Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Seeking a 'reel' recovery

14 men spend a weekend fishing and facing their common problem

Express Staff Writer

Joe Briscoe fishes in the foreground, while Elwood Rennisonís line drags in the water. Standing next to Rennison is Reel Recovery fishing buddy Mike Okamura. Reel Recovery is a nonprofit that takes men with cancer fly fishing.

Every step and lift of the cane is executed slowly but smoothly, with persistence despite the pain.

Tom Crowley, a thin man with tight leathery skin, grimaces every few steps as he strains to keep his balance on the rough, rocky riverbank. At every threat of a fall, he stiffens and shifts his weight to the trusty cane.

Crowley heads upstream for what looks to be a promising hole, stepping his wader-covered feet into the shallow waters of the North Fork of the Big Lost River, northeast of Sun Valley. He takes the cork-gripped rod in hand and makes the first fly-fishing cast of his life, setting the green caddis fly into the deep pool upstream.

He repeats the motion while still holding the cane firmly in his other hand. And repeats it. 10-2. 10-2.

"Don't get frustrated with the technique," says his fishing buddy, Tom Frew. "Enjoy the moment."

"I am," replies Crowley, without dropping the corners of his lips, which have been raised high in a toothy grin ever since his first back cast.

Crowley continues to cast, staring deep into the water, looking for the bite. Without breaking his casting rhythm or looking down, Crowley rests the cane against his thigh, letting go of the handle. With the cane goes the fixation on the weakness left from battling cancer five times in his 53 years.

Crowley was first diagnosed with cancer after high school, beating it. But cancer returned time and time again.

"I've had malignant lymphoma twice and Hodgkin's disease three times," he says. "Don't remember the order. Some of that stuff you want to forget."

Experienced fisherman Robert Bernard stands next to Crowley, providing casting advice when Crowley needs it. Over the years, Bernard has stood on the water beside many men like Crowley, who are all experiencing cancer. Bernard is one of many volunteer "fishing buddies" for the nonprofit Reel Recovery. Since 2003, the Colorado-based group has provided 84 fly-fishing retreats in 14 states for these men.

Bernard, a full-time RVer, has been along for 17 retreats in Utah, Colorado, Arkansas and more.

"When I see these men, it changes their demeanor and motivation," he said. "Like seeing Tom smile. He's not catching fish, but, man, he's smiling."

This retreat at Wild Horse Creek Ranch is the first in Idaho, providing 14 Idahoans with their own fishing buddies and two days of fishing during the last weekend of July.

Boise neurologist Dick Wilson organized and fundraised for the retreat after seeing the power of one in Missoula, Mont. He recalled a man in his 70s who needed an oxygen tank and had to be held up in the water while he fished.

"He caught a little fish and was tickled pink," he said. "Then, we looked up and saw a couple of bears. It was perfect."

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Fishing is the hook

Being a neurologist, Wilson said, he's aware that doctors aren't "touchy-feely" people. And, to compound the problem, men aren't vocal about their feelings.

Fishing may be cathartic, but it's merely Reel Recovery's attraction to bring men together to talk about their cancer and life. Coy Theobalt, Reel Recovery's founder, facilitated six circle discussions with the 14 men during the weekend. They'd all sit in the couches and cushy chairs of the lodge's main room and do something else many had never done before: open up.

"Fishing is still a necessary draw," said Theobalt, adding that the real goal is to open the vault. "Men are brutal on themselves."

John Radin, 58, sat quietly during most of the circle meetings, opting to pass when it was his turn to answer the pondering posed for the day. Come Sunday morning, he spoke up.

The question of the day: What will you leave behind this weekend?

"Fear," he said, mentioning that unlike many of the men, he was diagnosed only four months ago. "I still have the fear."

Another man replied that the fear may lessen, but it never goes away.

"I'm still scared," the man said, adding that he'll wake up in the middle of the night thinking he's died and, after realizing he hadn't, will cry.

While the circles are a time to confront cancer, the weekend is also a chance to do the opposite. The 14 men, their 14 buddies and the staff can just be men. Tease, talk dirty and act like trouble-free teens.

Stan Golub, Reel Recovery executive director and schedule keeper for the weekend, told the men at the Saturday lunch that they're required to find a new fishing buddy for the afternoon. But one of the participants said he'd drown if he didn't go with the same buddy.

"Go ahead," Golub joked. "You already signed the waiver."

Laughing drowned out Golub's next words. The jabbing jokes were a weekend mainstay, and were never taken with offense.

And in these light moments, true treatment was often reached, as was the case with Bill Killebrew, a quiet, reserved man diagnosed with colon and liver cancer the day before Thanksgiving 2008.

"I couldn't do eight hours," he said. "I knew something was wrong."

Since then, he's had colon surgery, chemotherapy and more, and has been winning the fight.

Killebrew fished Saturday afternoon with Nic Cordum, not talking much over the first couple hours unless it was about the fishing at hand.

Killebrew then said he needed a break. They sat on the rounded rocks flanking Stag Creek, conversation turning to their teenage daughters and the fatherly concern of their girls' dating men like them, knowing their sights are set on one goal.

Killebrew soon discovered Cordum was a cancer survivor, and they talked about chemo, which Killebrew undergoes every other week.

"The hardest part is just accepting it," he said, adding that his 16-year-old daughter was devastated by the initial diagnosis.

Killebrew is a single parent, and said his ex-wife was not involved in their daughter's life much before he was diagnosed.

"Since I got sick, they've gotten a lot closer," he said.

Come the Sunday circle meeting, Killebrew became quieter. Others, like Eric Carlson, were talkative from the beginning, introspective. Carlson came to see fly-fishing as a metaphor.

Carlson said he's the fish. He was just living his life, following routine when something alien yanked him out of his world. The fish is then forced to squirm and fight for his life.

"And if the fish is handled roughly, it isn't going to make it," he said.

Another cancer sufferer, Elwood Rennison, added to the analogy.

"When the fish is put back in the water, it's in the same position as before, but its world will never look the same again," he said.

John Cowden expressed the same summation using a common fishing expression.

"No man steps in the same river twice," he said.

Trevon Milliard:

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