Michael Brandy, Deseret News
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."
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