THE COURAGE OF HOPE

Posted by | On the water, Time in service | 2 Comments
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Camaraderie, balance, and hope.
I have two handwritten quotes on two small pieces of yellow legal paper taped to the wall next to my desk. Each given to me by friends at points in my life when I really needed them. The friends and the quotes.

The first is by John Buchan, a Scottish author:
“The charm of fishing is that it is the pursuit of what is elusive, but attainable. A perpetual series of occasions for hope.”

And the second, by John Wayne:
“Courage is being scared to death, but saddling up anyway.”

As a freelance writer, fly fisherman, father, and veteran, both quotes have offered some much needed perspective at various times since they were gifted to me. Especially when it comes to my time spent outdoors and it’s value in my life. While it’s true for me of pretty much any wild place, I’ve come to see that rivers have a special way about them. They take what we give them and return our selves to us. They press and push and keep us off balance until we learn how to stand in seemingly equal measure.

The river is spiritual. Healing. Holistic, and wholly powerful. But what we give the river is only what we’re willing to let go of. And sometimes the river is not enough to loosen the grip we keep on that weight. Or loosen the weight’s grip on us. Rivers can never be too full of our sins and pain. Our fears. Doubt, guilt, anger, sadness. But sometimes simply finding our balance, whether figurative or literal, takes more than finding our small station in the constant rush to larger and larger water.

Through it all we need to lean on the ebb and flow of hope. If we didn’t have hope, there would be no reason to try, for anything, in the first place. And that, for me, is the draw of fly fishing, and the reason Project Healing Waters exists and serves our veterans. The hope of reaching out and having our efforts connect with another living thing—be it fish, or human being—and the healing that happens as a result.

There is an inherent danger in hope, however. Hope disappoints. Hope ends up far below expectation more often than not, if at all. It sets you up for failure. But our combat veterans are cut from different cloth than most. Even in the darkest hours, they manage to find the slightest, dusty ray of light. They hold on in spite of disappointment because that’s what keeps them in forward motion. Without hope, without some thread of belief, they would lose their edge, their passion, their empathy. Their fight would leave them and fear would take its place. It takes courage to be hopeful.

Our veterans live with the hope of finding some normalcy again. Hope of finding a respite from their pain—be it physical or mental. They hope to return home in every sense of the word. Imagine feeling as though you’re caught between two realities that are as different as oil and water. Imagine living with a constant reminder of the worst in this world, even in the best, most beautiful situations, and not knowing how to let go of that weight.

To see our combat veterans at the vise in the evening, intent on tying a fly that could catch them their first steelhead or brown or salmon at first light. To see them opening up, letting their guard down, and talking and laughing with mentors, guides, and volunteers—many of whom are veterans themselves. To see them wade with growing confidence into the river with those mentors and guides, the morning coming to life right in front of their eyes, the river alive with the possibility of huge fish willing to eat. To see them find their balance, holding onto the hope that any and every cast could be the one that will connect. Their mentor or guide standing close with the same hope. This is why we serve those who have served so selflessly for us.

Ultimately, one hope brings the other to fruition. The hope that comes with their focus on something as small and deliberate as a tying a fly. The hope that comes with finding their own strength in the power of the river, and finally reaching out, connecting, and holding their glorious, finned hallelujah with both hands. Each of these answer our veterans’ larger hope for normalcy and returning home. The camaraderie and glorious unquiet-quiet and life of the river loosens their grip on the weight they’re carrying, and loosens the grip of combat and all the shit that it has imposed on them. Ultimately, it’s a gift of presence, and greater courage. On the water and in life. Elusive, yes. But attainable. And absolutely worth saddling up for.

(fp note: this post was written to commemorate the Project Healing Waters event held on the Salmon River (NY) earlier this past November, hosted by the Ft. Drum and Syracuse Chapters of Project Healing Waters. I am honored to have again been a part of this event, and the fantastic work that PHWFF does for our veterans. Thank you to Dan Morgan, Ira Strouse, Fran Verdoliva from the NYSDEC, and all the guides and volunteers who made the weekend a success.)

SHOOTING DARTS IN ALASKA

Posted by | On the water, The road | 4 Comments
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Hand-scrawled

When the day falls and the thin promise of neon rises, the brown liquor and beer go down easier, and with more truth, and there’s a vague life-or-death feel to the whole thing. I’m a pace-and-a-half from the dartboard, but I’m just as apt to walk to the docks—crowded sleeping silhouette-mass of mast wire, swing arms, buoys and hulls—and stare at the moon on the water, letting my girl run wild in my mind, or jump into a barroom mêlée between two hopeless drunk men over a homely drunk woman, if only to feel the blunt sting of one lucky punch finding my cheek before I start swinging till my knuckles are bloody.

The gravity of our last night north of the 49th parallel was settling in. A week in-flight, afloat, on-foot and on the road in a small portion of the 17 million acre Tongass National Forest now reaching its end. There was an other-worldly aspect to being there. Outside of the cruise ships careening to the sky from the main drag and local shoebox storefronts in the shadows plying their trade. Outside the chaos of the tourist-herds migrating from here to there and back in wide-brimmed hats and khaki shorts and sandals. Further outside. The rainforest mountains and calving glaciers in topaz brilliance. Further. An orca in the wide salt spotted from our pontoon plane. Further. Gauze-thick clouds swallowing snow-capped horizons and bear and wolf tracks on sand bars. Further, son. Go further.

Our days were spent surrounded by the old growth spruce and devil’s club and ferns and fireweed, in rivers thick with fish, from the salt to our feet and on to their glacial headwaters. Pinks and chum and dollies, but pinks mostly. Humpies. Angry, bright, toothy, headlong-in-leopard-spot haymakers on almost every cast. Fish six-to-eight pounds and the occasional humped male pushing weight to double digits. So many you could feel the hit on your swung fly and bury a fair-hooked solid strip-set before they hit your swung fly. So many that you let even shitty casts drift. So many that we made things more challenging by throwing dry flies – pink gurglers the size of hummingbirds—just to watch them rise and blindly fumble around after the fly behind those un-earthly kyped beaks. Our voices, hollering Humpaaaayyy!!! echoed up and down the river like kids with a new cuss word on the playground.

And now, a week spent and our last night just reaching good-and-loud, we’re throwing darts with frontier aim, like there are bears at the door and we’re warming up for the main event. Beer and brown liquor truth and the seven of us, rough-hewn and comfortable with the uncomfortable. Explorers, seekers, hunters, letting go of as much as we had gathered. We were hand-scrawled maps on bar napkins and midnight advice between rounds while the juke-box rambled and burned.

Park here.
Fish anywhere from there on up.
Can’t wait to see how many rods you bust.
You need a beer.

Prodigal sons making peace with tomorrow’s journey home, shouldering a dart board confidence and capability that snipes trip-twenties or the walk-off double bull and roars fuck yea bitches and shoves somebody. While the deck hands and locals go on spending paychecks, getting good and drunk and loud like there’s no tomorrow, avoiding themselves and happy for our distraction.

 

(fp note: this piece originally appeared a ways back in the fantastic online journal, Revive Fly Fishing. You should absolutely check them out.)

FIVE YEARS

Posted by | On the water, Poetry, Uncategorized | 2 Comments
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Five years ago today I hit publish on my first post here. I had spend the better part of two months trying to figure out what it was that I was going to add to the already burgeoning outdoor blog conversation — and whether it mattered to me if what I wrote actually mattered to anyone else but me and (eventually) my kids. I just wanted to give my soul a chance to breathe and be quiet again. I simply wanted to write. And so, the blog was my shot over the bow, in a manner of speaking. My first cast. This poem specifically:

GEESE, BEFORE MY FIRST CAST

They’re coming around the corner of the island now.
Five afloat on the rippling glow.

Slow armada.
Dark & noisy morning fleet.

***

1,825 days and 151 (now 152) posts later, I find myself turning to the blog for another breath, some quiet, and a renewed perspective. I’m exceedingly happy I took the shot I did in the first place, and that I’ve been able to share these last five years with all of you. And I’m exceedingly happy that it has mattered. Here’s to five more years of being present for mornings like the one that’s perpetually dawning in the words above.

DISPATCH FROM BEAVER ISLAND

Posted by | On the water, The road | 9 Comments
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From the Monday I received Kevin Morlock’s email inviting me to fly fish for carp on Beaver Island, to the Wednesday when the wheels of the Britten Norman Islander barked on the island’s rolling, old blacktop runway, I had barely 9 days to prepare. I was supposed to be meeting four fellow anglers – Cameron Mortenson, Alex Landeen, Dan Frasier (Media editor at USACarppro), and John Arnold (scumliner Media/owner of Headhunters Fly Shop) – and our three guides – Kevin Morlock and Steve Martinez (Indigo Guide Service) and Austin Adduci (Grab Your Fly Charters). All great fishermen and great dudes to lose track of days on and off the water with. I arrived a couple days after the rest of the crew with one full duffel, more than enough fly gear, no carp experience or clue what to expect, and (since the guys were out chasing carp) no ride into town. Sitting on the concrete stoop outside the one-room, whitewashed terminal/shack at Welke Airport in the close-ringing mosquito buzz and heat of the island afternoon, I could not have been happier.

Britten Norman Islander

It’s a special place that greets you in a way that’s more familial than hospitable, and makes you feel at home, even though you’re nowhere near home. From the “Hey! You made it! Here, give me your bags” when I arrived at the Island Airways terminal in Charlevoix after a 9-hour drive, one minute before take-off, and the “Hey! You made it! Close the door so you don’t let the mosquitos in!” when I landed and walked into the rustic island terminal; to the impromptu and gracious 3-mile ride into town from the airport and fully narrated history and tour of the sleepy bayside town of St. James by Chuck and Sheila, a couple who thought nothing of helping this weary, ride-less traveler get to the Fisherman’s House; to the smiles and waves that came from every car, truck, bicycle, pedestrian, storefront, coffee shop, and residence I passed on the street the entire trip; to the graduation party invite we received from an island family who wanted to include us in celebrating their daughter’s milestone; to the amazing dinner prepared for us at the Stoney Acre Grill and great table- and bar-side conversation with Liam and Marylyn, the chef and his wife, who are also the owners; I had found America in one postage-stamp-sized village, on a slightly larger than postage-stamp-sized island, just a 15 minute flight out into a far larger than postage-stamp-sized Lake Michigan.

The view of St. James on the flight in. Photo credit: Alex Landeen

Of course, just as there is no one way to describe all of America, the town and the island are fittingly tough to pin-down as well. In town, cottage-homes, shops, docks, picket fences, fishing nets, weather vanes, lighthouses, dunes, fog, old boats and older marine artifacts reminded me of whitewash-and-cedar coastal New England. A pickup ride into the interior showed me a rambling maze of dirt roads, close-arched hardwoods and pines, dappled sun and heavy shade, hidden streams, sudden-appearing lakes, deer, turkey, cabins, and small, homestead farm plots that hinted at the Adirondacks or (oddly enough) Virginia or the Carolinas. Running the boats out of the bay, an archipelago of pristine, brush-tangled islands with names like Fox, High, Hog, Garden, Whiskey, Hat and Squaw, miles of almost-azure water, skinny, white-sand flats, lakes within giant, windward-side bays, tidal movement, cruising, tailing or laid-up fish, terns and gulls, a horizon and sky that are one-in-the-same, weather out of nowhere and an ever-present wind out of somewhere had the Keys on my mind. The island is one glorious juxtaposition. Like I said, America.

And then, of course, there’s the fishing. Not only is Beaver Island a beautiful getaway, it’s a world-class carp fishery where it’s not uncommon to have dozens of opportunities to spot-and-stalk or pole after 30+ pound fish on those Keys-like flats or deeper bays with a fly rod. Not to mention the inadvertent 5 – 7 pound smallmouth that often steal your fly just before your intended target noses down on it. Oh, and there’s pike, too. Diversity is a wonderful thing.

An it’s a diversity (both from a fish and situational/topographical standpoint) that Kevin, Steve and Austin are uncannily in-tune with. Not only do they know their fishery like the back of their weathered hands, they are also respected members of the community that they call home for 3+ months each year. In the two days before I arrived, the guys touched a decent number of fish (Alex, Cameron and John each covered those days very well on their blogs and Vimeo pages). In the days after, between the weather, visibility, wildly fluctuating water temps and spooky, finicky fish, there wasn’t a damn thing we could do but soldier on, and I managed to account for the only two carp hoisted.

My first. Certainly not my last. Photo credit: Alex Landeen

This being my first time after carp with a fly rod, here’s what I learned: they’re a pain in the ass to catch.

There are days where they grub like pigs in a full trough and your backing sees the light of day all day long, so I’m told. But then there are days, many days, days like we had at the tail-end of this trip, when those rubber lips are zipped and you can’t buy a sniff or follow, let alone an eat.

The difference between the two outcomes can be as simple as rising water temps, a falling barometer, some chop and some cloud-cover. Of course, favorable conditions don’t mean a thing if you can’t put the fly 5′ past and 5′ in front of the fish 20, 30, 50 feet away, as often as not into a 20 – 30 knot wind. Drop even the quietest blip of a cast inside that window and see what happens. I’d tell you, but it would ruin the surprise.

On the hunt. Sometimes with no wind. Photo credit: Alex Landeen

We waded, poled and rowed the windward side of points and bays, which sounded counterintuitive until I learned that the waves churn in the warmer water, and churn up the crayfish, gobies and other bottom-dwelling buffet items, which carp dig.

Poling or rowing around the bays we’d see unmistakable pods of them from 60-80 yards away, some cruising in pairs, some laid up by the half dozen. Standing on the shore, we’d watch big submarine-shadows appear in the troughs of the waves, or catch their silhouettes in relief against the light bottom as they patrolled the shore in string after string after string after string after frustrating string of non-interested bogeys. Hundreds of non-interested bogeys.

On our last day out, blue-bird skies and air temps heading into the mid-to-high 70’s arrived. Cameron and I were out with Austin and we spent the morning running from likely spot to likely spot trying to simply find fish. It wasn’t till after lunch that they finally started to materialize. Anchoring the boat and wading to shore, we snuck up to a small cut-back bay that held at least 80 fish tied in a giant black and golden-brown knot between the deeper mouth and the shallower backwater. After a couple hours, at least a dozen fly changes, and several futile moves to other spots along the point beyond, I managed to fool one that immediately headed for Traverse City. By way of Chicago. Thankfully he changed his mind and returned, grudgingly, for his photo-op.

Back from Chi-town

Beaver Island was a stellar fishing trip, but just as stellar a place to simply get away to. And it really is a special place that combines the two as seamlessly as the island does. As our time wound down Sunday morning and we were all packing and cleaning the place up, I don’t think any of us were really ready to give up the ghost. But I can tell you this: while I may have left grudgingly, I knew that I would return, happily. And if I’m lucky, with the same crew we had this go-around.

The boys. And the Fisherman's House.

 

Thanks go out to the generous sponsors of this trip:

William Joseph, Simms, Montana Fly Co., 12wt, Fishpond, Smith Optics, Patagonia, Howler Bros., Scientific Anglers, Bozeman Reel Co., Angela Lefevre & Island Airways, Liam & Marylyn at the Stoney Acre Grill, Steve West & the Beaver Island Chamber of Commerce, the Dalwhinnie Bakery & Deli, Bill McDonough who hosted us at the Fisherman’s House, Cameron Mortenson at TFM who co-hosted the trip with Kevin, Steve and Austin who put us on the fish that we did and did not catch.