The Denali 7: Dan Wiwczar, John Krueger, Nathan Perrault, AJ Hunter, Nick Watson, Daniel Pond, Demond Mullins.
There’s something about veterans and the call of the mountains.
Sure, the adventure and the adrenaline and everything that comes with being outdoors is a big part of it.
But perhaps nowhere else in the civilian world is that single-minded sense of mission and clarity of focus — so much a part of military life — more evident than when a team of climbers makes a bid for a high-country summit.
“Military people just tend to get it,” says Army veteran Nick Watson, who has guided climbers for more than a decade and founded Veterans Expeditions in 2010. “I hear it over and over again: ‘This brings back everything I loved about being in the military, and none of the crap I hated.’ ”
It’s easy to see why, Watson says. It’s about “being part of a team and doing something exceptionally well, the focus to accomplish the mission and being part of something bigger than themselves. And there’s a certain element of danger. It all comes together on the mountain.”
Watson was just a few years out of the 3rd Ranger Battalion when he found that new sense of focus for the first time in a remote section of Washington state atop a lonely peak dubbed Mount Deception.
He was sweat-soaked and exhausted. And had never felt better.
“It was one of those pure moments … I wasn’t thinking about anything else. I had finally gotten out of my own head,” he says.
“Like with a lot of veterans, the wheels in my head just tended to spin. I had a few experiences that I just stewed over. That occupied so much of my energy. I didn’t even realize how much until that moment on the mountain. I realized when I was climbing, all I thought about was climbing. That focus is addicting. It’s a like a drug, a very good drug, and I was definitely hooked.”
From that moment on, says Watson, “all I wanted to do was climb more mountains.” And that’s exactly what he’s done.
Indeed, 14 years later, you might say he’s in the pure-moment business, a mountain-climbing medicine man dealing his favorite high-country drug to as many veterans as he can.
In 2010, he co-founded Veterans Expeditions — VetEx for short — with former Army captain Stacy Bare, with the idea of building a community of veteran climbers across the country.
The two men were named among National Geographic’s Adventurers of the Year in 2014 for their work.
“That first year, we started small with only about 16 veterans,” Watson says. “The next year, we took 100 out.”
By the end of this summer, VetEx will have turned 1,500 veterans into mountaineers, while also building a cadre of local climbing leaders and a network of volunteers to help support the effort.
Among VetEx’s most recent trips was an eight-person bid to the summit of Alaska’s Mount McKinley — the tallest mountain in the U.S., better known in the climbing community simply as Denali.
Getting started in mountaineering is easier than you might think, Watson says.
“Mountaineering definitely requires a level of physical fitness,” he says. “The best thing you can do to get in shape for it is put weight on your back and go uphill. That can be anything from climbing flights of stairs or bleachers to hiking hills. Personally, I also like mountain biking because it builds strong legs and strong lungs.”
He recommends reading Steve House’s “Training for the New Alpinism” for a good overview on the physical demands and technical skills you’ll want to build.
Personal gear starts with a good pair of mountaineering boots. “We can loan you just about everything you’ll need except boots,” he says.
While standard hiking boots or even combat boots are fine for most day trips into the mountains, for extended trips you’ll want the stiffer sole and thicker insulation that come with real mountaineering footwear.
Loaner gear is fine, but if you get hooked, you’ll want to start investing in your own equipment.
“On top, you can insulate with the basic layers of poly pro the military gave you as long as you’ve got an outer shell that will keep you dry,” he says. He likes Outdoor Research’s Foray Jacket ($215).
Even in the summer, weather can turn extreme within minutes, so a “security layer” of insulated pants and jacket also is critical. Look for something lightweight that compresses well for stashing until needed. Watson likes Outdoor Research’s Neoplume Pants ($150) and the Patagonia DAS Parka ($209).
Basic ski gloves will cover most of your needs, but an extra pair of lightweight gloves are good to have as well. Mountaineering sunglasses are a must-have to protect from wind and the blinding glare of snow.
For overnight trips, you’ll need a sleeping bag rated to the lowest temperatures you could face as well as a pad to insulate you from the heat-sucking ground and snow.
Rounding out your mountaineering gear will be crampons, the spikes that strap on to boots for traction in ice and snow; a mountaineering ax — critical for “self-arrests” in a fall; as well as a helmet and a climbing harness to rope in with other climbers to prevent the most serious drops, particularly when traversing glaciers.
To carry it all, look for a backpack ranging in size from 30 to 85 liters, depending on the length of your trip.
“For day trips, 30 to 45 liters is plenty to carry all your water, snacks and snivel gear,” Watson says.
Military-issue assault packs or even a sturdy college book bag — as long as it has waist and chest straps — are good options.
WHAT IS IT? The only device you really need in the backcountry. A rugged handheld global satellite communicator that allows you to send and receive text messages, mark waypoints, navigate a route, track and share your journey, and in the event of an emergency, send out an SOS signal.
WHO IS IT FOR? Any outdoor enthusiast – from the casual day hiker to the hard core mountaineer to the long distance thru-hiker – who wants added security and/or a way to stay in touch with family, friends and supporters while exploring in the wild.
PROS – We used it on a 26-day expedition up Denali and on a weeklong river trip in the Alaskan bush. Regardless of the weather, it sent text messages and posted to social media reliably and quickly and it recorded our route each day with great accuracy. The fact that we could post to Facebook, Twitter and “MapShare”– where friends, family and sponsors could track our progress up the mountain and down the river – helped boost supporter engagement and allowed us to build community even from 20,000 feet. The ability to set waypoints with the GPS and navigate with the compass came in handy when marking caches and navigating in white outs.
The SOS feature – which is different than most other devices since the DeLorme InReach explorer sends a delivery confirmation regarding your first call for help and allows you to have 2-way communication with a 24/7 search and rescue monitoring center- provides added peace of mind in the event of an emergency. Luckily, we did not need to test this feature, but knowing we could get a rescue started with the touch of a button helped us sleep better at night.
Despite putting in some long efforts, the battery lasted 3-4 days without needing to be recharged and it charged back to 100% on on our solar panels in a reasonable amount of time.
CONS: I honestly can’t say anything negative about this device. Last year, with a different, less user-friendly brand, we struggled to get messages out when the weather was bad – which was most of the time on Denali! This year, that never happened.
OVERALL GEAR RATING: 5 out of 5. This device was reliable, accurate and easy to use – even for a non-tech geek like me. Thanks to the DeLorme InReach Explorer, we literally brought our loved ones and sponsors with us to the top of North America!
A Veterans Expedition adapting the concept of “LRRP”, Long Range Reconnaissance and Patrol to Expeditionary travel and Fly-fishing in wilderness Alaska.
From the trip log of July 9’Th, 2014. “The team assembled in Dillingham. We had a map briefing and reviewed LRRP mission goals. We had a question and answer period then everyone got busy packing waterproof bags with the minimal amount of camping gear, clothing, and fly fishing equipment needed for our expedition.”
The fly-fishing LRRP concept was a brainchild of Nick Watson co-founder and Director of “Veterans Expeditions.” He wanted to involve military veterans in expeditionary planning, travel, and fly fishing in a much more profound way than being passive recipients of a “fully guided fly fishing trip”. Nick wanted veterans to experience something more authentic, something with an “edge” that you could feel viscerally and not something “canned” with passive participation.
Nick wanted the Veteran participants to “own” the physical challenges and to experience the wilderness profoundly. The LRRP fly-fishing trip was born. We’d travel light, scout waters about which little was known, rely on each other as a team, and with a little luck catch some wild fish on the fly!
The morning weather briefing forecast challenging weather but the rain and low clouds lifted enough for visual flight and 8 of us in float planes departed for the bush. We flew into the headwaters of a river deep in the wilderness where Nick had reason to believe that we’d experience complete solitude in an alpine setting where the team could assemble rafts and form teams of paddlers. Then we’d train for the mission.
From the aircraft we scouted the hazards of the upper river and all were awestruck by the remoteness and beauty. The team foresaw the complexity of navigating the shallow channels and the challenges of route finding through passages choked with Cottonwood tree sweepers and tangled root wads.
For 2 days Nick and the participants trained as paddle teams on the headwater lake. To descend the outlet river we had to get the teamwork right. The paddle training was critical to the success of the LRRP because unlike a guided raft trip where a guide, alone controls the river navigation -in a paddled craft much more teamwork is involved applying power and steering strokes.
Fly rods were rigged and the angler/veterans who each had different amounts of fly-fishing experience practiced the techniques they’d need to augment their rations with fresh fish protein. For this type of fishing they cast large streamers imitating baitfish and took some hungry Arctic Char.
From the log of day three. July 12, 2014. “We formed up, into paddle teams who’d stay together for the critical downriver portion and shoved off paddling down lake toward the outlet river through a series of rain squalls. We savored the alpine headwaters environment but were eager for the pull of the current downstream. Down lake there were gusty winds off a snowfield but we gathered confidence as paddle teams. At the outlet some Chum Salmon and a few pods of Sockeye were staged but our focus was on safe wilderness travel so we passed up on that fishing.
We had a LRRP safety meeting at the outlet where the river gathered strength. We discussed what we’d seen in the inbound aerial reconnaissance: ”narrow swift channels, log jams, overhanging willow sweepers, a few rocks, and some flood scoured gravel bars”. We had not seen very many easy- “no brainer” route choices. We decided we would try to send a scout boat ahead whenever the channel outcome was in doubt to prevent pinning a raft against logjams. Then we began the descent. The outcome was unknowable.
I can’t speak for the rest of the team but “I was very anxious”. I’ve done enough descents of rarely run and never-run rivers & creeks in Alaska to know that they don’t all “work out”. This one, although we’d scouted it from the air, might kick our butts if there were major channel obstructions combined with fast current. I knew that the combat Veterans probably had a higher threshold for adrenaline and the unknown than I had.
The teamwork they had developed earlier was critical and hour-by-hour they scouted and ran narrow channels. I’ll never forget the state of alertness of all members of the team. There was not much slack in what the river offered them. There was a slim line between running a “good line” down river through the sweepers and capsizing a boat and needing a rescue. We paddled down a river about which little is known.
No surprise that the guys dug deep and coordinated control of the boats through the narrow channels, eddies, & hazards. There were some “nail biter moments” where once you’d cleared the obstructions with your own boat then you considered the rescue options if your pals behind were in trouble. Although no one else mentioned it that day, my adrenal glands had all the stimulus they needed.
Each camp was different and we adapted to what we found. We had camps with good fishing and camps where we worked overtime to catch dinner. We had some of the most scenic camps of our lives. We even had camps without any biting insects where a person could sleep under the stars.
Like a military campaign; dealing with gear weight is a large part of Alaskan expeditionary planning. In the case of the Veterans Expedition we had the initial constraint of fitting our gear & body weight into high performance, bush capable, aircraft and then the further constraint of moving the gear across the landscape by muscle power. Obviously with these very fit veterans the muscle part of moving gear was not a big issue but weight would be a big issue in boat performance. The heavier the boats the less maneuverable they’d be in the narrow river channels.
What gear to leave behind to improve boat performance? Food & clothing obviously could be cut back. From the earliest stages of planning we considered what our shelter options were with respect to travelling light.
To sleep in tents or no tents? We opted to travel without tents to save forty pounds. We planned to sleep in Black Diamond Bivy sacks clustered under 2 communal shelters.
The fishing was a challenge for the entire trip. It was never “stupid”, never easy, and while we released the small char we eagerly cooked some larger fish to feed the crew.
In the evenings the camp was pitched and the flag raised. In the mornings the flag was properly folded and stowed for travel. This was a flag recently retired from military duty aboard aircraft flying medevac missions in Iraq and Afganistan. This was flown to honor the soldiers that had served in order that some could experience the vastness, solitude, wildness, and freedom of America’s wildlands.
We paddled on and searched for fish- finding them generally at the confluences of tributaries. We were early in the season and the migratory Salmon & Dolly Varden Char were just beginning to arrive in this watershed. Then we explored a tannic, tea stained, creek where baby Mallard ducklings rested. An explosion rocked the water as a Northern Pike attacked a mouse pattern fly.
We paddled on to our final camp aware that good fortune allowed these men to have survived hostile military actions. They re-entered civilian life and brought all their training & passion for teamwork together with their love of the outdoors to accomplish the Veterans Expeditions Alaska Long Range Reconnaissance & Patrol mission safely and successfully.
The author and our leader on this expedition, Mark Rutherford.
Nick Watson: Bringing the Wilderness Solution to Vets
Mountaineering provides a powerful boost to veterans returning from war.
National Geographic Society
THE INNOVATORS PROJECT
Text by Mark Jenkins
A climber suddenly falls into a crevasse and Nick Watson dives into the snow with his ice ax. The rope goes taut and Watson, a bearded, muscled man, digs in like an anchor, and the climber is caught.
“You OK?” shouts Watson.
There is no answer from the climber down in the hole. He is unconscious or injured, perhaps bleeding.
“Don’t worry, we’ll get you out!” yells Watson anyway.
In a matter of minutes, Watson has tied off the dangling climber, slammed two stakes into the snow, and set up a five-to-one pulley system. Using his own body weight, Watson gradually hauls the injured mountaineer out of the crevasse.
Back on the surface, the unconscious climber suddenly awakes. “Wow! That really works.”
It was a simulated mountain rescue—a teaching scenario for a group of former soldiers, Iraq and Afghanistan veterans, all standing in the snow.
“This is the way you save someone’s life,” says Watson.
He’s talking about basic crevasse rescue techniques, but he might as well be talking about the organization he founded, Veterans Expeditions, or VetEx, a nonprofit that takes veterans into the outdoors.
“Vets often go from a world with deep camaraderie, commitment, and excitement to a world where they are isolated, at loose ends, and bored,” Watson says in explaining the concept behind the program. Watson speaks from experience—he is a former U.S. Army Ranger—and he knows just how psychologically perilous the military experience can be: Veterans commit suicide at more than twice the rate of civilians.
Having worked as an alpine guide and a counselor in wilderness therapy programs for over a decade, Watson, 40, also believes in the healing force of nature and was convinced that a vigorous outdoor experience would be tonic for veterans, a way for them to “reconnect with fellow soldiers, get outside, and push themselves in a healthy environment.” VetEx—created with another veteran, Stacy Bare—was the outgrowth of that conviction. In its first year, 2010, VetEx took 16 veterans into the mountains for climbing; in 2011, it was over 100; in 2013, almost 300.
Things changed for me when two of my Ranger buddies killed themselves. These were guys I grew up with. I was there in seconds after they shot themselves, but there was nothing I could do.
By consciously replacing the fellowship of arms with the fellowship of the rope, VetEx hit on a novel remedy for readjustment to civilian life—a soldier by soldier, hands-on approach that larger veterans organizations like the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) and the Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW) couldn’t provide.
In Watson’s family, joining the military was part of the natural progression of manhood: One grandfather served in World War II, the other in Korea; his father served in Vietnam. He spent over four years in an elite Army unit, the Third Ranger Battalion, on numerous international deployments.
“I pushed myself in the military and had many intense experiences,” says Watson, “but things changed for me when two of my Ranger buddies killed themselves. These were guys I grew up with. I was there in seconds after they shot themselves, but there was nothing I could do.”
He left the Army soon afterward, but it took years for him to recover from the trauma of those deaths. He traveled around the country, worked seasonal jobs, and slowly found solace in the wild. “A therapist I was seeing at the time, a very wise woman, said something that changed my life: ‘You aren’t your experiences; you are how you process your experiences.’”
Thoughtful and passionate, with a sturdy body and three fingers missing on his right hand from an oil rig accident, Watson has been running the organization on his own since 2011, when Bare moved on to direct the Sierra Club’s veterans programs in New England and North Carolina. “We’re a grassroots organization,” says Watson. “It’s friends telling friends.” VetEx has only one paid employee—Watson—and calls on volunteers to run the outdoor “meetups” throughout Colorado.
“Our biggest challenge right now is funding,” says Watson, who relies on his partner, journalist Chris Kassar, 37, to work as VetEx’s unpaid “PR and ‘Fun’ Raising Director.” Keen shoe company and Kahtoola Snowshoes are their only equipment sponsors. “We get new vets outdoors every month, and we’re changing their lives. We don’t need a lot of funding, just enough to keep going.”
Stacy Bare, a former Army captain and Bronze Star recipient and VetEx co-founder, climbs Mount Rainier in Washington State. PHOTOGRAPH BY CHRIS KASSAR
“Immediate, Intense Trust”“What Veterans Expeditions does, at its core, is re-create the positive aspects of the military without all the negatives,” says Demond Mullins, 32, an Army veteran who saw combat in Iraq in 2004-2005.Meeting up with Veterans Expeditions was so important to Mullins, a professor of sociology at Indiana University of Pennsylvania, that he flew across the country just to spend a couple of days climbing with fellow vets. In the snow-covered Rockies above Leadville, Colorado, they practiced technical mountaineering skills, such as moving as a roped team, self-arrest with an ice ax, crevasse rescue, crampon technique, and ascending fixed lines.Mullins has participated in more than a dozen adventures with VetEx. “On every trip I meet new vets,” he says, kneeling in the snow at 11,000 feet (3,353 meters), adjusting the carabiners on the climbing ropes for a crevasse rescue scenario. “There’s always this immediate, intense trust. We have the same point of reference. We know what it’s like to put our lives on the line for each other.”Mullins, who is built like an Olympic sprinter, loves being outdoors, “working as part of a team, relying on one another—things we all learned in the military, but [now] without the threat of violence.”Epidemic of SuicideAccording to a VA report last year, 22 veterans kill themselves every day in the U.S., double the number of suicides among nonveterans. In 2012, 349 active-duty soldiers killed themselves—more than the 295 who died in combat in Afghanistan that year. Statisticbrain.com reports that 4,487 American troops died in Iraq, about half the number of soldiers who kill themselves every year. In Afghanistan, 2,229 Americans have died; more veterans than that will kill themselves at home in the U.S. before Thanksgiving this year.
One in five veterans of Afghanistan or Iraq and a stunning 30 percent of Vietnam vets have PTSD.
The U.S. military is aware of the problem, if uncertain what to do about it. The VA has set up a crisis hotline and a website offering help through direct phone contact, online chats, and other resources, but VA hospitals are notoriously backlogged and slow to respond to veterans struggling with mental illness. Brigadier General David Harris recently wrote on the Eglin Air Force Base website that “it is important for us to re-address topics such as suicide prevention and awareness.” He encourages friends and family to be alert to the “clues and warnings” of potential suicide, such as depression, drug or alcohol abuse, impulsiveness, and reclusiveness. “When we observe our wingman appearing depressed … request help early on.”
Clearly, Iraq and Afghanistan veterans aren’t the only ones overwhelmed by despair: Almost 70 percent of suicides among veterans are by Vietnam War soldiers, 50 years old or older, a community that suffered a particularly hard return to a society that was largely hostile to the war they fought.
And suicide isn’t limited to those who saw combat. A recent Department of Defense study, citing heavy drinking and depression as root problems, found that almost 80 percent of suicides are by soldiers who did not experience combat. A 2014 report in JAMAPsychiatryrevealed that almost 20 percent of Army enlistees struggled with depression, panic attacks, suicidal thoughts, or “intermittent explosive disorder”—a condition characterized by uncontrollable attacks of rage—before they joined the service.
And then there is the pervasiveness of post-traumatic stress disorder. One in five veterans of Afghanistan or Iraq and a stunning 30 percent of Vietnam vets have PTSD. Other soldiers have returned home with a traumatic brain injury (TBI), often caused by the concussive force of an improvised explosive device (IED). Unlike scars and amputations, these are the “invisible injuries” of war.
Nick Watson teaches crevasse rescue to veterans in Leadville, Colorado. PHOTOGRAPH BY CAROLINE TREADWAY, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC
Gut-Level UnderstandingLuke Adler, 28, who served in Afghanistan in 2007-2008 and 2009-2010, is in Leadville for the climb. He is wearing his military-issue camo backpack and heavily insulated khaki military pants made for the extreme cold. In Afghanistan, he had been hit by IEDs twice and has a TBI. “This is the thing,” he explained, as he adjusted a pulley system for hauling up an injured or unconscious climber: “You do epic things in the service. It’s life or death. When you come home to civilian life, you really miss that intensity.”After he got out of the 82nd Airborne, Adler returned to his parents’ home in Iowa and fell in with what he describes as a “bad group of vets” who were using drugs and alcohol to get through the day. “It took about a year to straighten myself out. I realized all I was doing was hurting myself and everyone who loved me.” Currently enrolled at Colorado State University, he is preparing to become a high school social studies teacher.All of the vets on the Leadville outing experienced combat. Here in the mountains, they fall easily into conversation with each other about their service. It is a singular brotherhood. Their experiences were too difficult for their civilian counterparts to fathom.Samantha Tinsley, 34, earned a degree in international relations before joining the service as an enlistee, not an officer, and was deployed all over the world for a decade. John Brumer, 27, led his own 12-man squad through the mountains of Afghanistan (and is now starting his own brewery in North Carolina). Robert “Robbie” Hayes, 28, and John Krueger, 26, were in the same unit, fighting together in Afghanistan’s opium-ridden Helmand Province. Lee Urton, 32, a former Marine, was part of the initial invasion of Afghanistan and says he “lost something in the war, but I would never take back a minute of it.”It’s a common sentiment. They have suffered, but they have no regrets about joining the military. Each man and woman did something that the vast majority of Americans will never do: defend their country with their lives. One participant sketches a scene of combat with just a few words and everyone immediately knows what he’s talking about. They nod in agreement. There is no need for apologies or bragging. “They get it,” as Watson says. “They understand each other on a gut level.”
The Climb The next morning, after a day of training in the snow, the VetEx team snowshoes to the Tenth Mountain Division hut below the west ridge of 13,209-foot (4,026-meter) Homestake Peak. This hut is a fitting redoubt for the team to organize their attack on Homestake, only intermittently glimpsed through the swirling blizzard.The Tenth Mountain Division was created during World War II specifically to train soldiers in winter survival, skiing, and mountain warfare. The division trained at Camp Hale, built at an elevation of 9,300 feet (2,835 kilometers), 17 miles (27 kilometers) north of Leadville. In 1945 the Tenth Mountain Division breached the Apennine Mountains and played a pivotal role in the liberation of northern Italy. Some 4,000 “ski troopers” were wounded, and 992 lost their lives.By now the vets, many of whom scarcely knew each other 24 hours ago, are good friends. They’re sharing their life stories and scheming to go climbing together in the near future. Wars are fought outdoors, and returning to the outdoors is a salve.The night before, as we bunked in the homey Leadville Hostel, Watson had told me that “something happens on these trips that I never saw with civilians. There’s this incredible bond that forms, this connection. These men and women need each other. They were trained to work together toward a common goal, and that’s exactly what mountaineering is all about.”
Nick Watson (on left) sits with veterans Demond Mullins (center) and Lee Urton (right) as they talk about the impact of mountaineering and climbing on veterans. PHOTOGRAPH BY CAROLINE TREADWAY, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC
This summer, the vets of VetEx plan to attempt Mount Rainier and Mount Hood. In 2015 they’re mounting a difficult expedition to 20,322-foot (6,194-meter) Denali in Alaska, the highest peak in the United States. Watson, along with Chris Kassar and vet Dave Lee, 35 (who served in the modern Tenth Mountain Division in Bosnia), are heading to Denali in two weeks to attempt the West Buttress route as a scouting mission.As for Homestake, after hours of climbing, the team is stopped by a howling whiteout and forced to turn back before reaching the summit. “Couldn’t see a thing,” Watson said afterward. “It was great training. Just like military”.
Our crew being extracted just prior to storm rolling in.
A week on the Togiak River with Warren MacDonald, who fly fishes from his wheelchair, and with Nick Watson – disabled Army Ranger / founder of Veterans Expeditions, and Dick Watson, his father – a Vietnam Veteran.
From the trip log: “Some hours we passed through schools of salmon and Dolly Varden Char and other hours we fished through a pristine river devoid of fish but full of beauty. We traveled in all kinds of weather and that felt like we were earning our place among the wildlife on the landscape, as only those who live exposed out in the elements, can earn their passage. Some days we saw a powerboat from a fishing lodge or from Togiak Village, and they gazed at the wheelchair lashed on our raft and raised a hand of greeting.
I knew within seconds of meeting former Army Ranger Nick Watson that his outlook on life and his good attitude about challenges would help make our fly-fishing expedition a success. As he deplaned in Dillingham I reached out to shake his hand and was amazed at what he handed me! Oops I should have remembered that it was his right hand that had been re-shaped by 6 surgeries.
The partial hand that returned my handshake was strong and calloused and the human face above it smiled saying that he was pleased to meet me. His father, Dick Watson, reached out and crushed my hand saying that he’d fished for Striped Bass all his life in New England and was excited to learn to fly fish with his son for salmon and trout.
Down the hall rolled our third angler, Warren MacDonald on an all terrain wheelchair. Warren is a “double- below the knee- amputee”. He had a big grin upon arrival and while we headed to the baggage claim I told him that I was surprised at how he’d deplaned so quickly. I couldn’t mentally grasp how he’d descended Dillingham’s old-fashioned aircraft stairs, which are like those used on DC 3’s in the 1950’s, as fast as the other passengers. He explained in a very understated manner that he appreciated the flight crew’s offers of assistance to transfer him to an aisle wheel chair and help him down the stairs but that he’d maneuvered down the aisle and then the stairs using his arms, torso, and the stumps of legs. He said it takes him more time explaining to various airport agents how he could manage it by himself -than it takes just launching down the stairs.
I wondered how well would Nick do fly fishing with one good hand and how Warren would manage with no legs and how would Dick Watson learn to fly fish after a lifetime of bait fishing in the salt? None of those answers were clear at first but as the week passed the group’s fly-fishing and wilderness travel success built upon ten thousand bits of technique. The other question I pondered is: will fly-fishing grow and evolve with the participation of these disabled anglers and Army veterans? By participating will they change the sport?
VetEx Co-Founder Nick Watson even caught fish.
Dick Watson returned from his tour in Vietnam while I was still in high school in the early 1970’sm and he spent the next 30 years building a steel fabricating business in New England. Within an hour of landing in Dillingham we found ourselves asking Dick if he could repair Warren’s wheelchair where metal fatigue had caused the chair seat to fail. His answer was, “Of course I can fix it. Have I got access to some materials and tools?” So to keep the expedition moving forward Dick went to work on repairs that will probably last the life of the chair. That was just the first instance where Dick and the other participants “welded” the trip together using technique brought from their life experience and adapted to the challenges of Togiak River travel.
Vietnam Veteran Dick Watson gets dropped off at Togiak Lake AK
Our fly-fishing objective was the Togiak Wildlife Refuge where we’d raft and fly-fish 60 miles, nearly the entire Togiak River. We planned to camp using alpine mountaineering tents for shelter and we would share the workload among the group. We had a strong team. In addition to Warren, Nick, & Dick: three of my experienced Alaska fishing instructor / guides had volunteered for the trip plus Patagonia Fly fishing Ambassador Dave McCoy. All eight of us were eager to pack up and get underway. We discussed the challenges of Alaskan weather, and floatplane flying through the mountains, plus changing river water levels might pose for our group. We felt prepared for the challenges, however there was one element still not addressed.
Warren MacDonald catches fish from his chair. Photo by Dave McCoy
Warren’s legs were amputated from a backcountry accident in Tasmania several decades ago leaving him with very short leg stumps so that no fly fishing waders could fit. Team members Brian Malchoff and Dave McCoy looked at my collection of Patagonia waders and selected a pair that Warren proposed to radically alter for a custom fit. After trial fitting, then by trimming part of the wader legs off with scissors, and working with various waterproof tape products Warren put on re-purposed waders which he felt would keep him dry and were tough enough that he might be able to “walk” using them to protect his stumps on gravel bars.
At Togiak Lake, in the heart of the 2 million acre Togiak Wilderness, we began the adventure. Our weather was spectacular. From the floatplane we saw Brown Bears, Moose and Bald Eagles as we neared Togiak Lake. We unloaded the plane, rigged rafts, strung up fly rods, built a camp, and caught a Coho salmon and an Arctic Char for dinner. Beer was cooled to river temperature sipped while Loons were laughing on the lake. We had arrived.
Nick, the former Army Ranger, is probably “constitutionally incapable of complaining”. He has full use of his left hand and partial use of right hand. Nick learned a “serviceable” fly-cast through hours of practice at Togiak alongside his father. But fly line management was a challenge for him with only one functional hand. Think about fly-fishing one handed and try your own experiments next time you are casting. Embracing the challenge, by week’s end Nick had figured out how to make the casting and line management process work and took the largest Salmon of his life and countless sea run Dolly Varden Char.
Dick Watson talked of retiring soon from a lifetime of lifting and welding heavy steel. He spoke reverently of gathering with old buddies each week to surf cast chunks of bait into the Atlantic. Dick was the angler who I thought would have the toughest time learning to fly fish. Indeed Nick and I had considered the prospect that he might not be able to master the elements of fly-fishing! We wondered if we should pack a spinning rod as back up? We were so wrong! Dick was resolute. He learned steadily building on each day’s experience. In fact he was so passionate about the sport that he fished from dawn to dark, from the day we arrived at Togiak Lake until moments before the floatplane picked us up at the end.
Warren MacDonald’s amputated legs might seem like a barrier to expeditionary fly-fishing but when you hang out with outdoorsmen of Warren’s caliber you come to understand that they’ve already excelled at so many challenges that they just take it “in stride” and create solutions as challenges arise. So he began his fly-fishing career by redesigning his waders and rebuilding his wheelchair. Then, he pushed out into the current and began to cast.
The Watson’s on a gravel bar camp that was the norm.
There were fish caught. Lovely fish – Rainbow Trout, Arctic Grayling, and Dolly Varden Char! There were Chum Salmon, Coho, and Sockeye.
As the Togiak river unfurled before us, there were bald eagle chicks on the nest and mink scampering along the shore with fish in their jaws. Arctic Terns screeched when we rowed past their island nesting territories. A mother brown bear and her cub stripped the flesh off a salmon while we passed the binoculars back & forth. One afternoon, when the wind was fierce and we were searching for a camp in the lee of a sheltering bluff, a Gyrfalcon swept past us hunting sandpipers on the wing.
Fly-fishing evolved over the centuries because it’s been infused with the genius of creative individuals who adapted new materials and techniques to an ancient sport. This week Warren, & Nick, & Dick took up Alaska’s Wilderness fly-fishing’s challenges.
Perhaps when Dick Watson is back home in New England he’ll consider the fly rod for native Brook Trout or his beloved Striped Bass. Nick and Warren who live in the Rocky Mountains have thousands of miles of creeks, rivers, and alpine lakes in their back yards. I have no doubt that they’ll each take the techniques learned on the Togiak River and adapt to the fly-fishing challenges ahead of them.
We want to thank John Merritt and Jamie Ferry for their generosity. Without those two compassionate fly fishermen this type of experience for disabled anglers would never, ever happen. This program, funded entirely from John & Jamie’s generosity, is five years old and inspires anglers to dream about Alaska. We also thank the lodges and guides in Bristol Bay who meet disabled anglers on the river and stop to chat and share fly patterns. All of us thank the disabled anglers who’ve participated and supported this program with suggestions and advice. You are an inspiration for everyone in the fly-fishing & outdoors community.