A Healing Fish Tale
~Eventually, all things merge into one, and a river runs through it.
They have names like green weenie, black foam beetle, bead-head pheasant tail nymph, and, aptly enough for purposes of this story, Pete’s patriot. The Pete of Pete’s patriot asserts that the patriot’s red, white, and blue color combination “sometimes drives them crazy!”
Pete is Peter Ryan, a retired dentist from Coudersport who loves to fly fish; Pete’s patriot is one of many, many kinds of flies, not the nasty buzzy black ones we all detest, but delicate, colorful, hand-crafted bits of various sorts of material, all designed to entice trout, the aforementioned “them,” into a strike. As Pete describes the Pete’s patriot, it is an attractor fly, one whose movement on the water’s surface can not only grab a trout’s attention but, sometimes, be the hook that grabs the trout.
Subtle distinctions, perhaps, but distinctions that Pete, co-coordinator David Saulter, both veterans, by the way, and their cohorts will make as they introduce flies, fly tying, and fly fishing to veterans and active duty military personnel who have been coming to Potter County every year since 2008 for the three day event known as Project Healing Waters Fly Fishing. Hosted by the God’s Country Chapter of Trout Unlimited, the twelfth PHWFF event is set for Tuesday, May 21, through Friday, May 24, at First Fork Lodge and Moores Run Fish and Game Preserve.
This year the event is dedicated to the God’s Country Chapter as it celebrates its fortieth year of conserving, protecting, and restoring the area’s cold water fisheries and their watersheds.
On a historical timeline, the inception of the God’s Country Chapter was half a dozen years after Richard Nixon signed the Paris Peace Accords, ending direct U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War, and just four years after the April 30, 1975, fall of Saigon. Some of those soldiers who were returning home in those times, wherever home was, are some of the same individuals who have since been able, through their participation in PHWFF, to put to rest at least a bit of the painful things that only soldiers know.
In the words of one past guest who was overwhelmed, in the best possible way, by the parade that opened his three-day sojourn into Potter County fly fishing country: “I couldn’t believe all the people out there with signs and flags. They don’t know how much we appreciated that. When I returned from Vietnam forty-five years ago, they didn’t do anything for us, not even in my hometown.”
Fishing for Peace of Mind
The folks with Trout Unlimited and with Project Healing Waters Fly Fishing are not the first to realize that spending time in the natural world is good for people (forest bathing, anyone?). Henry David Thoreau wrote about becoming a “pupil, in the forest wild.” “When despair grows in me...” goes a Wendell Berry poem, “I come into the peace of wild things...” There is no lack of evidence that fishing is therapeutic for humans.
In 2005, Ed Nicholson, a lifelong outdoorsman and a retired (after thirty years) Navy captain, found himself at Walter Reed Army Medical Center as a patient. is hospital stay provided him with the opportunity to interact with combat veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan. As Pete Ryan explains it, “He got a group of guys together there to tie flies, and then to go on a fishing outing. They found that this was not only great physical rehabilitation, but great mental rehabilitation as well.”
Subsequently, Project Healing Waters Fly Fishing was born—or hatched, as those fishing folk might say. Just three years later, during a meeting of the God’s Country Chapter of TU, one of the group’s founding members, Roy Magarigal, who owns the Austin-area Moores Run Fish and Game Preserve with his wife, Cathy, suggested the God’s Country Chapter might want to consider hosting a PHWFF event. He offered the use of his 500-plus acre facility. Pete, himself a veteran and nuts about fly fishing, concedes, “I thought it was a great idea.” But, it was 2008 and the Marcellus Shale gas play was gearing up. Pete says his time was “consumed with environmental and water quality issues, which is what TU is all about.” Pete was the chapter president, but his friend David Saulter, chapter vice-president, said he would coordinate the event.
He did, and they haven’t looked back.
How Does This Thing Work?
The first God’s Country PHWFF event was in June 2008, and the events for the next two years also took place in June. Most of the first group of participants was involved with programs through the Buffalo and Batavia Veteran’s Administration, mostly on an outpatient basis, although some were in inpatient programs.
“When we started,” David says, “95 percent of them were dealing with PTSD (post traumatic stress disorder).” They did then, and do now, come from several different wars and from all kinds of backgrounds. Some have never had a fishing rod in their hands. Some, thanks to their military experiences, may not even have hands, or legs. Sometimes the things they’re missing are not so obvious.
That inaugural event included a parade, a motorcycle escort, and the requisite flag waving and hometown hoopla. In short, it was everything folks along the way—from the staging area at Dave’s Diner in Ceres, New York, to the event headquarters at First Fork Lodge in Austin, Pennsylvania, to the fishing opportunities at Moores Run Fish and Game Preserve—could do to make fifteen disabled veterans feel welcomed, honored, and appreciated. After an evening of relaxation, the next two and a half days were devoted to learning about fly tying and fly fishing, complete with local TU members to serve as guides, and to realizing that how, as fisher folks everywhere know, a bad day of fishing is better than a good day just about anywhere else.
While the basic format has stayed the same, the event has only gotten better since then.
Improvements started with a date change. As David explains, June weather was nice but it was harder on the fish. It’s a catch and release event, so it’s important to get the fish back in the water as quickly as possible, and the cooler the better for them. Plus, pushing the event back to May meant all the schools were still in session and could be involved.
The parade has become almost an event in its own right. Everybody still meets at Dave’s Diner for registration and photos, followed by an assemblage at a roadside rest near Shinglehouse. The Potter County commissioners provide an ATA (Area Transportation Authority) bus that is subsequently filled with local veterans who want to be part of the parade. Motorcyclists from regional bike groups gather, and the trek begins. Along the way, the Oswayo Valley High School “turns out in force,” Pete says, as do students from Northern Potter, Galeton, and Coudersport schools. The local Marine Honor Guard makes an appearance in Coudersport, the commissioners give county employees time to participate, and, in general, “kids, adults, students, and businesses are greeting the disabled veterans with signs, flags, and cheers,” Pete continues.
“It is truly very emotional,” he says, adding that for 2019 “we have been asked to parade through the parking lot at Sweden Valley Manor as well as those of UPMC Cole hospital and Morgan AM&T,” a local manufacturing business.
“It’s a TU event, but a county parade,” David notes.
Another change has been that, since 2012, each event has a theme. They’ve included the Medal of Honor Event, honoring Cpl. Jason Dunham, from Scio, New York, the World War II Event, the Korean War Event, the Vietnam War Event, AKA the Welcome Home Event, the Conflicts and Rescues Event (twenty-five years worth of not-so-well-known encounters), and the 9-11 Event.
This year, of course, celebrates the fortieth anniversary of the God’s Country Chapter of TU.
Pete and David agree that the incredible amount of pre- and post-event work necessary to make PHWFF possible would not be possible without the support of volunteers and local businesses. Just as an army runs on its stomach, part of the success of an event like this one is the fabulous food. There are the snacks at the American Legion Post 192 along the parade route, the hors d’oeuvres under the tent the first afternoon at First Fork Lodge, plus the three breakfasts after that, lunch at the Austin Costello Sportsmen’s Club, and a couple of amazing catered dinners from Tadd Ostroski’s Bones ’n Banter, homemade pies from a group of ladies in Westfield, plus a pig roast. Otto Deutschlander, who has been on board since the first year, along with Mort’s Meat Mafia, handle the cooking on Thursday at the Preserve. Legion Post 192 along with the Sons and the Auxiliary, take care of a couple of meals as well.
Another group of ladies, this one from the Oswayo Valley Senior Center, make lap quilts that they donate to the participants. Businesses put together goody bags, and each participant goes home with what he or she needs to continue tying flies. The guides are local residents who take time off from work to be part of the event. The camaraderie that develops between the participants and all the people who make the event happen is part of what gives the whole thing an almost magical quality.
“We couldn’t do it without the support of the community,” says Pete.
“Time is but the stream I go a-fishing in.” ~Henry David Thoreau
It was a long time ago that Paul Campbell was in Vietnam. He was in the Marines then, although Marines will tell you that once a Marine, always a Marine, so perhaps he still is. These days he lives in Pavilion, New York, near Batavia, and says, sounding only a little rueful, that “I’m kind of like the poster child” for the God’s Country PHWFF event. He’s been attending for eleven years now, and plans to be at the 2019 event, though a family obligation (a happy one—his son is getting married) will preclude his staying for the whole thing.
“I was in treatment for PTSD, and it wasn’t going all that great,” he explains. “Somebody asked me if I wanted to go fishing, and it was kind of like a life-changing experience for me. The people were genuine and warm. After the second day, it kind of felt like a brand new day. Life has been much better since. I’ve been able to introduce others to it.
“The God’s Country chapter itself is a model program as far as what they do and how they do it,” Paul continues. “Of course it’s a great venue. It’s just a wonderful three days they give people. It puts smiles on their faces that normally wouldn’t be there.”
“Some of the best times are sitting with a vet on the riverbank,” David concurs. “It’s treatment 365 days a year.”
“It really works,” says Pete. “It is so rewarding to know these guys are getting a little bit of happiness. We see ourselves changing lives, one cast at a time.”
We humans don’t always know how to help each other. But if it’s true that hindsight is 20/20, then perhaps the words of Norman Maclean, whose fly fishing opus A River Runs Through It serves as a flowing metaphor for life, death, and how to deal with what happens to us with courage and dignity—valor, if you will—might be applicable: “...often the best we can do with catastrophes, even our own, is to find out exactly what happened and restore some of the missing parts.
“Each one of us here today will at one time in our lives look upon a loved one who is in need and ask the same question: We are willing to help, Lord, but what, if anything, is needed? For it is true we can seldom help those closest to us. Either we don’t know what part of ourselves to give or, more often than not, the part we have to give is not wanted. And so it is those we live with and should know who elude us. But we can still love them—we can love completely without complete understanding.”
Gary Beikirch, who lives in the Rochester area, was an Army medic with the 5th Special Forces Group in Vietnam. Wounded and partially paralyzed during a battle at Dak Seang, he continued treating other wounded soldiers and ring his weapon—at times on a stretcher himself. He was awarded a Medal of Honor and a Purple Heart, and was the special guest at the 2015 PHWFF event.
“Although it has been a while since our fly fishing trip to Pennsylvania, there are still some very precious and vivid memories of that time,” Gary says. “There is a very special healing quality that accompanies being by water. Not only is it refreshing and cleansing, but the constant and continual flow of the streams and current reminds me of the flow of life. Just as the stream finds a way to flow past any obstacle in its path, likewise we possess the ability and the hope to be able to flow past the challenges that we face in life.
“In addition to the very personal and individual healing that occurred was the experience of being with others who were on the same journey,” he continues. “There is something special about sharing your journey with others.”
If you’d like to share the journey, visit projecthealingwaters.org.