River*ence 2014: Serving Those Who Sacrifice for our Country

by Ralph Artigliere of the Blue Ridge Mountain Chapter; reprinted from the BRM November 2014 Newsletter

Jeff Ingram with his big rainbow
Jeff Ingram with his big rainbow

[dropcaps] T [/dropcaps] wo men stand waist deep in 49 degree water on the Toccoa River, one with a fly rod and the other pointing at an obscure seam where the current separates and runs a bit faster on one side than the other. “That’s where we want to run our fly,” says the pointer. “Cast upstream where dead log enters the water and make sure to get a good upstream mend.” Jeff, the man with a rod, who is only a little younger than the TU volunteer giving instructions, does his best with the cast but falls short. This is his first day ever fishing on a river, and he just learned to cast a fly rod the day before. He is trying hard to remember the lingo and the technique, but his limited skills fail him more than he likes. The volunteer is patient and says, “Not bad, let it flow through, and we will get the next one out there.” But then it happens, despite the errant cast that fell short, a trout hammers the fly and the fight is on. Jeff receives gentle advice on fighting and land-ing the fish, which is exciting to the very end. After the volunteer nets the fish, Jeff gets to examine a beautiful 18 inch rainbow trout, pose for a picture, and safely release the fish to fight another day. Clint, the landowner where they are fishing, observes and videos the experience from the shore. The three men are unabashedly excited with Jeff’s success.

Veteran Bill and volunteer Roger, “Fish On!”
Veteran Bill and volunteer Roger, “Fish On!”

These men now have a connection forged by fellowship and on stream experience that is difficult to put in words. Jeff is an Iraq war vet who served his country well and is fighting demons far more challenging than fly fishing. He is here in Georgia’s Trout Capital, Fannin County, with his father Bill, an 82 year-old Vietnam vet. Bill and Jeff are veterans from the Oakwood Center in Flowery Branch, Georgia, where they learned of a program called Project Healing Waters, which gives vets with physical and mental scars from serving our country the opportunity to come here for a weekend and learn a new skill and hobby that takes them away from everyday worries and puts them in beautiful settings chasing the sometimes elusive but al-ways alluring trout.

Carl Riggs (l), Veteran Don Wildes (r)
Carl Riggs (l), Veteran Don Wildes (r)

Project Healing Waters is a national movement serving wounded American veterans. The Project Healing Waters program in Fannin County is called River*ence, the brainchild of local businessman Peter Knutzen and Trout Unlimited volunteer Carl Riggs. Riggs, himself a military brat, is a local and statewide Trout Unlimited leader, currently the Chairman of the Georgia State Trout Unlimited Council, the top volunteer in the state. River*ence is the crown jewel of the local Trout Unlimited veteran efforts, and there are many other formal and informal opportunities to serve vets in VA centers and in the community. This is the third year for River*ence, and three “alumni” of the pro-gram, Josh, Larry, and Jeremy, are back as guides or “river friends” along with several volunteers from Blue Ridge Mountain Trout Unlimited and other Georgia TU chapters. Ten vets from four different wars are guests from Friday to Sunday in cabins donated by Riggs’ neighbors along a stretch of private trout water. Riggs has amassed loaner wading gear for the vets who lack gear, and each vet will get a fly rod, reel, and line and leader to keep. Financial and in-kind donations locally and from around the country provide equipment, catered food, lodging, and a picturesque location with trout ponds for the Friday’s casting instruction. All the vets needed to bring was the clothes on their back.

River*ence 2014 started on Friday, October 24,at Trip and Virginia Martin’s Alpaca farm on Big Creek, where Ken Bach-man (pictured, right) , certified casting instructor, and other helpful TU volunteers teach the vets rudimentary fly rod casting skills sufficient for the fishing they will be doing over the next three days. After learning to cast, vets get to ply their new skills on the Martins’ two trout ponds.

I am one of a number of volunteers from Blue Ridge Mountain TU. Bill, the octogenarian Viet Nam vet, is paired with me for the afternoon, and he talks constantly. Bill served in the Air Force and Army before retiring many years ago, but his war and service memories are vivid. Bill learns that I also served in Viet Nam, and he immediately wants to know more about where and when I served than the finer points of casting. I learn that Bill is a rather good athlete and a golfer who still shoots in the seventies. That makes me concerned about achiev-ing success with the casting instruction and fishing on Trip’s trout ponds because I think Bill must be a competitive guy. But Bill says, “I don’t care if I catch any-thing. It’s gorgeous here. My friend tried to teach me to cast a fly rod once, but he gave up.” He is right about one thing: The setting is ideal with beautiful blue skies, perfect temperature, and fall colors surrounding the large, open grass field where we are doing our casting instruction. Bill soon returns to talking about his service, his kids, grandkids, and great-grandchild and copious other non-fishing topics. I do not hold out much hope for success on the pond, as Bill’s attention to detail on casting appears to be secondary to our ongoing conversation.

R4After casting instruction, we get to the pond, and I tie on some dry flies (surface flies) to match some caddis flies I see flitting over the water. My worries about success were definitely unwarranted. Bill is able to cast well enough, and he becomes the first of the vets to catch a trout. In fact, a number of trout are willing to hit the flies that Bill ably presents to them on the surface some 30 feet from the bank. After catching a few trout, Bill wants to sit down and just watch other vets as they struggle and then gradually catch fish. Bill does not stop talking the entire time. All but one vet catch fish. (As Riggs predicts, the fishless vet’s luck will turn the next day.) When we are done and the vets are about to leave for dinner, Bill does not thank me for tying on the right fly or helping him catch the first fish. Instead, he thanks me for “listening to an old man jabber.” I am humbled and reminded once again what is most important: human contact and fellowship. The fishing is window dressing and just an opportunity to gather with these individuals who have sacrificed so much. I am once again honored to be a volunteer.

Saturday morning brings a new challenge. I am paired with David, a vet who connected with us at our outreach fly tying at the Blairsville VA. David has learned to tie flies from members of our TU Chapter, and has joined us tying flies at TU events around the state. David is quite clever in the types of tools and storage items he has personally created for fly tying from everyday items around the house. He is rightfully proud of his fishing-related inventions, and today he shows me wading boots that he fashioned from rubber-soled hiking shoes by screwing in metal lugs on the bottom. Many vets want to ply their fishing skills after River*ence, and it is remarkable that David found an economical way to create the footwear he needs. Turns out the home-made wading shoes work quite well on the river bottom! That is important, because the challenge this morning is not David’sR6fish-ing skill, it’s his mobility. Many vets have physical challenges to overcome when fishing, and mobility and stability are a common issue. David and I carefully negotiate the steep bank and use a technique that we teach called the “buddy wade” to safely traverse the river while David tries for trout. David catches a number of trout while Carl’s neighbor Clint cheers us on and videos the experience from his deck. Clint has hosted vets on his property for the past three years, and he enjoys their success as much as the vets do.

After a morning of fishing, all the vets and volunteers gather for lunch and for a session of fly tying instruction or campfire talk or just rest. Some vets plan to use the new flies they tie during this instruction to catch fish upon their return to the river. Like David (pictured right), two of the vets have had fly tying instruction at a TU program, but their instruction was at the Shepherd Center in Atlanta. Fly tying is a terrific rehabilitative activity, and the vets love learning it. Some even like fly tying more than actual fishing, which is not uncommon among fly fishermen and women.

R7After David’s fishing success on Saturday morning, he is exhausted and chooses to retire to his cabin for more rest after lunch. Project Healing waters volunteers learn that vets each face different challenges, and their tolerance for physical activity, even fun activity like fishing, may be limited. Other vets, however, are ready for more action; and I am now paired with Jeff, who is Bill’s son. As we head to the stream, Jeff thanks me for helping his father the day before. During the afternoon, we are able to fish in front of Clint’s cabin with good success, including the 18 inch rainbow mentioned earlier. Jeff’s fledgling skills are now improving, and I walk Jeff downstream to some faster, more challenging water. Get
ting the fly to appear natural in conflicting currents can be hard, but with degree of difficulty comes potential rewards as Jeff soon learns. At first, Jeff struggles with the changed landscape and technique, but I demonstrate a cast and proper “line management”, and the light goes on for Jeff. Soon he is catching and releasing a number of nice fish. One monster breaks him off, casting off bittersweet thoughts of what might have been in both Jeff and me. Jeff is concerned about losing my fly to the big fish, and I tell him not to worry because it was well worth seeing his expression with a bent rod and a really big fish at the other end of the line. “Flies are expendable,” I say; and I add in my own thoughts that memories like this are what we cherish, not the stuff we use or lose on the journey. Jeff obviously feels the same about the experience, as when we are done, he is not talking about the 18 incher he caught earlier in the afternoon. He tells me he most enjoyed the challenging water where we had so much action and success once he mastered the technique. Mission accomplished.

In fact, we can say “mission accomplished” to Peter Knutzen and Carl Riggs and the numerous volunteers and donors who made precious moments possible and placed positive and warm memories in the minds of our vets and volunteers alike. Our veterans have sacrificed so much that one weekend pales in comparison to their service; but the efforts we give back to them are much appreciated and hopefully the new skills and inspiration will sow seeds for future achievement, comfort, and memories on healing waters. GCTU

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