Time outdoors builds character

My 22-year-old nephew Michael is both philosophical and artistic in nature. I describe him as contemplative and creative. He has also spent essentially his whole life within a short drive of mountains and trout streams. He has lived with his family in Colorado, Maine, western North Carolina and Alaska. He spent three years in Addison County at Middlebury College and another year studying abroad in mountainous Chile.
Given the sorts of places he has lived and studied, and his philosophical-artistic side, it is not surprising that an early age Michael took up the contemplative activity of fly-fishing including the artistic side of fly-tying. By the age of 13, he was tying flies professionally for a local fly shop. Beautiful ones, I might add. He is a perfectionist, turning a bunch of hair and feathers and a size 16 hook into a work of art.
Michael’s enjoyment of fly-fishing also connects to his lifelong love of the outdoors,
As long as I have known Michael, he has loved fresh air, fresh water and quiet remote places. The more remote the better. He will go for just about any physical activity that takes place outside and is primarily human-powered. When he was 18 years old, he decided to head off into the Joyce Kilmer-Slickrock Wilderness Area in western North Carolina to test his survival skills. Taking a knife, a fly rod, the clothing on his back, a sleeping bag (but no tent), a rope and a lighter, he lived on his own for two-and-a-half weeks. (He also brought a .22 caliber rifle for emergency food, but never fired it.) His first winter living in Alaska, he took a 16-mile bike tour through snow in a wind chill of 50 below zero. He also enjoys mountain biking. When he was in Chile in 2010, he got a grant to take on a project to help promote bike tourism. (His online bike information forum can be found at www.bcturismo.cl.) He also hiked a volcano in Chile. He cross-country skis and canoes and hikes. He has gone on sea-kayaking trips off the coast of Alaska.
He especially loves rock climbing and bouldering. He has gone rock climbing in nine states (and Chile), and has helped teach a number of others to climb. On one Alaskan backpacking and fly-fishing trip with his father and me, Michael got tired of waiting for us old guys to lumber down the mountain. (I should mention that Michael also has the metabolism of a shrew, including both boundless energy and boundless appetite.) So he disappeared up the trail ahead of us. An hour or so later, my brother and I came around a bend and saw a massive boulder left by some retreating glacier. Michael was standing on the top of it, waiting for us to show up. His motto: See rock, climb rock.
Michael is also a generous person, and loves to help people. He graduated from Middlebury College in February, where he studied philosophy and music. In the middle of March, he will be using his desire to help, his enjoyment of the outdoors and his musical training by spending a year in the Dominican Republic with La Finca Alta Gracia doing community development. He will be living in a community of about 200 people off the grid in the mountains teaching music, gardening and sustainable and healthy eating, and fitness.
I think Michael is well equipped to live without electricity for a year. I’m sure he’ll be a great teacher and gardener, and will thrive along with his students. I expect he will compose some great music himself. But while there are plenty of beautiful and rugged mountains in the Dominican Republic, he is not likely to see snow. Not like the mountains where he has lived his life. There won’t be trout either. He won’t even have his fly rod.
So for a college graduation present, I decided to take my nephew on a three-day fishing trip. Tomorrow morning two hours before dawn we will drive five hours west to the Pulaski, N.Y., to fish for winter steelhead. I haven’t been river fishing in February anywhere north of the Mason-Dixon line in a long time. The temperatures are supposed to be in the low 20s in the mornings. If we are lucky, it might get up to 35 degrees in the afternoons. On Wednesday the forecast is for freezing rain all day.
Michael thinks I’m taking him on the trip to have fun, and maybe catch a steelhead or three. So he was even willing to spend a day tying his beautiful custom perfectionist flies with me to prepare for the trip. But I figure the mostly likely result of making my nephew spend three days wading in an icy river, clinging with numb fingers to a long dripping wet graphite tube, getting pelted by freezing rain, and watching one after another of his hand-tied work-of-art fly creations break off in the trees, the rocks, and the mouths of fish, is that when he gets to the Dominican Republic in the middle of March, he won’t miss the cold and the north at all. He probably won’t miss fly-fishing either. For that matter, I can’t imagine he’ll be missing me. In fact, most any hardship he might face for the rest of his life will seem tame compared to these three days he is about to spend with me. That’s what winter steelhead fishing will do for a person. Just an uncle and a nephew spending time together outdoors building character.

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