The Trip of a Lifetime: Freedom Ranch for Heroes

Photos by Montana Reynolds

“This is the trip of a lifetime for me” is how Navy Veteran John Fullerton from the Joint Base Lewis McChord (JBLM) program described the Freedom Ranch for Heroes near Wise River, Montana. Veteran participants from Arizona, New Mexico, California, and Washington, were accompanied by PHWFF employees Mathew Bartlett, Western Sector Manager and Trip Lead, and Event Coordinator Montana Reynolds for a five-day trip of epic fishing, storytelling and music by Atz Kilcher, and lasting camaraderie in a humble valley nestled along the Big Hole River at 6,000 feet in the Pioneer Mountain range. Upon arrival, the group enjoyed BBQ from Bar-3, a local business, and a brief facilities orientation was held. The group was then met by local Orvis endorsed lodge owner and former Navy SEAL Craig Fellin for a fly-casting class prior to the next day’s wader fishing activity.  

After a catered breakfast by the Wise River Club served in the fly shop, participants dawned their waders and loaded into the van for the commute to the Doolin Ranch property nearby in the vicinity of Jackson, MT. The group was joined by a local guide, and a few local Air Force Veteran volunteers and set out to fish amongst the 100+ year old log cabins used by cattle rustlers from a simpler time. The day started out slow, but after a lunch provided by a local business called “The Gyro Wagon”, the Veterans set back to it and as luck would have it the fish came out for lunch late that day; every Veteran caught at least one fish after lunch, some caught multiple. Montana Reynolds walked nearly ten miles (according to his pedometer) while he went back and forth and photographed the day’s catches. Atz Kilcher came along to engage with the group, and even wove a few baskets from reeds while he was observing the fishing and socializing with the group. 

Though multiple Brown Trout, Brookies, and even a few large suckerfish were caught, the highlight of the day was watching a pair of Otters float on their backs 15 ft away while they enjoyed the benefits of their own catches, only to be one-upped by an up close display of amazing “airborne fishery” as some of the group was lucky enough to witness an Osprey successfully dive into the water to emerge with a fish in its talons. The Veterans joked that the local wildlife were “mocking their fishing skills”. The group also witnessed other local wildlife such as Elk, Large Crane, a cow Moose, and a few Bald Eagles all from the one bank. 

Thursday morning after a light breakfast in the lodge, the guides showed up with rafts and drift boats in tow and begin loading up an eager group of participants for a full day of fishing from the drift boats in the Big Hole River. Again, every Veteran caught at least one fish, and took in the scenic views through the narrow valley in which Wise River is situated, which made for a great evening of storytelling and teasing over who would take the award for “smallest fish caught”. If you were wondering, Michael Fujiwara of Boise took home the award with a palm-sized 5 incher. 

The evening was spent sharing stories and pictures from the day, along with stories and songs from Atz. More than one Veteran commented that Atz’s songs really resonated with them. Atz sung a song about a young cowboy returning to a pasture from his youth looking for the man he used to be, only to realize he was no longer the same man he was before. As a Vietnam Veteran, clearly his song was a metaphor that may be hard to understand for a civilian, but it was clearly understood by the group which consisted of 5 Vietnam Veterans, and 3 Veterans of either the Gulf War or Iraq, as well as Montana and Mathew both being Veterans of the Iraq war and serving multiple tours themselves; needless to say, the song resonated with everyone there.

The second float day was just as successful as the first. Though each boat fished a different section than they had the first day, everyone landed multiple fish during the day. After exchanging stories and photos, the group said farewell to the guides and headed “into town” for a prime rib dinner at the Wise River Club.  Montana introduced the group to everyone, and a local volunteer sang the Star-Spangled Banner. Montana began the awards ceremony by first recognizing the Vietnam Veterans, and playing a recorded Irish prayer from Tom, the late owner of the Wise River Club and long-time supporter of PHWFF and the Freedom Ranch. The solemn ode to Tom was followed by the Trip’s awards for feats such as “Biggest Fish”, “Most Species Caught” which went to Dan Smith and Louis Greigo respectively, and a few silly awards for “Smallest Fish” to Michael Fujiwara, and “Most Caffeine Consumed” which also went to Dan. The evening was spent exchanging information amongst one another while Atz played music and told stories about his songs for the group one last time. 

As a trip lead for the event, I was honored to be able to contribute to their time there and get to know each one of the participants. At one point in time or another I felt that I was able to have a good chat with a fellow Veteran, some deeper than others, but all contributing to a positive experience for us all. Learning about each man, and watching the camaraderie build during the week was a positive reminder of the power of healing these programs hold. 

Mathew Bartlett

Trip Lead

Freedom Ranch Trip #4 June 2022

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