Bozeman fishing ranch hosts wounded veterans
By Jessianne Wright EBS Contributor
BOZEMAN – The rolling hills of north Bozeman’s farm country are the new home to local nonprofit Warriors and Quiet Waters Foundation. Nestled off Reese Creek Road on 112 acres of grass and wetland at the foot of the Bridger Mountains, the Quiet Waters Ranch is in its first year of operation as a therapeutic site for injured post-9/11 combat veterans.
During the last week of July, six couples stayed in this “home for healing” as part of an alumni program, in order to rest, relax and fly fish. Referred to as an “FX” (short for fishing experience), each trip is intended to bring positive change into the lives of warriors with both seen and unseen wounds, from all branches of the military and every corner of the nation.
Ten fishing experiences will take place in 2016, running from May to October, with the last week of July marking the seventh trip. This year alone, WQW will touch the lives of 84 veterans, a large portion of the 525 participants served since the foundation’s beginning in 2007, when trips were held at different venues each week.
“It’s more spiritual and healing than numbers can define,” said WQW development director Gayle Whittenberg. For her, it is the individual stories that matter. One participant returned home after the experience and his mental health plummeted. Considering suicide, he stepped into his garage only to spot the Simms fishing bag he received during the program.
“He changed his mind,” Whittenberg said through tears and a smile.
Another veteran came to the program after a traumatic brain injury left him unable to sleep, waking some 20 times a night and struggling to fall back asleep. During his time with WQW, he experienced decent sleep for the first time since the injury.
“I’m a fly-fishing guide and teacher,” Whittenberg said, “so to combine my passion with my career and help these young men and women … it was a no-brainer. Fly fishing is something that just about anyone can do.”
On day one of the program, the veterans are outfitted with waders, boots, a bag and a fly rod set up with line, leaders and flies—all of which is paid for through donations and for each participant to keep. Fully equipped, the veterans then spend up to three days fishing the blue-ribbon waters in and around Gallatin Valley, with time for instruction and practice as well as rest and relaxation.
WQW hand-picks professionally licensed guides from a steady applicant pool in order to pair each veteran with the same guide for the duration of the program. Jesse LeNeve, owner of Bozeman’s 3 Dog Outfitters, is marking this summer as his seventh season with the foundation.
“That’s the one way I can give back, the best way I know how,” LeNeve explained. The participants are often quick and eager learners, and LeNeve emphasized the enjoyment he receives helping the veterans regain confidence, relax and smile as they experience the pursuit of fish.
“We call it losing your mind on the water,” he said. “You really gain focus on the fly, and lose focus on Earth.”
The therapy of quieting Earth—quieting everything happening in an individual’s life—is exactly what the foundation is about. Quieting the wounds of war.
“Six days of fly fishing is a good start,” Whittenberg explained. But to optimize their impact WQW developed an alumni and couples program. Past participants are invited back, either as alumni spending the week fishing with new veterans, or with their spouses for a week of fishing as husband and wife.
Whittenberg came to the nonprofit eight months ago to help the Quiet Waters Ranch Capital Campaign raise $7 million in order to purchase the Springhill area property, renovate the home, and establish an endowment to maintain the space.
Renovations were completed April 25 and a week later Quiet Waters Ranch hosted its first fishing experience, putting the state-of-the-art platform lift and Americans with Disabilities Act-compliant bathroom showers, counters and sinks to good use.
Now that WQW has a home, the next step is to focus on programing, Whittenberg said. Building a home for an on-site caretaker is under consideration, and there is talk of partnering with other foundations dedicated to serving the nation’s veterans.
“The founders poured their heart and soul into the foundation’s mission and we still pour our heart and soul into it,” Whittenberg said. Through fly fishing in Montana, Warriors and Quiet Waters hopes to be a catalyst for positive change.