12 Sep Fly Fishing the U.P. Where Less Is More
Few things in life are easier than preparing a meal of left-overs. Or so you might think. When we gathered a group of environmental activists to share a summertime retreat on the shores of Lake Superior in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, I’m sure that I went far above and beyond in cooking dinner on the two previous evenings of our three-night stay. We had more than we needed to eat. Long experience as a camp chef has made me a bit paranoid when it comes to having enough food to go around. I hate the idea of anyone leaving my table hungry, but there are times when more than enough is definitely too much.
The main purpose of this trip was to introduce these folks from Grand Rapids and Detroit to the wonders of fly fishing in the U.P. As those of us who identify as Black, Indigenous or Persons of Color (BIPOC) our intention was to create a safe and welcoming place where they could learn a few skills and have an enjoyable experience in a supportive community. I believe that by creating opportunities like this, we can encourage these leaders to go back to their homes and share with others their love of the outdoors.
Sometimes though, when putting the best interests of others before our own we can lose our ability to do our best work. On this occasion, as I was juggling a wok, a skillet and a pot of boiling water on the stove, I had completely forgotten about the hamburgers I had on the grill outside. To her credit, my friend Tiawanna Ezell, a community relations manager based in Grand Rapids, managed to keep the panic out of her voice when she came into the kitchen to let me know that the burgers were burning.
“You have a little fire going in yard,” she said with absolute calm.
I rushed out onto the deck of our rented house to see the barbeque grill engulfed in flames. I could feel the heat on my face from 30 feet away and it’s no exaggeration to suggest that the glow of this fire could be seen from above by low-flying aircraft. With a heavy sigh I marshaled enough self-control to simply turn off the gas. Moments after, all that remained was the flames that burned from the grease of cookouts-past slowly ebbing away. Trying not to singe the hair on my arms and eyebrows I carefully plucked the burgers off the grill with a spatula. Each patty hit the plate with a sizzle like a charbroiled hockey puck.
My earliest memories of childhood include summer vacations fishing on the lakes and streams of my home state of California. Over the years I recall more than a few grease fires and ruined meals prepared in the frenzy of over exuberant enthusiasm. My love of nature was encouraged by friends and family members in a supportive community. There I learned basic skills that I now take for granted as part of my cultural identity. Because I know that not everyone has the privilege of access to a cabin in a remote wilderness area, I am grateful for the partnership and cooperation of outdoor industry organizations that help make opportunities like this possible. These retreats allow me to pay forward the kindness and thoughtful consideration I received as a kid.
With the help of my friend and co-coordinator Alice Jasper, of Color Out Here, we put together this cohort of participants whose soul purpose was to come and have a good time. My long-time buddy Bill Thompson, the co-owner of Downwind Sports in Marquette, volunteered his time to show us his favorite fishing spots and patiently help everyone learn how to cast their rods, tie the right knots and how to resolve the inevitable tangled line.
Though we were able to get just about everyone to catch at least one blue gill or crappie over the two days we were on the water, I think the participants realized that it wasn’t really fish that we were after. Byron Spivey, a supervisor at the Detroit Department of Parks & Recreation, said prior to this trip he hated fishing. But now he’s eager to bring the young people in his program back to enjoy a similar experience. “I think if we can just give them the chance to try it like this,” he said after the first day, “they would really love it.”
Uriel Llanas Vargas a youth leader with Detroit Outdoors said this trip gave him the confidence to try fly fishing on his own. “Now that I know what I’m doing,…kind of,” he said, “I want to find places to do this near where I live.”
What makes projects like this one worthwhile is the ability to instill in our participants the understanding that they can create similar experiences in the communities they serve. I try to make every aspect of these excursions seem relatively simple and easy to achieve. I think all it takes is a generous spirit and the willingness to assure the success and comfort of those around you. But it’s important to understand as well that this is work that no one should do alone. One thing that I realized as the barbeque grill threatened to set the entire house ablaze, is that these are tasks that require the engagement and cooperation of everyone who stands to benefit from a successful outcome.
Once the grill had settled down to a manageable temperature, I took comfort in the knowledge that there was still an unopened five-pound pack of ground beef in the refrigerator. I asked Alice to make a new batch of patties and recruited Byron to tend the fire. Along with left-over spaghetti, reheated taco meat, a fresh salad, warm tortillas, homemade Pico de Gallo and panko crumb pan-fried tilapia cooling on the stove there was plenty food for everyone. With the kitchen under control, I put out the call to everyone waiting to eat to come and lend a hand. Within minutes we had the table set. What cooking remained was completed and we sat together enjoying our meal with cold beer and warm conservation.
As we wound down our last evening together, I was reminded by our participant Ericka “Kyd Kane” Thompson, the poet laureate of Grand Rapids, that part of living in community is the sharing of burdens. “It would have been better if you had given us a chance to help more,” she said. “All you have to do is ask.”
Many of us who aim to make the outdoors more accessible can easily find themselves overwhelmed by all that organizing a trip for a group of beginners might entail. One thing I have come to know with certainty is that no amount of expertise or experience can make up for the combined efforts of a group that shares a common goal. If we’re going to be successful in bringing more people from the margins of our community into the mainstream of outdoor recreation and the environmental conservation movement it’s will take all of us working together. Any one person or institution working alone, without the benefit of committed partners, is putting themselves at a disadvantage. In the end, by doing a little less and sharing the effort with others we can accomplish so much more.
The U.P. Fly Fishing Expedition is made possible thanks to the support of the Michigan Department of Natural Resources, the Sierra Club’s Detroit Outdoors Program, the Our Wild America Campaign and the U.S. Forest Service Urban Connections Program. Special thanks to our gear sponsors Orvis, Patagonia, Fulling Mill, Outdoor Research and Yeti