Brad Ludden | Adventure Non-Profit Founder
Denver-built organization First Descents maps out life-changing, disease-defying outdoor adventure for young adults that have been impacted by cancer. We sat down with non-profit’s founder and pro kayaker to learn how nature has the power to heal.
What’s your first memory of being in the outdoors?
My family always valued spending time together in the outdoors. As such, I was on skis or carrying a backpack to go camping as soon as I could walk. One of my first and most vivid memories was getting up early on a Saturday morning to hike into a high alpine lake that was six miles from the trailhead. I was ecstatic about the adventure because it meant I could explore, fly-fish and generally just get dirty. I've always loved sleeping in a tent, so any chance to do that was welcomed on my end. In this particular memory, I'll never forget adding weight to my pack to make sure it weighed more than my sister's. Of course, she didn't care, and my Dad kept shaking his head telling me 'you're not going to be able to carry all that weight.' I didn't listen, About a mile into the hike, my dad had to start taking weight out of my pack and putting it into his. This continued until we reached our destination and my Dad had all of my weight in his pack. My body and ego were a bit sore, but reaching that lake and breaking out the fly rod with my dad seemed to make it all go away.
Tell us how you decided to merge your love of kayaking with giving back to cancer patients?
I had seen the impact of a cancer diagnosis on a young adult when my aunt was diagnosed in her 30s. It shattered her life, and the ripple effect found its way into ours. That left a lasting impression on me—especially the realization that there was an entire population like my aunt in need of support. As a young professional kayaker, I truly believed in the ability of the sport to empower people and change lives just as it had done for me—and I recognized my unique position to create that experience for other people. The decision to teach people with cancer how to kayak was the easiest and most obvious life decision I've ever made.
Who has inspired you the most to live a life of adventure?
Without question, my mom. She has always had a passion for adventure, and in turn, has inspired our entire family to join her. She's actually the one who first pursued whitewater kayaking. I'm not sure where I would be without her adventurous spirit; without her, I think I would be spending much more time indoors.
What is it about adventure that opens up possibility for real connections with others?
A good adventure creates a level playing field in that it strips everyone down to their most basic self. In every good adventure, we experience fear, excitement and a sense of accomplishment. All of these things—along with a newfound common bond over adventure together—brings us closer and creates connections that can't be replicated through more topical experiences. At First, Descents, each day is filled with van rides to and from the river, rock and waves. In the beginning, I would say these rides are a bit quiet, as our participants are just getting to know each other and are all too often a bit scared of their physical capabilities at the beginning of the week. Those rides provide an opportunity to meaningfully connect, laugh, connect and reflect. Then the challenge happens. Each day that challenge happens in the outdoors and serves as a catalyst for the participants to connect. They now have stories to tell about their day, the rapids they ran or the rocks they climbed. Tears, laughter and friendship are all byproducts of these challenges. Each evening there's a chance to relax, connect as an entire group and recount the day's adventure. By the end, our participants are family, and something about FD brings out the kid in them.
What’s one word you’d use to describe yourself? Why?
Oh man, that's a tough one. Probably better to ask those who know me well. But, if I had to choose one, I would like to tell myself that it's adventurous. Cliche, I know, but I like the thought of it.
What’s one easy way that you spend time outside during the week?
I love to go on little mini adventures. I cancelled my gym membership about two years ago and vowed to get my exercise by going outside every day. It's been a wonderful challenge—my daily adventures range from road and mountain bike rides to small hikes and rafting, kayaking, and fly fishing.
What’s your idea of the perfect day in the outdoors?
Honestly, I can't say I've ever had a bad day in the outdoors. Some days are more challenging than others due to conditions, but they're no less memorable, and certainly no less fulfilling. Any day I go outside, have fun, and challenge myself with good people is a good day, in my book.
How does adventure play into your job / the mission of your company?
It's at the core of everything we do. Adventure inspires our mission, changes the lives of those whom we serve and gives us a sense of self and purpose. The entire First Descents brand and culture is built upon it.
Can you describe a specific way that living a life of adventure has changed you?
It's hard to say given that it's all I know—if I had to guess, I would say it's made me a more humble and appreciative person. The outdoors are always humbling. Simply put, it's always a gift to go on any adventure and that gift gives you an awareness about how lucky we are to be living this life.
What’s the best lesson that you’ve learned through the outdoors?
You always have to say yes to adventure. Life is made of experiences that turn into memories and the things I remember most are the adventures I've had in the outdoors. They define me, and I'm forever grateful for them. Realizing this inspires me to go on more, do more.
If you could go anywhere, with anyone, where would it be & who would you want to go with?
I would go to my home in Northwest Montana. It's the most inspiring place I've ever been; I love how vast and remote it feels. You could spend five lifetimes exploring this place and never see it all. As for who to go with, that's a long list of amazing people, many of whom I've met through First Descents.