recently battled, cancer.  If you came across us in a crowd, or along the side of Going-to-the-Sun Road, in stopped traffic, the last words you would use to describe us would be “weak,” “afraid,” or “sick.”  For we are the most vibrant, alive, joyful people you could ever hope to encounter.  You know you want to be just like us.  Unfortunately, the only way you can join our fabulous club is to stare death square in the face.  Still interested?

This was my third and likely final First Descents camp – at least as a “camper.”  Knowing that, I had to take the literal plunge – into the icy waters of Lake McDonald and the Flathead River, and experience the magic of First Descents the way it was initially conceived, in the cockpit of a whitewater kayak.

Patch, one of our absurdly gifted, patient and good-looking instructors, will tell you that I came up from my first trip under water while learning to wet exit and burst into tears.  I had so much fear built up in me about what the experience would be like, that when I finally confronted it, I just about imploded under the weight of my own anxiety.  A few minutes later, though, when I successfully wet-exited, my perspective shifted completely.  I popped out of the water, shaking my head like a soggy dog, and thought, “Well, then:  another mortal fear confronted.  Let’s do this.”

True, that was on a still lake, just feet from the shore, under very controlled circumstances, but it still felt like a triumph.

My beloved Spam hat

It wasn’t until the very last day of camp that I would be forced to wet exit in the midst of a roaring class-III rapid.  That, it turns out, was my REAL fear. But when it came time to finally confront it, I’d developed so much confidence in my skills, and so much trust in my instructors and fellow campers, that I wasn’t even actually afraid.  Instead of worrying about drowning, or smashing my face into a rock, I worried about the Spam hat that I’d affixed to my helmet becoming dislodged and floating down river.  Needless to say, when I emerged from the water, and grabbed onto the back of Iceman’s boat, and realized the hat was still attached, I felt an exuberant, deranged sense of relief and pride.  These are the moments that you can only experience with your First Descents family; these are the things that make life as a survivor an indescribable joy ride.

Camp this year also gave me the chance to grieve in a very precise way for the friends I have lost to cancer since the last time I was with First Descents, in April of 2010.  One of the greatest gifts that First Descents gives young adult survivors is the chance to relate and connect around our disease on our own terms.  As at past camps, the week in Montana was filled with quiet conversations about diagnoses, treatment and the reactions of our family and friends to our illness.  And as always, on the last night, we joined arms and cried together, and gazed into a candle-lit pool, remembering those we’ve lost, the parts of ourselves that we can never reclaim, and the lives we imagined we’d lead.

I left Montana with this peculiar fullness of heart that I experience only with my First Descents family – sorrow for what we have endured, gratitude for what we share, and hope for a future filled with our crazy brand of love.


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One Response to third time’s the charm: first descents, montana, july 2011

  1. Kellie Hilley says:


    You write so beautifully! Thank you for sharing.


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