I don’t think either of us fully comprehended just how much kayaking together would change our lives. If we had, perhaps he would have smiled more and I would have thanked him then.
Nick, or Nickname as I knew him, had come to Montana to learn to kayak with an organization called First Descents, or FD. First Descents is a non-profit organization that provides free life-changing outdoor adventure programs to young adults (18-39) impacted by cancer. Everyone who participates goes by a nickname, and I gave Nick his, although I think I was always a little more excited about my moniker stroke of genius than he was.
Nickname was in his late teens when we met. He was fighting an aggressive cancer, and from everything I could tell, his bright spirit had been dimmed because of it. It was clear that behind his diagnosis was a hard-charging, adventure-loving, positive and happy young guy. For some reason, I immediately felt a strong connection to Nickname and made it my personal goal to see him meet his own goals within the sport of kayaking, whatever they might be.
Over the course of that week with FD, I watched as his smile returned—one wave at a time—and the life came back to his face. Laughter and his bright spirit slowly began to resurface from the layers of grief and despair his disease had caused. All the while, he was diving into the sport of kayaking like few people I had met before him.
By the time the week ended, I knew only one thing; through the sport of kayaking, Nickname had reclaimed himself, his identity, his happiness, and his freedom from a disease that had threatened to take it all away. What I didn’t know is that because of his week with FD, he would go home and not only continue to pursue kayaking (so much so, in fact, that he later became an instructor with the program), but that he also found his voice and started his own non profit -WACKY (Warriors Against Cancer in Kids and Young Adults) which aims to raise funds for child and youth cancer research and wellness programs, including First Descents.
His passion for WACKY and his commitment to helping others never faltered.
Roughly three years after meeting Nickname, and after countless memories together, I received an email from his Mom. His disease had progressed. He was given two weeks to live. The news hit me like a freight train. I immediately offered to fly to Salt Lake City to see him. But in all of his grace, Nickname asked that I remember him as he was the last time we were together a couple of months prior—loving life and throwing high fives on the river. I then took on one of the toughest tasks of my life; I wrote Nickname my last letter to him, expressing my indelible gratitude for his friendship, incredible spirit, and commitment to helping others.
He passed away a few weeks later. I had the distinct pleasure of speaking at his funeral. They were the most difficult and most meaningful words I have ever spoken. And, as we laid his casket to rest, Nickname’s father handed me a letter Nickname had written to me before he died.
After reading that letter, and reflecting on his words, I came to realize a few things. First, don’t wait. For any of it. Instead, say what you need to say. Tell those you love the most that you do. When it comes to taking action on behalf of passion and the things and people who make us whole, do not hesitate. Second, there is power in the outdoors unlike anywhere else. The act of kayaking ignited Nickname’s spirit. It set into motion a series of events that have subsequently raised hundreds of thousands of dollars for charity, touched countless lives, and helped advance life-saving research in the fight against cancer.
And Nickname is not alone. Over the past 14 years, thousands of young adults have reclaimed their lives from cancer through the act of outdoor adventure at First Descents. In doing so, they’ve inspired so many others—myself included—to do the same. The tagline of First Descents is their words and they are words we can all live by. Together, through our own adventurous pursuits, we can overcome anything that threatens our happiness, identity, and freedom. Collectively, through that unshakable call of the wild, we can all be Out Living It!