Even though the first nine outings were cancelled in 2021 [due to wildfires], we were able to still pull off one outing at Freedom Ranch for Heroes from October 5-9. The outing was attended by PHWFF disabled veterans Kevin McPherson, James Boden, and Alfredo Lobo. The outing had a special guest in Atz Kilcher from the [Discovery Channel] show Alaska: The Last Frontier. Kilcher, who himself is Vietnam veteran, easily fit in with the group and quickly bonded with everyone present. Kilcher also shared his musical talents throughout the week by playing his guitar and sharing songs he wrote. It was definitely a memorable experience for all that were there.PHWFF COO David Folkerts
Watch another performance from Atz Kilcher below
Located along the banks of Montana’s famed Big Hole River lies Freedom Ranch for Heroes – a special partnership between Project Healing Waters Fly Fishing (PHWFF), The George and Betty Harbaugh Foundation, and the community of Wise River, Montana.
In late 2017, the Harbaugh Foundation along with some individual donors approached Project Healing Waters Fly Fishing, Inc. with a vision of turning this 90-acre ranch into an escape and fishing destination for disabled veterans.
By early 2018, the construction was still being finished, but that didn’t stop PHWFF from introducing our disabled veteran participants to the healing powers of Freedom Ranch for Heroes.
In May 2018, Freedom Ranch for Heroes was ready to start hosting PHWFF veteran participants, and the comradery and healing could began.
In both 2018 and 2019, PHWFF held 20 outings from May through October hosting eight disabled veterans per trip. Over 300 veterans from all corners of the United States were able to witness the beauty and tranquility of a Montana landscape and river.
The Trip of a Lifetime
“We’d like to thank The Harbaugh Foundation for making Freedom Ranch for Heroes a reality. Many said it was the trip of a lifetime! It’s like being at a five star fly fishing lodge. Getting to spend the first day wading was perfect to get us comfortable with the gear and ready for the floats. The guides were extremely knowledgeable and Matt’s “Silver Bullet” catches fish! We all made new friends in the group that we’ll keep in contact with for the rest of our lives.”
Each of the twenty annual trips to Wise River hosts eight veteran participants and one trip leader. The lucky participants get nominated by their Program Lead to the Regional Coordinator, and then the Regional Coordinator divides the participants up evenly by region and makes the final decision on who gets to take this trip of a lifetime.
Veteran participants arrive on Tuesday to the Bozeman Yellowstone International Airport and are picked up by the Project Healing Waters van. After their two-hour trip west to Wise River, they are treated to lunch at a local BBQ joint.
Afterward, they head to the lodge and settle in and enjoy some casting instruction from Craig Fellin, owner of the Big Hole Lodge in Wise River.
On Wednesday the veterans gear up to do some wade fishing with the guides. This helps them to learn the water, what the fish are biting on, and get prepared for the two-day float trip starting the next day.
On Thursday and Friday, two veteran participants are each paired with a guide in a drift boat or raft. The Big Hole River in Montana is special in the fact that it’s one of the last locations in the lower 48 to host a naturally producing population of Artic grayling in a river.
On Friday night, all of the participants gather for dinner and an award ceremony. These awards include biggest fish, smallest fish, a “Freedom Ranch Slam” and a “Grand Slam.” The Freedom Ranch Slam is if you catch any four of the five main species that the Big Hole River holds: cutthroat, brown, rainbow, brookie, and grayling. A grand slam is if you catch all five.
There are also awards for humorous moments, such as who fell down in the river the most, or who got tangled up constantly.
Resilience in the Face of Adversity
March 2020: COVID-19 pandemic goes global and shuts the world down. Freedom Ranch for Heroes sat empty and dark, hoping to host veterans again and return to healing in 2021.
As the pandemic grew and evolved, PHWFF implemented an engagement plan to successfully and carefully provide veterans with support, community and care beginning with virtual activities and evolving to encompass both outdoor and indoor core program activiites.
While continuing to navigate the pandemic throughout the summer of 2021, Freedom Ranch for Heroes suffered another blow. On July 8, 2021, lightning struck in the Beaverhead-Deer Lodge National Forest, sparking the Alder Creek fire seven miles west of Wise River. A week later, the Christensen fire emerged 12 miles west of Wise River, adding to the already dangerous situation surrounding the community. Heavy wildfire smoke filled the air quickly, as over 200 homes had to evacuate. Hot and dry conditions in Montana hindered firefighting efforts and the Alder Creek fire and Christensen fire eventually joined and burned for months, taking with it over 40,000 acres. Luckily, no homes or lives were lost and the estimated containment date was November 1, 2021.
However, the smoke finally cleared and it was safe to return to Freedom Ranch for a beautiful weekend of fishing in October. PHWFF was able to visit at the end of the season and breathe life back into the ranch, even if only for a couple days.
Return to Healing
Kilcher not only stars on a Discovery channel show, but is also the father of Grammy nominated singer and songwriter, Jewel.
During his trip to Freedom Ranch for Heroes, Kilcher blessed those in attendence by performing songs he wrote, and also had amazing discussions with the disabled veterans about trauma and healing.
“Part of being an outdoorsman is learning to enjoy all of the seasons,” Kilcher said. “You may hate to say goodbye to summer, but you’re also embracing fall. Any kind of trauma recovery is the same thing. You have to accept what is and embrace what’s coming.”
As Kilcher waited for his plane home, he wrote his kids a letter reflecting on his time spent at Freedom Ranch for Heroes.
“I might as well tell a little bit about my experience singing for disabled veterans who are part of (PHWFF), in Wise River. It is another testimony and powerful experience in music and storytelling, in daring to share your journey, and believing that as humans we can affect each other in a positive healing way,” Kilcher wrote.
“Here I was telling stories, illustrated by songs, of my worst times, of my worst sides, of my hardest struggles in life, whether as a son, or a father, or a soldier, or as a human trying to heal and change. I assured them with 100% honesty, that we together were creating that healing atmosphere, we each had a part in the healing we were feeling. It was not me giving them some thing. It was our willingness to show up and share and be vulnerable,” Kilcher continued adding that it was one of the most humbling and healing experiences of his life.
Kilcher was in the midst of possibly turning his book into a series, but realized quickly that some stress just isn’t worth it in the grand scheme of things.
“(…) So if this series based on my book never materializes, guess what? Yep you guessed it. That moment there at Freedom Ranch, next to the Big Hole River, with four fellow veterans, was my trophy! It was my validation for a journey well traveled so far,” Kilcher continued in his letter.
“Oh, almost forgot. The last night everybody got awards. I got an award for catching my first fish on a fly rod!”
Kilcher wrapped up his letter by reiterating the healing powers of PHWFF and Freedom Ranch for Heroes.
“During this trip to Montana, singing to these veterans, I was talking about the difficulty of sharing shame, yet how essential to the healing journey, and how much easier it is sharing it with those who have been through what we have been through, and can deeply understand. We talked about the healing power that holds. I left those little demons, feeling all warm and fuzzy and well fed. I watched them yipping and yapping and wagging their happy little tails into the distant Montana wilderness. Oh I am sure they will find me again, but that’s OK.”
With the pandemic and the wildfires in Wise River finally in the rearview mirror, PHWFF is excited to host veteran participants at Freedom Ranch for Heroes for a full season in 2022, kicking off on May 17.
Folkerts would like to thank Atz Kilcher for being able to join them in Wise River that week. He would also like to thank our partners with Freedom Ranch for Heroes and the George & Betty Harbaugh Foundation for their support. Finally, the disabled veteran participants from PHWFF who attended that week for their service and sacrifice for our country.