Brad Ludden has built a life around his love for the outdoors and a passion for helping others. Raised in Montana by adventurous parents, he learned to kayak when he was 9, left home to compete internationally when he was 14, and launched First Descents, a groundbreaking nonprofit dedicated to using outdoor sports to help young adults affected by cancer, when he was 20. Now 33, he recently moved back to Montana to carry on his family's adventure legacy, and to rediscover the wilderness that shaped him so profoundly as a child.
I was raised in Kalispell, Montana, where my father was a doctor. He was incredibly hard working. He never missed a day of work in his whole life. On the weekends when he wasn't on call, he would always plan something with our family in the outdoors—going backpacking or to a remote river, or hunting, some place no one could get hold of us. I really learned to connect with my father and my family through the outdoors. It was sacred for us.
When I was six, my father gave me a single-shot 22. His father had given it to him when he was six, and my great-grandfather had given it to my grandfather when he was six. It was a rite of passage. When I was little, my father and I would go out and shoot cans. Hunting became a big part of my life and a way to connect with my dad. When I was 14, I drew a coveted bighorn sheep tag in the Cabinet Mountains. My father and I spent 31 days over the course of three months hunting together. We had a lot of grizzly encounters and adverse weather conditions. We shot the ram at dusk in a remote basin, under a full moon. I was ecstatic, but my dad had this look on his face that said, 'Oh, here we go.' We hiked 12 miles back to the truck with over 100 pounds on our back. My father drove through the night to get home, and put me to bed; then he went straight back to work. That showed me his strength as a man. I don't think I could have done that. The trip was a milestone for us, finding equal ground as men. We became best friends, more than father and son.
I've taken these values into my life as an outdoorsman. My father recently gave the gun back to me, saying "Should you ever have a son, pass it on."
As a family, in Montana, we had a sport for every season: skiing, paddling, hunting. In the spring and summer, we did long backpacking trips to wilderness areas. My dad always made me carry my own external frame pack. He wanted to teach me you had to carry your own weight. Once we got caught in a horrendous lighting storm. It scared the hell out of me. I was seven. My father was a stoic; he kept the family safe. That experience gave me huge respect for the outdoors. Years later, I'm still always being humbled by the river. It's such a force, constantly reminding how insignificant I am. I've had lessons pounded into me on the river time and time again.
My mother discovered kayaking first. She always loved the water. We watched her as she became proficient that first summer, and pretty soon kayaking became a family tradition. Every weekend, starting when I was six, we'd go to the river. My parents would paddle, and my sister and I would watch from the side. At night, we'd camp. When I was nine, I finally fit into one of those old archaic kayaks. I was really excited. My parents got us each a boat, and then we'd paddle as a family. My life started to revolve around those rivers—pretty much everything important happened on the river: my first kiss, my first girlfriend. Paddling started to define who I was. It was all I wanted to do. My parents empowered me to pursue the sport even though they knew how dangerous it was.
In northwestern Montana, it's not too uncommon to find families living adventurous lives, but our family was a bit exceptional. For my father, being outside was a chance to connect with his family because he worked so hard. When the weekends came, he had to get away and do something off the grid, outside. My mom is incredibly adventurous, and she loved that lifestyle. My dad needed it and my mom wanted it. That's all we knew as children.
Last year, I moved back to Montana from Colorado to be closer my to family. This is where I belong. My parents are building a cabin on the North Fork of the Flathead River. It's all dirt roads and off the grid, with solar power. We spend time there together: hunting, rafting, kayaking, fishing. It's still the way we connect. There's peace of mind knowing that this will be a family gathering place for generations to come, and that the values of adventure my grandfather passed down will never go away. I'd love to raise kids there and teach them what my dad taught me and what my grandfather taught him.
My grandfather is in his mid-90s now. Like my dad, he was very hardworking, but he also placed so much value on simple things: a life lived outside, with his family. When I was a kid, he used to come up to Montana for summers. Being a geologist, he instilled in me a fascination for rocks. We'd go on long hikes through woods. At time I took it as normal, because it was my normal. Now realize how lucky I am. Adventure is the center of my existence. I get so much fulfillment and happiness from it. All the good things I find in life seem to come from doing things outside.
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