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Paddling race on Flathead Lake to benefit young adults with cancer



Epic Shore to Shore race Aug. 4 raises money for First Descents

By Emily Stifler, Managing Editor

KALISPELL – A new race on northwest Montana’s Flathead Lake will challenge sea kayakers and other paddle-sports enthusiasts to challenge themselves while also raising money to support adventure therapy for young adults with cancer.

The inaugural Shore to Shore race, will benefit First Descents, a Denver, Colo.-based nonprofit. The event, held on Aug. 4, will host the 24-mile “epic” race for teams or solo paddlers, a 9.5-mile intermediate race and a fun 4.5-mile paddle. Beginning on the south end of Flathead Lake, the racers will crisscross the bays and inlets along the west shore of the lake.

First Descents founder and CEO Brad Ludden, 31, grew up in Kalispell and was a professional whitewater kayaker for 15 years. In that time he became Nike’s first sponsored kayaker, traveled to 40 countries to paddle, and did more than 100 first descents. Last year, after 11 years with Nike, he switched to Teva.

He started First Descents 12 years ago because his aunt was diagnosed with cancer when he was a young man, and it had “a pretty big impact on me.” Shortly after that, he started volunteering with his mother for a local pediatric oncology program, every summer taking his kayaks to the camp to teach the kids to paddle.

“I fell in love with it and decided to start my own nonprofit to serve people with cancer through the experience of kayaking,” Brad said. “I chose young adults because my aunt was a young adult and literally had no resources available to her so I recognized a need.”

With programs nationwide, First Descents offers young adult cancer fighters and survivors free outdoor adventures “designed to empower them to climb, paddle and surf beyond their diagnosis, defy their cancer, reclaim their lives and connect with others doing the same,” according to its mission statement.

“It’s something I’m as passionate about—or even more—than kayaking,” Brad said.

First Descents’ fundraising platform, Team FD, has been growing quickly since Brad started working full time on it last year. Two years ago it raised $120,000, last year $800,000, and this year Brad said it’s aiming for $1.25 million. The Shore to Shore race raised $3,000 the day it was first announced, July 15.

According to the Team FD mission, “it’s about each individual picking an activity which represents a challenge to him or her, training for it, setting a fundraising goal and completing that challenge.”

Brad’s family still lives in Kalispell, and he credits his mother with the idea for the Flathead Lake event and his father Chuck for organizing it. The Luddens organized past Big Fork Whitewater Festivals and have been paddlers for more than 20 years.

The Kalispell community has been First Descents’ largest supporter and helped it get off its feet, Brad said.

Chuck hopes to have at least 50 participants in the Shore to Shore race, and imagines there will be a mix of serious racers and also groups there to get out as a group and paddle for fun.

“If you do the epic, it’s the longest flatwater race on fresh water in the country,” Chuck said.

It’s also the same weekend as the wooden boat show in Lakeside, so the lake will be buzzing with festivities, Chuck said.

Participants can register on the Epic Shore to Shore website,, and follow race information on the event Facebook page. Event sponsors include Kalispell Toyota and Hammer Nutrition.

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