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Fly-fishing retreat forges ties among men with cancer

ALTAMONT — A world champion arm wrestler, a police officer, and a burly Vietnam veteran are just a few of the men gathered in a circle to do as a group what they struggle to do alone — battle cancer.

It's not that they can't do it. In fact, for most of them, suffering in silence is what they do best.

But in this place, in this circle of men who know both the burden and the benefits of cancer, they are taking the fight for their lives to a place that has always brought them joy — a fishing pond.

Most men have a fishing story.

It may be more fantasy than reality. It may be more fiction than fact.

Regardless, it is a tale that belongs to them, and in a way, to the people with whom they share it. And on this weekend in late-May, these 17 men, most of whom were strangers when they arrived at Falcon's Ledge near Altamont, will become a part of each other's fishing stories. Which in a way, in a very intimate and unique way, makes them part of each other's life stories.

The men are participants in a program called Reel Recovery, which has a website at www.reelrecovery.org.

The Massachusetts-based group is a nonprofit organization dedicated to helping men find support and healing through fly-fishing retreats.

It began with the desire of one man suffering from brain cancer, Stewart Brown, who said the only time he felt at peace was in the water. He, his son and two of his best friends, Jim Cloud and Coy Theobalt, invited several other cancer patients to the very first Reel Recovery outing. Brown eventually lost his fight with cancer, but not before he helped secure funding from cyclist Lance Armstrong's foundation to get the program started. This summer, the number of men who have participated in Reel Recovery retreats will reach 1,000.

The program doesn't just offer men the chance to fly fish in a beautiful place. They receive instruction, the help of an expert volunteer angler — or more technically, a fishing buddy — and then they meet men who understand, in a way no one else can, just how cancer can destroy so much of the life they once lived while teaching them what they might not want to miss.

"Fishing here is such a healing process," said Tim Nelson, who has had three kinds of cancer and nine death sentences. "You know how you feel after a shower — that's how I feel. I feel clean and, in a way, more pure."

He caught three fish his first day.

"It was extraordinary," he said. "I didn't anticipate what happened here these last two days at all."

Day 1: Coming together

The men arrive at the remote lodge nestled in the hills just outside Altamont in the late afternoon. After checking in and putting their belongings in their rooms, they head down to the lobby of the lodge, where they will have their first "courageous conversation." They make polite conversation as they gather in the lobby near afire place and choose their seats in the circle carefully.

Some are obviously more comfortable with the social dynamic, while others clearly struggle with the idea of discussing intimate medical issues with men they don't know.

Cloud is the facilitator for this retreat and for the six courageous conversations that will give even more depth and meaning to the three-day fishing retreat.

"We, as men, share a legacy," Cloud said. "Men have met in circles for thousands of years."

Men have gathered to prepare for battles, to discuss strategy and purpose. They've gathered after the battle to discuss what worked, what didn't and the men they lost. They have blessed each other, consoled each other and rejoiced with each other in those circles.

"They've grieved losses and celebrated victories," Cloud continues. "You guys are warriors. You're warriors in a battle against cancer."

He acknowledged some of them were probably sent by spouses, while others found the outing on their own. It didn't matter how they came to be in the circle, he said, just that they were there.

"I invite you to share your truth," Cloud said. "The more you can share your truth, the more freedom you have."

Ground rules out of the way, retreat coordinator Jim Norton lays out some logistics, and then adds without cracking a smile, "Oh, you also have to keep the seat up."

Laughter fills the room. And then Cloud interrupts, "Also, shaving is optional. This is a guys' retreat."

The mood is light as they tackle the first few questions of the courageous conversation. What's your name and birthplace? What's your favorite car? And, finally, the one that really gets them reminiscing — and laughing: Just what was that first fishing experience?

Some discovered the sport with their fathers. Usually on stream banks or in neighborhood ponds, they went with their fathers, their uncles, their granddads, and one even went with his mother. The details are different; the joy is the same.

The mood turns somber when the men are asked about their cancers.

Many had symptoms but wouldn't seek medical help until a wife or loved one forced them to do so. Others had no symptoms and found out almost accidentally.

As the men detail their experiences, the others listen in silent attention. The men tell story after story about how they found out, how horrifying the treatment was and how hard it was on their families.

"To sit in a group like this and talk to someone about it, it's so much easier," said Glenn Spencer, who served two tours of duty in the Vietnam War.

He had no idea when he went in for a colonoscopy that it would turn out that he had Stage 4 cancer.

"They said, 'We don't know if you're going to make it,' " he said. "That was November. It's sobering. I had some horrible experiences in Vietnam. I didn't talk about them. It's good to talk and let things out — to be honest and truthful. … It is a joy to have someone to talk to who knows what it's like."

Day 2: The fishing begins

"We're getting ready to do the tattoos," one man jokes as they slowly make their way from breakfast to the circle.

This morning's conversation asks the men to consider how cancer has affected their masculinity.

"I have started putting lotion on, just like a lady," said Randy Farrimond, and the other men laugh. "At first, I resented it. I kind of rebelled. But as your skin dries up and causes you pain, you just do it."

The men detail how treatment has changed the function of their bodies. They are no longer strong, energetic and able to do the things that have defined them all of their lives. They lack the energy or the strength to mow a lawn, move furniture or do household repairs.

And then there is sex. Intimacy has become challenging, embarrassing and more necessary than ever. They've had to find other ways to express their affection for their wives, and they've had to redefine what it means to be a man.

Randy Mansfield was a police officer for 35 years. He has always seen himself as the protector.

"I feel like the sheepdog keeping the wolves away," he said. "Cancer has been a real challenge, to let the positive in and let people help you."

Pain, discomfort and pride are hurdles to the positives one can find in the disease.

"That strength you have, you can share that,' he said. "It could be our finest hour. … It doesn't matter how long I live; it matters how I live."

After the morning conversation, the men are asked to sign a fishing vest.

The vests are already decorated with signatures and dates. Lewis Knowlden bends over and adds his name and the date May 25, 2010, to a vest. Then he slips it on.

When he heads out to test the waters around Falcon Ridge, he will carry with him the spirit of every man who knows his battle, who shares his love of fishing.

The first fish is landed within minutes at a pond the men call "the toilet bowl" — although it has to be the world's most beautiful commode. High-fives, pictures and endless discussion about what fly was used to land the rainbow trout follow the commotion of bringing in the fish. Then it's back to their own spots on the shoreline where they hope to catch a bigger fish than the next guy's.

The men and their buddies take off in different directions. Some stay close to the lodge, while others jump in trucks and head to lakes farther from the group. Conversations range from superficial to surprisingly deep. Laughter is frequent, usually at someone's expense.

Theobalt moves from group to group as they fish. He explains why the courageous conversations begin with a question, after which each man has the floor. There isn't a lot of discussion, and if there is, it's brief.

"If you let them, they give each other advice," said Theobalt. "They love to give advice; they hate to take it. If you let them go, they'll try to fix some guy's issues. … Men live in their heads."

The retreat helps them connect with their hearts.

"We are trying to fight with your cancer, not against it," Theobalt said. "There are life lessons, if they're interested."

As he watches Michael Pickens struggle with a fish, he continues, "For the fish to get caught is like a man getting cancer. They are ripped out of their world."

Only in fly fishing, the fish is returned to his home relatively unharmed. These men are forever changed by cancer.

They fish until the last possible minute. Some men are late for meals as they pray their next cast will bring home the big one. After dinner, they circle in the lodge again — this time to continue talking about how cancer has affected their masculinity.

"I look at myself in the mirror," said Ed Goble, who at 46 is the youngest participant. "I see my gut, I see all these scars, and I feel like Frankenstein."

The men around him are choked with emotion, and then he adds, "Well, I guess that does fit in with the Halloween stuff I love."

Humor seasons his story, which is gut-wrenching for most of the men to hear. A father of two, he loves the outdoors so much that he named his sons Hunter and Fisher. He makes a living with his hands and a name for himself with his strength.

"I have always been able to take care of things, to fix things," he said. "I've worked since I was 11 years old. ... I don't know how to fix this."

In his moments of desperation, he said he tells himself lies, asks himself ridiculous questions.

"If I ignore it, will it go away?" he said, wiping tears from his eyes. "If I don't fill out a will, then I won't need one, right? To be so incapacitated, I don't feel like a husband, I don't feel like a father. I feel worthless, and sometimes, I do wonder if they'd be better off without me."

Tears flow among his new friends, and several cry out when he expresses that last sentiment.

Goble reassures them. He is a fighter. He knows he will keep battling, or as he puts it, "keep plugging along."

"I want to make my boys proud of me," he said. "Even though I'm not physically strong … I have more empathy; I am more sympathetic. And for some reason, I want to reach out more than I ever have."

His heartbreak, like that of many of the men, is always for his wife and sons.

"They ask if I'm going to die," he said, stopping to compose himself. "They get angry and mad. I don't know how my wife does it, but she's always by my side."

And then Pickens can't hold back because he sees what Goble might not.

"You are showing your sons something very valuable," he said. "They are seeing someone willing to fight in a very different situation."

This night ends with Goble reading a book his 9-year-old wrote that details his father's many accomplishments and then his battle with three kinds of cancer.

"My dad is very strong," Goble reads, as tears stream down his face.

His cousin, Tuck Nipko, who is also suffering from cancer, has to leave the room.

"He is a fighter, a warrior and a survivor," Goble continues reading.

Day 3: Cancer's gifts

Breakfast is bustling. Men are exchanging phone numbers, e-mails and making plans to get together after the retreat has ended.

The men are still discussing how life with cancer often resembles the sport of fly fishing.

"I do believe that fishing has saved my life on more than one occasion," said Jeff Metcalf. "When I am out there, I tell myself, four more casts, seriously, and then I'm out of here. I want to steal every single day I can."

The men gather for their last courageous conversation — what gifts have you received from cancer — before their final few hours of fishing.

"Cancer has given me the gift of life," said Spencer.

Tim Nelson has become an advocate and educator rather than a victim of colorectal cancer.

"Shame and ignorance are killing people," said Nelson, who hopes to finish a documentary on his journey in an effort to educate others on prevention. "That's got to stop."

Metcalf has also become an advocate for men reaching out to other men. He wrote a play, "A Slight Discomfort," that was featured at a cancer survivor's workshop last weekend at the University of Utah. The male population at the event tripled when his buddies from Reel Recovery walked in to watch his one-man play.

"In a way, I see this as a sacred illness," he said. "It forces us to look out. I have noticed that women have a sisterhood, and at this moment, at this time, we have created a brotherhood — the brotherhood of the sacred mercurial trout."

Riotous laughter fills the room again.

"Cancer isn't the only thing that takes you," said Warren Grimsrud. "Cancer isn't the only thing that'll drive you nuts. Step out the door, and grab the man by the hand."

When they finish, they fish.

They take their meds, eat some lunch and trade more stories about ones that got away and ones that were photographed. The buddies now blend in with the cancer survivors.

Cloud calls them all together for one last circle, this one on the front lawn of the lodge. The cancer warriors stand in the center ring, with the fishing buddies surrounding them in a larger circle.

The men battling cancer hold onto each others shoulders. The men and a woman, who came to support them, stand behind them, hands on their shoulders. Cloud asks them one more question, and this time it almost seems rhetorical.

What will you take with you in your battle against cancer? One only needs to look at the affection in their eyes to understand what they have found in a small Utah town.

Cloud steps in front of each man, puts his hand on his chest, looks him squarely in the eye and tells him what he has meant to the group. Then he wishes him the best life has to offer.

"Be well," he says. "Fish on."

e-mail: adonaldson@desnews.com