Get Me to Dry Land: FD2 in Montana

One year ago, I headed to the Outer Banks for my first program with First Descents, an organization that provides outdoor adventures for young adult cancer survivors. As many of you know, this program has enriched my life and pushed me to do things I'd never dream of doing before cancer. (See: that half marathon relay I ran.)

I remember coming home from my trip a year ago, invigorated and changed, telling everyone that surfing was the hardest sport I'd ever tried and that kayaking next year would definitely be easier. I couldn't imagine being more exhausted than I was last June.


And that's truly what I believed until this past week, when I headed to Montana to kayak for my FD2 program.

I truly thought kayaking would involve just floating down some rapids. No standing up in the middle of ferocious waves.

But no. Whitewater kayaking is nothing like surfing. Yes, it's physically demanding and there's like, this water stuff, involved, but you're in a boat for 6 hours at a time. There aren't any breaks to hang out on the beach and eat grapes while ogling at surf instructors like I MAY have done in the Outer Banks.

If you're cold while you're kayaking, you're going to stay cold for six hours. If you're sneezing and coughing, you have to stay on the water, even though you are praying to God to make the week fly by. Which I did, more than once.

Kayayking can be pure misery if you're weak or tired or cranky. Three things I've been known to be.

And yet, I had one of the best weeks of my entire life.

And I was about to faint, shaking like a neurologist's dream patient, tired and exhausted when I realized it.

It was our first day on the water, and we had just graduated from the lake to the creek. Toward the end of the day, my kayak had flipped, completely surprising and scaring me.

When the boats came to save me, my already broken and bent arm was caught between a tree and a kayak and I was halfway submerged and in swirly water. I swam behind the boat to a little island where my camp directors and guides helped check me out and empty my boat. I was bruised and scratched and tired...

But I felt completely fucking alive.

And for me, this feeling of vitality saw me through a week where I felt like shit and wanted to sleep all day. I picked up a cold that steadily worsened throughout the week, and I couldn't kayak much because of my broken elbow and busted collarbone. (Turns out those two particular bones are useful when it comes to paddling.)

There were certain points of the week where I watched new friends challenge themselves and I felt helpless and stupid, a log on the sweeper raft that carried our gear and supplies. Every time my thoughts strayed this way, I tried to infuse myself with the inspiration I felt watching my friends surpass their own expectations.

At night, we ate great food and talked about cancer, how it had changed and hurt us, opened and broke us. How to parent, or decide to parent, or take on relationships with this heavy weight sometimes feeling like it was squeezing us tighter and tighter each passing day. We talked about how to kayak with cancer and how not to kayak with cancer: we talked about how to let yourself off the hook.

For a trip that could seem to others as depressing or morbid, I felt more alive than I have in months, even while admitting I was down for the count, not as strong as I wanted to be.

I have always struggled with pretending it's all okay in order to do the things that I've wanted to do: I went to a music festival in Tennessee two weeks after my appendix burst; I put off the doctor for a week when I broke my arm last month; I ignored the golf ball in my neck that turned out to be cancer. I regularly switch between telling the truth about how I feel and turning and telling everyone not to worry. I do it for others, but I mostly do it for myself.

You're fine, I'll say. This hurts, I'll say. I want to give up, I'll say. I want to keep living, I'll say. All within the course of a minute in my head.

This week reminded me that that is what life with illness is about. Leaning into the hard times (or the current) just so you can shoot down the rapid ahead. And that excuberance you feel when you look back and see what you've done?

That is joy. That is life. That is out living it.

Thank you to First Descents for another amazing week. Patch, Pedro, Braveheart: your friendship means the world to me. Thanks to our camp moms, who I want to adopt me so I can have a trio of moms badgering me about water. And thanks to Bomb and the Dude and our AMAZING guides for taking such good care of me.

I'm planning to run/walk a 5K in order to raise money for this organization that has taught me so much. You can donate here: http://teamfd.firstdescents.org/2013/fd/kellybergindotcom/. Thank you kindly!


  1. Kelly, it sounds like an amazing week for an amazing young woman. Your words, as always, are SO honest and powerful. It's an honor to be able to support your fundraising efforts for First Descents.

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