"When life hands you a lemon, make lemonade." For eleven men
who gathered in Markleeville California in late July, their
lemonade was fly-fishing. They'd come from Arizona, California,
and Nevada to spend two and a half days along the eastern slope
of the Sierra at the Creekside Lodge, and to fish the private
waters of the Pleasant Valley Fly Fishing Preserve. They didn't
know each other, most had never held a fly rod, but they all had
one thing in common; they were cancer survivors.
This was the seventh of fifteen retreats scheduled in 2007 across
the United States by Reel Recovery, a program for men dealing with
cancer. Started in 2003 by a group of Colorado fly-fishers who
were inspired by a friend's on-going battle with brain cancer,
the organizations mission is to help men in the cancer recovery
process by introducing them to the healing powers of fly-fishing.
The retreats also provide a safe, supportive environment for men
to explore their personal experiences with cancer with others who
share their stories. Offered at no cost to the participants,
retreats are lead by professional councilors and facilitators,
as well as experienced fly-fishing instructors.
Volunteers from High Sierra Fly Casters of Gardnerville, Nevada
supported the Markleeville retreat, acting as "fishing buddies."
During the two days spent on the water, the volunteers provided
instruction, acted as guides, and engaged the participants in
conversation about their cancer.
While the participants were enjoying their breakfast in Markleeville,
the volunteers gathered early at Pleasant Valley, a 900-acre preserve
with over three miles of mountain streams populated with trophy-sized
Rainbow trout. The first order of the day was to load up coolers
with water and sports drinks, and then transfers them to ATVs and
distribute them along the stream. Eleven fly rods provided by Reel
Recovery were rigged and set out along with fishing vests for use by
the participants. Signed and dated by previous retreat participants,
the vests serve as a reminder that others have been where the
participants are now and also serve as a memorial to many who are no
longer with us.
With the logistics taken care of, we volunteers gathered for a briefing
by Reel Recovery staff members. They pointed out that cancer is not a
communicable disease, safety for the participants was stressed, and
action plans in the event of a problem were discussed. Our job would
be to provide whatever kind of instruction our partner desired. We
could teach them how to cast, show them fish and where to put the fly,
how to wade safely, or simply offer a steadying hand. Just as
importantly, we were encouraged to talk to them about their experience
Now here's a newsflash for you, most men don't talk about their problems.
Instead, we internalize them and become withdrawn and isolated from the
people most able to give us support, our family, and friends. In
contrast, the retreat encourages the participants to open up, and
engage in what Reel Recovery refers to as "courageous conversations,"
to talk candidly about their fears, frustrations, and anger with others
who share the same experience. Each evening participants and
facilitators gathered to share their stories and to discuss the
various support organizations and resources available to men in
At nine-thirty Thursday morning, the participants arrived and were
introduced to their fishing buddies. We distributed the vests, and
each participant picked up a fly rod. Next came a half hour of
basic casting instruction (getting eleven men to pay attention
and follow directions is very similar to herding cats with about
the same results), and then the group gathered for a photo before
heading out for the stream.
The first morning I paired up with Phil, a retiree from California,
who was in remission with Non-Hodgkin Lymphoma. As we hiked up the
trail we engaged in some small talk, and I pointed out a couple of
20 inch plus Rainbows holding behind a beaver pond in some clear,
quiet water. There was no way to get to them without spooking
them into the next county so we passed them by.
Entering the stream above the beaver pond I had Phil make some
practice casts. As an experienced spin fisherman, Phil was
having trouble with the concept of casting a fly; he rushed
the back cast and couldn't seem to get the hang of stopping
the forward cast resulting in a pile of fly line and leader
about 10 feet in front of him on the water.
After a few frustrating minutes, I walked to the bank and
picked up a stick about three feet long. I handed the stick
to Phil and took his rod. "Imagine that there's a rotten apple
on the end of the stick and standing thirty feet away from you
is the one kid in school that you really disliked. Now throw
that apple at him by launching it from the end of the stick."
He quickly grasped the concept, and when I handed him the rod
back he began laying out some respectable 30 foot casts. Next,
we covered roll casting and then set off up stream in search
Later in the morning, we took a rest break along the bank,
had some water, and talked about his cancer. "You know what
the worst two words are you can hear in a sentence?" he asked,
"Your name and cancer." He went on to talk about how cancer
had changed his life, and the new perspective that it brought.
Things that had once occupied his time and filled his days no
longer seemed to be important. Instead, his priorities had
changed and he was living life differently; other participants
expressed similar comments.
I wish I could say that Phil caught and released numerous fish
while he was with me, but it wasn't to be. He did however land
a fish later that afternoon with another buddy.
Fish were caught and released during the two days, and everyone
got into at least one fish, some of them trophy size. By the
closing ceremony the second day most of the participants had
decided to continue with fly-fishing and building on what they
had learned. To help with that, one of the manufacturers who
support Reel Recovery offers a 40% discount on the purchases
of waders, vests, reels, and rods to retreat attendees.
During the closing ceremony, participants had a chance to share
what they were taking away with them, and their feelings about
the experience. There were some tears and plenty of choked up
voices; believe me when I say the tears weren't limited to the
participants. As a final reminder of the retreat, each
participant received a fly box stocked with flies indigenous
to the local area.
Some comments by current and previous participants:
"I shared things with this group that I haven't been able to share
with life-long friends."
If you would like to know more about Reel Recovery, upcoming
retreats, how to volunteer in your area, or how to register
someone you know as a participant checkout the Reel Recovery
web site at www.reelrecovery.org
~ Dan Sedergren
"I discovered that while fly-fishing, I was in another place.
In this place there was no cancer, no pain, and no fear."
"Before this retreat, I wasn't sure what to do with my life
and was going through the motions. Now, I am ready to take
the next step: recovery."
"Thank you for helping me see there's a light at the end of
this tunnel. This retreat was so much more than fishing;
this was a life changing experience. I will never forget
these few days."