In a sport that lacked a talented poster boy, Brad Ludden burst onto the “extreme” sports kayaking scene right out of high school by tackling the most daunting of man-eating rivers. Since then, he locked up the first kayak sponsorship from Nike, has thrashed rivers in over 40 countries, and been plastered on a slew of outdoor magazine covers.
Thankfully, Ludden, now 27, has been giving back practically as long as he's been paddling. In 2001, he started his own nonprofit, First Descents, before he even hit the legal drinking age, and the foundation continues to provide young adults with cancer the opportunity to experience the intensity and emotional healing aspects of outdoor adventures like kayaking and climbing.
In May, First Ascents will launch the Third Annual Vertical Challenge to raise the thousands of dollars necessary to fund these extreme outdoor trips for free, and its founder remains as excited as ever. Backpacker.com’s MORGAN KEYS spoke to Ludden about running exotic rivers, First Descents, and his backup-plan if it all falls through.
BACKPACKER: You have over 100 first descents under your belt. Rivers in Sumatra, South Africa, and Laos, to name a few pretty amazing places. Are there any rivers that still beckon you?
LUDDEN: We actually just did a really big expedition in Madagascar. The Betsiboka River has been calling to me for a long time, and I finally got around to it. It was the most amazing experience—It quenched my thirst for a little bit, but it won't be long before I get back out there.
BP: You just announced that you’ll launch the Third Annual Vertical Challenge in May. What's that all about?
LUDDEN: People form a (kayaking) team and get pledges to raise money (for young adults with cancer to attend a First Descents camp). People sponsor them to kayak x amount of miles or vertical feet.
Obviously as rivers drop, you get vertical feet; the more vertical feet, the more money they get through pledges and that enters them into top teams in different categories. Last year, we raised just under $39,000. It's become something we're very proud of.
BP: Along with the money you raised, you guys also had a great turnout in 2008: 48 teams and about 200 competitors. How do you intend to one-up that this year?
LUDDEN: We've added a few new categories and expanded the reach of the competition to more participants so we should see significant growth from last year. It's exciting—it's a cool opportunity for us kayakers to use our sport and our passion. The competition is a fun way to give back.
BP: You started First Descents when you were only 20, an age when most people are just waiting on their first legal beer. Any other big ideas in the works for the future?
LUDDEN: There's still so much to do yet with First Ascents. There will be a documentary soon and we started a Web site (www.firstdescents.org). Everything points to First Descents. (I'd like to) make it bigger and keep growing to reach the need that's out there.
BP: You've said that one of your life goals is to host your own TV show—should we look out for you on basic cable anytime soon?
LUDDEN: We're working on some of that stuff. Obviously, it'll be stuff that encompasses sports and philanthropy. We'll use the show to talk about those things to a bigger audience.
BP: No Food Network then?
LUDDEN: I do love to eat—that'll be my plan B.
BP: Last Question: We received inside information that you're a huge Top Gun fan. You just got off a plane in LA. Does getting up in the air satisfy your need for speed?
LUDDEN: Yeah, but I didn't get to fly today. I have my own plane so I'm not happy about it. I love to fly.
BP: Goose or Maverick?
LUDDEN: Oh, Maverick. Everyone wants to be Maverick.
Want more info on what Ludden and the First Descents crew are doing? Check out www.firstdescents.org. To thrash some rivers of your own, sign up for the Third Annual Vertical Challenge at www.eddyflower.com.