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Winter steelhead season always seems to approach rather suddenly…
The beginning of every year brings me somewhere tropical and my inability/desire to schedule any days off for relaxation (before guiding) always strips me from my bikini and throws me into a pair of long johns within a day of landing back in BC.
As my body adjusts, the cold nips at my salt abused fingers and the wind burns my sun-tanned cheeks… the difficult fishing tests my patience but the crisp smell in the air brings me back to my days as a teenager where I would wander the riverbank in search of solitude, independence and discovery.
A young girl, sixteen and freed by a 1983 Buick Skylark I fled a wild city, finding solitary escape in the comforting whispers of the river.
My (young adult) past is not one that I openly advertise… and it is certainly not one that you might expect. I am asked about my earlier years on a regular basis and while I am sure it will offend some, I am ready to tell it to those who are interested and patient enough to keep reading as I let it all out in the next few paragraphs.
It looked me straight in the eye recently when a friend asked me how I developed such a thick skin to all of the criticism that I receive in this industry (whether it be deserved, malicious or otherwise).
Without having to put much thought into it I glanced back at my younger years, my tougher years, calloused pride and scarred knuckles…and responded: “I have seen it all, throwing petty ignorance at me can’t come close to the punches that I have taken in my days.”
I smiled at her and considered my ongoing fear that my rough past would one day come to light.
Now, as a confident thirty year old woman, I have learned to embrace my past as an invaluable life lesson – one that I am no longer afraid to share with those who might find some sort of similarity within their own history… or better yet, those who may be facing the same struggles today that I did those years back.
My parents are wonderful people, they raised me with love, they taught me to be strong (sometimes too strong for their own good) and they sure as hell taught me to fight for what’s right.
As a young girl, I found out that one of my immediate family members had been raped and at an early age I was warned about the possibilities of danger and “bad men”. I must have been six years old then and the world seemed to look a little different.
Growing up in the city of Surrey… we called it our “ghetto” but you can call it a multi-cultural suburb half an hour out of Vancouver.
The rest of the world knows Surrey for its promiscuity, drugs, violence and theft (get a brief glimpse here). Granted it has cleaned itself up somewhat over the years, but fifteen years ago these things were rather rampant.
We lived in a nice neighbourhood and my parents raised us morally, but much of life happens outside the home and it was an eat or be eaten world when I was growing up.
My early comprehension of how ugly the world could be prepped me both emotionally and mentally… it was inevitable that I would wind up a scrapper and a regular at the gym.
A pretty girl with a big mouth and a whip of a tongue, I never threw a first punch but I threw a lot of lasts, earning enough respect around town to be left alone when drama percolated in late night parking lots or parentless parties.
By the eighth grade (thirteen years old), I knew every word to Too Short and NWA.
By fifteen I had a serious boyfriend. We dated for six years… thank God, as that did a decent job keeping me out of trouble.
By sixteen I had a fake ID and had seen more than enough cocaine to be able to star in Blow (I can swear on Grandpa’s grave that I have never touched the stuff… that would have absolutely destroyed my father).
By seventeen I had officially scarred my knuckles on the speed bag and was one of the last people you would want to take a swing at.
A straight A student in advanced placement classes who worked two part-time jobs (to my literature teacher’s disgust), I went to school no more than a few days per week, had the lead role in each of our musicals, did the speech-meet gig, sang at every function, knew every person by name in my age group and was a menace to the principal who wanted to slap me with suspension but couldn’t due to the difficulty it would take to replace a theatrical lead.
I balanced carefully on the edge of rebellion… and as the world around me spun out of control I desperately sought some sort of stability in my unsteady surroundings.
Late night parties found drunken classmates stumbling through self-discovery as I soberly snuck out early to be on the river for first light.
I knew there was more to life than sloppy girls and reckless idiocy… my parents trusted me to make the right decisions and I chose to make them proud by searching for myself on the rocky shoreline of a river only an hour or so out of the city.
After graduation, friends turned to gangs, innocent brawls turned to shootings, Vancouver wars left a dent in close-knit circles and hits out on friends changed my loyalty to the people I grew up with.
Buying a house in the country, I continued to serve cocktails in the city but did so with a clear vision of my future dangling like a carrot in front of my face. I walked the floor with a notepad on my tray, recording my goals and timelines frantically throughout my shift.
Determination paired with my desperation to escape my Surrey days had me fighting yet again… only this time, I was fighting to be all that I could be.
In rereading my above admissions, I linger on the delete button and question if it’s too much. I think of the mothers and fathers who trust me to be a good influence to their children and I fear that the reveal of my early days might cause upset.
But then I remember the young boys group I guided a few years ago. They were a group of teenage ‘delinquents’ who were in a rehab program for youth heroin addiction. The guides couldn’t relate to the boys’ city tendencies or their hard exteriors. As I walked with them through the forest, I shared stories of the people from my past and watched their eyes sparkle at the possibility of self-control and empowerment.
I think back to the frail girl who approached me after I had given a motivational speech at the local church and I hear her shaky voice in my head as she shared with me an interest in spending time outdoors. I see her eating disorder through her revealing clothing and recognize the same lost and insecure child that I witnessed in so many of my girlfriends.
I hear the recent Skype call that the kids from an inner-city school in Chicago scheduled with me after seeing me on the Steve Harvey show. As they shared their visions of becoming rappers, basketball players and producers, I listened to their excitement at the thought of being able to start their own businesses. They asked the occasional fishing question but bubbled with questions about entrepreneurship.
Seeing a little of myself in each of these youngsters, I think of how much I would have loved to have heard the truth from someone I might have labeled successful back then.
My past has happened and I cannot change it… so rather than hide from it, I’ll put it on the table and hope that it may enlighten those of you who face(d) the same challenges. At the very least, it should answer any curiosity of what it was that drove me to the river on those dark and early mornings.
As always, the prime time of March brought a full calendar this year and I quickly found myself comfortable in a routine. Fishing had been productive and there were certainly steelhead around.
A past client (young Catherine LaFlamme, currently of Fly Gal Ventures) and I crossed paths when she was fourteen years old… for her sixteenth birthday, her father bought her a day of guided fishing. She was a pleasure to spend the day with so when she booked me herself the next year and landed her first steelhead with me at her side, I was over the moon with her experience. A few years later she came to me for a job and we now proudly work together. Young gals like Catherine always make my eyes sparkle a little and I can’t help but want to take them by the hand and offer them a little support.
It was after a half day of guiding on a damp March evening this year when I was driving home from the river and my past, present and future all came to a head.
Winding up the mountain to the lodge, a cyclist in an upset frenzy flagged me over. Still in waders and clutching my bear spray, I pulled over to the mountain ledge and approached him cautiously… he was rambling about what he thought was the body of a female.
The corner of a blanket laid on the edge of the gravel shoulder and as I peered over into the declining brush, I saw her.
She was over-turned and clothed, young and clean… her bare back exposed, her smooth tanned skin looking soft to the touch. She lay still and peaceful and I stared at her intensely, watching for the rise and fall of her chest.
I knew who she was… there had been a teenage girl from a city nearby who had been snatched from her home only days before.
As 911 spoke through the phone’s speaker, I followed instruction and crawled down the embankment to feel for her pulse. My stomach sank as my hand made contact with her beautiful skin and I looked up at the perched biker’s desperate eyes as I shook my head ‘no’.
Three hours of interrogation later, I was released to go back home. Confused by my stoic reaction, the police had questions… but I had few answers to give them.
Numb and stunned, I drove home in the pouring rain… my hand icy from its brush of reality.
She was so peaceful, her hair in a carefree up-do, her clothing still fresh. My stomach churned for her poor family and I felt ill that I knew before them… helplessly, my mind wandered, the reality that this poor young girl could have been any of my friends, Catherine, myself or my sister.
I cried myself into a shortage of breath and held the warm shower stream on my embraced chest until I could warm her chill from my fingertips and clear the heavy fog that had snuck into my core.
I still dream of her… she creeps into my thoughts from time to time and I can’t help but feel an obligation to do my part to keep girls in her age group aware, safe and independent as I so eagerly tried to learn to do for myself at an early age.
The cool breeze frosts the tip of my nose and my breath lingers delicately in the air as if to remind me of its significance. Bare tree limbs chatter in the dropping sun and my own limbs synch to the shivering mountainside.
A tranquil hush sweeps the shoreline and reminiscence floods my senses. I exhale another deep breath and take note of its form as it evaporates into the air before disappearing almost as quickly as it had arrived.
The irony doesn’t slip by me.
My mind turns to those sweet days of reflection and I remember again why I counted down so anxiously for the moments that I could be left alone in my own mind to ponder. I close my eyes as my fly hits the current and I step into the ring with the only fight that can tempt me to take a swing back these days.
Winter steelhead season always seems to approach rather suddenly…