November 04, 2022
By Chris Kassar
This article was originally titled "Flags in the Wilderness" in the June-July 2015 issue of Fly Fisherman.
Against a cobalt sky, puffy pewter clouds waltz with the sun. Below, Bradley Noone stands knee-deep in a quiet pool of emerald water. Back and forth. Back and forth. Patiently and with focus, he rhythmically cuts the air with a neon yellow line until finally bringing it to rest gently on the water. Slowly, he strips the line and moves the fuzzy olive and white Dalai Lama through the water.
Time passes; out here how long is of little concern. He thinks “one last cast,” and then, a splash at the surface, and weight on his line. He looks around, but nobody is nearby to help. Without hesitation, he returns confidently to the battle at hand and reels the speckled char closer, bringing the fish to hand as if he’s done this a thousand times instead of one. He grabs the blade dangling from his belt, looks the squirming fish in the eye and breaks the long peaceful silence of the last few hours with a simple, but surprising mantra, “Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.”
Culture of Gratitude
Noone, an Army veteran who served in Afghanistan, has seen his share of violence in his 28 years, but clearly, he has not become desensitized to death. “I thanked him without even thinking about it because we were gonna eat him,” he says. “That moment meant something and I wanted to acknowledge the weight, the meaning in his sacrifice just to help us.”
This type of gratitude—for sacrifice, freedom, adventure, team—permeated each moment of our unforgettable week-long, LRRP-style mission with Veterans Expeditions in Alaska’s Togiak Wilderness. Modeled after the military’s Long Range Reconnaissance Patrol (‘LRRP’ pronounced “LURP”), this small, nimble group of military veterans—some recently returned from Iraq and Afghanistan, some still healing from battles fought decades ago—floated and rowed more than 35 river and lake miles in small inflatable canoes to explore isolated nooks, crannies, and tributaries of the Togiak Lake and river system. Relying on the leadership of Mark Rutherford, who has been guiding Alaska rivers for 35 years, we experienced an intact ecosystem boasting fish and wildlife populations largely undiminished by human influence.
“I had to find the right team to do this kind of exploratory trip on uncharted terrain with so many unknowns,” says Rutherford, owner and guide extraordinaire at Wild River Guides, who met Nick Watson, a former sergeant in the Army Rangers and the executive director of Veterans Expeditions (VetEx), last year on a more typical raft-based trip for veterans and disabled athletes.
Immediately, they started hatching plans for a more adventurous journey—one with seldom traveled and rarely fished territory that even Rutherford hadn’t explored. “Anglers come to Bristol Bay from all over the world to experience fly fishing in tent camps and four-star lodges, but I wanted to go considerably farther afield with VetEx, so we’re exploring a relatively unknown fishery and answering some questions about it.”
To mitigate the potential hazards of choosing a route with almost no beta, Watson and Rutherford agreed that a LRRP-style mission—based around the military practice of sending a skilled envoy ahead to assess the risks and report back—would be safest and most rewarding for a group accustomed to moving through tricky terrain in this manner.
“We didn’t even know if this river was passable, so we had to scout it,” Watson explains. “This type of trip where we get dropped off at one spot, get picked up at another, and just have to figure out the rest, exemplifies the true nature of journeying through the backcountry. Adventuring with our brothers in the Alaska bush helps us tap into the things we loved about service without having to endure the things we didn’t.”
In 2010, inspired by his own experience with the healing power of nature, Watson cofounded VetEx, a Colorado-based nonprofit that uses veteran-led backcountry challenges to empower veterans and ease reintegration.
“Vets often speak about serving in faraway places, but they all signed on to defend our homeland,” says Watson. “By getting veterans out on ‘the land defended,’ we help them forge bonds with each other and the public lands they fought to protect.”
Since its inception, VetEx has served more than 1,100 veterans on 100 trips that run the gamut from day-long snowshoe hikes, to multi-day river trips, to Mt. Rainier and Mt. Denali climbs. “I learned so much in the military, but I struggled transitioning from that fast-paced life to the slow pace of civilian life,” Watson says. “Time in the outdoors fed my need for adrenaline, challenge, and freedom while also providing me with space to heal, breathe, and recover. I knew there would be power in sharing that.”
Veterans often struggle upon returning home; depression, drug use, incarceration, and homelessness plague many of them. Over 22 veterans a day commit suicide, and many others turn to substance abuse and violence to cope with the overwhelming difficulties faced after service. Through programs like this one, some are finding a different way.
“Making the transition into civilian life was the hardest thing I’ve ever done . . . harder than anything I did in the service,” says Noone, who candidly admits that like so many of his comrades, he chose a path toward self-destruction after returning from Kandahar. “I didn’t know how to handle readjusting, or the trauma of what I experienced overseas. I tried to drink it all away, but it just made things worse.”
With the help of family and friends, Noone started the long journey toward “getting his head right.” Along the way, he met Watson in New Hampshire at an ice-climbing event, where a panic attack almost sent him packing.
“I was in a bad place,” says Noone, who suffers from service-related ankle and back injuries, hearing loss, tinnitus, traumatic brain injury (TBI), post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and depression. “I’m glad I pushed through. I was looking for something. I didn’t know what, but I needed a healthy coping mechanism, and VetEx helped me find that. I’ve got my drinking under control, and my life back together, largely because of support from these guys.”
Beyond the River
Shell shock, battle fatigue, soldier’s heart, combat stress—the psychological wounds of war are nothing new. In fact, they probably date back to the beginning of warfare itself. What is new, however, is the astounding numbers of men and women who have returned home and are still struggling to heal invisible scars as well as physical injuries.
This fact moved Rutherford to action. “When Iraq and Afghanistan vets started coming back, I realized that a bunch of outdoorsmen were coming back wounded and wondering if they’d ever get to their “bucket list,” he says. “I thought, if an Alaskan voyage is on their bucket list, couldn’t I help these folks who’ve given so much? I saw it as a potentially healing experience, but also as a way to simply help reconnect an outdoorsman’s soul to the outdoors.”
During the last decade, the U.S. deployed 2.6 million service members overseas. At least 1 million veterans have returned injured, and statistics show that the frequency of diagnoses in mental health conditions is increasing. Add to that the fact that only 35 percent (on the high end) of service members displaying symptoms of PTSD actually seek military medical treatment, and we have a potential epidemic on our hands. With this unprecedented influx of veterans, conventional systems in place cannot help all those to whom we owe so much.
Instead of getting overwhelmed at the negative trends, VetEx works to buck them. “We get a lot of training for what to do while in the military, but we don’t really get any training on what to do with all those experiences once we’re home,” explains Watson. “That’s where VetEx comes in. We’re shedding light on the issue, helping veterans reconnect with the land defended, and giving them a place to build community so they can deal with some of the challenges they currently face.”
Since veterans typically avoid seeking help for PTSD or depression, innovative methods to assist with reintegration are necessary. Research has shown that outdoor recreation can help people deal with psychological and social challenges. Studies are underway to catalog the benefits of outdoor recreation for war veterans, but the anecdotal results are impressive.
Regardless of the data, it’s obvious from our time on the river that “campfire therapy” clearly works. Throughout the week, we work together toward a common mission and we stand side by side for hours trying to catch fish on a fly. No one asks direct questions. No one rings a bell and says, “Let the therapy begin.” It just slowly does—organically and simply—as we cast, paddle, set up camp, joke, and drop our jaws in wonder at nature’s gifts.
“I want to see my country. I fought for it and I want to experience it fully, especially the wild places . . . and it doesn’t get much more wild than this,” Noone says, sweeping his arm around at the vast, rugged environment that envelopes us. “Being in the wilderness is the thing that helps calm me down and gets my head right. This is the only place I can really get perspective.”
When the conversation does turn to war or struggles, rarely does anyone offer specific advice. They just listen, offer encouragement, or share an experience that might help. Just being there with them is often enough.
“Other veterans understand what you’re going through, so you can share things in a way you can’t with others,” says Noone. “This landscape is stunning, but it’s not always easy being out here. Something special happens when you share all of that adversity and beauty with others who have also fought for this country. That companionship and cohesion comes right back.”
Watson knows the impact of these trips is immeasurable, but he isn’t content with lifting up his brothers and sisters in arms for only a week. “I see this happen on every trip. Veterans get together and form a high-functioning team that can achieve any goal. But, more importantly they also form bonds that last well beyond the river we float or mountain we climb,” he says, citing countless examples of veterans who stay in touch.“They go climbing or fishing together without me, without VetEx. They call each other in times of need. They know they always have someone to turn to when they feel alone. This is our greatest success: building a strong community that continues to support veterans long after we’ve returned home from an expedition.”
It’s still bright out at 11 P.M. at the end of our trip—a fact none of us can get over yet. We’ve made camp on yet another magical beach exploding with magenta fireweed, and tracks heralding the presence of wolves, bears, and moose. Spawning sockeye turn the water red and every once in a while, one breaks the surface with a flourish and a splash. Seven of us huddle around a modest campfire, reliving the highlights of the past few days.
And then, amid our laughing Nick shouts, “Bear!” Just 100 feet and a short creek crossing away, a blonde grizzly—clearly as startled as we are—teeters on the forest edge. Before anyone can even grab a camera, he disappears like a whisper on the wind. We had all but given up hope on seeing a bear, but nature gives us one final gift before we greet the return to reality.
Chris Kassar wrote this story in loving memory of Nick Watson’s father Richard (Dec 26, 1948-July 20, 2014), a Vietnam veteran who caught more fish than anyone on VetEx’s inaugural 2013 journey to the Togiak with Mark Rutherford and Wild River Guides. Richard Watson cherished the chance to spend time in the Alaskan wild with his son, whose work and integrity made him so incredibly proud, he frequently carried a photo album of the adventure.