While a large portion of the community was out enjoying the Daffodil Festival last weekend, a group of volunteers, veterans and first responders were quietly drifting in their kayaks on Tanwax Lake in Graham, fishing for trout.
Organized by the local chapter of Heroes on the Water, the kayak fishing events helps wounded service members from all branches of the military, veterans and first responders unwind and enjoy the relaxing qualities that come with paddling for fish.
The national organization began back in 2007, paving the way for volunteers and participants to unwind from the stress that comes with combat or rehabilitating injuries.
“Typically for our event, the veterans that we bring out have never been in a kayak, so that’s why we give basic kayak lessons and basic fishing lessons, and we provide them with a guide so they aren’t just out in the middle of the lake wondering what they’re doing,” said Tony Isaac, public relations coordinator of the organization’s Northwest Chapter. “We specifically pick environments that are really calm, since we don’t want to give them a huge challenge the first time they go out.”
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Heroes on the Water participants don’t need to have a disability to be eligible, but must be on active duty or have retired from military service. The program expanded to include first responders just this past year.
“We don’t typically ask what the disability is,” Isaac said. “We’re not professional counselors by any means, we just offer a service that tends to be therapeutic. (You’re) just out on the water in charge of your own boat, going where you want to go, and when you want to do it. Or even just relaxing out there. They say being out on the water effects all five senses, and it has a calming effect.”
First responders, enlisted soldiers and veterans all have one thing in common: They work in a high-stress profession.
“This is meant to be relaxing, and that is the environment we are trying to provide,” said Isaac, a Puyallup resident. “We also give them a sense of camaraderie where they are with people with similar experiences, and it is also a family event.”
Isaac, an Air Force veteran, got involved after retiring in 2008, and was simply looking for a way to give back to his fellow vets.
“I tried a couple of different groups and they fell short of my expectations,” he said. “It either wasn’t enough or I didn’t feel like I was doing anything, but kayak fishing was something I wanted to do.”
When Issac retired, he wanted to get a boat as a retirement gift to himself. He ended up spending $1,000 on a kayak instead.
“More kayak fisherman tend to group together because there is only one person in a boat, so if you want to go with someone, they have to have a kayak,” he said. “It’s more like a community. If you have a power boater, a group of guys all pile into the power boat and they go out. That’s what makes it nice about kayak fishing is the sense of community.”
One of those veterans he has helped is Jeff McIntyre, his neighbor and one of his wife’s co-workers. McIntyre served in the U.S. Army in Vietnam from 1967 to 1970. While he was in combat, a guard house collapsed on him, causing him to be 30 percent disabled. When Isaac first approached McIntyre, he had something else going on, but his son, a veteran as well, attended.
“He (my son) drug me the next time, and he said I had to do it,” he said. “We went out at Salt Water State Park and it was a day of crabbing and fishing. First I was a participant, and now I’m a volunteer.”
Ever since his first event last summer, McIntyre has been hooked.
“As soon as we got back from doing it, I talked my wife in to buying two kayaks,” he said. “We’ve taken them to Montana, we’ve gone out in Lake Tapps. It’s fun.”
McIntyre says the best part about kayaking is that once he hops on his boat and paddles out, all of his troubles float away — all while building camaraderie with others who have been through similar traumatic events.
“You get to hear their stories and talk with them,” he continued. “You meet somebody new every time.”
Now that McIntyre volunteers with Isaac — among a larger group of volunteers — the two thrive off of the smiles and the positive change that the paddle fishing trips bring.
“You feel better, you just feel good,” McIntyre said. “You see the smiles on their faces when they go out in the kayaks, and then they come back for the next one.”
For more information on Heroes on the Water, visit their Facebook page, www.facebook.com/HeroesOnTheWaterNWest or email firstname.lastname@example.org.