Awakening on the water | AspenTimes.com

Awakening on the water

Jon MaletzAspen, CO Colorado
Jordan Curet/The Aspen Times
ALL | The Aspen Times

BASALT Cancer has taken its toll on Denver’s Chris Rawles. His mind is sharp, his eyes clear, but doctors have struggled to explain why he started deteriorating some six month ago. Now Rawles, a man who enjoyed a relatively healthy existence despite battling diabetes since the age of 10, finds it difficult to walk. He’s losing muscle. Shortness of breath now accompanies tasks that were once no more than an afterthought.In the two years since he was diagnosed with leukemia, Rawles, in his early 40s and once an avid fly fisherman, was forced to give up the sport he loves.

Until this week.Rawles’ walker rested on its side Wednesday afternoon on the warm planks of a dock stretching into the crystal pond waters at Peace Ranch outside of Basalt. He lounged in a lime-green folding chair, had a reel in his steady hands and a grin stretching across his sun-drenched face.”I had the chance to do something I didn’t think I could do,” Rawles said. “If I ever get down, I’ll think about this experience.”So, too, will Daryl Monroe of Glade Park. Four years ago, the 72-year-old’s breast cancer metastasized into his bones. In the last few weeks alone, he has found it increasingly difficult to walk; Wednesday he slowly negotiated a small stream, ambling across the rocks with a cane in one hand and a fishing net in the other to steady himself.”They call it a stage-four disease, which means it’s not curable. I’ve outlived all the averages already,” Monroe said. “Being here wakes you up to life and the things you can do, not those you can’t.”Be well. Fish on. Those four words adorn the back of T-shirts and serve as the rallying cry for Reel Recovery. The program, founded in 2003, exposes men battling cancer to the therapeutic quality of fly-fishing in some of the nation’s most idyllic locales.

Each retreat offers a group of up to 12 men in varying stages of the disease the chance to fish, share their stories and interact in a safe environment. They soon realize they’re not alone as they continue their battle.”We’re here to treat guys like men, not patients,” program director Coy Theobalt said. “My job is to get guys to think differently about their cancer. All they usually think about is how long they have to live; I say it’s not about how long, but how, they want to live.”The program strikes a personal chord for executive director Stan Golub and co-founder and board president Jim Cloud. The two witnessed their good friend Stewart Brown’s struggles firsthand as he slowly succumbed to brain cancer. Through it all, fly-fishing provided a welcome escape, if only for a few hours.Golub, a longtime volunteer and then associate director of Casting for Recovery, a fishing program for women with breast cancer, decided it would be beneficial to provide a similar experience for men. In 2003, with a start-up grant from the Lance Armstrong Foundation, Reel Recovery was born in Loveland. Brown was on hand to share his story just three days before heading to surgery to remove a brain tumor.To date, 350 men have taken part in the program. Fifteen retreats in 11 different states – three in Colorado – are scheduled for this year alone.”This is the best thing I’ve ever done in my life,” Golub said. “I’d never do anything else. This is an unbelievable reward that is so fulfilling. The men get so much out of it and so do we.””Watching a good friend die was painful,” Cloud added, “but being a part of maintaining his legacy is an honor. We both shared a love of the river. It was a special place, an escape from the pain.”Nowhere was that more apparent than Wednesday at the Peace Ranch. Retreat participants, flanked by their fishing buddies – among them guides from Fly Fishing Outfitters in Avon – cast into the calm pond waters, while others waded through the cool currents of the Fryingpan. The clamor of insects resonated in nearby forest canopies, and a light breeze drifted through the aspen leaves – a stark contrast to the dank hospital rooms and clinics each know all too well.Laughter abounded.

“They come to the Peace Ranch, and it’s a fitting place because this is a retreat from trouble, stress and uncertainty,” said Avon guide Jim Phillips, a prostate cancer survivor. “I had one guy tell me, ‘When I catch a fish, I don’t feel disabled.’ They leave with a new perspective, renewed hope and a group of friends who share the struggle.”

Ten strangers, from Denver to Grand Junction and even Texas, came to the Peace Ranch, carrying with them their skepticism and reticence. It didn’t take long for the dynamics to change, local fishing guide R.A. Beattie said.”These guys have been brought together under the toughest of circumstances, and it’s been amazing to watch how quickly they’ve built relationships,” said Beattie, who lent Reel Recovery his family’s ranch, free of charge. The entire retreat is free for participants. “The compassion they have for each other is amazing.”The transformation continues to astonish Golub.

“We had four to five guys breaking down this morning and pouring it out – that’s when we feel like we’ve hit a home run,” he said. “This experience changes their perspective. They can talk about things and still be a man. They don’t need to have a stiff upper lip. It’s not about the fishing. It’s about the conversation and the camaraderie.”That camaraderie is everywhere. It’s written on the fishing vests – every man who has taken part signs his name, home and date of his retreat to commemorate the experience. It’s visible in the interaction of the men, whether they’re basking in the sun, or sharing a few laughs over lunch.For some, the battle is just beginning. For others, the struggle has become a way of life. What happens in their lives during the next six months is anybody’s guess. But, for at least three days, they were free to open up about their hopes and fears during group conversations. And the sound of a line whipping through the mountain air, and the rhythm of a cast helped ease their minds and bodies. Monroe wrapped his hands around a reel this week for the first time in 50 years. Rawles felt the once-familiar tug of a 20-inch rainbow trout. Both men were rejuvenated.Be well. Fish on.

“These guys are in a battle for their lives, and we’re glad to be a part of it,” Theobalt said. “We think we’re on to something. I call this an escape to reality, not from it.”As he watched Jim, a participant, showcase perfect form with a cast that pierced the pond surface, Phillips called out to him.”Jim, that was great! You don’t look like the same man.””I’m not,” Jim said, grinning.Jon Maletz’s e-mail address is jmaletz@aspentimes.com


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