Words and Images from Ed Felker

Writing

One Dog Short on a Three Dog Night
and Other Adventures

Not since the first day I met each of my dogs when I drove them home to Virginia from Illinois — Winnie as a pup during Hurricane Ike, and Finn as a 3-year-old a few years later — have I asked them to join me on a longer journey. And they have never been away from home for an entire week. But months of planning, preparation and waiting were behind us, the truck was packed, and we were ready to go. The plan was two nights of roughing it, camping in a couple of Virginia’s state parks, then a few nights in a fantastic cabin in Bristol, Tennessee. Fall foliage, crisp air, fishing, exploring, relaxing, recharging. But it’s funny, you put two dogs in the back seat of the truck and they don’t know if they’re going to 7-11 or Montana. All road trips start exactly the same to them. So I felt the weight of the responsibility. Obviously they need me to take care of them, to provide for them, to not put them in danger and to not do anything stupid.

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Our first stop was a lakefront campsite in Virginia’s Douthat State Park. The forecast was for a very cold night, and I’m not a very experienced camper. I got plenty of firewood, warm clothes for me, Winnie’s winter coat and two warm sleeping bags zipped together. We set up camp, fished a little in the stocked lake there, went for a hike, took pictures, lit a fire, cooked, ate, opened a beer and relaxed. But as soon as the sun set, the cold pushed down from the cloudless sky, and I wanted to get settled while we were all still warm from the fire. We all got in the sleeping bag and I just waited for the temperature to drop. I did not have to wait long, and only slept in fits and starts. I kept checking Winnie, who is more sensitive to cold than Finn. She wore her coat in the sleeping bag at my feet and seemed plenty warm. During the night, however, Finn hooked a leg outside the sleeping bag and as he moved, the bag unzipped. His restlessness woke me up and when I figured out what happened, I could feel cold air just pouring in on him. I got him zipped back up and we slept a little bit, but by 5 a.m., we had all had enough. The inside of the tent was covered in ice, and all the warmth saved in the sleeping bag was gone the instant I unzipped it. After a quick and cold bathroom break (it was 20 degrees), I turned on the truck, put the dogs in the back seat and turned on the heat. After a while we ate some breakfast to warm us up. I sat there between them as they ate and their tails wagged as I talked to them. We had made it through a pretty uncomfortable night, but we were all fine. I felt the temperature dip a bit, as it always seems to before dawn, and I looked up to see more stars than I can ever remember seeing in my entire life.

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The plan for the next night was to camp at an even higher elevation with a similar forecast, setting up a tent that is now lined with ice, over a wet sleeping bag and air mattress. We held a team meeting and decided we would not do that. Instead, we would push farther southwest, go for an afternoon hike, and find a warm place to stay that night. We hiked to the Great Channels of Virginia, a vigorous, 6 mile out-and-back with a big elevation gain, beautiful and well maintained trails through steep and rugged terrain, and a hand written sign on a kiosk at the entrance announcing bears had been seen in the area. Every blind curve in the trail had the potential of surprising a bear, so I talked to the dogs the whole time to make some extra noise in the wind. They must have been thinking, “has he lost his mind? Yeah, we get it, we’re good dogs. We heard you the first four hundred times.” It’s also archery season there, so my deer colored dogs tried out the Ruffwear Track Jackets I ordered especially for this trip. I am really impressed with them. Walking, climbing, running, shaking, leash, no leash…these vests never budged from their intended position.

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After that first frigid night, somewhere between two and four hours of sleep and a strenuous hike, all three of us were pretty happy to cancel our camping reservation near Mt. Rogers and camp at the Days Inn Bristol, VA instead.

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The next day we stopped and talked to the fine folks at Mountain Sports Ltd. I wanted to see some beautiful scenery but none of us were in the mood for a big hike that day. The staff there recommended a pretty stretch of the Virginia Creeper Trail near Damascus, VA. What a gem this trail is, 35 miles of former railroad bed transformed into a trail for hiking, biking and horseback riding.

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There are definitely trout in the beautiful Whitetop Laurel River that parallels the Creeper Trail, but I had my hands full with the dogs, camera and tripod so I didn’t bother trying to fish.

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With the exception of the first night being twenty degrees colder than I was really prepared for, the weather the entire week was simply spectacular. Fall foliage was stunning everywhere I went.

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Speaking of the Days Inn Bristol and Mountain Sports, Ltd., where the dogs were welcomed, I want to acknowledge the other establishments along the way and in Bristol, Virginia and Tennessee that welcomed the three of us. Starting on the top left, Shenandoah Valley Brewing Co., Staunton, VA; Queen City Brewing, Staunton, VA; Redbeard Brewing Co., Staunton, VA; Burger Bar, Bristol, VA; Holston River Brewing Co., Bristol, TN; Bristol Brewery, Bristol, VA; State Line Bar & Grill, Bristol, TN; and the brand new Cabelas, Bristol, VA. I am always very appreciative of businesses that allow and welcome dogs.

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Walking around Bristol was fun. It’s a cool town best known as the birthplace of country music. I stopped to admire one of the many murals on the sides of buildings there and the dogs sidled up close to me as they do on city sidewalks. Then Winnie stood on my foot. I include this photo here because I love moments like this, even though I can’t really explain why.

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It was time to check in to the cabin where we would be staying for the rest of the week. And oh my, what a cabin it is. I unloaded the truck, spread the tent and sleeping bag out to dry and then we just relaxed. More perfect weather, a few tasty local beers, a great local pizza and an early night made for a perfect evening.

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The next day we met Orvis fishing guide Patrick Fulkrod who took us out on the beautiful Watauga River. This was an amazing day that I chronicled in more detail in my previous blog post, Brown Trout, Orange Dogs.

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I love my dogs, obviously, but one of the main reasons I genuinely enjoy their company in all sorts of situations is that they are well behaved and under control. We don’t do any formal training anymore, but every day is filled with “teachable moments,” and spending the time required to have dogs that listen and respond to commands is absolutely one of the most rewarding things I have ever done. Reflecting on the trip so far, it has been neat to watch how differently they each respond to new situations. Sometimes predictably, sometimes not, but always differently. Finn typically wants to know what is on my mind, what I expect of him, what we are going to do together next, while Winnie is usually off dancing to the beat of a drum only she can hear.

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The cabin at dusk. Shortly before this photo, I was leaning on the tailgate messing with the timer on my camera when the dogs barked. I had been seeing deer all day so I didn’t give it much thought, and just told them to stay. When I looked up, just off to the right of the chairs in this photo was a Momma black bear and two cubs. The dogs had never seen bears before, and even I was impressed that they stayed. But, safety first, if you haven’t gathered yet by now, so I put them in the back seat of the truck, quickly went back to the camera and tried to get a photo. But it was too late. Literally every setting on the camera was wrong — manual focus, timer, long exposure, low ISO — so I just watched as the mother turned back toward the woods and left, cubs scampering quickly behind. It was exhilerating to see them so close, and another proud moment of dog ownership.

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I didn’t get to fish the South Holston on this trip, but before we hit the road home I walked down to take a photo in the morning mist. Next time, SoHo.

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We had all day to get home, so when I saw a sign for Hungry Mother State Park, a park I’ve heard a lot about, I decided to swing through and check it out. It. Is. Stunning. What a beautiful, serene lake. I really want to come back here with the kayak and camp for a few nights.

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Still feeling like we were approaching the end of the vacation too quickly, I detoured off the mundane, terrible Rt. 81 and enjoyed a stretch of the Blue Ridge Parkway from about Roanoke to Lexington. My God, the foliage was astounding. The best I have ever seen in Virginia, in fact.

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But it’s a good life, I think, when home calls as strongly as the beautiful new places we discover, and we were all anxious to get there. Back on the highway, I put the windows up and the hammer down. I turned music on for the first time in over 300 miles, never having noticed its absence. And from the back seat, dogs smelling of wood smoke snored, and dreamt their very different dreams together.

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Seven.

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I asked her what she wanted to do this evening for her birthday.
She thought for a second and asked, “Anything? Whatever I want?”
“Of course,” I said. “You only turn seven once.”
Then she told me quietly, what she wanted to do more than anything else, was to wade up to her chest in the river, and stand there until the sun went down.
Who am I to judge? On my seventh birthday I asked for meatloaf.
“Let’s go,” I said. And we did.
I brought a toy to throw in case she got bored, but she didn’t.
After a while she turned to me and said, “In rivers, the water that you touch is the last of what has passed and the first of that which comes; so with present time.”
“Wow,” I said. “Did you just come up with that?”
“I’m a dog, you idiot,” She said. “da Vinci. Read a book.”
We laughed and laughed.
Then we both turned back to the river, and watched until the sky and the water were the same color. And then we went home.


2014, My Year in Photos

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2014 was a good year, photographically. I took a landscape photography workshop and learned a lot, I had a few things published here and there, I experimented more than usual and I made an effort to really get to know my camera and its capabilities. I take a lot of photos, and my first cut tends to be about forty images, but nobody wants to view forty images. By the time I cut that down by about half, sometimes interesting patterns start to appear. This year, out of the final 24 shots, half of them feature water, including the one above, taken at Virginia’s Chesapeake Bay. A tripod was used in six of the photos, by far the most yet. And this year features my first GoPro shot in my Best Of list. So, I hope you enjoy this glimpse at my year. I had a lot of fun living and photographing it.

The shot below was taken very near the last one, later that same morning.

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I continue to try to experiment and improve with low light photography. I captured a lot of deer at dawn, this photo was taken through the windshield in my driveway.

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I’ve been going to the Preakness for about twenty years, so it was a fun experience to have press credentials for this year’s event. It was hard to choose a favorite shot of Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner California Chrome, but I keep going back to this one. Taken after the race, surrounded by throngs of fans and photographers, this horse just seemed to bask in the attention. My story and photographs about the Preakness just came out in the December/January issue of Virginia Sportsman magazine.

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Monkey doesn’t like stones in the water. They all need to be removed, one at a time.

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Regular readers of this blog know that Monarch butterflies were a very special part of my summer. I watched and photographed as this Monarch emerged from its chrysalis, only noticing later when I was editing the images that I had also captured a tiny spider whose web all of a sudden contained an unexpected guest.

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I took hundreds of shots of seeds floating in the air for a blog post about noticing nature’s little things. Almost all of them were no good, but I only needed one!

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We get a lot of different turtles around our property. I spent some time with this cool fellow.

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Hiking near Calvert Cliffs, MD, my wife walked into an inchworm hanging from a branch above the path. Her delicate returning of the worm to safety on a nearby leaf became one of my favorites of the year.

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Turkeys gather on the path ahead, C&O Canal Towpath, Maryland.

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Photographing sporting events is pretty far outside my comfort zone, but I had a blast shooting this championship game for my friends, whose boys play on the victorious team.

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I include this image because I was astonished by my camera’s low light capability. This is a hand held shot with a lot less light than it looks like here. Potomac River, looking from Virginia across to Maryland.

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My favorite image from the landscape photography workshop in the Canaan Valley, WV area. I had a great time, made some new talented friends like Risha, and learned a lot from Martin, Randall and Todd.

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The next two shots feature a great new Werner paddle I bought this year, and I’m very proud that Werner is using these images on their web site here and here.

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Shortly after the landscape workshop I tried my new knowledge at Shenandoah National Park. This is the Upper Rose River in Madison County, VA.

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I brought my good camera along on quite a few kayak floats this summer. On this day I hoped to get a good sunrise shot. That sunrise didn’t produce anything interesting, but after the sun came up, this scene unfolded in front of me.

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This is the same Monarch pictured earlier eclosing from her chrysalis, drying her wings in the sun.

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Sunset, Potomac River, Harpers Ferry, WV.

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I visited Solomon’s Island, MD twice this year and thoroughly enjoyed this quaint, beautiful and fun town.

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Team Orange at Rose River Farm on a beautiful summer day.

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I was out early one morning hoping to photograph a big buck I had seen the previous morning while jogging on the C&O Towpath. I got stuck waiting for a train and spotted this scene, I had to get out and photograph it.

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Early in the year this Sharp Shinned Hawk paused on our bird feeder while hunting our regular feeder visitors. Hawks gotta eat, too.

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And finally, one of my very favorites of the year, a GoPro shot of Winnie in the front of the kayak as we float down the Potomac River near our house. This photo was published in an article I wrote about kayak fishing for Blue Ridge Outdoors magazine.

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You can view my favorite photos of 2013 here, 2012 here, and of 2011 here. Thanks as always for stopping by from time to time.


Medicine for the Soul

Originally published in The American Fly Fisher, Journal of the American Museum of Fly Fishing.
Fall, 2014, Volume 40, Number 4

Every spring for the past eight years, central Virginia’s ordinarily tranquil Rose River Farm bustles with energy and purpose as dozens of volunteers and supporters come together for Project Healing Waters (PHW)’s biggest event, the 2-Fly Tournament. The national program aids the physical and emotional rehabilitation of thousands of disabled active military service personnel and veterans through fly fishing and associated activities, including education and outings. The annual 2-Fly, so named for the limitation of anglers to select and fish with just two flies for the entire tournament, is the organization’s flagship fundraiser.

DSC_1147A tournament participant and his guide get in some practice on the still waters of one of Rose River Farm’s ponds.

With 167 chapters in forty-nine states, the limited tournament openings are highly coveted. Nominations come from local chapters all over the country. There are only twelve spots in the Pro/Vet category, in which injured active-duty service members or disabled veterans are paired with professional guides. In 2014, one of those spots went to former Staff Sergeant Brian Christensen, Army National Guard, from Woodland Park, Colorado. When he found out he had been selected, he went through what he calls a normal progression of emotions: “Absolutely thrilled!” he said. “Then nervous. Then panicky.”

Christensen suffers from posttraumatic stress (PTS), and in his excitement it had started to take over. “I was honored to be nominated by my local chapter,” he said. “But I then got very nervous about traveling, being in unfamiliar areas, being ‘trapped.’” His wife, who would be seven months pregnant at the time he was to fly to Virginia, worked with him for days after he received the call. “She knows how strong of a medicine this program is for my soul,” he said, “and unselfishly convinced me to go.”

He began taking that “medicine for the soul” back in January 2013, when he first got involved with PHW. He started with a fly-tying class and quickly became obsessed, actually starting the intermediate class before he had even finished the beginner’s. His wife immediately started seeing a change. “She hadn’t seen me this focused, excited, or passionate since I came home from Iraq,” he said. “And I hadn’t even caught my first trout.”

When summer rolled around, he took part in a few outings, each time fishing alongside one of the mentors who guide participants for the day. Those mentors are often professional guides, and under that guidance, Christensen’s fly-fishing skills progressed quickly. “My learning curve has been a near vertical line because of PHW,” he said. He was ready for the 2-Fly.

Almost a thousand miles away in Missoula, Montana, Joel Thompson was also readying for his first appearance in the tournament. But Thompson, a professional guide and owner of Montana Troutaholics Outfitters, was flying in to volunteer as one of the twelve Pro/Vet guides. He was paired with Christensen for the tournament. Thompson had been aware of PHW for years and was excited about his first hands-on opportunity to help. “Being selected to guide in the 2-Fly was truly one of the greatest honors of my life,” he said.

DSC_0876Before the tournament begins, guide Joel Thompson (left) scouts for trout in the Rose River with Brian Christensen.

Meanwhile, back at Rose River Farm, preparations were well under way. PHW board chair and owner of Rose River Farm Douglas Dear credits the volunteers who make the event possible. “Every year the 2-Fly just seems to get bigger and better,” Dear said. “It is really a tribute to the many volunteers who make this such a great weekend for the vets.” In the final week leading up to the event, volunteers are busy preparing the grounds, organizing an impressive array of silent auction items, and putting shirts and other merchandise out for display. Food, drinks, signs, tents, chairs, lights, electronics, transportation, lodging, and countless other details all require the attention of dedicated volunteers.

The weekend kicks off with a Saturday afternoon bass and bluegill tournament at a large pond on the grounds of Rose River Farm. This gives participants a chance to meet each other and warm up with some casual fishing the day before the 2-Fly. When Christensen arrived, he didn’t know a single person. “I always feel extreme anxiety when meeting new people,” he said. “But the one thing I have found is that when I am around veterans, it couldn’t feel any more different. There is something unexplainable, unspoken that happens when I am around them. I relax. I feel more calm. I let my guard down.” For Christensen and many others, interacting with those who “get it” is one of the best things about PHW.

Saturday evening features a riverside banquet with live music and an inspirational program that gets everyone excited about the day ahead. Special guests this year included Master of Ceremonies Major Nick Warren, United States Marine Corps (USMC), pilot of the presidential helicopter Marine One; keynote speaker Admiral John C. Harvey, United States Navy (retired); fly-fishing legend and World War II combat veteran Lefty Kreh; and casting guru Ed Jaworowski. But the stars of the night were and always will be the veterans, three of whom took the podium to tell their stories.

The moving testimonies of the men reminded everyone in attendance why the success of the event and this program is so critically important. “Project Healing Waters has saved me, my life,” said Corporal Mike Escarcida, USMC (retired), in front of a rapt audience of more than 200 attendees. “I no longer have to go it alone,” he said. “I no longer have those thoughts of committing suicide.”

Stories like Corporal Escarcida’s are being told from PHW programs across the country. Christensen, who has gained so much from his experience that he now feels the urge to give back, volunteers for the Colorado Springs program. As chair of the Veterans Committee, he sets up local events and recruits vets to get them out on the water. He tells the story of a new participant, a former Marine he recently put on a fishing trip. “He called me and said he had caught eight fish on his first trip, and when his children saw a picture of him holding a trout, they said, ‘What’s wrong with your face, Daddy?’” The feature on their father’s face they did not recognize was a smile. That, Christensen says, is the gift that PHW offers. And seeing that in others has been a healing force in his own life.

Christensen and his guide met for the first time during the banquet. The two immediately hit it off. “Joel told me he had been out by the water ‘reconning’ the areas we were to fish the following morning,” Christensen recalled. “I couldn’t believe he was out there doing that while everyone else was enjoying food and drink in the tent.” Christensen found himself grinning from ear to ear and looking forward to the morning.

DSC_0859Staff Sergeant Brian Christensen (left) discusses strategy with Joel Thompson.

Thompson was already confident they would have a great time together, but it was important to him that they did as well as possible. “I get nervous before every guide trip,” he said. “There are so many factors that we can’t control, and you really want your clients to have success. That is exactly how I felt at the start of the 2-Fly.”

The nervousness that comes from even a fun competition, however, can manifest itself in different ways for someone suffering from PTS. “I normally don’t handle those feelings well anymore,” Christensen said. “My [PTS] treats both positive and negative stress the same.” When positive excitement turns into negative stress, it’s impossible to enjoy the experience. “I start out feeling a thrill for a second, but then it turns into anxiety, then panic.”

DSC_0839A vibrant sunrise blankets Rose River Farm in Madison County, Virginia, on the morning of the 8th Annual 2-Fly Tournament (27 April 2014).

But early Sunday morning, with the fading remnants of a spectacular sunrise still reflecting on the Rose River, the two men entered the water and shook off any nervousness with the best remedy of all: hooking up with the first fish of the day. Then Christensen noticed something odd: the anxiety, the panic never materialized. “I had an absolute blast during the tournament,” he said. “I can’t explain why my body didn’t react the way it normally does to that stress. But it didn’t.” For the three hours of combined fishing that day, Christensen said he felt “like a normal person.”

Thompson and Christensen were paired as a team with Kansas City, Missouri’s Staff Sergeant Kevin Gabert, Army National Guard, and his guide William Heresniak. The two anglers and their guides put together an impressive morning of fishing, and when the scores were tallied, they led the Pro/Vet category at the halfway mark. Heresniak, who runs Virginia-based Eastern Trophies Fly Fishing, has guided in all eight 2-Fly tournaments and couldn’t imagine missing the event. “When a soldier says that Project Healing Waters has saved their life,” he said, “it hits home.”

DSC_1042Staff Sergeant Kevin Gabert keeps the pressure on a rainbow trout as his guide, William Heresniak, gets ready with the net.

In afternoon fishing, things slowed down a bit for Team Christensen/Gabert. But with all but one scorecard to be tallied, they still held a narrow lead. That last team, however, put up just enough points to grab first place. Winning is fun, of course. But the order of finish here is about as important as you might expect—which is to say, not very. “I could not have been more proud of our team,” Thompson boasted. He is eager to guide again next year.

DSC_1177Joel Thompson stretches out to net a nice rainbow hooked by Brian Christensen during the afternoon session.

Christensen, like his guide, feels a lot of pride in that second-place finish. He has a spot for the plaque picked out already, right above his tying bench. “Every time I see it, I will think of my teammate, Kevin, and our guides, Joel and William. And all my fellow veterans. And all the volunteers and all the donors who make it possible,” he said. “And how small I feel in all of it. But mostly,” he adds, “I will just smile and remember the sun on my back, the trout on my line, and how it just couldn’t ever be any better.”

DSC_1032Brian Christensen hooks up with the first of many rainbow trout during the tournament; guide Joel Thompson awaits with the net.

Christensen plans on continuing his volunteer work on the Veterans Committee, giving back to the program by getting others involved. “Nothing brings me more joy than sharing these experiences with my fellow veterans,” he said.

That passion and willingness to give time and energy to this program, and the bonds that are formed and lifelong friends made, are at the heart of the organization’s success. PHW founder and President Ed Nicholson reflects back on the growth of the program since he first started giving casting lessons to a few wounded soldiers on the lawn of Walter Reed Army Medical Center. “I am overcome with a sense of wonder that through the passion of so many of our dedicated volunteers, an ever-increasing number of our disabled veterans are experiencing the very special healing that Project Healing Waters brings.”

DSC_1044Brian Christensen and Joel Thompson congratulate each other on a morning of fishing that put their team in the lead at the halfway mark.

Since its inception in 2004, PHW has built programs at VA facilities and military installations in all but one state. But there is more that can be done. “To have been witness to so many lives transformed has been incredibly gratifying,” Nicholson said. “The next decade holds great promise for our project to continue expanding, to serve the thousands of deserving veterans who have yet to experience our very special kind of rehabilitative therapy: a therapy based on the fly rod, the vise, and the incredible power of strong, caring volunteers, fostering a bond of friendship and deep personal relationships. That’s what we are all about.”

DSC_1329The participants and guides of the 8th Annual Project Healing Waters 2-Fly Tournament.

For more about Project Healing Waters, or to find out how you can help heal those who serve, please visit www.projecthealingwaters.org.


Here.

The moment the camera shutter closed on this image from the banks of the Rose River might just be when it all started.

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My friend Douglas casts for trout as the sun sinks low in the November sky. A warm day. A cold beer. An azure blue sky reflected in water interrupted only by a series of circles reaching out to Douglas from its source: A dog.

It was there, and it was then, that I first observed my friend and his dog Enzo, a lanky young Spinone Italiano. I watched Enzo explore that farm, chasing birds and sniffing trails and running and running and running. I saw the freedom given him by Douglas to roam, and the discipline given him to faithfully return with a simple command. “Here.”

Faithful. This, I thought, is what I want.

Although my wife and I had moved to a rural area, we still lived in a house on a main road with a yard. We were surrounded by country, but not yet immersed in it. So it was just a fantasy, to have a dog that roamed the property, never too far to hear my call. But my next dog, while not a Spinone, did have a beard and bird hunting in her veins like Enzo. Over time, Winnie’s beard grew, but the bird hunting in her veins faded, and that’s alright. We did get that place in the country where dogs can run free, though.

Enzo went on to be a fixture at the farm, and in the life of my friend. They hunted together, fished together and traveled together. I was privileged to take a few long road trips with Douglas and Enzo, to hunt grouse and woodcock in the dense woods of Michigan and Maine. Enzo earned the sleep he soaked in on those return trips.

But the farm is where Enzo was truly at home. When Winnie was a puppy, Enzo showed her how to run off leash for the first time. When I added Finn a couple years later, Enzo showed him how to find a chukar at a nearby preserve. Finn and Enzo were two peas in a pod. Tall, dorky, sweet as molasses and just smelly enough one could convincingly blame the other. They napped in front of that big, hot, stone fireplace after a day of running like there’s no tomorrow.

And once in every life, there really is no tomorrow. And sometimes you never see it coming. It’s almost impossible to believe that Enzo is gone. That he has pointed his last bird, lapped up his last cool drink from the gin clear Rose. And it feels like I owe him something. And it feels like I owe my friend something too. The two of them showed me what that relationship between man and dog could be. My pair roams the property now, never too far they can’t be called in. They explore scent trails, kick up birds, point rabbits and roll in God knows what. And when I’m out mowing or trimming or repairing a fence or walking in the woods or fishing in my home river, they are by my side. And when I say “Here,” there they are. Faithful. Having dogs that have earned the freedom to roam off leash has been, well, I simply can’t overstate the peace and enjoyment it has brought me.

My heart aches for my friend. To me, Enzo has always been a part of Douglas, a part of Rose River Farm. And in a way he always will be. But he will also be a part of me and the life I have built with my dogs. I can’t ever repay a gift like that.

Rest in peace, Enzo. I hope where you are there are countless wild birds, endless cool mornings and open fields that stretch forever. And at the end, a warm fire by which to rest. Hunt hard, sleep deeply. There are no more commands, you’re already here.

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Light and Shadow

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When the snow blankets the fields and woods and lawns, shadows have a blank canvas on which to paint. I am drawn to the shadows…shadows make me love the light.


2013, My Year in Photos

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From Maryland’s Chesapeake Bay to the hills of southwest Virginia, I logged a lot of miles in 2013, saw places I’ve never seen before and met many great people. I had my camera with me most of the time, and when I didn’t, my iPhone stepped in to capture the moment. Above is a shot of the sunrise over the Chesapeake aboard the Renegade. Below are the rest of my favorite shots of the year, starting with elk prints in Buchanan County, Virginia. Meeting the people involved in the elk reintroduction program in this part of the state was one of my highlights of the year.

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An eerie fog blocked the normally outstanding vistas on Sugarloaf Mountain, but the resulting mood was equally beautiful. Team Orange helped by posing cooperatively, as they usually do.

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One of several neat iPhone panoramas I took this year. This was at Rose River Farm, awash in golden morning sun. Team Orange, far left, enjoying a romp before a hike nearby.

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Speaking of iPhones, this may be my favorite iPhone photo I’ve ever taken. Hiking with a friend on the Loudoun Heights trail near Harpers Ferry, WV, the light gave us scenes like this all morning.

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We have a lot of deer around our property. But, common as they are, when they come close enough I can never resist getting the camera out and snapping a few photos. I liked the background in deep shadow here.

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A fun action shot of Finn chasing a chukar during a training session with my friend Anna.

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Petey is unlike any dog I’ve ever known, and is full of surprises. Here, when any of our other dogs would have run and barked and chased this young deer away, Petey decided to simply make friends.

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Friend and fishing guide Gary Burwell at Rose River Farm with the mist hanging heavy in the air.

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They do indeed. Old guys — and tractors — ruled at the antique tractor pull and show at Gladhill Tractor near Frederick, Maryland.

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The Wildlife Center of Virginia‘s Ed Clark released this stunning eagle along the banks of the Rappahannock River in front of a crowd of volunteers and spectators. It was a day I will not soon forget. I am holding back a special photo from this day for which I hope to find a print venue for publication. But I love this and many other shots from the event.

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A visit to our friends Mike and Carole Pivarnik of Tulip Hill Farm resulted in this heartwarming shot of two unlikely friends.

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Another shot from my trip to southwest Virginia, here Josie watches intently as her human partner, Conservation Police Officer Wes Billings, drives.

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Volunteer guide Kiki Galvin nets a nice trout caught by Aaron Greene Morse at the 7th Annual Project Healing Waters 2-Fly Tournament at Rose River Farm.

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It’s hard to grow tired of catching these hard fighting, colorful sunfish, even when you are targeting bigger and stronger smallmouth. You will never hear me complain about a day with no smallies, but with dozens of these enthusiastic little fish.

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I spent a lot of time on the Potomac this year. On this occasion we were towing an extra kayak to a takeout ramp downstream. We made it just in time as a big storm was closing in. This is another iPhone photo.

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This photo warms my hear because of how I felt when I took it. I love spending time with my dogs, but to hike in a beautiful park and fly fish for native brook trout in their company was a wonderful experience. I had to capture it with a rare if unconventional selfie.

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Team Orange loves the snow, and we had a couple good ones in late 2013. Here Finn sports a snout full, a result of chasing snowballs as they disappear under the surface.

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This is not our friend August’s first appearance in my Photos of the Year. Two years ago this pic made the cut. It’s fun to watch him grow up so fast, here he entertains a lady friend.

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My special girl Winnie absolutely loves riding in the kayak. Here we are taking a break because she does not do much paddling. Propped against a rock in the middle of the Potomac River, I shot this iPhone panorama upstream (left) and down. The Native Watercraft Slayer pictured was a new addition this year, of course in Team Orange orange.

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I’ll be honest, I wish this photo was more in focus. But I’m including it because, while technically flawed, it is likely to hold up as the best photo I will ever take of a baby wild turkey running full speed away from a pursuing moth.

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Another technically flawed, blurry and grainy image, there’s still a lot to like about this hawk image. I took this through my windshield after chasing this bird off a deer carcass nearby.

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The native brook trout is so beautiful, it’s just about as fun to see one as to catch one. On this day in the Shenandoah National Park, I saw plenty. But none would be fooled by my fly.

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I hope you have enjoyed Dispatches from the Potomac this year, and had fun looking through my favorite images of 2013. You can view my favorite photos of 2012 here, and of 2011 here. And if you haven’t already signed up to receive a notification of new posts, I’d love it if you added your email in the ‘Follow this blog’ link on the top right of this page. Thanks again for stopping by from time to time. I hope your 2014 is filled with fun encounters with nature and lots of opportunities to take your own favorite photos of the year!


Great Gift Ideas for the Outdoorsman on Your List

I have some incredibly talented friends in all walks of life. I want to spotlight two men, both former Marines by the way, who are such experts in their field, they literally wrote the book on it.

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Scott Olmsted is editor-in-chief of the NRA’s American Hunter magazine. He is a former Marine rifleman, NRA-certified rifle instructor, graduate of premier shooting schools and an expert marksman. For his book, Make Every Shot Count! Get the most out of your hunting rifle under field conditions, he combined his wealth of personal experience and that of other experts such as U.S. military Special Forces personnel, shooting instructors and big-game guides to provide the reader with a comprehensive approach that will make any hunter a better shooter. From the Safari Press web site:

We all like to think we are pretty good with a rifle in the field. But we all have limits. Of course, most of us can punch holes in the ten-ring off the bench, but conditions on the range differ greatly from real life. And it’s not too difficult for most of us to make an 80-yard shot from a solid rest in the field. But when that big mule deer appears at the head of the canyon 250 yards away, when your rifle is buffeted by a monster cross-wind, and when you can’t get comfortable, can you make an accurate, killing shot the first time, every time?…

In addition to his descriptive writing, color photos depict the critical placement of a rifleman’s feet, legs, shoulders, arms, hands, and head for making accurate shots on big game. Besides providing readers with the most effective visual examples of what to do and how to do it, these photos devote special emphasis to how your limbs can create maximum stability and the steadiest shooting platform for any shot.

This is a very high quality book just loaded with helpful information regardless of whether you are a high level hunter who’s a great shot, or a relatively inexperienced hunter who makes avoidable mistakes like me. Find it at Safari Press.

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The new release from Stonefly Press, 50 Best Tailwaters to Fly Fish by Terry & Wendy Gunn, is receiving accolades from fly fishing’s heavy hitters. Kirk Deeter, Editor of TROUT magazine, Editor-at-Large for Field & Stream calls it “the most comprehensive ‘where-to’ with ‘how-to’ I’ve ever seen.” It covers the very best tailwaters across the U.S. and Canada, with detailed maps, information about access, terrain, tactics, everything you’ll need to know to have success in these special waters.

One of these waters is the North Branch of the Potomac River in Western Maryland and West Virginia. When you are looking for someone to write a chapter on the North Branch, there is only one individual on that list: My good friend Harold Harsh of Spring Creek Outfitters. Harold knows this water and these fish like nobody else, and works hard to get his clients on great fish. If you have never fished this river, you will be flat out stunned at the beauty of the North Branch and the fish therein. The first brook trout I ever caught came from this water, with Harold as my guide, and it remains one of the most beautiful fish I’ve ever had the privilege to behold.

In addition to using his vast knowledge and skill to assist clients, Harold gives generously and works tirelessly to help wounded servicemen and women through Project Healing Waters. Please visit PHW’s web site and find out more about this great program if you are not familiar with it. And while you’re shopping this holiday season, please consider making a donation to help heal those who serve.

50 Best Tailwaters is available at Stonefly Press, but Amazon actually has it for a few bucks cheaper, and if you’ve got the Prime thing there’s free shipping.

I’m extremely proud of Scott and Harold, congratulations guys. Ooh-Rah!


Blood on the Pages

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Over the years, my friend Guy Neal Williams has introduced me to many things that remain important parts of my life to this day. He is the one who first put a fly rod in my hand, teaching me the basics of how to cast at a pond near his Winston-Salem home, and triggering in me a lifelong passion. He convinced me that I could create woodcut prints despite having no carving or printmaking experience. He shared books that remain on my shelf today and music that has shaped everything I now listen to. He loved music so much. The fact that he was nearly deaf was such a cruel injustice. But his greatest gift was the first thing I knew and loved about him: Guy was a storyteller.

A strong voice, an easy laugh, an infinite supply of stories and a deep desire to share them made Guy a human campfire. Friends and strangers alike would gather around his warm glow as he weaved truth with fiction, humor with sadness. His spoken words were slow and deliberate. When I first met him I was enthralled. The topics of his stories didn’t even matter. Potato guns. Cave paintings. Fish. He told me once in great detail how to prepare carp on the grill. The process entailed soaking a cedar plank in saltwater, wine and peppercorns, carefully filleting and seasoning the fish just right. He told me exactly how the coals should look and when to know the fish was ready. When it was done, he instructed, “carefully slide the fish into the trashcan and eat the plank.”

His real talent, though, his genius, was in his written word. Here, too, he was a storyteller. Okay liar. He was a liar. I was tempted to say lying was like a game to him, but somehow that doesn’t give it the necessary respect. You wouldn’t go to the Masters in Augusta and tell the greatest golfers in the world they were merely playing a game. No, lying to Guy was a sport. And he was a hall of famer.

He used to like to challenge his friends by writing three essays. Each was skillfully crafted, impeccably detailed and utterly unbelievable. But only one, he warned, was a lie. The other two were true stories. It was impossible to discern fact from fiction in these tests, as his astonishing gift of storytelling was equaled only by his impossibly colorful real life experiences.

My God he loved a story.

He had the ability to paint a scene, to put you in it, to lead you down whatever path he wanted you down, then jump out from behind a bush of his own creation and punch you square in the gut. I had never seen, or even imagined, that someone with world-class writing skills would use so much of that power to simply entertain his friends. We all wanted him to write a book. Not so much because we needed more of his stories, but I think because we felt his stories needed a bigger audience. But a bigger audience isn’t what he was after.

He once told me a story that I cannot repeat here. (Okay he told many stories I cannot repeat here, but that’s not what I meant.) It involves a tattered photograph and a legendary fish. The story is so fantastic it almost certainly can’t be true. Yet it contains enough verifiable details that it just might be. It involves a secret so sacred that it must now remain with me until I die. It’s hard to explain how, or why, he did this. But he told a Perfect Story, a spectacular story, a story he could have easily published anywhere, a story any number of people would declare the best story they had ever heard, but one that could never be shared. I instantly regretted having been told it. If it’s a lie, it’s an epic masterpiece. If it’s true, I wish it had died with him. But he told it to me, an audience of precisely one, and asked that I never tell anyone. Hell, who knows. Maybe he privately told the same story to everyone. But I’ll keep his secret, true or not, and the burden of not telling a soul will be a reminder of his gift to me.

I never thought about writing before I knew Guy. But being exposed to his words made me think for the first time about putting down my own thoughts. I found myself writing for fun, trying to find words to describe a scene or person or feeling. I wrote with more care, more effort. Perhaps most importantly, I didn’t save that care and effort for particularly important topics. I learned through Guy that there is great value in taking the time to describe the smallest observations. My early attempts were just an awkward mimicry of his writing. But I like to think that along the way, I found my own voice, my own passion for spinning a yarn, my own desire to lead someone down that path. Guy Neal Williams taught me that it is a noble pursuit to sweat over choosing the right words, assembling those words into sentences, sentences into paragraphs, paragraphs into stories, for the pure joy of it. Just to make someone laugh, or cry, or to simply relate to a shared experience.

“Books are better,” he said once in response to a movies-versus-books discussion. “Books are better because there’s blood on the pages.” Movies, he said, are creative endeavors by committee, and as such were diluted. But books, written in excruciating isolation, were painful pursuits. He wrote of pain. He wrote of burying his beloved dog, Augustine, until you swore you could feel the worn shovel handle in your hands and smell the moist clay through your own tears. There is blood on those pages. He wrote of love. I’ll never forget the first description I ever read of his wife, “a tiny engineer with ice blue eyes.” Jesus, it’s probably been twenty years and I know with certainty those are the seven words exactly as he wrote them. But mostly he wrote of beauty. The beauty of the natural world, or the human spirit, or math, or science or enduring friendship. Of music. Beauty, to Guy, was everywhere. But he wasn’t just an observer of it, he created his own beauty from whole cloth.

He loved art, numbers, music, friends, bullshit and cigarettes with limitless enthusiasm. He was a genius. A spectacularly flawed genius, but a genius. He had his share of demons, and took on a few extras to make it a fair fight. The demons are all silenced now, and I hope to God that silence is forever filled with music, clear and bright and loud.

This morning, the first of my days on an earth without Guy Neal Williams, I plugged my phone into the car stereo. The first random song that played was a Patty Griffin song I thought a lot about yesterday. I have a thousand songs on my phone and this played first. Thank you Guy for your friendship, I am different and better for it. And thank you for your words. All of mine have you in them.

The song is Goodbye.

Today my heart is big and sore,
It’s tryin’ to push right through my skin.
I won’t see you anymore,
I guess that’s finally sinkin’ in.


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