As seen in Oct-Dec issue of FlyFisherman Magazine:
The first time I heard a loon call I was seven years old with my father in the Boundary Waters Wilderness area. The call was loud and lonely on the big lake; it was a sound so unlike anything I had ever heard. Tucked away from the chilly July night in my sleeping bag, the call echoed across the lake and permeated my father and I’s small tent. My first trip into the Boundary Waters was by many standards uneventful. We paddled into the north woods with hopes of seeing wolves, moose, bears, and giant northern pike that could take a boy’s arm off. I caught zero fish for five days, saw no wolves, bears, or moose and was eaten alive by mosquitos and other flying infestations of biblical proportions. Most would consider that to be a failed trip, but not me. I can’t tell you how sore my legs felt after those portages. 26 years later I can’t remember what 100 mosquito bites on your face and hands feel like. But I can still hear the call of that loon; I can still feel the excitement of my heart pounding through my ribcage as we paddled around every corner in anticipation of the moose that we never saw. I can still remember the sticky soft feeling of wet pine needs on bare feet on those early dew-covered mornings, and the scent made by damp birch firewood and burnt marshmallows, mixing with the brisk air on a July night. I remember enough to know this place and places like it are special, and always will be.
The purpose of the Armed Forces Initiative is to create conservationists in the military community. To find the next Aldo Leopold, Teddy Roosevelt, or John Muir and awaken in them a passion for the freedom that public lands and waters can give to a person. More than that, the Armed Forces Initiative is about saving lives. Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen, and Marines are taking their own lives every day in staggering numbers. In 2019, a veteran aged 18-35 was 63.3% more likely to commit suicide than their like-aged civilian peer. When an animal species is in danger of going extinct, the conservation community never blames the species. You never hear an ecologist comment “I know Steelhead have had it rough, but they need to pull themselves up by their bootstraps and move on” or a biologist exclaim, “Bald eagles are just going to have to deal with chemicals in their system”. Instead, they look at causation; is there a problem with habitat? Are there stressors put on the species that make them act this way? Are we mismanaging the needs of this population? The Armed Forces Initiative can address a few of these probable causes. We take members of the military community into the backcountry all over the United States with the goal of giving our participants the skills and experience needed to spend time outdoors, whether that’s hunting, hiking, fishing, or camping, time in the woods and on the water has a litany of positive effects both physically and mentally. More than just one experience we focus on teaching the skills needed to recreate these experiences again and again without relying on Backcountry Hunters and Anglers or any other organization. Finally, we strive to give our participants a new mission of conservation. We want to give the military community a way to continue serving their country and their communities by protecting the places and species that helped them and their fellow veterans.
For this trip, we invited veterans and active-duty military members primarily from the Great Lakes states and upper Midwest. We met for the first time at a small campground on the water in the Superior National Forrest. It was raining, but on a trip like this, you control what you can control and adapt to the rest. We introduced ourselves and laid our gear out, packing and re-packing in true military fashion until every pack included nothing but the essentials. Although to be honest when hefting a canoe across your shoulders through ankle-deep muck for a mile or more, no pack will feel like it has “just the essentials.” We spent the night around the campfire discussing fishing tactics and strategy, topwater bites vs. subsurface presentations, types of fly lines, and weights of rods, anything that could help them catch fish in the coming days.
The next morning, we split our group to meet the wilderness areas in group size limits and started our separate adventures. We would not meet again for four days when we would rendezvous outside the wilderness area back in the Superior National Forest for two more days of fishing.
The sun was already above the trees when we launched the next morning. It was warm out but the breeze off Burntside Lake kept the sweat from pooling in the corners of your eyes. The sunbeams danced on the water making it appear through polarized glasses dark and glossy. The lake's true color was only revealed when you looked over the side of your canoe and tipped your glasses down to show the cleanest deep blue, only fading first to cerulean, then translucent upon meeting the shore. Miniature granite mountain tops sprouted from the water creating ecosystems, housing mysterious vegetation, and life unknown. We splashed the other boats and raced across the open water. The feeling of freedom started to sink in amongst the scenery. I missed a smallmouth strike in a small bay with the 8-wieght and pooping frog but when the fish exploded through the surface everyone saw its bronze body shimmer in the sun, briefly reflected in the water before disappearing. That Bass set the tone for the trip, and now everyone knew the caliber of fish in these waters
As we pulled into the first portage the rock gave way to sand and the laughter and jubilee of the first lake dissipated. Our first portage was just over a mile and our second longest of the seven we had planned in the next few days. This would be a crucible of sorts and the outcome would determine whether we would adjust fire for the remainder of the trip and take shorter routes. The first group had left a pack at the mouth and as we pulled in the group leader was walking back to pick it up and rejoin his team on the other side. We shouted to him, inquiring the distance, elevation, debris, any details for what was about to come. He simply smiled and said remember how your shoulders feel now, then laughed and took off back up the trail.
We split into teams, one person taking the flyrods and a pack while the other took another pack and the canoe. The pack crew took off first, planning to finish then come back and help with the boats. The Boundary Waters humbled us on that first portage. The soft pine needles I remembered became sap-filled pits for sandaled feet to slip into. Razor sharp grasses and rocks cut at our exposed feet making one mile feel like ten. The welcoming breeze from the lake couldn’t penetrate the dense northern forest so the air drifted aimlessly through the trees and swamps.
Walking through the pine forests bearing a canoe across your shoulders is unlike anything else in the world. You have a wonderful view of your own feet, the path in front of you, and the bottoms of trees but can see nothing above shoulder height except the hull of the canoe. If you have caught fish and had them in the bottom of the canoe all day, you have the wonderful smell of fish slim to motivate you through the portage but even with a clean canoe, the air seems trapped and recycled. All these factors create the most amazing sensation once you can finally cast the canoe off your back into the next lake. Your head is immediately ten degrees colder and the wind off the water fills your lungs which swell and expel all scent of slim and boat material. You stand knee-deep washing the mud from your feet letting the cold clear water clean all the small nicks and cuts. A few moments later you can hardly remember why the hike was so bad.
During the next paddle, we found a few panfish, and the team started catching pike and smallmouth with regularity. As the sun began to set, we pulled ashore at our campground for the first night in the wilderness. It was situated on an island resembling a short, chunk of rock that dropped off suddenly at the sides with a few trees hanging precariously out over the lake. Our Minnesota participant gave a Pike cleaning class, as we fried fish, and potatoes over the fire. We joked and tried to one-up each other on military tall tales, and a few folks paddled out to check the night bite. At 11 p.m. once all were in bed, I doused the fire and crawled under my tarp. We had been lucky with the weather, 60 degrees at night with a steady wind to keep the bugs away. Perched on that rocky outcropping, feet dangling over the water I sat reviewing the plan for tomorrow when I heard the first loon of the trip singing a ballad that only they can understand. The music mixed with the smell of woodsmoke, as I settled into my bag, content I had all the tools to give these folks an experience worth repeating.
The next day we paddled ten miles down the lake to our next campsite. The wind howled across the open water forcing us into the shallows for safety. The grey-green sky spit rain at us and the water mirrored the cloud's grey sullen color. Nevertheless, we started to catch fish as the day went on and before long had enough smallmouth for lunch. After lunch, our North Dakota participant connected with a huge 45-inch Northern pike that fought the good fight, leaping like a tarpon, and headshaking like the best bull redfish. After a minute or so of pictures and jealous glances from other canoes in our party, the fish was released unharmed. That evening we talked about public access to waters all over the participants' home states, once again driving home that this didn’t have to be a once-in-a-lifetime experience, but could be the doorway to a lifetime of experiences
The following morning found us waist-deep in slime and muck, flanked by shoulder-length razor grass portaging to a new lake rumored our best shot at real walleye fishing. Through the mire we trod, one man with packs and fishing gear, the other with the boat. Wenonah Canoes is the Cadillac of canoes, and the company spared no expense in its support of BHA and the Armed Forces Initiative. However, the bright yellow color amidst shoulder-high reeds and grass, deep in murky sludge seems to attract a disproportionately large number of insects into the upturned hull, at eye level with the canoe bearer.
Puffy-eyed and itchy from the numerous stings and bites, we reached the lake and hastily dumped our gear to the side before we dove in to rid us of the creatures sucking at our necks, hands, and faces. When we crawled out of the water, we noticed the shore was laden with blackberries. We picked from the canoes and ate on the water until our mouths were stained purple. After all that the walleye still eluded us as we pulled in perch after perch with a few smaller pike sprinkled in. After five hours we blamed the poor fishing on the time of day and decided to head back through the breech to camp.
The next day we paddled out of the wilderness to meet an expert on a copper sulfide mine proposed to begin construction less than 80 yards from the waters we had started on three days ago. This is the third piece of the AFI mission. Now that we had shown our participants the value of this wild public place and taught them how they can access it, utilize it, and teach others to recreate in it, we can now teach them how to be conservationists. The policy expert would be giving a policy class highlighting how the veteran and military community can utilize their leadership, knowledge, and experiences to protect these special parts of the world from undue risk of destruction. Our message was clear, we are not anti-mining and if there was one example of a mine of this type working without a catastrophic failure to the landscape it was built on, perhaps we could consider it. Unfortunately, the proximity to the watershed and the likelihood of failure make this mine an impossible risk for the Boundary Waters and Superior National Forrest. I like to save the policy classes until the end of the event. It gives the participants time to appreciate the landscape we are trying to highlight as well as wrap their brains around the idea that as veterans and active military, they have a unique ability to speak for the conservation of these places in a way no one can argue against.
What sparked my interest in this threat and encouraged me to include the Boundary Waters as one of the trips was the automated response I received from my congressmen when I wrote to ask him to oppose the mine. The form letter stated that the mine is essential for national security and must be supported. This is a well enough excuse for anyone who didn’t know any better, but a tertiary search of the mining company revealed the mine is owned by a South American mining company who has a contract to export the goods to China. National Security Indeed. Unfortunately, being pandered to by Congress is nothing new for the military community, but fortunately, after events like these, there are 18 more veterans who can take part in the legislative process on behalf of places like the Boundary Waters and speak from experience when they say places like this “are essential to national security; just not in the manner described”.
With all the groups now reunited, the campfire talk was of stories from the last few days. Tales of fish that had grown six inches since they had been caught and of bugs the size of field mice attacking your face met over the fire and were carried up with the smoke into the night sky to mix with the tall tales of 100 generations of anglers who came before us.
Our last day in the canoes was spent paddling 15 miles up the black river to our last campsite. Along the way, we fished hard. We were experts by now at landing heavy streamers in the lily pads before striping hard and fast, triggering impressive strikes from Smallmouth, and Pike. The last night is often melancholy as participants bond after experiences like these. One of the things you miss after leaving the military is the people. It makes no sense because you had nothing in common but the random assignment that puts you in a platoon together. The community the Armed Forces Initiative creates is one of the reasons these events work. A network of peers, or tribe if you prefer helps ensure this isn’t just a once-in-a-lifetime experience for these guys. If we can teach them the skills for a trip like this and introduce them to a community of folks who also have the desire to do this trip our chances of building a lifelong hunter or angler who will develop into a conservationist is very high.
During this trip, I was approached by five veterans volunteering to be leaders in their respective states; Michigan, Minnesota, North Dakota, Ohio, and Virginia. Those new leaders have hosted over 40 more veterans each at their own events since returning from the boundary waters. One of the participants approached me on our last night and said, six months prior he was at a low point, he had a pistol and was ready to go when he received the notification that he was invited to join BHA in the Boundary Waters. That email got him through a rough patch and since leaving the Boundary Waters this participant has helped to organize and volunteer at several of our events in the Midwest.
As our small program has grown over the past three years from just 18 veterans in Montana to 14,000 members and clubs in 42 States and 26 Active-Duty instillations I am often asked how we choose the locations of our events or why is “X” place special to veterans’ recovery? The truth is I don’t know. I wish I could tell you as long as a place has these three things (A, B, C,) it’s going to be helpful to the military community, but I can’t. I know what places are important to me. I know what landscapes have left a dent in my heart at times when everything about the world just seemed to disappoint me. I think back to these places and trips I’ve had, and I try to recreate them for the military community.
My father is an educated, successful, businessman in our hometown. He has multiple degrees from private Catholic Universities, gives generously to the local children’s hospital, and volunteers to cook at the fireman’s picnic. Yet he is more frequently known by his sense of humor and ability to give joy to those around him. We were at the bar one night and I asked him why he is so willing to make a joke even at his own expense. He pointed to a man down the bar and said that is my friend Dave who lost his wife a few years ago to cancer, behind the bar is Drew whose company went under in the market crash of 2008, he lost everything, Dad turned and gestured toward the back corner to another man and said, that’s Patrick, he lost his son 10 years ago in a car accident. Not a day goes by that those people won’t be thinking about their loss. Without a little humor in the world those thoughts might just get the better of a man. If me making a fool of myself occasionally means that my friends are not thinking about their loss even just for a moment, then that’s worth it. You can’t take away bad memories, but you can make some good new ones.
There isn’t a master plan or revolutionary new strategy in veterans’ mental health care. The Armed Forces Initiative hasn’t solved some mystery that’s eluded all others. We are just a group of volunteers trying to give some of the good memories from our past to our brothers and sisters. We can’t give you back the last 20 years of your life so you can live it over differently. We can’t give you back all the holidays you missed or relationships that ended because you chose to serve. We can’t bring your friends back. What we can do is focus on making the next 20 years the best years of your life. We can show you the joys of the outdoors and America's public lands and waters. Through this process, we end up creating some amazing new conservation advocates.