Few places in the United States provide more fly fishing challenge and spectacular beauty than the Fall River in Northern California. It was on these iconic waters last May that a few disabled veterans enhanced their long-term healing.
Project Healing Waters Fly Fishing (PHWFF), formed on the simple premise that fly fishing could help heal the wounded body, mind, and soul of disabled active duty and veteran personnel was the driving force behind this trip.
From the first program in 2005 at the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, Project Healing Waters now has over 215 programs with 3,600 volunteers supporting more than 8,500 disabled veterans and disabled active duty personnel, spanning campaigns from Vietnam to the present. The Project Healing Waters Fly Fishing-Martinez Program was formed by a cadre of volunteers from Diablo Valley Fly Fishermen, a fifty-year old club in Northern California. PHWFF is unique in that volunteers teach classes and lead fly fishing outings on a long term, sustainable basis. Classes meet frequently and include basic fly fishing, casting, fly tying, and rod building. For many veterans, the socialization and camaraderie of the classes are just as important as the fishing outings. On this outing, the generosity of all involved cannot be overstated, including Circle 7 Ranch, the Fall River guides, and Val Atkinson, internationally acclaimed fly fishing photographer.
Fall River provided both emotional and visceral experiences for binding veterans in a common bond. The root source of that bond may have started in a jungle in Vietnam, on an airbase in Iraq, on a mountain in Afghanistan, or anywhere our troops serve. Fall River produces some of the most beautiful coastal rainbows in the world; for some though it produces a healing camaraderie that helps turn veterans’ lives around.
The “Healing on the Fall” begins here, but the experience and memories will continue to heal for a lifetime. “The fly fishermen who get the most from the sport understand that it is sharing experiences with our comrades – not merely catching fish – that makes fly fishing such a wonderful pastime.” (Lefty Kreh from R. Valentine Atkinson, “Friends on the Water — Fly Fishing in Good Company”)
California’s Fall River is located approximately 60 miles northeast of Redding in the Fall River Valley. The valley rests between the Sierra Nevada and Cascade Mountain ranges with Mount Shasta visible to the northwest and Mount Lassen to the south. The main stem of Fall River is some 15 miles long, from where the headwaters bubble out of the ground at Thousand Springs to its confluence with the Tule River. Fall River is the largest of California’s spring creeks, fed by several icy aquifers coming from the snows and glaciers of Mount Shasta. It is the nation’s largest spring system, creating an ideal, 50o rainbow trout habitat.
CIRCLE 7 RANCH
Circle 7 Ranch is located in the heart of some of the best access and fishing on Fall River. It is situated a short boat ride upstream or down to some of the best fly fishing on the river. When the PHWFF-Martinez veterans first stepped foot on the 750-acre ranch, they felt like they had stepped back in time. The charming historic buildings and unspoiled views of Fall River and Mount Shasta surrounded them with rustic beauty day and night. Combined with some great fly fishing, they left their cares behind for five days of enduring memories. Our accommodations at Circle 7 were possible thanks to the efforts of Trena Keefe, a U.S. Navy veteran herself. Circle 7 housed the vets in their historic White House, built in 1932. Trena also arranged the “best of the best” Fall River guides and boats.
“The accommodations at Circle 7 were great … a hundred year old house with great views, a formal dining room, full kitchen, and our own docks on the river. And the fly fishing was surely special … after all I caught a 22 inch trout!” (Veteran Luke Bachan) Trena reflected, “These vets deserve it … these guys did a lot for our country and got nothing in return.” She has seen the results of Project Healing Waters and didn’t hesitate to offer Circle 7 Ranch. Project Healing Waters wishes to thank Trena and owners Dan & Jean Smith for sharing their beautiful ranch with our disabled veterans.
SHELTER FROM THE STORM
Thunderstorms are both a common and sudden appearance in the Fall River Valley. The stormy dark clouds meander toward the veterans on the river with intense winds, thunder, and lightning. Boats scramble to seek cover under Danford Bridge, one of the many small bridges dotting Fall River.
The thunderstorms represent a solemn omen to all the veterans, each having experienced their own thunderstorm in the service. For some, the clouds have cleared completely; for others they still hang around, casting a shadow on everyday life.
Getting caught and seeking cover under the bridge reinforces their bonding. With the fishing quickly curtailed, the only thing left to do is to start talking, telling stories, and joking within a boat and between boats. This is part of a process when each veteran knows the other will help them weather the storm.
Almost as quickly as the storm arrives, the thunder and lightning subside. Even though the rain persists, the boats break from cover and race for the docks. Almost simultaneously the sun breaks through with heavenly rainbows to cap off another beautiful day on Fall River.
“I enjoyed the thunderstorm. Not because I like danger but because it forced us to stop and talk to each other and remember the most important thing about these adventures, and that is spending quality time with other people. If somebody said, ‘Hey let’s all go hang out under the bridge for a while’ it most likely would not have happened and we would not have had those memories.” (Veteran Bill Hopkins)
“The thunderstorm catches us on the water and we seek cover together under a bridge talking and joking between the boats … we are safe. Jackets and hoods are protection from the rain and wind but of little use against the lightning that cracks from the sky and is the deadly weapon in the meteorological offensive.” (Veteran Luke Bachan)
HEALING FULL CIRCLE
By late afternoon the boats start arriving back at the Circle 7 docks to offload the vets after a long day of fishing. Those not in the cooking crew usually congregate out on the patio deck overlooking the river, and start telling their “fish” stories … and there were plenty of stories to be told! Elsewhere in the White House, the kitchen crew begins to warm up the stove in preparation for evening meal.
The phrase “an Army lives on its stomach” could not be more appropriate than a bunch of veterans who have worked up a big appetite while trying to catch the wily trout of Fall River. And we are not talking about C-rations type meals here. These groups have set some pretty high standards for meals … roasted chicken thighs with lemon and oregano, barbecued spare ribs with mashed potatoes and spring salad, etc. followed by some super desserts. No one goes hungry on these trips. But it is the sustenance for the soul that occurs in these settings that means more than the meal itself.
One evening after dinner the table conversation becomes solemn and poignant. One vet begins by opening up about his personal “storms” and how Project Healing Waters has helped turn his life around. One by one the stories continue around the table, freely shared with strong emotional feelings (and maybe a few tears) further solidifying the ties formed on the water.
After dinner they adjourn to the large living room where laughter ensues, and music entertains. They are serenaded by veteran Britton Miller, a self-taught guitarist and vocalist who has been engrossing small venues ever since college. Britton loves to entertain, and entertain he does. What a special way to top off an evening of emotion and camaraderie at the end of a long day.