Over the last few Summers I have had the chance to take Elementary and Middle School-aged students from the Rainier Valley, White Center, and Burien on outdoor trips through Seattle's Union Gospel Mission. These trips have ranged from day hikes to rock climbing to 3 day backpacking trips, and obviously, fly fishing. One of my favorite memories from those Summer trips started along the banks of a local river where I was teaching 3 Middle School students from the Rainier Valley the beauty of fly fishing --- that was the hope anyways.
In reality the trip was turning into a mess. Deeply knotted leaders combined with less than stellar water conditions were quickly draining the attention-span of my pupils. I was cracking the best jokes I knew, promising Cokes left and right if a fish didn't rise to the dry in a certain hole, and doing everything I could to make up for the lack of cooperation from our usually aggressive under-water compadres. It was wearing thin though. Somebody needed to stick a fish.
As I stood working with a 7th grade female student I suddenly heard from 20 yards up river: "Hey, Mr. Alex! Look!" Turning towards Will, a fresh out of 6th grade Middler who wasn't much thicker than the 3 wt. in his hands, and who was only pushing 70 lbs. if he was holding an 8 lbs. bag of flour, I completely expected to see a 6 inch fish dangling from a hook in mid air. Instead, I just saw Will pointing.
Looking across river from where he was I couldn't see anything out of the ordinary. Scanning back towards Will, he kept repeating, "Look! Look! Look!" At that point my eyes latched on to his fly line, which was dangling loose from the TFO 3 wt. that was pointed sky-ward. Seeing that it wasn't buried in a bush or limb behind him, my eyes began tracing the yellow line. It headed south from the tip of the rod, down past his shoulder and to the water, then transitioned from fly-line to leader as it started heading north up past his knee. Fear began rising in me as the leader disappeared into tippet in a due north path past his waist, and then sure enough, the worst case scenario came true: an errant roll casts had left the size 12 caddis dangling from Will's cheek.
Immediately I began jumping from rock to rock to get to Will to assess the damage, scrolling through a whole list of horrible outcomes involving a trip to the hospital, a verbal assault from parents, and the end of the fly fishing portion of my summer youth plans. But roughly half way to Will I heard another sound: laughter. Looking up I saw a huge smile on Will's usually solemn and serious face, and he said cracking up, "Don't worry. I got it out!"
When I got to where Will was standing, I could clearly see the spot where the caddis had made contact, but was relieved to see that the hook had barely broken skin. Will was still laughing, the other students within earshot of what had happened were laughing, and finally I was able to also begin laughing about the disaster just avoided.
Before I could ask Will if he was sure he was ok, he launched another cast, landing it in a soft seam in the river. As the fly somehow drifted perfectly through the seam (presentation and mending had definitely not been covered yet), a small fish torpedoed from the depths towards it. Will didn't even flinch. "Put the fly right there again," I told him, "and be ready to lift the rod when I say." Five casts later the caddis once again drifted beautifully down the seam, the fish once again nailed it, and this time Will set the hook--perhaps more from the reaction to me yelling than the actual sight of the fish, but it didn't matter; our first fish of the day was on the hook.
To say that it was some grand specimen of a coastal cutthroat trout would be lying through my teeth. At best it was a 6 inch fish...and Will wasn't exactly trying to touch it. Instead, my boss held the fish up in front of Will for a picture to be taken, and when I went back to look at the picture later that day I saw a totally different Will than I was used to: a look that combined pride, accomplishment, and joy was smeared on his face in place of the usual combination of annoyance and boredom. The van ride back to Seattle was also different that day: instead of the biting sarcasm or complete disregard Will normally answered his peers with, he eagerly talked about the 7 cast stretch from sticking himself in the face to putting it into a trout's.
Later that summer we were within a mile of the van, returning from an overnight backpacking trip east of Steven's Pass, and Will was struggling. As luck would have it, the two days I had planned to take this group of guys on their first ever backpacking trip also managed to be two of the hottest days in many years. Add to that the steep nature of the trail leading to the alpine lake, as well as the pack that weighed almost half of Will's body weight despite my best efforts to cut weight in every imagineable way for him, and the annoyed and sarcastic Will had returned.
He couldn't make it. His body hurt. Why did we have to come out to this stupid mountain? He should have just stayed home. He couldn't wait to get home and play video games and never come outside again. Again, I started trying everything I could think of.
Finally I just asked a ridiculously generic question: "What's been your favorite part of Summer Camp?" "Nothing," came the response.
"Really? Nothing? You haven't enjoyed anything? None of the field trips, park days, outdoor trips, nothing?" "Nope. None of it." Yikes.
"Well," I started again, trying to rephrase the question so Will couldn't dodge it as easily, "if you were making a list of things you enjoyed from this summer, where would hooking yourself in the face fly-fishing rank?"
Will stopped. He cocked his head slightly sideways and I saw his eyes light up. "Oh man," he said, "that would probably be in my top 3."
"Top 3, huh? Well what about hooking the fish? Where would that be?," I said.
Without hesitation, "Definitely number 1! That was awesome! I really want to do that again sometime."
Unfortunately that was the last conversation I had with Will. Summer program ended and he and his brother didn't return the next summer. This story doesn't end with me taking Will fishing numerous other times or me getting to see him learn some of the countless lessons that I have from the sport. In fact, that may be the only time Will gets to go fly fishing -- urban kid from a low-income background...not exactly lots of chances to hit the river. But something absolutely happened for Will in those moments, and it's something that I've seen happen several other times: when Kenya stepped over the railing of the 200 ft. bridge and started rappelling down; when Tre'Von sat down on top of the mountain he had just climbed and looked out over all the ridges that now lay below him; when Jamie couldn't stop talking about all the sea stacks along the Washington coast on her 3 day backpacking trip...
For these kids whose lives are so often dictated by the reality of the streets and driven by the masks they're forced to wear, being in the outdoors strips everything away and allows them the chance to be what they really are: kids. Everybody is amazed by how tall and wide the trees are, how clear and cold the water is, how many stars there are, so nobody is embarrassed to be amazed, which in some ways is the very essence of what being a kid is all about.
My only request to the students at the beginning of each summer is that they actively seek that moment in one of the activities we are doing where they feel like their mind is telling them to stop, and then try to take one more step past that. I'm not always sure how it turns out, but i've heard several students say they reached the point of fear or doubt or hesitation and then were able to overcome it. For Will, I honestly think that point may have been letting his guard drop just enough to allow joy to come through. A bad cast and a 6 inch fish accomplished that.