Words and Images from Ed Felker

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In the Presence of Greatness:
The 10th Annual PHW 2-Fly Tournament

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Project Healing Waters has been doing their important work for over ten years now, and the Tenth Annual 2-Fly Tournament was part celebration of those years, and part fundraiser to successfully begin the next decade of Healing Those Who Serve. This year, a participant from each of the previous 2-Fly Tournaments was included in the field, so there were many heartfelt reunions taking place around Rose River Farm all weekend. J.R. Salzman, pictured above, fished in the very first 2-Fly, and an iconic image of him stalking trout in the gazebo pool is still used by Project Healing Waters today. In addition to being a fantastic fly fisherman, he’s also a world champion log roller and ESPY Best Outdoor Sports Athlete award winner.

We were honored to have Mr. Tom Brokaw as the keynote speaker this year. When I first met him as he arrived it occurred to me that some years had passed since last I saw him on TV. But despite being weary from travel he was warm and gracious with everyone he met. And everyone wanted to meet him. Then when it came time for him to speak, the years I noticed on him outside the tent washed away. He spoke in a strong, familiar voice with brightness in his eyes. He was in his element. He spoke of service and volunteerism and sacrifice. Of coming together as a nation, of duty and patriotism. He weaved nostalgia with relevance, humor with power. He spoke to every man, woman and child in that room and made us each feel like the focal point of his speech and the hope for the future not only of this organization, but of this nation. His words were like the Uncle Sam poster whose finger magically pointed at You, no matter from which direction you approached. He is a consummate professional. He hit it out of the park, without ever once glancing at a single note, and delivered the single best speech I have ever heard in my life. Rob Snowhite, the Fly Fishing Consultant, captured the speech in his podcast, linked here.

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Here he is speaking at the dinner. In the bottom left corner of the photo is his long time friend and fishing buddy, the legendary Lefty Kreh. In front of Lefty is PHW’s founder, Ed Nicholson.

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Douglas Dear, owner of Rose River Farm and Chairman Emeritus of the Project Healing Waters board of trustees, speaks to over 300 attendees, the largest crowd ever gathered for this event.

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This photo of Keith Gilbert (standing), who fished in the 4th Annual 2-Fly, was taken the Friday before the event. He and Joel Thompson, his guide for the tournament, got to meet each other and discuss strategies at a warmup event nearby.

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Sunday morning’s weather, for the severalth year in a row, left a bit to be desired. But these are fly fishermen. We all hoped for better weather, but I never heard a single angler complain about a little rain.

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I spewed the words to the Pledge of Allegiance like a zombie thousands of times as a young kid in school, never even giving thought to the word “Allegiance” or what it meant. The Pledge of Allegiance here has meaning. The National Anthem has power. These are not formalities, things to check off the itinerary. The words therein carry the weight of the sacrifices of the men and women saluting that flag Sunday morning, and countless more who have gone before them. I feel at once honored and unworthy to be in the presence of men like Chris Frost, who lost both legs below the knee when his vehicle was struck by an IED. In addition to his Purple Heart, Chris has been awarded the Bronze Star, the Meritorious Service Medal, the Air Force Combat Action Medal and numerous others. I first met Chris when he fished in the 5th Annual 2-Fly.

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Tom and Joanne have been a generous fixture at the 2-Fly for many years, and this year a new addition attended, appropriately attired for a troutcentric event.

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Mr. Brokaw was kind enough to come back Sunday to experience the tournament. Here he shares a laugh with PHW’s Director of Communications and social media guru Daniel Morgan, who worked tirelessly in the months leading up to this event to make sure everything went smoothly.

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In the first round of fishing, the weather deteriorated. But Judge Thomas Hogan doesn’t let a little rain bother him. Judge Hogan, an extremely nice man and a great fly fisherman, has been here for every 2-Fly Tournament.

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Pro Guide Jimmy Aliff nets a beautiful rainbow trout caught by Alvin Shell while the rain was still falling. Alvin fished previously in the 9th Annual 2-Fly.

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Rhonda Burleson, who fished in the 7th Annual tournament, gets a helping hand from Pro Guide Kiki Galvin.

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The weather did improve, albeit not enthusiastically at first. Mist and drizzle hung around for a while before deciding to depart for the afternoon and let some sun in.

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I love this portrait of Artist Michael Simon. All of you Virginians reading this blog who sport the specialty wildlife conservation license plates featuring bass or brook trout on your vehicle might not know that Michael Simon is the artist who created those.

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The fishing was great all day, and raincoats were shed for much of the afternoon. Here is Rhonda and Kiki again with a beautiful rainbow under sunny skies.

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World class fly fishing experts like Ed Jaworowski generously donate their time to come to the 2-Fly to give participants a chance to learn from the best.

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Lefty Kreh tunes up Keith Gilbert’s cast before the afternoon sessions.

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Rhonda tenderly releases a beautiful brook trout, rounding out her Rose River grand slam catching rainbow, brown and brook trout in just a few hours of fishing.

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“The honor is mine, to have the opportunity I’ve had to cover the big stories around the world, to try to get them right, to try to keep journalism on an even course, try to celebrate the goodness of this country and the greatness that is yet to come. Because I honestly believe that. And to be in the presence of Americans who every day wake up, and think about what they can do for their fellow citizens. So congratulations to all of you. And to the veterans who are here, in ways that we can never adequately express, we’re enthralled by sharing this country with you. Sharing this evening with you. And we will go home, and say to our friends and neighbors, ‘I was in the presence of greatness last night.'”

— Tom Brokaw, April 30, 2016, Rose River Farm

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Art of Nature

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I am encouraged by the young men and women I have met recently who defy the trend of their peers and immerse themselves in the outdoors, and particularly those who communicate their passion for nature through art.

Isabelle Sweeney, 17, has been crafting, painting, drawing and sculpting since she was little. “It started as something I would do with my mum and siblings, and over time it became something I would do to escape and unwind,” she said. “Painting has always been one of my favorite ways to do this.”

But she has always loved being outdoors. “I feel at peace in nature,” she said. So when her friend, naturalisit Brian Balik, suggested painting a deer skull, it seemed like a great way to combine those interests. Balik gave her a doe skull he had found, they cleaned it up and she set out to turning it into art.

Deciding on black paint because she liked the contrast on the white skull, she sat down one evening, turned on some music and started painting. “I never have a plan when I start,” Isabelle said. “I love the natural symmetry of the bones, so I let them guide me. I let the shapes I see in the skull come out in the black paint.” She finished that first skull in one sitting. “I didn’t stop until it was done late that night.”

I loved that first doe skull when I saw it, and asked Isabelle if she would paint the 6-point buck skull I used for my blizzard time lapse video earlier this year. She was excited to work with the additional interesting features of the antler bases, and came up with an absolutely beautiful design.

“I relish being able to take something from nature, something that had died, something that would have been wasted, and giving it new life as art,” Isabelle said. “To make it beautiful in a new way.”

I am so proud to have this work of art hanging in my office as a reminder of the beauty of nature, and of those who embrace it and find creative ways to express themselves through it.

Photo by Jodi Sweeney

Photo by Jodi Sweeney

Great Essays from Two Young Outdoor Writers

Since its inception, the Virginia Outdoor Writers Association (VOWA) has encouraged young writers from across the state through its collegiate and high school outdoor writing contests. At this year’s annual conference, I loved two of the entries so much I wanted to share them here.

Lynn Wormeli from Virginia Tech’s essay was the Runner-up for the VOWA Dominion Resources Overall Best Essay. She is a wonderful writer, and I look forward to following her path.

Countering Insanity

Hypothesis: lead girls on a hike for two summers and become bored by familiarity.
Independent variable: the way, the mountains, and the time.
Dependent variable: the hiker.

A strange thing happens when you walk the same path many times. Presumably it becomes familiar; with enough frequency, the leaves earn names. My trail held the Pine Tree Forest, the Hill of Doom, and the Lightning Tree, each a rite of passage on the 10-mile hike through Pennsylvania’s Laurel Mountains. But if you repeat the same trail of the same mountain at the same time over different days, you realize that nothing stays the same. In May, there are flowers. In June, there is green. In July, you fear the Lightning Tree will multiply. And in August, you notice that what was hot is now warm and what was green now glows with yellowed fringes.

The first time we forged our own way. The trail had gone unused from September to May and each passing season had left it less distinguishable from the untouched around it. That first time was a thick, forested march, rather than a confident, concrete hike. Machetes hacked, frustrations garnered sweat, and we often found ourselves rerouting. Curiosity propelled us, and the pauses reminded us of our purpose. “What have you noticed today?” one young man with us, Ryan, asked us all to share. The responses resembled the diversity of a swimmer speaking to a marathoner. So personally colored were each of our experiences that if you were not paying attention you may entirely miss the common ground. The ground was, of course, what we had in common.

Lynn (right) hiking with friends.

Lynn (right) hiking with friends.

We were workers of the enthusiastic and exhausted kind: camp counselors, preparing adventures for the joyful bundles awaiting their summer session to begin. A few weeks after that first time came another first for me. I led the hike, surrounded by backpack-slugging girls 12 years of age who appeared to be hiking not towards the campsite but in fact away from their own pinpointed Comfort Zones. I learned from them that even the Lightning Tree, scarred from its underdog victory against a lightning strike some years ago, could be seen without my same fascination. I tried to explain myself, and some joined my captivation. But this captivation was not for those girls whose heads travelled separately from their feet. Some girls were already in the middle of other monstrous mental climbs, and this hilly detour was an additional woe to complete. For those girls, it was the destination campfire that smoked them out of their heads and into community. I learned in the clouds of roasting branches that it is not only our eyes that provide us sight.

That summer I hiked the trail each month and took note of the mountain’s arboretum calendar. Any paper calendar would bow to the timekeeping of its natural source. The next summer I led other counselors on their novel hike. They wowed. That time the trail took me by surprise when the iconic field of flowers greeted me instead as plowed mounds for us to wade. Feeling embarrassed, as if I had forgotten the profession of a longtime friend while making their introduction, I clung to the path I remembered and mourned the petals and stems. My ears perked up after the discovery, and I questioned the year that had passed. Had a year really passed? I could not deny it. Finding myself in the same place at the same summertime beginning could not mask the differences evident in the forest and in me. Common ground builds and erodes. Familiar is not forever. And the newbies would not have known the difference.

Later that summer I took a man on the hike. He had big plans to convert my rites of passage into a paved bike trail. His company specialized in such demolition and creation. A bike path would be accessible to more, enjoyed by more, and appreciated by more. Perhaps the path could even evolve into an attraction, a desperately needed draw for a rural economy that runs on the fumes of summertime ice cream shops. Bike paths are safer for emergency rescues too, like a paved runway pointing to the injured instead of a maze of evergreens delaying aid. The path would pave through the wilderness, changing the category of the land. Camp was excited; now the girls 12 years of age could bike instead of walk! They would enjoy that. I knew I would enjoy that too.

I would like to counter the oft spoken idiom of physicist Albert Einstein who once said, “The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” Perhaps this applies well to the scientific method. The outdoors, however, host a battle of entropy and equilibrium. I walked my path over and over again. The map never changed, and many of the same trees remained. But it was in fact my sanity that became defined, and I became a different result.

Natasha King attends the College of William & Mary, her essay won the VOWA Dominion Resources Overall Best Essay. I really connected with Natasha’s thoughts on the solitary pursuit of the wonders of nature.

Encountering Orcas

I am on a small boat bouncing on a choppy grey ocean, in the waters of the Puget Sound in Washington, searching for whales. The captain, who has obtained the location of a small orca pod from an earlier tour boat via radio, points out the tiny fins of the pod in the distance¬–two females, one male, and a calf. From this distance we can see only the small black points of their fins, like tiny blunt teeth appearing amid the waves.

The pod hugs the rocky shoreline of the nearest island, skirting the jagged shallows where water crashes and heaves against the stone and sand. As they recede towards the west, the captain turns the boat and we speed in a wide intercepting arc, easily overtaking the orcas. Wind rushes up the sleeves of my jacket, tears like cold fire through my thin pants. Too late, I realize that I am woefully underdressed for the occasion.

After a few minutes we stop and wait, the boat rocking on the waves. Regulation calls for us to maintain a minimum distance of two hundred yards, so we will have to let the orcas approach us. Currently, however, that seems unlikely to happen; they are continuing to make their way along the shore, ignoring us.

Natasha at Puget Sound.

Natasha at Puget Sound.

I am on this boat, shivering and alone, looking for killer whales, because of my deep-rooted and inexplicable need to experience nature face-to-face, in solitude.

Growing up, I loved hiking and exploring with my family. Together we walked the winding trails of the Blue Ridge Mountains and combed the shores of too many beaches to count. It was my father who taught me to search for secure footholds in the craggy surface of a steep rock face, my mother who caught dragonflies nimbly between her fingers and showed them to me and my siblings.

As I grew older, however, I found myself more frequently craving the peace and introspection of being alone with nature. I sought out the exhilaration and thrill of a one-on-one encounter, whether it be with a heron, a beetle, a vole by the side of the road, or a pod of orcas.

This particular endeavor, then, is one more in a long line of attempts. Here in Washington, far from my home, I am again seeking out contact, seeking out the sudden sense of wonder I achieve when the natural world confronts me. The tiny dark blips of those fins near the horizon are more thrilling than any high-resolution, close-up photograph. They are real, concrete, present; it is only a distance of a few hundred feet, only a metal rail and a short expanse of choppy water, which separate us.

I remember, as a small child at the zoo, trying to climb up the side of the chain link fence surrounding the snow leopard exhibit, in an attempt to get closer to the majestic silvery cats. I slipped and scraped my hand, but kept the injury to myself–it seemed private, a secret thing, a part and parcel of this quiet, personal encounter, this questing.

Suddenly the male orca breaks away from the pod. We see him heading in our direction, and in a flash everyone is at the rail, straining their eyes, searching. Someone calls out–they have caught a hint of his fin, cutting through the sea. We all rush to that side of the boat, scanning the water hungrily. So I am at the rail of the ship when the orca surfaces.

Only for an instant is he visible, moving in a slow, smooth slide through the boundary between sea and air, between the iron-grey water and the pale pewter sky. I am at the rail, sniffling, my hands chilled to the bone, my skin frigid. I am at the rail, standing, praying to see him, and yet when the orca surfaces, without warning or fanfare, pretext or reason, I am wholly unprepared.

I watch the water roll away from his body in opaque ripples. The black and white pattern, well-known from images I saw as a child, is as familiar as a bedtime story, but triggers some ancient reflex of fear and awe that causes me to grip the rail more tightly, lest I become unhinged at every joint, fall trembling in a heap of bones and sinew.

I hear the rasp of the orca’s exhale, a thick rush of sound which is accompanied by a burst of mist out of its blowhole. The rasp echoes and re-echoes in the chilled caverns of my skull, and I stand transfixed at the rail, blood pounding in my ears. The orca and the ocean are suspended in perception for one reverberating instant: the chiaroscuro patchwork of its lustrous skin, the blended water and wind, the elements all breached and fading together at their fraying seams. That rasp. That rush of breath. I might never need to breathe again. My lungs, I think, will pump forever on the infinite remembrance of that single exhale.

The orca is gone as quickly as he appeared. And I am still shivering and shaking at the rail, though not, any longer, with cold. I slip into the boat’s heated cabin, out of the wind, and huff warm bursts of air upon my chilled hands.

This, then, is the culmination of my efforts. The search, the quest, the morning spent freezing at the prow of the boat as it cut through wind and water–all for this, for one instant when I stared into the orca’s dark eye, heard the ancient whisper of its breath. Hours traded for one second, one encounter–it is worth it.

My nose is running; my skin stings with the cold. I am still breathless. I close my eyes and see again the black and white curves of the orca’s sinuous shape, hear the crash of the waves rolling off its back, taste the cold salt spray of the surrounding sea on my chapped lips.

I want to thank Lynn and Natasha for allowing me to publish their wonderful essays here. For any Virginia high school or college students interested in next year’s contests, please visit VOWA’s web site for more information.

Paintings from the Middleburg Hunt

A couple of recent photographs from the Middleburg Hunt’s Christmas parade and fox hunt caught the eye of two artists from either side of the Atlantic, and I was honored when they asked my permission to create paintings from my images. Since then, Ian Legge from the UK and Jeff Morrow from Cincinnati have produced absolutely beautiful, very different paintings. I asked them to share some thoughts about their paintings and the photographs that caught their eye.

Ian Legge
12 x 24, oil on canvas

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DSC_5808 copy“I came across the source photograph of Maureen Conroy Britell, taken by Ed at a Middleburg Hunt meet, on the Countryside Alliance Facebook page where a number of Ed’s photos had been posted. Many of my paintings are based on dogs or horses and am always looking for inspiration. A number of photos from the set caught my eye but the one I chose just has a beautifully elegant poise to it. Ms. Conroy Britell looks regal, balanced and elegant and is caught in a lovely light. It was a shot that just popped out at me. Ed kindly allowed me to use the image (with approval from Ms. Conroy Britell too).

“When it came to painting it, it proved quite tricky. I used some old oil brushes here, where recently I have been using watercolour brushes — totally incorrect with oil paint, but there were practical reasons for this. This has led to a slightly more ‘impressionistic’ result than some of my other work. It was nearly erased completely at one point, but I slept on it and found a way through. Possibly the biggest challenge was the veil. The first attempt looked very poor – painted lines just didn’t seem to work. So that got scrubbed. After the paint drying, I re-glazed the surface and then re-worked it by applying skin tones and highlights as ‘blobs’ hopefully suggesting skin through a mesh. Not sure if the end result is the right solution but it’s a solution. Next time I tackle a veil, I may explore other options.

“A learning curve certainly but I think offers a potential for approaches for future work and, happily, both Ed and Maureen have been very kind in their responses to it. Very many thanks to Ed Felker and Maureen Conroy Britell.”

Jeff Morrow
“The Conversation”
24 x 18, oil on canvas

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DSC_5143 copy“I never use other people’s photography as reference for my oil paintings, but a few weeks ago while perusing Facebook, I came across a photo [of Devon Zebrovious and Anne Sittmann] by Ed Felker. It caught my eye because of the arrangement of light and dark values that make an interesting abstract pattern. I also like the lighting and how the shadow is hiding the one woman’s eyes. That mysteriousness, along with the fact that the two women are in each other’s space makes the situation intriguing. I felt including the hands of the woman on the left would be distracting from the heads. In my painting it looks more confrontational than the photo indicates. Perhaps because in the photo it is evident that Anne, the lady with her back to us, is pulling down on her vest and not holding her hands on her hips.

“It was fun to paint the extreme lights and darks working against each other. It was a fun challenge to portray the hat on the right with few discernable edges – just melding into the background. Painting the veil over the woman’s…Devon’s…face was daunting because I was afraid if I messed it up I would end up repainting areas of her face. But I think I got the veil indicated just enough that it isn’t too heavily done, yet shows enough to read as a veil. Getting the satiny effect of the vest came slowly and with difficulty. On the other hand, the back of Anne’s head and her collar came easily and quickly. It “fell off the brush” as I like to say. Overall “The Conversation” was a joy to paint. It is being framed and is available at the Eisele Gallery in Cincinnati.”

Many thanks to Ian, Jeff, Devon, Anne and Maureen.

For more of Ian Legge’s work, click here.

For more of Jeff Morrow’s work, click here.

The Great American Outdoor Show

I had never been to the Great American Outdoor Show in Harrisburg, PA before, but will be going back every year. I posted some highlights on Instagram (@dispatches_potomac), but wanted to share them here as well. The show is still going on through February 14th, so there is still plenty of time to go!

Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation is here… #rmef #greatamericanoutdoorshow #dispatchesfromGAOS #hunting #fishing #outdoors

A photo posted by Ed Felker (@dispatches_potomac) on

@melissa_bachman making some fans happy. #greatamericanoutdoorshow #dispatchesfromGAOS #hunting #fishing #outdoors

A photo posted by Ed Felker (@dispatches_potomac) on

Long day!! @yuenglingbeer #greatamericanoutdoorshow #dispatchesfromGAOS #hunting #fishing #outdoors

A photo posted by Ed Felker (@dispatches_potomac) on

So the biggest disappointment was Browning. Literally the first thing I sought out was their booth to get a chance to handle their new Sweet Sixteen. None available, and the guy at the booth pointed to a wall of shotguns and said the one I was looking for was “pretty much the same as those.” Wow, really?

My favorite products:

The Flycraft raft. I don’t know what I have to sell to afford it, but not getting the Sweet Sixteen is a good start. Great design, and Brandon was generous with his time showing it to me.

The Sit/Drag. It’s like it’s designed exactly for me. And what I didn’t mention in my caption on Instagram is it also doubles as a drag harness to pull a deer out of the woods.

Vertical gun racks. A beautifully designed, simple product I am already using in my home.

Grandpa’s Country Catering. Rick Fetrow gave a demonstration about how to make venison bologna, and took a lot of the mystery out of the process for me. Looking forward to trying it myself this weekend. Nice man, generous with his time. I bought some products from him to get me started.

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