I pulled into the rutted entrance to the large ranch and immediately saw other vehicles, trucks mostly, carrying kayaks of one sort or another; some trucks carried two. One grey truck was hitched to a trailer holding 16 brightly colored kayaks, sitting sideways, in neatly nested groups of four strapped to each rack. There was a tall, grey-haired man standing next to it, talking to another man, pointing off in the distance, as if giving directions. That must be George, I thought. There was another group of men standing nearby, waiting to talk to George, and then there was the truck that had preceded us onto the ranch. It was also carrying a kayak and was now pulling up behind the same trailer. It looked like George was going to have a busy day.
Collin County, Texas – January 2016
A group of men, led by an Army pilot, just started up a new Heroes on the Water (HOW) chapter at Fort Hood, in central Texas. HOW helps our nation’s veterans from all services unwind through the therapeutic qualities of kayak fishing. The program provides guided trips which serve to help our vets decompress from the stresses associated with military life and sometimes, the physical rigors of rehabilitation. HOW provides the use of all equipment during their paddling events—from the kayaks to the safety equipment. Even the fishing gear is provided by HOW.
The new chapter was founded by a gentleman named Greg Sterley, himself an active duty Army officer and Apache pilot who took orders to Fort Hood a few years back and was surprised to learn the post–the Army’s most populated base in the country–didn’t have a HOW chapter. So he set out to fix that and started by putting together a core group of volunteers to help build the chapter.
I’m proud to say that I’m a small part of that group, and I’m pretty excited about our inaugural paddling & fishing event, the Fort Hood Spring Outing which is scheduled for March 19, 2016, at Belton Lake. It occurred to us, however, that even though Greg had a handful of willing volunteers, none of us had any hands-on experience in actually running a HOW event from start to finish. Although I’d done a couple of HOW fundraising events, until then I’d never actually paddled at one of their outings.
Then an opportunity presented itself in the form of the Dallas-Fort Worth chapter, a couple of hours north of Fort Hood. They were having an event and graciously allowed us come out and get some badly needed on-the-job training. The DFW HOW chapter is one of the most respected in the country; their events can be large and I’ve always heard how well run they were, thanks to the hard work of their leadership team and the support of some generous volunteers and donors. A day spent at the DFW event would give us some good intel on the logistics of actually hosting a HOW event.
The DFW outing was held at a private ranch, on a couple of lakes that were nestled between some hilly pastures, and it was there that we met with the man who’d be giving us our OJT, the chapter coordinator himself, George Chrisman. The first thing he did was to gather his volunteers and introduce us. After giving us the lay of the land, we gathered around the trailer and started unloading kayaks, and it was then that George grabbed me, saying to stick with him and pay attention.
He assigned Luisa to help with the sign-ins while I followed George around the large sloping hill that would serve as the event’s staging area. He then proceeded to explain his process for running an event, from the importance of signing in participants (and volunteers) to the intricacies of feeding a hundred people; from the best way to hand out lures to why it’s best to place paddles and PFDs on each kayak as they’re staged on the bank. He even told us his secret for re-stacking kayaks on the trailer at the end of the day (“make sure one person is in charge, otherwise, it’s like herding cats”). And a fine trailer it was, custom built by George and some other volunteers.
The bits of wisdom he passed on were simple yet important, and things we might not have considered. For example, at one point later in the day, he reminded us of the importance of setting a cutoff date for RSVPs. Their cutoff was usually on the Wednesday before the event.
“It gives us a few days to buy the food for everyone,” he said. I wrote that one down.
We learned a lot that day, but a few things still stand out in my mind…like a young father and his eight-year old son, who showed up with a couple of fishing poles and lunch box. They were put into a tandem kayak and given some instruction on proper paddling techniques before some volunteers pushed them off in their kayak. I noticed the boy had a nervous smile as they paddled off towards the middle of the lake, father and son on their next adventure.
I was also pleasantly surprised to see HOW founder Jim Dolan and his wife Sally show up to the event. I’d met them before, at a DFW fundraiser, and I once virtually interviewed Sally for a story, but I was still surprised they remembered me. Jim welcomed us and talked to us about the national organization, saying there was some exiting news on the horizon for HOW. Then they made the rounds, greeting vets and volunteers, and I was struck by the fact that he knew most of them by first name. A little later he and Sally hit the lake for some fishing.
The event turned out to be everything I expected and more. The Fort Hood team got a behind the scenes look at the logistics of a HOW event, and that’ll help us do a better job on our event, now just a week away. As Luisa and I drove home that afternoon, we couldn’t help but feel excited and we talked about how things were really coming together for the new chapter.
Thinking back on that day, I’m reminded of something I read recently by Chris Payne (Kayak Bass Fishing Magazine), something he posted on his Facebook page: “Your value in the Kayak community is not set by what you spend, but rather by what you give.”
He’s right, of course…and we can’t wait to start.
Lone Star Chronicles – Life, Liberty & the Pursuit of Fish