On the Water with Patriots

“Do you want to come on a sturgeon fishing and kayaking trip on the Columbia River with us?” Reading that email from Micah stopped me mid-click during my daily grind of paperwork. Sturgeon? The giant, sometimes 10-feet-long monster river fish? I had heard and read about fishing for those but never thought I’d get a chance to try. Sturgeon certainly don’t live anywhere I frequent. I replied that I would absolutely, positively, love to come fishing and kayaking with Camp Patriot in Washington state.

 Camp Patriot site link

For those who don’t already know, Camp Patriot is a fantastic organization that takes disabled veterans on amazing excursions. They’ve climbed Mt. Rainer, sponsored trail rides, hunts and fishing trips, and are in the final stages of setting up a ranch retreat property in Montana. I’ve followed them for a couple years now and threw my hat in. I had told them that, while I technically have a disability rating from the Veterans Administration, my issues paled in comparison to far too many veterans and I hoped all those people would be placed in line ahead of me. I would, however, happily come along to write up a story that Camp Patriot could use to hopefully further their efforts.

I strongly believe in what Camp Patriot does. I’m an avid outdoorsman and believe that the world would be a better place if more people separated themselves from our surreal urban world more often. For veterans wrestling with physical disabilities or other demons, any “fresh air poisoning” can often put things back into a better perspective and reward a person with some well-accomplished fun. I’ve written a little bit about that phenomenon in the past:

Fresh Air Poisoning

Micah Clark, himself a veteran, is the hub that makes all the Camp Patriot spokes and wheel turn forward. The guy busts his tail like few men I’ve ever met. Most of us have met that one person who truly believes in what they do and pour their heart, soul, and every ounce of energy into that mission. If you haven’t, go meet Micah.

Over the couple weeks following the initial call, we pinned down details of the travel and the trip itself. It kept sounding better and better each time I spoke to Micah. Flights, hotel, meals, river guide, kayaking guide, it was all being set up. Giddy is a pretty strong word to describe a 42-year-old, but I was getting close.
In these couple months of preparation, I came to realize another benefit of Camp Patriot’s efforts.

If you’ve ever prepared for an upcoming vacation, drew that trophy hunt tag, or planned a once-in-a-lifetime trip like this, you know the feeling. Preparing for the trip, thinking about the trip, wondering about all the things to see and do is nearly as fun as going on the trip! So not only do these trips provide a few amazing days during the trip, a lifetime of memories and friendships after the trip, but the anticipation before the trip is a blast too.

Many veterans, especially those 100% disabled, don’t get out much. One’s career options are limited. Without an extensive support network at home, there is a lot of just sitting around with a glowing screen. Anyone who’s been in really horrible situations, like a lot of days at war, knows that one of the best gifts that can be given to someone in ‘the suck’ isn’t any object…it is hope. Hope that the next day will be better. Hope that the current situation won’t be bleak forever. Hope that there are more ups than downs in the future. Giving a couple months to prepare for sturgeon fishing or climbing Mt. Rainier to a person who otherwise doesn’t have a lot going on can do amazing things for the psyche.

The day finally arrived. Against the airlines’ best efforts, I finally arrived in Richland, albeit later than the other three veterans. When I hit the ground, Micah pulled away from dinner with the veterans and a couple tables full of Camp Patriot supporters to come to the airport to fetch me. It was great to actually meet the man in person.

We had not even started rolling in the Camp Patriot van when Micah produced a coin, handshake, and a sincere “thank you for your service.” I had no words. I’ve been out of the Army for eight years now and never thought I’d see a new coin in my palm. Veterans know a good coin is invaluable, it’s a trophy in itself, a small piece of metal with a big story. This one would go under glass next to my others and their stories. It now shares the top row with the one I received from the commanding general of the Corps of Engineers, in Afghanistan, for my work at the Kandahar Provincial Reconstruction Team in 2004.


We arrived back at the pizza joint for more introductions and dinner. There I met Domonic, Jesse, and Matt and more local Camp Patriot supporters than I can name. I would come to learn more of the stories of the other three as the long weekend played out. We were all Army veterans.

After dinner came the fishing license run to the local big box department store. If you’ve never been to one at 9:30 at night, I highly recommend doing it…once. Non-resident temporary fishing licenses can be tricky for a lot of staff and, well, at 9:30 it’s not exactly the A-Team back in sporting goods. We passed the time watching Matt do a few bored laps around sporting goods on the sale-priced bicycles (yes, we were those guys) and made it out with our licenses about an hour later.

The next morning found us four veterans rested, fed, and feeling a little out-of-place at the deluxe hotel accommodations on the river. I know Camp Patriot is setting up a ranch in Montana, but this crisp-linen and warm-cookie hotel right on the Columbia river was pretty nice for a group of guys who had spend a fair percentage of their adult lives living in a tent or B-hut in a combat zone.

Scott, Scott, Jesse, Matt, David
Scott, Scott, Jesse, Dom, Matt, Dave

Micah picked us up and drove us over to the boat launch. After a few pictures, we all piled into the two boats. Dom and I got into one boat with Scott and Scott, two professional river guides who were donating their time and efforts for us. Jesse and Matt got into another boat with Pat and George. Pat is on the Camp Patriot board of directors and just happens to know these rivers like the back of his hand. Out on the water we went.

IMG_1734
You know your fishing guide spends a lot of time on the water when his head looks like this!

The first spot we picked was about five miles up the river. The current was very swift. Apparently, the flow amounts were all controlled by the various dams up and down the Columbia. For whatever reason, the dam upstream had their big faucet wide open. Both boats had a hard time staying in one spot, each barely held by their huge anchor.

George, Matt, and Captain Pat on Pat's boat
George, Matt, and Captain Pat on Pat’s boat

We got set up and the Scotts set to work setting out all the poles. I’m a trout guy from Colorado used to a backpacking rod, a little fly, maybe a small spinner or worm in hopes of landing a couple rainbows or brookies for a meal. These guys broke out huge poles, lead weights the size of tennis balls, and proceeded to lace a six-inch squid or shad to a two-inch hook with loops and knots that would make any surgeon proud. I knew we were in for business.

A typical sturgeon bait setup. Only one weight here, sometimes there were more.

They set out our lines and, in this current, each line needed two of the tennis balls to keep the bait on the bottom. I could only imagine what these setups looked like from a sturgeon’s point of view. We fished for about a half hour while each boat wrestled against the current.

All of a sudden we noticed all four lines going slack, shoreline started moving upstream, and the Scotts hopped up and went to work. “The anchor broke loose!” Scott said and we all started reeling in a line. Now the challenge was to release the anchor, get the lines in, get the motor going and us pointed in the right direction all while not getting fishing line caught in the propeller. It was a bit of a rodeo for about 10 minutes until we got everything situated. The crew in Pat’s boat got quite a show.

It’s been said that one of the true measures of a man is how he handles tangled Christmas lights. I submit that another true measure is how he handles an anchorless boat rodeo on a roaring Columbia river with two newbies trying to reel in (right past a roaring propeller) more fishing tackle than several chartered fishing trips would pay for. The Scotts took it all in stride.

 

Our fishing boat for two days
Our fishing boat for two days

After that exercise we decided to motor further upstream to calmer water. The Scotts played tour guide, explaining all the landscape and the fascinating details of the Hanford nuclear site. We fished another couple spots and all met up for a shore lunch about 20 miles upstream from Richland. Micah drove to the site and supplied lunch.

 

Pulling in for a shore lunch
Pulling in for a shore lunch

We compared notes on the morning’s fishing. Neither boat was getting much fish action so we motored upstream to try different areas. We got to a spot called White Bluffs where the terrain rose spectacularly straight up some cliffs on the non-Hanford side. Apparently small landslides were the norm and you didn’t want to venture too close to that shore for the big landslides that occurred nearly as frequently.

On the Hanford side we were treated to a herd of Mule Deer bucks that would grace the cover of any respectable hunting magazine. Since there was no hunting on the Hanford site, the deer just hung out near the shore watching the boatloads of humans go by day after day.

Mule Deer bucks at the Hanford site
Mule Deer bucks at the Hanford site

We only got a couple nibbles and nothing that seemed sturgeon-y. We heard some hollering from Pat’s boat and things were getting interesting over there. Someone had a fish on and another was releasing the anchor. They hooked a sturgeon! The routine for reeling in a sturgeon is just that…set the hook and release anchor. It’s too much work and easily breaks the line to try and reel in a big one from a stationary spot. So the idea is to just let the big fish drag you around the river as you slowly close the distance and bring him in to the boat. Then, since the fish are bigger than anything you can just scoop up with a net, you work your way over to shore, get your photo op with your beached fish, and let him go. Apparently this whole performance can take hours.

We watched as they reeled in and started moving around the river, leaving their buoy and anchor behind. Scott said it looked to be a good-sized one by how they were acting. I had no idea how they could tell, but they were the experts!

Anyway, after Pat’s boat did a few slow slalom turns across the river, we heard a collective “Awwwww” as the rod shot up and it looked like they had lost the fish. Bummer. We were looking forward to seeing one.

Hanford in the background

We fished up and down this same spot for a while and Pat’s boat went back in. A couple of their crew were getting pretty sunburned. The Scotts, Dom, and I decided to stay out longer. It was still fun and we really wanted to get at least a little one.

We picked a few spots on our way downstream back to Richland. We stopped at one little cove where Scott had seen people have good luck and he always wanted to try. We got set up and had a few nibbles right away, things were turning up. One rod kept getting weak little nibbles, then quit, then nibbles, then things petered off. As we reeled it in it felt like we had a small snag or pile of seaweed on it. But as got it to the boat, we saw the bait had actually grown.

Attached to the hook was a tiny sturgeon! He was just a baby at maybe 10 inches long. But, that was our first sturgeon of the day and we were thrilled. They’re weird looking, they had spikes like big rose thorn along their back. Their head and face look like a shark, except the mouth. It’s not where it should be, it’s set back and more like a sucker’s mouth. Apparently they like to just troll along the bottom and vacuum up their food. This one wasn’t even picture worthy, but we knew that where there were small sturgeon there usually were big sturgeon!

After we let the baby sturgeon go, we looked over and a boat was heading right at us. They weren’t coming full throttle, but they were definitely heading to our spot. Then we saw the name of the boat…that name for which every single person has a story…”POLICE.”

 

Our new friends
Our new friends

It wasn’t a big deal, it was just the fish and game officers. Scott said they routinely checked river fishermen and he knew most of them. They typically checked the hooks to ensure they weren’t barbed, our fish, and our licenses.
Sure enough, they pulled up next to us and asked to see all the hooks. While we were pulling all the rods in, they checked our licenses and chatted a bit.

They said nobody was having much luck on the river that day for sturgeon, or any other fish for that matter.  But, I figured if they were anything like Colorado fish and game officers, they always said that.  I think it’s to keep everyone feeling good that either A) they weren’t alone in getting skunked or B) they were catching more than other people.  Either way, you’ll feel good and come back another day.

We resumed fishing in our little cove, chuckling and speculating about our new uniformed friends.  Before long, another rod twitched and this time there was no question.  Scott set the hook and Dom began reeling it in.  It was no monster but was a fair fight nonetheless.  Dom got it up to the boat and we netted it in.

This time it was a real sturgeon!  Not big enough to keep but still between two and three feet long.  This was good for some photo ops and smiles.  Our day on the river had proved fruitful!

We fished until dusk without any further event and then motored back down to Richland.  We met up with Micah and all ate dinner at a nearby restaurant.  Once again, it was a blast comparing everyone’s stories.

The next morning we all met in the lobby at oh-dark-thirty so we could drive to a different boat launch on a different river.  Matt was feeling ill so it was Jesse, Dom and I again, but this day Micah was able to tag along too.

It was about an hour’s drive there, I think we were even in Oregon for a while.  We arrived at the boat launch and called Scott and Scott who, even though it was still dark, were already on the river.  They motored over, picked us up, and we were off.

Since it was Saturday, there were boatloads of fishermen on the river.  Scott knew and chatted with several of the regulars and other guides.  It’s always fun to observe the delicate dance of fisherBS-ing, sharing a little bit of fishing intel… but not too much!  Just like hunting secrets, there are friends, there is family, and then there are those with whom you share fishing secrets.  Each group is respectively smaller.

We each pulled in several shad that were fun to fight and made for good sturgeon bait.  Into the livewell they went and we motored off to go deeper for sturgeon.

One of the many bridges we fished under
One of the many bridges we fished under

We tried a few places up and down the river with a few nibbles but not much else.  But the time flew by quickly.  At a couple days into the trip, none of us were strangers anymore and the stories spun out from all of us.

It was fascinating to hear of Micah’s time in the Navy as a corpsman attached to Marine units and his plans for Camp Patriot.  We all learned more of Dom’s and Jesse’s experiences, not just at war, but life in general.  I told a few of my Army headslappers that have stayed with me over the years.  We barely noticed the few bites we got on the fishing rods.

Scott and Scott each had no shortage of stories either.  They each grew up and have spent most of their lives around the area.  It was a verbal Scott-opedia unfolding for us giving details of the river, fish, poachers, the community, and of course, each other!  Those were the best ones.

Good times
Good times

We bagged it in the mid-afternoon since the early morning was starting to catch up to us.  The drive back to the hotel was pretty quiet as most of us caught some Z’s.  We got in touch with Matt, who was feeling better by now, and agreed to all get cleaned up and meet back up for dinner.

We all decided that the down time was another great thing about this trip.  It wasn’t go, go, go for every spare minute.  Going to a new location, meeting a whole new group of people every day can be a bit stressful for some people.  Especially people who are used to hanging out in their comfort zone and small circle of people… like many veterans.

We all reconvened for dinner with Micah and Pat and talked about about the kayaking trip planned for the next day.  It sounded better with every detail.  A local kayaking outfitter, along with a couple more veterans from a nearby VA Hospital program, would all meet up in the morning and drive upriver to a dropoff point.

From there we would kayak down to the halfway point for a shore lunch set up Micah and Pat from Pat’s boat.  After lunch, we would kayak back down to a point just above Richland, load up, drive back up to the dropoff point to get our gear, then drive back to Richland.

This made sense to me but all the “go here, then go there, then go here” drew a couple blank stares.  Proving that old habits do die hard, before I knew it, I had laid out a sand table on the dinner table with packets of sugar, Splenda, Equal, and creamer along a trail of silverware designating our overland travel, water travel, start, drop off, lunch, and pickup points.  I know, I know…@#$% officers.

At dinner we also met Gail Wood, a writer for the Christian Science Monitor.  He follows veterans issues and had written about Camp Patriot before.  He would be floating along with us on Sunday’s trip.

Gail’s story from Christian Science Monitor

Sunday morning arrived and we indeed had a van full.  Also coming along was Tim Adams from the local NBC affiliate plus a two-man video production crew.  Those guys were all pretty fun.  Tim would kayak with us but his crew sounded relieved that they would be in Pat’s boat shooting video.

KNDO video journal with Tim Adams

The kayak guide knew his business well.  We each got set up with a kayak appropriate for our size and ability.  The outfitter “crew chief,” gave us all a quick class on the basics of kayaking to have fun.  Kayaks are pretty simple but there are some basic rules to follow in order to ensure the experience is pleasant, especially when navigating around bridge piers.

Before we knew it, we were all on the water paddling downstream.  This was the same stretch of water we had fished on Friday but it was fun coming at it from upstream.  We were now going much slower so we saw things we missed on Friday.  Plus now Dom, Jesse, Matt and I, brains sufficiently filled with Scott’s info, were old hands at the Hanford site, its giant Mule Deer, White Bluffs, the tasty (albeit possibly radioactive) mulberries on the shore, and the countless details of this area so we became impromptu guides for those who had never been on this stretch of river.

Photo courtesy of KNDO
Photo courtesy of KNDO

This day was not without rodeos either.  Both Matt and Tim got to experience firsthand the technique for getting back into your kayak mid-river after you have been dumped out.  Matt’s dunking was particularly loud due to him losing his smartphone to the river.  He was not amused by our offers to call it in hopes that a big sturgeon would pick up and answer.  Egos and phone bills were the only permanent damage and we floated on.  Note to phonemakers, waterproof is dandy but a floating phone would be the bee’s knees.

Last known photo of Matt with his phone.  He sure did love that thing.
Last known photo of Matt with his phone. He sure did love that thing.

Once again, the shore lunch was awesome.  Micah and company outdid themselves, we ate like kings, and each got interviewed by the news crew.  Turns out Tim Adams was a veteran too and had some good stories.

Micah and Tim
Micah and Tim

Pat brought his boat partner, Jerry, yet another veteran, out for this trip too.  It was obvious that this trip was good for everyone.  We discussed the similarities, and the differences, of our war experiences.

At one point Jerry called us over and offered up a good cigar to each of us veterans.  Although a good fishing trip, or card game, or any day with the guys is a good setting for a stogie, I hesitated like I have done for years.  But the “No, thanks” that I’ve been using didn’t come out.

I used to smoke on rare occasions to calm my nerves, mainly in college and during my twenties.  While deployed to Afghanistan, it hit me about halfway through my tour that the several times I had smoked were only after those rougher days where we had to deal with dead bodies of one nationality or another.  After that realization, I never lit up again.

Never, that is, until this day on the river with these men who I am now honored to call my friends.  I don’t know if it was the 11 years that had passed since seeing the last Afghan body, these men with whom I had shared part of my life and they had theirs, the beautiful outdoor setting, or just a need to smoke out the mosquitoes.  But on that shore I savored my first cigar in a decade… and it was fantastic.

Our country is so much more than lines on a map or dot.gov on a web site.  It is an idea.  It is people.  Being a patriot means more than carrying a flag or charging a hill under fire.  Being a patriot can also mean caring for those people and that idea.  I cannot thank Micah and Camp Patriot enough for what they have done and what they continue to do for our nation.

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