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photo by Kaitlin Boyerphoto by Kaitlin Boyer

I avoid the temptation to predict where I will end up on a journey in life. It seems the path forward is very much dependent on what I discover and learn along the way and, most importantly, who I meet. There is force and momentum more powerful than my own plans for the future that are brought forth when the desires of hearts flow together on a common path.

Every good journey in life begins with taking a risk. I’ve written about that (“Taking the Leap”, Dun Magazine, Summer 2018) but, honestly, I hate that part. It’s scary; making myself vulnerable, exposing what I don’t know, and the matter of when, not if, someone will try to eat my lunch. If it didn’t all pay off in the end, every single time that I have faced fear in my life, I’d quit doing that.

photo by - Robin Schmidt

I battled internally for over 30 years in my career as a software engineer. My love of the outdoors and sense of responsibility were constantly at odds. Then, one morning, I woke up and thought, why the heck am I not holding a fly rod?

That was the day I discovered the six-week long Colorado Mountain College (CMC) certificate program, “Professional Fly Fishing Guide”, in Leadville, Colorado. By the end of that week, I had applied for the 2018 session. Within the next two weeks, I became a member of Colorado Women Flyfishers and accepted a position as CWF Trips Co-Director, started casting lessons, attended the Denver Fly Fishing Show, met Jen Ripple, and began writing about my decision to jump, feet first, into the deep end of fly fishing.

photo by - Andrew Lowe

You know when you are headed in the right direction when the path suddenly and mysteriously unfolds on its own. In a blink of an eye, I was transported to my new life.

Who knew you could go to college for fly fishing? I have two degrees, a bachelor of science and a bachelor of arts, but the prospect of going back to college for fly fishing was way more than I could resist! I took the bait. I was the fifth female student to complete the certificate since the program started in 2014.

photo by - Kaitlin Boyer

Cyndie Saffel, of Winter Park, Colorado, graduated from the CMC Professional Fly Fishing Guide program in 2014. In 2015, she opened her business, Damsels On The Fly, bringing adventure experiences, fly fishing education, and guided fly fishing trips to women. Cyndie shared with me that the small business management course, required to earn the certificate, was very instrumental in helping her to develop her business plan. She also wrote to me, “I feel the program at CMC is really complete and should receive more recognition from the fly fishing community.”

Michele White, a 2015 graduate, is the owner of Tumbling Trouts Outfitters and Fly Shop in Lake George, Colorado. Her shop is affectionately described on her website as, “A weird little fly shop nestled half-way between the Dream Stream and Reality.” She completed the CMC program prior to opening her business in 2016. She gave me great confidence that I had made the right choice, writing, “Give yourself a pat on the back for making this happen.” She added, “I LOVED every minute!”

Rebekah Barrington’s retirement dream was to fully pursue her passion for fly fishing. She took a different route for completing the CMC certificate. She took some of the coursework during the 2016 and 2017 summer sessions in Leadville, and the rest she completed during regular semesters at other CMC campuses offering the requirements. Rebekah believes the program is unique and brings accountability into the industry through its accreditation, ensuring high standards for skill and knowledge for fly fishing guides.

Kaitlin Boyer, 2017 graduate of the CMC program, is a professional fly fishing guide in the Colorado Springs area. She also affirmed that I would not regret the experience. Kaitlin helped me to make my final decision to attend CMC. When she offered to come visit me while I was in Leadville, I felt incredibly supported and inspired.

Dreams became reality for all of these amazing ladies and that sends a very powerful confirmation. There was no putting down of this dream for me either—I was all in.

photo by - Kaitlin Boyer

Summer of ’18
On May 6, 2018, I rolled into Leadville without a place yet to call home for the next six weeks. The residence halls were available to the program attendees, but I opted to live in my RV. One problem—the campground hadn’t opened yet. Too much snow. I checked into a hotel for one week until my space was ready.

I went into the rigor of this program with my eyes wide open. Still, I wasn’t sure I’d seen the schedule properly when I first added up the hours that I would spend in classes each day. My eyes did not lie. Twelve hours a day, Monday through Thursday, and eight hours on Friday. I remember thinking, What? I will spend twelve hours a day in fly fishing school? Perfect! Sign me up.

photo by - John Schmidt

The CMC program is necessarily challenging and demanding due to its accredited status. This is, after all, college. Students have options as to how they complete 13 college credits and earn a certificate of completion. Coursework includes fly fishing and guiding skills, entomology, small business management, outdoor leadership, and fly tying. If the passion is fly fishing and the dream is to become a guide, or to work in the industry in some other way, or just to immerse one’s self in the passion, the education is first-rate and as unforgettable as college days can be.

I was one of six people to complete the certificate in 2018 and the only woman. Now, go ahead, imagine the scene. Our male instructors, six or seven 20-something-year-old guys and a 56-year-old grandma, together twelve hours a day, many of which were spent crammed into a van traveling to and from fishing spots, and on very long bug collecting missions. Enough said? I found a lot of humor in the scene. The little tune, “One of These Things is Not Like the Others”, was stuck in my head for weeks.

Why should it be that any of us would bring such a difference to this picture? It shouldn’t be. Beyond that, the support that women bring to each other in challenging circumstances would have been invaluable to my time at CMC. The program is tough—I won’t lie. Still, I absolutely loved it and will never regret challenging myself to this level. My advice? Bring a friend who has similar goals. If you can’t find someone to join, go anyway. Smile, hum the tune, and join our little band of gals who have completed this program under the same circumstances.

photo by - Kaitlin Boyer

This must change.

Next Stop, Joy!
Three days after returning home from my experience at CMC, I took myself on a fly fishing/hot springs safari. One morning, I sat with my coffee on the bank of the Colorado River. I watched a bug show, including the final, dying act of the ephemeral mayfly. I plucked stonefly shucks from the rocks that warmed my bare toes. I was enthralled and thinly aware that, once again, I had “moved”. I was in an all new place in life and things would never be quite the same. Finally, I reflected on the massive flow of the river as it passed by my campsite. It occurred to me that all that power is the result of the flowing together of the Colorado and other streams and rivers into one, ever-growing and ever-strengthening current.

Like Robin, my fondness of the outdoors and affection for fly fishing has always been a bit of a distraction to my occupational life. I spent years plugging away at nursing school, which was sheer torture to my prevalent right brain, in addition to waiting tables on the side to make ends meet. After learning fly fishing basics from my dad in 2010, I started to take the hobby more seriously a few years later. Study sessions were being skipped, and my attendance at school was no long a priority, and so, for the love of fishing, I quit school.

photo courtesy of - Zach Hart

One of the distinct parts of my personality is committal stubbornness, in the sense that if I say I’m going to do something, by gosh I’m going do it. So, dropping out of school was a huge blow to my self esteem, yet, this new found Kaitlin felt more at home. After fly shop owner, guide and CMC grad, Michele White, proposed that I consider becoming a fly fishing guide, sparks flew in my brain and I immersed myself in all the options to make this happen. As a college dropout, I had just a few credits left to finish my degree, and the program at CMC was 13 college credits. The all-or-nothing part of myself was completely obsessed with attending this program, whether I had to quit my job or pay for 6 weeks of childcare, I was going to do it.

Traveling time, now a graduate of the guiding program at CMC, the thing I say to most people who inquire is, “I wish I could go back and do it again every year.” There isn’t one defining thing that made the experience so memorable however, I believe the coalescence of people, mountains, rivers, and time imprinted something in my brain that will never furlough.

After I completed the program, I was hired at a fly shop as a guide right away. Though I still consider myself a rookie guide, in my second season I have nestled in my niche of specializing in guiding women and children. Despite being content in my new career path, part of me still yearns for something else. I often take little trips out to Leadville to fish and visit CMC and see my former instructors. I go back to all the spots we fished during the program and on the weekends, and I’m flooded with good memories. One thing lingers however, and even though the CMC guide program was everything I wanted it to be and more, I wish I could’ve shared the experience with another woman.

photo courtesy of - Bob Tayler

The guys in my program were friendly, respectful, and kind. I was lucky to call a few of them my friends through it all. Thankfully, there were some women in a few of my classes, either finishing up the guide program courses (in two semesters instead of one), or needing to fill credits for other degree programs. These women really filled the gaps for me when I was needing less testosterone around me. Being the only full-time female in the guide program began to wear me down.

Meeting Robin Schmidt in May of 2018 was an opportunity to fill a void that was lingering since my experience at the CMC guide program. When a staff member at CMC had connected us, we arranged to talk about her upcoming journey to Leadville for the program. Needless to say, our chat ended up being two hours long and we came to two conclusions. One, we were fascinated by Orvis’ 50/50 On The Water Campaign, and two, how we can join this campaign to get more women to enroll at CMC’s guide program. Shortly after this discussion, I came to visit Robin in Leadville during her first week of school. It was during this meet up I knew our paths had crossed for all the right reasons. Between stuffing our faces with delicious food and wine, and showing her all my favorite fishing spots, we developed a friendship and plan that is a mighty force to be reckoned with.

It’s no secret that women are the fastest growing demographic in fly fishing these days, so Robin and I questioned why there is such low female enrollment in guide programs. As a female guide, I personally have taken notice that the majority of my clients requested a female guide. I am one of four women out of 30 plus guides at the shop I’m contracted at, and there are few to none at the other local shops. With such a rapid increase of female anglers and a high demand for female guides, guide programs like CMC’s should be seeing higher female enrollment numbers to better accommodate the growing industry. With Orvis’ 50/50 On The Water Campaign blazing trails for women in fly fishing, Robin and I felt compelled to bring the initiative to CMC and let 2018 be the last graduating guide class with just one full-time female student.

photo by - Kaitlin Boyer

Joy Poses, Everyone!

So, very thankfully, Kaitlin and I are not the only ones who think our initiative to bring more women into the fly fishing industry is a great idea for getting more women onto the water!

“Colorado Mountain College stands with the Orvis 50/50 on the water movement and is committed to providing opportunities for women to enter the outdoor industry as fly fishing professionals. Orvis has generously provided in-kind fly fishing products to help two women scholarship recipients, who are enrolled in the professional fly fishing guide program summer 2019 session, the opportunity to get them geared up on the water.  Financial scholarships are being created so more details to come.” Colorado Mountain College Foundation

Whenever we converge on a path with a common purpose, there is movement. The momentum forward is like the mighty Colorado and all the adjoining flows that cannot know the final destination. Still, the current grows stronger. It is not halting or unsure of its purpose. This is how women, in an amazing community of lady anglers out there, support one another—and this is exactly how I feel I’ve been supported on my own journey. Rooted here is the answer to the mystery of how a path can suddenly and possibly unfold on its own. It doesn’t. ❄