Camp Fuel

It was a challenge by choice: we didn't have to run the Class 3 Zoar Gap, but there was no way I was going to pass up the chance.Every First Descents program is a challenge by choice. You can do as much or as little as you want or are comfortable with, and it's completely acceptable. Nobody will get in your face like a drill sergeant and try to change your mind or look down upon you for anything. It's one of the most supportive environments you will find in your life, cancer-related or not. For young adult cancer fighters and survivors, First Descents programs are a way to paddle, climb or surf beyond their diagnosis, reclaim their lives, and connect with others doing the same.Since my first camp in 2008, I have been passionate about First Descents and its mission. I have volunteered at several events and have recruited many of my fellow survivors to attend camps. Earlier this year, I found myself in a position to help sponsor a camp, and I was lucky enough to be able to attend that camp so that I could welcome a whole new crop of campers into the First Descents family. As a three-time camper, I knew exactly how the campers felt during the camp. I'm familiar with the nervous pit in their stomachs that made them question the sanity of strapping themselves into a kayak, thinking they'd never even be able to get themselves out if it flipped over. I have felt the sore shoulders and exhaustion from paddling for hours on end, and will never forget the triumph of finishing a week of kayaking by going through the graduation rapid while being cheered on by fellow campers and support staff. Don't tell anybody, but I have even shed tears of joy and sadness when it was time to go home. No words will ever be able to describe how amazing it was to have a front-row seat to watch the new campers have these experiences. I could sense the campers' anxiety and tension after our third day on the river. It was "alternate craft day" where we floated down some of the more challenging parts of the river in rafts and on stand-up paddleboards instead of kayaks. My sense was that most of the campers were looking ahead to the challenges of the last two days on the river, where they put their skills to use on increasingly difficult sections of the river, instead of enjoying each moment as it came. Throughout the week, several campers asked me questions about what to expect both on the river and off. I am by no means an expert kayaker or an expert cancer survivor, but I tried to share my experiences and what I learned about each subject. I am a stereotypically stubborn dude, and it often takes me an enormous amount of time to learn the most basic lessons. Sitting around the campfire the night after our third day on the river, while everyone swatted mosquitoes and ate s'mores, I wanted to share a story that I hoped would help put things into perspective for the campers.My first First Descents camp was in Glacier National Park in Montana in the summer of 2008. After a week on the river, crashing through big rapids and trying to keep up with First Descents founder (and professional kayaker) Brad Ludden, I found myself alone just before we exited the river on the last day. I stopped paddling and just floated, finally taking in the scenery. After a week of focusing on my technique, watching the rapids and trying to figure out the most fun line on the river (the path with the biggest waves), I realized that the sky was deep blue and the clouds were fluffy and bright white. The water was calm and quiet, and it finally hit me--I wouldn't be there if I hadn't had cancer. I would have never found myself in a kayak during that week in Montana, or two subsequent weeks in Colorado, or the most recent week in Massachusetts had I not been sick, and I wouldn't have experiences that I'll remember for the rest of my life. I wanted the campers to get that perspective and to break free from the tunnel vision of making sure that their hands were in the right position on the paddle and that they leaned correctly with the current so that they didn't flip over, along with all of the other technical proficiencies. I told them to look around, take in the spectacular scenery, think about why they were there, and just enjoy the river. I also told the campers to trust themselves and the support staff. Clutch, Cherub and Calc, the instructors from Zoar Outdoor, and Daryl and Wildflower, the First Descents staff (everyone at First Descents camps gets a nickname), prepared everyone to succeed, and I knew in my heart that each camper would be fine. The tension and anxiety seemed gone the next day and a couple of campers even told me on the river that they understood what I had talked about the night before. I will never forget the graduation rapid at the end of our last day on the river. I went down first so that I could cheer on all of the campers as they paddled through the rapid. I was bursting with pride as each person came down individually, and each one had giant smiles on their faces, whether they were in their kayak or not. When I was a camper, I stayed focused on learning how to kayak and not flipping over. I didn't notice the progression in myself during any of the camps that I attended, but at this camp, I was able to watch the campers grow from mostly nervous and scared kayak novices to completely capable kayakers with the knowledge and skills to run through a challenging set of rapids. When you're going through the experience, it's difficult to step back and see how far you have come. But each of the campers came farther than I think they expected when they all arrived at camp on the first day, and I hope they carry that with them through the rest of their lives.After the graduation rapid, the decision was made to hike ahead and scout the Zoar Gap so that we could see what we were in store for, if we chose to run it. That section of river was fast, much faster than any other stretch of river we paddled down. There were some large rocks in the middle of the section, too, so we had to be careful. The tension was pretty high with everyone as we walked back to our kayaks. My heart was racing and I couldn't take a deep breath, but I was ready to go. Ten of the 12 campers chose to run the Zoar Gap. I did, too. Not everyone made it through the rapid without flipping over. When we were scouting the river, looking down on it, I knew I wanted to stay to the right and avoid the big rocks. I ended up going last, and when I finally paddled through the rapid, I stayed mostly to the right, except for near the end when I slid over the side of a rock that jumped up out of the water and tried to eat me. I fought the loud, churning whitewater, leaning left, then leaning right, back and forth again and again, fighting with every ounce of fight in my body to stay above the water until I found myself in the quiet, peaceful flat water.The whole section felt like it was over almost as soon as it began, but it was exhilarating. I saw the rest of the campers, along with Clutch, Cherub, Calc, Daryl and Wildflower, waiting in an eddy, and I let out a triumphant yell. Then I took a deep breath. Jasan "Fuel" Zimmerman is alive and kicking and plotting his next adventure.