It's June and I am by the banks of the Klickitat river in Southern Washington state. To my left is a middle age woman who has been battling cancer for longer then I can imagine. I gaze upon her weary demeanour in order to assess her state of mind. It's about fourty degrees Celsius, we are sweltering, sweat is pouring and the ground is burning our feet through our booties. I can sense the tiredness within her, she has been fighting a mental and physical battle through the heat and dehydration for the past five days. We are scouting the final and most challenging rapid of the entire week, the rapid is intimidating and scary to a new kayaker, a Grade 3 with a definitive line in order to make it down successfully. This challenge is completely optional and last blast for stronger and often younger participants who maybe have some previous experience of kayaking.
She had sat in a kayak for the first time just four days ago, and on her first day looked like a deer in headlights on roller skates. Her determination brought great success and achievement. She had progressed rapidly and even 'graduated' by navigating rapids solo without being led down, there was nothing left to prove. I look at her tired posture and thought to myself she has had enough. I open my mouth to utter the words "No shame in not doing this one ..." I managed just the first couple of words before she turned to me and said ...
"Screw it, this has nothing on chemo, don't try to talk me out of this honey I'm doing it."
We burst out laughing and went back to our kayaks. She followed me down successfully with steely determination and her tired demeanour was replaced with the celebration and energy of somebody who hadn't been through round after round of hellish chemotherapy. This was just one notable example among dozens of situations where I was inspired by many of these wonderful people who have been dealt an incredibly hard hand in life. They all carry a fear and uncertainty about what the next day may bring but by being around a group of other people who all have similar stories and understand what it is like to have your whole world turned upside down, an incredibly supportive bond is created.
At first I only felt comfortable being a fly on the wall during conversations, not worthy of sharing thoughts on hardships I couldn't relate to. After a few days of being engaged and approached many times by participants I began to realise the value of my contributions and of getting to know these people. On the water I could see how the challenge of kayaking made participants realise their own self belief and determination to keep trying despite setbacks. The mental therapy of being in the beautiful outdoors and the feeling of joy and accomplishment from navigating whitewater always brought the groups back to the same conclusion in the evenings.
The importance of living with genuine purpose, as if you could feel time was ticking down and you need to grasp every ounce of what is important to you in life you can before the clock ticks down.
Don't put things you want to do on the back burner as nothing is guaranteed. While it seems like a cliché, I watched that attitude put on display day after day, by these people many of whom have a very real countdown in life. I saw many traits in these people which I would like to try to emulate. Working with First Descents has helped me prioritise and appreciate many aspects of my own life which maybe I overlooked before.
First Descents is one of those organisations which gives me huge faith in humanity: for the life-changing experience it provides for its both participants and anybody else involved. Thank you to all the people who make First Descents what it is from the participants to the FD staff and volunteers. I am a better person for having been involved with you all. #outlivingit