December 22, 2021
By Ross Purnell
This article was originally titled "Ripple Effect" in the Feb-March 2018 issue of Fly Fisherman magazine.
When Suzanne Toole woke up Saturday morning, April 22, she could hear the effervescent noise of the North Fork outside her cabin. When she stepped outside, it was unseasonably cool, and the clouds wrapped tightly around the mountains like a blanket, issuing a soft rain that didn’t have far to fall before it hit the hard, rocky terrain of West Virginia.
The forecast called for 1 to 3 inches of rain in the next 24 hours, which if realized, would turn this pretty headwater trout stream into a battering ram. It has a long history of flooding quickly and killing people. But Toole wasn’t bothered by the forecast.
“Who cares about the rain?” she told me. “If it ain’t raining, it ain’t training.”
Toole, who is a 23-year veteran of the Army and Army Reserves, says “When you train you want to do it in the most miserable conditions so when you are mobilized you can perform. We don’t care about the rain, we could go out there in the freezing cold or snow, it doesn’t matter. We keep each other warm.”
Toole was guest at Harman’s Luxury Cabins on the North Fork of the South Branch of the Potomac for the first-ever event cosponsored by the nonprofit organizations Project Healing Waters Fly Fishing and Casting for Recovery. She was there with 12 other women, all military vets or active duty. All had some type of disability stemming from their military service, and all were dealing with a breast cancer diagnosis.
To these ladies, the flood warnings issued for the region were a minor blip compared to the opportunities the next 48 hours held. They were going fly fishing, and there in the secluded confines of a river canyon, they would do more than commune with nature, they would share their experience with women they had never met, yet had so much in common.
“Cancer teaches you many things,” says Toole. “When you get a chance to go to something like this, you don’t waste time waiting for better weather or an easier weekend to schedule. We don’t have the patience for that kind of thinking. We want adventures, and we want it to happen right now.
“When else would I ever get the chance to spend a whole weekend with a group of female veterans? It just doesn’t happen. And on top of it they are cancer survivors just like me? I knew right away they were going to be fabulous human beings, and that’s exactly how it turned out. We’ve started lifelong friendships.”
It drizzled all weekend, but the Noah’s Ark forecast never materialized, and the river stayed clear and stable. For catching fish, it was perfect, and 13 volunteer guides helped introduce 13 vets to the joys of fly fishing.
I was paired with Dee Brown from Universal City, Texas. She is an Air Force veteran who has been stationed all over the country, and all over the world at one time or another. With her husband, she owns a boat and they do an enormous amount of saltwater fishing, but Brown had never tried trout fishing.
Most of the participants had never fly fished but one told me: “It’s the greatest thing I’ve done outdoors.”
Toole said when she started the day, she didn’t care if she caught a fish. “I was there for the fresh air and to be with my sisters in arms, but it didn’t take long to find out I liked standing in the river with the water pressing against my legs.”
And with some help from “Dr. Mike” (Dr. Michael Gould, an emergency room physician and local guide who volunteered for the day) she could soon see trout in the water and gulping mayflies at the surface.
“They were jumping right out of the water and doing fish back flips! It was like a fish playground, there were so many of them,” she says. “For a while it seem like they were just taunting us, but when I managed to do everything Dr. Mike said, I caught fish right away. I told the other ladies that Dr. Mike was ‘The Fish Whisperer,’ because he had them all figured out.”
Some of the participants were in remission, energetically hiking up and down the river and using the experience as a therapeutic part of their ongoing recovery. Others were undergoing active chemotherapy and suffering from nausea, vertigo, and cold hands and feet due to peripheral neuropathy. They depended on a steady shoulder to lean on in tumbling riffles and uneven terrain. Even though physically it was a struggle for some of them, they all wore a smile as a badge of honor, and most managed to catch fish.
Toole says that in the evening hours after the official group therapy ended, and the volunteers and staff members retired, the women stayed up for hours, swapping stories and participating in “show & tell” sessions that helped the women bond as cancer survivors. “It’s the stuff that doctors can’t show you or tell you,” said Toole. “It’s our time to share everything.”
The fishing was a focal point, but Casting for Recovery retreats are much more than a weekend fishing trip with new friends. It’s a time for these women to share common experiences, to help each other feel safe and secure, and to help each other heal, not just from cancer but in this case from the physical and emotional scars related to their military service.
Toole says that one night, a participant shared her experience of sexual trauma suffered in the military, and the years of depression and anxiety that followed.
“She felt safe with us,” said Toole. “This happened 30 or more years ago, and after all that time, she finally had people she could talk to about it. For everyone who served in the military there is healing of all kinds that needs to take place. We’re tough, we’re proud of our service, we want to be strong, but sometimes we need help.”
Toole says all 13 vets benefited from the event, but the best thing to come out of it is likely much greater than personal victories and lifelong friendships. The most important result, Toole says, is what the participants bring back to their communities, to their families, and to other cancer survivors and other veterans when they return home.
“Something like this has a huge ripple effect,” she told me. “Our cups get filled back up so we’re better able to contribute to the world. We’re able to give back. You can’t overestimate something as powerful as that.”
Whitney Milhoan, CFR executive director, says she was “thrilled” with the outcome of the pilot program. For dates and other details of future events, see castingforrecovery.org.
[This story is dedicated to the memory of Rebecca Blayney, who fished with us at the Casting for Recovery event April 22-24, and passed away October 18, 2017.]
Ross Purnell is the editor of Fly Fisherman.