My Birthday Gift of Nature

On my 51st birthday, Chad Brown, a friend and colleague, took me fly fishing on the Clackamas River in the pouring rain. Two days earlier I saw the forecast for showers in the city of Portland, Oregon. It didn’t look good, but I hoped for the best.

At 5AM Chad arrived at my hotel with his chocolate lab named Ax. The handsome dog lifted his head for a quick scratch behind his ears as I ignored the bright orange sign on his tactical harness that said, “DO NOT PET”. He and I go back a minute, and even service dogs need  love.

A calming influence in his life, Ax helps Chad to manage the post-traumatic stress of his time in the military.  With his faithful companion, mornings spent on a trout stream casting a fly rod bring joy and balance to his life. He shares the gift of nature with the kids in his Portland community along with fellow veterans who struggle with their memories of war. Through his nonprofit called Soul River Inc., Chad leads fly fishing adventures into the wilds of the Alaskan Arctic where he encourages children and former soldiers to find peace in the wonders of the outdoors. On this morning in mid September this was his gift to me.

I hefted my bags into the backseat of Chad’s truck behind Ax and pulled the big man in for a hug.
“Good to see you bra,” he said with a squeeze. “I’m so glad you called.” Grinning back at him in the street lights and morning fog I patted his back. “Man thank you for being here!” I said. “I’ve wanted to do this for so long. Going fly-fishing with you? I can’t imagine a better way to spend my birthday. But it’s supposed to rain.”

Hustling now, I jogged around to the back of Chad’s Dodge Ram to the passenger side as he hopped into the driver’s seat. “Ha!” he said defiantly, “This is perfect steelhead weather!”

In Portland for a two-night’s stay I was the guest of KEEN Footwear. The company asked me to sit on a panel and share my work as a journalist telling stories about diversity, equity and inclusion in the conservation movement. My purpose in being there was offer my perspective on the many efforts underway to make the outdoors more accessible to all the American people. I believe that if we can help others to enjoy the world outside we can to a lot to further the cause of environmental protection. With as much support and encouragement that I have received over the years helping others is the least I can do.

Throughout my life I have been blessed, truly blessed to have the privilege of many wonderful experiences. In the providence of fate circumstances have aligned to give me friendships and opportunities to enjoy time in both natural settings and urban areas across North America to witness some amazing things. From the Sierra Nevada Mountains of California, to the Colorado River on the floor of Grand Canyon, to the whitewater rapids of the New River Gorge of West Virginia, to the tundra of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge of Alaska I have seen much in my life and I am sincerely grateful to so many people that have made my career as a journalist in the outdoor industry possible.

My parents Billy and Rubye put me on this journey through my childhood with encouragement, love and a shinning example of community service and personal integrity. My wife Shamane, whose moral support and loving kindness, allow me to take time away from home for weeks on end and return to warm welcome. Incredible editors like Katie Ives at Alpinist Magazine and Alia Salim at Land + People make me a better writer. Christie Hinrichs, my agent at Books In Common, keeps me in front of enthusiastic audiences. Bruce Ward, my fiscal partner at Choose Outdoors, provides the institutional support to keep me on the road. Mario Sierra Garcia at Madison Gas & Electric maintains and encourages my commitment to stories closest to home. And literally thousands of people, individuals and institutions, far too many to name, from one end of the United States to the other, generously offer their time, attention and enthusiasm to move my work forward year after year. To everyone who makes my life possible, Thank You!

Much of what I do is directly focused on encouraging more people to spend time in the outdoors. At the core of my beliefs is the understanding that our precious natural resources are best preserved and protected when they are enjoyed by conscientious stewards of the land who love it. I believe that if we can model and encourage behavior that leaves the lightest possible trace on the Earth we can make our planet a safe and nurturing environment for all of humanity. That means we have to share our love of the natural world and make a special effort whenever possible to welcome all people into the outdoors. Just as so many people have supported and encouraged me, I believe we must do the same for everyone we meet.

So often I am asked, “What can I do to help more people get into the outdoors?” Typically, that question refers to the notion I have explored many times in dozens of articles and reports published over more than decade of my career. There is a divide between those who spend time in nature and those who don’t. This separation, that I call the Adventure Gap, sadly like many divisions in our modern society falls along the same racial and socio-economic lines that create disparities among our fellow citizens that drive us apart.

The question, usually posed by a white person of privilege, is most often born from a sincere desire to create a natural environment that is diverse, equitable and inclusive of the interests of everyone. Not only does that include people of color, but also disenfranchised white people who lack the social mobility to rise above economic hardship and the residents of urban centers whose lifestyles surrounded by concrete, asphalt, glass and steel offer few opportunities to commune in the presence of trees, grass, open green space and fresh free-flowing water.  How then do we all work together to shrink this gap and make the outdoors a natural part of everyone’s life?

The rocks that lined the bottom of the Clackamas River were covered in a thick layer of muck that made them slippery. I walked precariously in rushing water just below my knees trying hard not to lose my balance. As we waded out into the water Chad showed me the fine art of casting a fly rod. The ease with which the bright yellow line came zipping from his reel to land in a precise spot on the stream was a wonder to behold. Ax lay quietly on the shore his brown nose tucked beneath his tail. As the rain began fall we cast our lines in hopes getting the fish rise.

“You see that one?!?” Chad yelled. “They’re jumping all over.”

Drops of rain fell in a torrent that made the river boil with activity. The steelhead leapt up from the water, unimpressed and ignoring the feathered lures we thought might entice them.  For more than an hour we cast our lines without a single bite. Chad laughed. “They’er just giving us the middle fin!” he said.

In the pouring rain I laughed right along with him, grateful for this wonderful opportunity to experience nature in this exquisite setting. Just like the kids and veterans he guides into the Arctic wilderness, Chad’s gift affirmed for me the abiding love of the outdoors that drives my every ambition in life. So that our natural resources continue to thrive and flourish for future generations I am again inspired to share my love with others. Through my images and stories I aim to bring everyone just a bit closer to nature and draw the Adventure Gap to a close.

This Joy Trip was made possible thanks to the generous support of KEEN Footwear 

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Author:James

I’m a freelance journalist that specializes in telling stories about outdoor recreation, environmental conservation, acts of charitable giving and practices of sustainable living.