How casting, conservation, and even cancer can teach us what matters.
As a kid growing up in Wyoming I always woke up jazzed when it was my birthday. But on my 10th birthday, I was especially excited because I knew my dad had something special for me. He’d been teasing me, saying I was out of luck this year because my brother and sister had gotten everything. But I knew he was just pulling my leg.
I ran downstairs to find the kitchen empty of people and presents. After hunting around, I found my mom, who kissed me. Maybe I just needed to wait it out a bit. I poured myself some cereal and pouted. Then my dad walked into the room. Nothing. Did he really forget?
I waited patiently until my dad finally led me out to the yard. Then, there it was: a long, skinny box leaning against a bench, wrapped in brightly colored paper. I ripped it open to find my first fly rod and reel. I jumped up and down as my dad handed me my most cherished birthday present ever.
I ran to an open spot in the yard and strung it up. My dad already had a piece of yarn ready to tie to the end of the tippet, and I started practicing my cast. After some instruction in the yard, I felt the line tighten and lay out when I cast, and I was consistently hitting the target I aimed for. Granted, it was only 20 feet away, but I was on my way to becoming a fly fisherman!
After lots of practice tying knots, learning flies, and more casting, it was time for me to put my skills to use. Our annual family trip to Rock Creek came, and I could hardly wait to hit the water. At 10, I was too small for the waders on the market at the time, so wet wading in old sneakers was the best option. As soon as we pulled into our normal camping spot, I jumped out of the car and ran to the bank of the river. I knew the spots to fish because my dad had plopped me down in them to give it a try before I was official, so I hurriedly found a great spot and immediately got my fly stuck in a bush. This clearly wasn’t the open yard where I practiced, but I retrieved the fly, gave it a few more tries, and eventually had my first rainbow trout reeled in and flopping in my net. I unhooked it and let it swim off to my family’s cheers.
That trip to Rock Creek solidified my love of fly fishing. I was finally old enough to fish with my dad and brother on their day-long excursions. I finally understood what they loved about it: the sights and sounds, the wildlife, and the pure joy of standing in a river waving what essentially amounted to a stick with a string and hook attached. Sure, there were many frustrating no-fish days, but I was becoming an angler.
Eight years later, I bolted out of bed again. I had just graduated from high school and it was time for my graduation trip with my dad. We’d chosen to fish in the Bob Marshall Wilderness. In August, we headed to the South Fork of the Flathead River to cast for Westslope cutthroat trout. The trout were willing participants and being so far north in Montana, it stayed light until nearly 11 p.m. We fished hard every day until we collapsed into our cots.
This trip told me that I was a bonafide angler, as we caught fish after fish while exploring the vast wilderness by rafting down the South Fork of the Flathead River. Deep holes hid bull trout that would chase the cutthroat on our lines. Fireside stories every night made us laugh until tears filled our eyes.
Priorities shift when you get to college, and mine did at Gonzaga University. I didn’t fish much at first, but then I shattered my tibial plateau skiing, and there’s no better way to convalesce than by practicing your cast. During my months on crutches, I still couldn’t stand in a river, but I set up in a chair in front of my dorm and floated my line across the grass. Watching, my boyfriend caught on, too; he picked it up quickly and that summer took his fly rod anywhere he could find water near his home in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Once I could walk again, I joined him there to fish the cold, clean waters in the Jemez Mountains. We were hooked, on each other and on the search for fish.
We couldn’t get enough of fishing. I told him about my journey into the “Bob” and how amazing it was, so he applied for a guiding job there. When he got it, he started packing on the muscle to carry rafts down a thousand-foot slope, and then the raft frame, and then the cooler, and then the gear, and then sometimes the guests. This was his initiation into guiding. Once he passed, he qualified to pack guests into the wilderness, and he loved every minute of it.
Meanwhile I spent my summers on Flathead Lake and in Missoula and found plenty of opportunities to fish. It was still a way for me to heal my knee and fill my soul, but now I couldn’t square the quality waters I fished with the destruction I knew extractive industry work, disease, and massive wildfires were having on rivers. Hoot owl restrictions and low water made fishing late in the summer in northwest Montana impossible. It was happening on other rivers, too—The Madison, The Big Horn and The Missouri—and as a conscientious angler, I wanted to identify and help alleviate the problems. Now married to my college sweetheart and living in the Roaring Fork Valley, I became an advocate for my local watershed by joining the board of the Roaring Fork Conservancy River Stewards, which engages and educates young professionals about the watershed and what was happening on our local rivers.
I took to it seamlessly, bonding with the board, planning events, and teaching locals about the threats to our local waters. During that time, I also hosted multiple women’s-only fly fishing seminars, which proved popular. I felt that people wanting to learn about fly fishing should learn every aspect of it, from bug life to gear to casting to reading water eventually to catching and releasing fish. I spent a full day teaching my students these, plus some basic concepts of conservation, water quality, and how to take action on river protection. I feel we successfully turned women in the Roaring Fork Valley into anglers and conservationists.
Because of some of my advocacy work with both the Conservancy and Trout Unlimited, I was approached to help launch a sportswomen’s specific conservation group. Once we gathered 10 like-minded women from across the West, we officially launched Artemis, an initiative of the National Wildlife Federation, to give women a louder voice in conservation. We focused on issues facing all hunters and anglers such as access to public lands, threats to National Monuments, and threats to mule deer, cutthroat trout, and sage grouse. But we focused on teaching women how to advocate for protections in their own backyards.
After 12 years in the Roaring Fork Valley, my husband and I sought out new fishing waters. So in the summer of 2017 we moved to a great spot on the La Plata River just outside of Durango, Colorado. I struggled to leave the incredible fishing opportunities and conservation work I’d done in the Roaring Fork Valley, but we were ready for a new adventure. Our new home brought us so much, from fishing steps off our porch in our new backyard to finding new blue lines on maps, which we traced and fished on foot and by mountain bikes. Better yet, I’d scored a job as southwest communications director with Trout Unlimited—my dream job. I was finally getting to combine my passion for advocacy in a meaningful way. Then heaven fell.
After a day of volunteering with my local Trout Unlimited chapter, I got a call from my healthcare provider. What I feared most had come true; I was diagnosed with breast cancer. I was just getting the hang of the job, but my boss and colleagues were gracious in allowing me to continue working as my health allowed. The support I received from them was incredible, and the insurance was even better, but I knew what would get me through the pain to come the best would be fishing.
After too many doctor appointments to count I was getting treated with chemo first, then surgery, then targeted therapy treatments, then radiation, then, then then. But I always found time to fish in my backyard on the La Plata and around Durango. Time on the water took my mind off of what was happening. I was able to escape yet come back focused on healing and the impermanence of the situation. Sure, I was often off-balance. Sure, I had a hard time concentrating. And I got cold very easily while winter fishing. But every time I went, I felt rejuvenated.
Now that the weather is warming and snow is melting, I’m feeling more energized every day. I am eagerly looking forward to a summer filled with hiking and riding to chase beautiful fish. I’ll also concentrate on my job by telling better advocacy and conservation stories. I’m still undergoing treatments for my cancer and have more to come, but I’ll make it. And just as important, finding the people and partners who help make Trout Unlimited the successful coldwater conservation organization that it is; by volunteering for my local TU chapter; by bringing other women into the sports I love through Artemis; and by teaching women and kids how to fly fish, I’ll pass along my legacy.
I hope that one day another child will wake up jazzed to fly fish, and that the thrill of catch and release will make them want to protect their favorite places. It’s a good way to live. And take it from me: Time spent exploring the beautiful places trout live and working to protect them is reason enough to push through cancer and all that comes with it.
Cover photo: The author received the news that she had cancer just as she began to volunteer for trout unlimited. In the time since, she has become an even more vocal advocate for clean water. Photo by Andrew Miller.