Thanks to Gary Rihn, Pittsburgh participant, for providing this summary of the 2023 event.
Fifteen disabled military Veterans were treated to a weekend of fly fishing at the 5th Annual Project Healing Waters outing on Kettle Creek at Cross Fork, PA, May 5-7, 2023.
The Veterans began gathering for the weekend on Friday around lunchtime, getting checked in to their lodging at the Kettle Creek Lodge and Cabins. In preparation for the following day’s fishing, they were then offered streamside casting and tight line nymphing clinics. Following these sessions, the Veterans traveled to Renovo, where they rallied up for the Patriot Parade back to Cross Fork. The parade is a 20 mile ride up the Kettle Creek valley, where the Veterans are escorted by fire trucks from the Kettle Creek Hose Company, Combat Veterans motorcycle riders, and others, and then hundreds of locals turn out to cheer and thank them as they pass by. Veteran Brad Vig said of the parade, “It was amazing, coming through the mountains, all of a sudden you go around a bend and another group of people waving flags, over and over. There was one lady blowing us all kisses. It gave me chills.” Veteran Bill Nelson, who never got a proper welcome home after Vietnam, added, “You get a feeling like ‘What’s all of this? All of this for just us 15 guys?'”
Once back in Cross Fork, the Veterans met their mentors for the weekend, and enjoyed a catered dinner at the fire station, before retiring for the evening, to prepare themselves and their gear for the following day’s activities. Asked about his expectations for the upcoming event, Vig, who had yet to previously attend a PHW outing, expressed, “We all went through shared experiences, have a common core, but lost that when we got out. Now we have that again in fishing, I’m looking forward to building friendships built on that.”
Saturday morning started early with everybody back at the fire station for breakfast. Once bellies were full and pots of coffee had been finished, everybody was off to the nearby stream. Mentors offered advice, Veterans compared notes, and the fishing began in earnest. While only the Veterans fished, the mentors were always nearby to offer assistance and encouragement. Some Veterans appreciated their mentor for helping with footing and stability while wading in the stream. Some Veterans wanted to learn a new technique, such as streamer or dry fly fishing, that their mentor could help with. Sometimes the Veteran only wanted help netting a fish. Other Veterans were experienced enough that they just enjoyed having somebody beside them to chat with while they fished. Nelson said, “I learned to fish a three-fly rig. I never dreamt of something like that.” One of the mentors, Mike Saxion, said at the end of the day of the Veteran that he fished with, “He can go down there now on his own and catch trout. I love passing on knowledge that he’ll carry for the rest of his life.”
Everybody caught fish through the morning and into the afternoon. Ever-present as in past years were the locals who showed up to watch and cheer on the Veterans. The “Bridge Brigade,” as they have come to be known, take up a vantage point on the bridge over the stream watching all of the action from above. They always keep the Veterans entertained throughout the weekend. When asked why they come out to watch the day’s activities, Dan Morris, known affectionately as “Guru” for his ability to come up with innovative ways to create and build tools and gadgets that are handy for fly anglers and fly tiers, that he then generously passes out to anybody wanting them, said, “It’s an honor to be here. I learn so much from the Veterans about themselves and their experiences by talking to them”.
A few of the more memorable moments of the weekend, beyond the numbers and size of fish being caught, laughing back at the Bridge Brigade, the incredible weather, and sighting a black bear crossing the creek downstream of the event, included, “Meeting my mentors; they truly made my day, they had me laughing all day,” said Veteran James Richards. What made Saxion’s day was seeing the excitement in the Veterans’ eyes when they would hook a trout. When one Veteran was asked about the highlight of his weekend, it actually had nothing to do with the actual fishing. Aaron Larson chose to sleep on the enclosed porch of a streamside cabin that was offered by a local resident. Larson said the best part of the outing for him was, “Waking up at the cabin and looking out at the stream to start my day.”
When asked why they came out to help as a mentor, Richard Burns replied, “I think sometimes I get more out of it than they do. We met and half a day later it’s like we’ve been friends forever. He totally trusts me. He said, ‘Dude, we’re friends.’ That’s an incredible feeling.” Another mentor, Jim Reese, jumped in with, “I look at it as more about making a friend and less about teaching a man to fish. It surprises me how much these guys want to open up and talk. I never pry; I never know their background, I just let them talk.”
When the fishing wrapped up for the day, the Veterans put their gear away, returned to the lodge for showers and a change of clothes, then returned to the fire station for the Kettle Creek Watershed Association’s annual banquet. KCWA is a non-profit, all-Volunteer organization that pledges to enhance, preserve, monitor, protect, and restore Kettle Creek in north central Pennsylvania. There they had a great dinner along with sharing stories and participating in raffles that benefitted KCWA in their mission of local stream improvements. Jim Toth, KCWA Chairman of the Board and organizer of the weekend’s events, said, “When I found Project Healing Waters, I thought ‘This is me. It fulfilled my mission of giving back to veterans.'” KCWA provided the stocked fish, meals, and lodging for the Veterans throughout the weekend.
After spending another night at the lodge, the Veterans met for breakfast and a morning of informal fishing where they were free to fish at their leisure, refine new techniques that they had learned the day before, and solidify new friendships. The mentors also got a lot of fulfillment out of the weekend. Burns said, “My Veteran was worried. He said ‘I’m not going in the water.’ Once we got him in waders though, he changed. He was acting like he couldn’t do this, he was so apprehensive. But I watched him change before my eyes.”
Project Healing Waters helps Veterans in-need by assisting them in tying flies, building rods, casting instruction, education related to fishing including stream entomology, and more. Another large part of the Project Healing Water concept is outings where the healing and rehabilitation takes place between Veterans on the water. Veteran Dale Conrad said, “Fishing is part of it, but just talking is a bigger part. We talked like we knew each other for 20 years. That’s pretty neat.” Nelson reflected back to an earlier outing: “Last year I met a younger boy on one of our outings. He was very quiet, but we kind of hit it off. His mother gave me a hug and said, ‘When you’re around him, I’ve never seen him smile as much as he did today.’ When they were leaving, he lowered the window and said, ‘Goodbye my friend.’ It brought a tear to my eye,” reinforcing that concept.
Project Healing Waters helps to heal and rehabilitate both physical and emotional injuries. “I have a torn rotator cuff. If others can still get out there, how bad can my injury be?” asked Larson. Another Veteran commented, “This brings me out of the house. I’ve found that Project Healing Waters gives me hope, something to look forward to. With PTSD you tend to isolate; with Project Healing Waters, you have an itinerary. Two or three days ahead I start to anticipate it, that’s what this organization gives me. It’s now ‘I have a job today’ again.” Along those lines, Vig said that one of his reasons for participating is to help other Veterans. “I want to get that 22-a-day number lower,” he said.
As the Veterans had their fill of fishing and gauged their drives home, they slowly and individually started to leave the stream and pack their gear for the final time of the weekend. Last-minute stories were told, and memories relived both from the weekend and years past. Conrad said the weekend was “100% better” than he expected it to be before he got there. Larson looked back and said “It blew it out of the water.” Veteran Scott Winters said that he got along so well with his mentor that he had made plans to travel to his mentor’s home state of North Carolina to fish with him. “We just bonded so well. I’m having a blast,” he said.
Reflecting back, Richards noted that his father was a Vietnam Veteran who found his solace afterwards on the water, and who started taking him fishing at a young age. One thing that Richards remembers his father telling him years ago concerning being on a stream is that “This is like church, whisper now and then”. Richards said that indeed, he does whisper on the stream.
The weekend may have best been summed up by Reese when he said, “I wouldn’t have the freedom to fish if I didn’t have these Veterans providing that freedom for me.” Project Healing Water’s mission statement is that they are “dedicated to the physical and emotional rehabilitation of disabled active military service personnel and disabled veterans through fly fishing and associated activities including education and outings.” For more information, please visit www.projecthealingwaters.org, and www.kettlecreek.org.