The saying for March is “In like a lion and out like a lamb,” and so when March 19th was picked as the date for the first Fort Hood Chapter Heroes on the Water (HOW) event, I figured that we had better than even odds for a mild, early spring day. I figured wrong. A late season cold front blew in the night before and brought with it sustained winds of 20 miles per hour and an occasional 30 mph gust thrown in for good measure. Coupled with temps in the low 40’s, the result was a 30 degree wind chill factor that the Fort Hood vets would have to endure if they wanted to fish that day. As we set up early that morning, I recalled the words of the DFW chapter coordinator a few weeks prior who warned us that bad weather usually meant low turn outs.
When we arrived at Belton Lake that morning, we scanned the lake as best we could in the pre-dawn darkness and noticed there wasn’t a lot of chop, probably due to the high canyon walls surrounding that part of the lake. That was a good sign. We started unloading everything in the cold wind, and a little later as the sun started rising, I heard someone say something about a campfire, and then another person offered to scrounge up some of the driftwood lying near the boat ramp. Next thing you know, there was a campfire and it had a crowd around it.
We needed to register everyone, paddlers and volunteers alike, and we tried doing that on a folding table that kept wanting to blow away during the frequent gusts (we tried using rocks to weigh down the table). We made it work, though, and then the people started showing up, and I quickly noticed a trend. As they walked up to the table, it was my job to determine if they were a vet wishing to participate or a volunteer who’d come to help. The exchange usually went something like this:
“Good morning. Vet or volunteer?”
“Morning. Well…um, I’m a vet, but I’d like to volunteer. What can I do to help?”
It occurred to me that these guys, and gals, were more interested in helping than were in actually getting on the water…although they definitely wanted to do that too.
One of our biggest concerns was choppy water caused by high winds; luckily we were at in the Cedar Creek arm of Belton Lake, and the creek’s high canyon walls provided us some relief from the wind. That location also put well away from most of the lake’s boat traffic. So we assigned kayaks to those who didn’t have them (turns out many vets at Fort Hood already have kayaks), and then we paired the inexperienced paddlers with saltier ones and set them off in small groups. They paddled mostly sit-on-tops, sometimes for the first time, but there were a couple of sit-inside touring ‘yaks, brought to the event by volunteers which I thought was pretty cool.
Most paddlers fished, but some chose instead to spend their time just paddling in the cool morning air and exploring the wooded coves and limestone canyons that make up Cedar Ridge Creek. Those that fished, found a slow bite, though some did manage a bass or two, and maybe a few sandies.
We originally planned to grill burgers and hot dogs for lunch, but then Miller’s Smokehouse in Belton, offered to cater the event with their world-famous barbecue, compliments of owner, Dirk Miller. When the catering van arrived, Dirk’s own son, Dylon, emerged and began unloading tray after tray of food. Smoked turkey, sausage, tubs of potato salad and beans and all the fixings. As if that wasn’t enough, they even brought us desert.
In the end, the weather proved tough, but not insurmountable, and when it was all said and done, we had 28 people who braved the elements to paddle with us that day. Most of them were vets, and the others volunteers who spent their day helping do everything from unloading kayaks to serving food, from keeping the campfire stoked to fishing alongside less seasoned paddlers. Not everyone caught fish, it was after all a post-front bite, but those that came got to spend some quality time outdoors with their newly founded community of paddlers. HOW’s mission is to help veterans relax, rehabilitate and reintegrate through kayak fishing and the outdoors; despite the weather, I think we got off to a pretty good start.
Lone Star Chronicles – Life, Liberty & the Pursuit of Fish