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Saving Lives in the Boundary Waters with Flies and Fish

Taking vets on a journey toward life in the outdoors and preserving public land.

Saving Lives in the Boundary Waters with Flies and Fish

The Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness is spread over one million acres of rugged and remote boreal forest in the northern third of the Superior National Forest in northeastern Minnesota. It is adjacent to Quetico Provincial Park in Ontario, Canada. (Travis Bradford photo)

The first time I heard a loon call I was seven years old, and with my father in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. 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, I heard the loon’s call echoing across the lake and permeating our small tent. That first trip into the Boundary Waters was by many standards uneventful. We paddled into deep into the Superior National Forest with hopes of seeing wolves, moose, bears, and giant northern pike that could take a boy’s arm off.

Instead, I caught zero fish for five days, saw no wolves, bears, or moose, and was eaten alive by mosquitoes and other flying infestations. Most would consider that to be a failed trip, but not me. Now, 26 years later, I can’t tell you how sore my legs felt after those portages. 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 a moose that we never saw. I can still remember the sticky soft feeling of wet pine needles on bare feet on those early dew-covered mornings, and the scent of damp birch firewood and burnt marshmallows, mixing with the brisk air on a July night.

Armed Forces Initiative

The purpose of the Backcountry Hunters & Anglers Armed Forces Initiative is to create conservationists in the military community. 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 civilian peers. 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 takes members of the military community into the backcountry with the goal of giving our participants the skills and experience they need to spend more 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 physical and mental. More than just one experience, we focus on teaching the skills needed to recreate these experiences again and again without relying on Backcountry Hunters & Anglers or any other organization. Finally, 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.

A collage of camping and canoeing images from the Boundary Waters.
The Backcountry Hunters & Anglers Armed Forces Initiative has grown from just 18 veterans three years ago to now more than 14,000 members and clubs in 42 states. Their mission is to get veterans into the outdoors for their own mental and physical health, and to activate them as conservationists and protectors of public lands and water. (Travis Bradford photos)

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 Forest. We spent the night around the campfire discussing fishing tactics and strategy, topwater bites versus subsurface presentations, types of fly line, and weights of rods, anything that could help them catch fish in the coming days.

When we launched the next day the sunbeams danced on the water making it appear 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 mountaintops sprouted from the water creating ecosystems, housing mysterious vegetation, and life unknown. I missed a smallmouth in a small bay with the 8-weight and popping 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.

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. 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.

We split into teams, one person taking the fly rods and a pack, while the other took another pack and the canoe. 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 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 with 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 slime to motivate you through the portage. 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. You’re immediately ten degrees cooler and the wind coming off the water fills your lungs. You stand knee deep, washing the mud from your feet, letting the cold water clean all the small nicks and cuts. A few moments later and you can hardly remember why the hike was so bad.

During the next paddle, our team started catching pike and smallmouths with regularity. As the sun set, we pulled ashore at our campground for the first night in the wilderness. It was situated on an island, a chunk of rock that dropped off drastically at the sides with a few trees hanging precariously out over the lake. Our Minnesota participant gave us a lesson on cleaning pike, and we fried fish and potatoes over the fire. When everyone was in bed, I doused the fire and crawled under my tarp. Perched on that rocky outcropping, feet dangling over the water, I reviewed the plan for the next day and heard the first loon of the trip singing a ballad that only they can understand. The music mixed with the smell of the fire as I settled into my bag, content I had all the tools to give these folks an experience worth repeating.

Over the next four days we trudged through swamps, discovered “new” fisheries ripe with streamer-chasing pike, and found smallmouth bass that ate like they were angry at any fly you threw their way. We taught these veterans casting, stripping, landing, releasing, and everything they would need to take out a 6-weight fly rod and a pack of poppers and find success.

This Land is Our Land

We were eaten alive when the wind died, and soaked to the bone when the storms came, but we kept fishing. After a few days with only canoe and fish to occupy your mind, and nothing but bug bites and rain to spoil your day, the metal was ready to be forged. Conservationists were ready to be activated.


A man holding a bass looking at the camera.
If you would like to reach out to volunteer, donate, or have a military member in your life who could benefit from time in the backcountry. Please contact (Travis Bradford photo)

The day we paddled our way out of the wilderness, we met with an expert on a copper sulfide mine proposed to begin construction less than 80 yards from the water. After we had shown our participants the value of this wild public place and taught them how they can access it, use it, and teach others to recreate in it, we could also teach them how the veteran and military community can use their leadership, knowledge, and experiences to protect these special parts of the world from destruction. Our message to them was clear—we are not anti-mining, just not this mine here. Unfortunately, the proximity to the watershed and likelihood of failure makes this mine an impossible risk for the Boundary Waters and Superior National Forest. [In January, the Biden Administration withdrew mineral leasing in 225,504 acres in the Superior National Forest, but Twin Metals Minnesota LLC has sued the federal government to reinstate the leases in order to proceed with its copper and nickel mine in the Rainy River Watershed. For more info see The Editor.]

Our last day in the canoes was spent paddling 15 miles up the Black River to our last campsite. We were experts by now at landing heavy streamers in the lily pads before stripping hard and fast, triggering impressive strikes from smallmouths and pike.

One of the things you miss after leaving the military is the people. A network of peers, or tribe if you prefer, helps ensure this isn’t a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

One of the participants approached me on our last night and said that six months ago he was at a low point. He had a pistol and was in a dark place when he received the notification that he was invited to join BHA on our Boundary Waters trip. This experience got him through a difficult time, and this participant has now helped to organize and volunteer at several of our other events in the Midwest, creating more advocates for places like the Boundary Waters.

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 installations. 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. 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 the last 20 years of your life back. 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 I can do is focus on making your next 20 years the best years of your life. The Armed Forces Initiative can show you the joys of the outdoors and America’s public lands and waters and through this process we end up creating some amazing new conservation advocates.

Trevor Hubbs is a board member of Backcountry Hunters & Anglers.

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