River Sistas

River Sistas

Hilary Hutcheson (left) and Whitney Milhoan used to be Glacier, Montana fishing guides known as the "Lange Sisters." Now they help cancer survivors find friendships and the healing therapy of fly fishing on the water. Photo ❱ Missy Shofner Sprouse

When you're raised on the fringe of Glacier National Park, there's no telling where life will take you, but chances are, you'll follow the call of the wild. Sisters Hilary Hutcheson and Whitney Milhoan were whitewater and fishing guides by the time they were 15. If angling culture has exhausted every brother-and-fly-fishing trope from A River Runs Through It, it might look to the Lange Sisters (as the two were called around town) for new inspiration set in the same wilderness, on the same rivers, with equally skilled anglers.

"We were encouraged to follow our passions," said Whitney,  age 36. "The message from our parents was, 'We are a people deeply rooted in outdoor experience. Here's what can ground and inspire you, now find your own path.' We linked up with our passion early and supported each other."

"We found fly fishing together," explained Hilary, age 38. "You hear some kids say they hate their brother or sister. We never felt that way. We were great playmates and adventure buddies."

Both Hilary and Whitney are petite, but filled with energy and positivity that belies their stature. They move like people who do nothing but move for a living — exact, natural, and self-possessed. The two have long collaborated as siblings and guides. But on a September day at the foot of the Apgar Range in West Glacier, Montana, the two worked together for another cause: Casting for Recovery (CfR), Whitney, as executive director of the organization and Hilary as a volunteer instructor.

For 20 years, Casting for Recovery (castingforrecovery.org), has helped women with breast cancer through a program that combines education and peer support with the therapy found in fly fishing. The nonprofit hosts retreats, offering groups of 14 women at a time the opportunity to learn to fly fish. In the process, participants find inspiration, discover renewed energy for life, and experience healing connections with other women and nature. The organization has expanded to 40 states and now hosts around 50 events annually, as well as six international programs.

CfR's retreats are open to breast cancer survivors of all ages, in all stages of treatment and recovery, and are entirely free to participants. To make them free, CfR counts on the financial support of donors. The retreat in West Glacier was sponsored by Cabela's Outdoor Fund, Lakestream Fly Shop, Whitefish Community Foundation, Ila B. Dousman Fund, Inc., Flathead Valley Trout Unlimited, and the Dolan Family. Fourteen Montana residents were selected by lottery to gather here for a three-day event.

CfR opened a Montana chapter in 2010, at which time Whitney volunteered at the first retreat. The West Glacier event marked the fifth that the sisters have worked on together.

"I was a guide through college and most of my twenties. I got a degree in sociology and started working with nonprofits that used outdoor experiences to promote wellness," explained Whitney. After working as program director for First Descents, an outdoor adventure program for young adults with cancer, Whitney became  executive director of CfR in 2013.

In a past life, Hilary was a news anchor in Missoula, Montana, and then Portland, Oregon. She returned to her home territory of Glacier with her young family, started an outdoor PR firm, a television show (Trout TV), and began guiding again. She also opened a fly shop. Hilary continued, "Whit always says, 'All roads lead back to Glacier.' We've been a lot of different places and done different things, but have always felt rooted here."

Now, the sisters continually find ways to join forces. With Whitney's work in the nonprofit world and Hilary's role as a media producer and marketer, it's a natural fit.

"We work more together now, more than ever before," explained Whitney. "So many brands are interested in female anglers and trying to encourage, support, and engage them. There's been a lot of opportunity for us to collaborate."

In addition to being full-time working professionals, the two are mothers, with children ranging from toddlers to teenagers.

"Being moms makes us better, more efficient in our professional lives. Once you're a mom, you only have so much time and energy. I have a thicker skin with tough organizational decisions," said Whitney. "Our kids see us stand behind projects and causes that matter to us. That's important and it's a luxury in our line of work. We are total train wrecks most of the time. But we're doing good work, pursuing passions, and applying energy and talents in things that matter."

"We consider ourselves moms first," Hilary added. That's the most important thing — these humans that we're responsible for. And then, you do your very best. Once you feel you're doing your best, then shoot, anything you can do in work and play is gravy. We also have incredible support from our husbands, friends, and family. And we have great support staff."

Another thing that's saved them is their approach to parenting. "We've never been the moms who say, 'We can't fish because the kids take a nap at 10:15 a.m. every day,'" said Hilary. We've never raised them by the book. When kids are hungry, feed them. And when they're tired, they sleep. When it's time to fish, we fish."

Hilary, mother of two girls ages 12 and 14, could write a manual for parents who want to get their teens out on the water and most importantly, have a good time.

"What I've found," she divulged, "is that the river to them isn't a peaceful place. It's a fun place. They want to bring friends, have phones. I fought that, thinking we needed peace and quiet. And now, we have snacks, selfies, and music. I'd rather have them out there listening to music than not there at all. We play music in my skiff on the Flathead. We'll go cliff jumping, swim, catch frogs. They like to hang off the side of the boat while I'm rowing and kind of body surf. Please note: There's no motor."

"I was about to call Child Protection Services," Whitney interjected.

Participation in a Casting for Recovery event is free, but demand far exceeds the supply. Some survivors wait years before their name is selected via lottery. Photo ❱ Missy Shofner Sprouse

"They wear life jackets, I swear! I had visions of my children out there making long beautiful casts and slaying fish. For them right now, this is the experience relevant to them — being out there with friends, being young and crazy. Making that mental adjustment has really helped me get them out there more."

With fly fishing, both parents and children are immersed in the activity rather than one party or the other. Most sports place children on the field and parents on the sidelines cheering. But with fishing, everyone's in the game. It's truly a shared experience.

"With fishing, we're in the boat with them, which is really effective and special," Hilary said. "A lot of people use fishing to get away from their families, to get away from work. I understand why. However, there's also an opportunity in fly fishing to share it with your family and all be part of it."

Whitney, mother to a three-, five-, and seven-year-old, offers perspective on getting the younger set out there: "The trick with small children is that everything has to be fun and funny. You have to catch it before they melt down. If they fall in the mud, you have to make it funny before it's embarrassing. Keep it low pressure. My kids are still young enough that everything is awesome. Every little fish is beautiful. Kids change your personal goals and what you consider successful."

"People ask how we juggle work and family," Hilary said, changing the direction of the conversation, "But look at all the women here at CfR. They've been doing that, but with cancer. And that's what's so humbling about this. These women are animal rescuers, soldiers, doctors, lawyers, teachers, welders, electricians, stay-at-home moms, single moms, grandmothers. They're accomplished at many activities and talents and are battling cancer. They have fought through it and won."

CfR has served women longer than the industry has actively demonstrated earnest efforts to engage female participants. With that experience and success, the organization acts as somewhat of a poster child for women in fly fishing, offering ample perspective on engagement and retention. Whitney sees two big takeaways: creating a low barrier to entry and retention through a sense of community.

"We've created a really approachable environment," Whitney explained. "The retreats are fun. Women are hungry for knowledge, and through the fishing they simultaneously experience being with others, adventure, stepping outside their daily lives. That's applicable to everyone. That's not women-specific or cancer-specific. That's the beauty of this sport."

CfR participants not only fish — often for the first time — during the weekend of the event, but many continue to fish. Whitney highlighted this sustained interest: "The number of women who come through CfR continue to fish at a higher rate than what is representative of the sport at large. It comes back to that community piece. They connect with local guides and stay in touch with them. They have instant support from the angling community."

The West Glacier retreat followed the usual CfR format, beginning with fly-fishing fundamentals, prepping the group to fish from drift boats on the final day. We gathered around a casting pond to watch Hilary demonstrate, and then broke into groups to let participants try it with one-on-one instruction with volunteers.

Lee Giesy of Whitefish, Montana waited eight years to get one of the coveted retreat spots. She's hoping to write a technical book about her battle with cancer and the recovery process, a resource she feels is missing for cancer patients.

"One of the hardest parts of recovery is feeling like a useful member of society. Your whole life is forced into slow motion when you have cancer. It's amazing to be here. To be able to enjoy our resources right here in Montana, to get outside and do something positive," she said.

CfR volunteers and fishing guides are equally anxious to secure spots, and the waiting takes years to ascend. Beth Shidner, an oncology nurse from Jackson, Wyoming and a CfR medical facilitator, was there to facilitate group talks about chemotherapy.

"It's nice to see a sisterhood here," she says. "They don't get that discussion in the infusion room. Here they can sit down and talk about anything they could possibly talk about, laugh and cry together."

Debra MacLaine of Lakeside, Montana, was a past participant and now acts as a CfR volunteer: "I found out about CfR through brochures in my doctors' offices. It was wonderful to have this new family. I never went to counseling or had a support group. It was nice to branch out and be with people in the same situation who could relate and who could equally appreciate being outside, because it was such a fortuitous thing that we were alive and able to do this."

This spring, CfR will for the first time ever team up with Project Healing Waters Fly Fishing, a fly-fishing therapy program addressing the physical and emotional rehabilitation of disabled veterans and active military personnel. Many disabled veterans suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) or from physical disabilities, and have also been diagnosed with breast cancer. Recognizing an opportunity to serve disabled veterans fighting battles on two fronts, the groups developed a retreat for 14 vets at Harman's Luxury Cabins in West Virginia, on the headwaters of the Potomac River. Harman's Luxury Cabins donated all accommodations for veterans, staff, and volunteers. At the time of this writing, CfR was still looking for donors to defray the other associated costs of the event, which amount to about $1,500 per participant. Visit ­­­­donate.castingforrecovery.org and in the comments section, specify you'd like your donation to be used exclusively for the veterans retreat April 21-23, 2017.

"Our grandmother died of breast cancer and her sister too," said Hilary.

"Working with cancer survivors, I've lost a lot of friends to cancer," said Whitney. "The power of what we're doing for survivors is applicable across the board. In terms of physical and mental wellness, the bottom line is the power found in authentic outdoor experience. If you can take that and share it with a group of people that really need a break and inspiration, to be reconnected and re-energized or introduced to a supportive community, it provides such a powerful and simple concept. But certainly not specific to breast cancer. The benefits are universal."

"You can see what fly fishing does for healthy people," said Hilary. "So think about what it can do for people who actually need a bit more of a boost. There's a healing there that's important for folks who don't even know they need it."

Sarah Grigg (sarah-grigg.com) is a writer and editor based in Bozeman, Montana.

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