"We do not inherit the earth from our ancestors, we borrow it from our children." Wendell Berry
I have always loved that proverb, but as a non-child bearing woman of nearly 40, I never really had a personal connection to the statement – until one hot September day on the headwaters of the Chattahoochee River.
This past year had me thinking a lot about youth. My nonprofit’s silver anniversary was not only a celebration of 25 years of keeping watch over our waters but also served as an opportunity for us to make a commitment to the next 25 years. An opportunity to engage, inspire, and activate our next generation of conservationists and lovers of the great outdoors.
As I sat with my colleagues planning for 2019 and taking an honest look at how we interact with our region’s young people, I had to ask myself how exactly our youth were connected to Mother Nature. In this day of iPhones and iPads, virtual reality, and interactive video games, do they really get it? I was lucky, having grown up in a generation before the technology boom. My childhood days were spent playing outside football in the cul-de-sac with the neighborhood boys, hiking the Appalachian Trail, rock climbing, camping, and swimming in the lake in Cleveland, Georgia. I had a real connection to the outdoors that was instilled in me from an early age. Could this next generation follow suit?
Today’s youth are the first generation to grow up largely indoors with few connections to the natural world and far too many hours spent in front of screens. When asked where their drinking water comes from, many young people answer – “the faucet” – because they have a limited understanding of the natural world and our reliance upon its resources. This is why programs like my nonprofit Chattahoochee Riverkeeper’s floating classrooms are so important. And, why groups like the Trout Unlimited Teen Summit, Georgia’s Paddle 4 Tomorrow, and others are making important headways in the nonprofit world. They aim to connect our children to the environment in a fun and exciting way.
I am grateful that the young people in my life have a connection to nature. My stepkids grew up with a fly fishing dad, so our newly blended family spends time out on the river whenever we are together. This was one thing that the fly fishing community definitely got right. Every time I scroll through Instagram, I see more of my peers bringing their kids out with them into nature.
New moms, like my friend and North Carolina fly fishing guide, Katie Cahn, put their babies in carriers on their back and actually bring them out on the river with them. There are my social media friends like Canadian-based Tim Hepworth and his daughter Wren, who share their outdoor adventures with us each week and embody what it means to truly #optoutside.
But how could we expand this family pastime and connect these young people with each other?
As anglers and environmentalists, we knew we wanted to develop and enable a new generation of conservation-minded youth who protect the waters that nourish fish and people. But in order to do this, we would need to engage these young people in a setting where they could share their love of the outdoors and fly fishing, advocate for conservation, and share their knowledge and values with other youth. So, I reached out to DUN Magazine Editor-in-Chief Jen Ripple, and United Women on the Fly founder Heather Hodson, to see if they’d be up for a collaboration.
“What do y’all think about helping Chattahoochee Riverkeeper add a youth component to our annual Orvis Down the Hatch Fly Fishing Festival event this year?” I asked. Before I could say another word, I was greeted with an outstanding “YES!”
We decided that we would use the September event to celebrate young women in fly fishing. With the launch of the Orvis 5050 On the Water marketing campaign, it was the perfect fit.
After a solid brainstorming session with my fly gal counterparts, we chose six young water warriors – ages 8 to 18 – to represent the next generation of female fly anglers and conservationists. And, as an added bonus, we would plan an all-girls fishing outing the day before the event. I was beyond excited to spend the weekend with these young people and to get some insight into the future of the sport I have grown to love.
Before I knew it, the girl’s weekend had arrived. I was a bit anxious, as our Georgia summer had decided to extend itself a few more weeks than welcomed. This meant that fishing would be questionable up in the mountains given the warm temperatures. But we decided we would roll with it, gathered our gear, and headed to Helen to greet our new friends.
I called in some female guides from the region, including members of the Georgia Women Fly Fishers, to assist with the day. After lessons in bugs and water quality, intro to flies, anatomy of a fly rod, knots, and casting, it was time to hit the water!
Some of the girls were a bit reserved when they stepped out in the river with their guides, but the uncertainty quickly vanished as they started to take instruction from the older women and realized that they had been given the opportunity to learn one-on-one from the seasoned anglers. I watched proudly as I saw my peers fulfilling not only the role of river guides but also mentors to the young fly anglers.
But the real impact on the day was made later in the afternoon when the girls started helping each other. As I sat down on a rock to take a breath and observe how the event was going, I saw that one of the young girls, 9-year-old Gracie, was having a particularly hard time landing a fish. Gracie’s father, a prominent member of the fly fishing community in Atlanta, watched from the shoreline cheering his daughter on despite her frustration. I could tell that he wanted to step in and help, but Gracie’s eyes silently declared “no dad, I want to do it myself.”
Rewind to an hour earlier. My step-daughter Jordyn had been targeting some of the stripers that had made their way upstream and were stalking trout. She was having a rough time of it, with many of her casts resulting in knots or hook-ups in a tree. Jordyn announced that she “was done fishing,” disappointed that her day hadn’t started off the way she wanted. As she made her way to the dam where the younger girls were fishing, I saw her notice Gracie looking defeated and walked over to talk to her. Before I knew it, Jordyn was helping Gracie on her hook set as a rainbow trout took the fly. “Fish on!” Jordyn yelled, grabbing a nearby net. The smile on Gracie’s face said it all.
GWFF Guide, Tori, shared with me soon after the event how impressed she was by the youth that day. She told a story about how, as she hiked the river with her participant Lil D, the young girl had stopped every few steps to pick up trash to fill her net. “It’s incredible to see these kids really get it,” said Tori. “But my favorite was when Lil D looked at me and said ‘I think we should give the fish a break now. I’m going to go look for spider webs.’”
There it was, That connection to nature I had hoped to see!
Our host for the day, local fly shop owner Jimmy Harris, said something towards the end of the day that really made me think. “You know what’s incredible?” he said, “No one has gotten upset with each other once today.”
Jimmy was right. We had been fishing elbow-to-elbow at the dam that day – a situation that would have had most adults up in arms. But instead of competing with each other, the girls took turns. When lines got crossed and tangled, they laughed and exchanged apologies in between asking their guides to help get the knots out. Landing nets were thrown around the pool of water as girls handed their rods to the adults and went to help net fish for their new friends.
The day was about community, awareness, focus, leadership, sharing, patience, confidence, and most importantly – respect.
I left the river that evening inspired. My heart was full of hope for not only the future of fly fishing but for the future of our planet.
The next day was the panel at the Down the Hatch event. I watched proudly as I noticed Jordyn working the Orvis booth with her father, Lil D leading the casting lessons outside with the youngest kids on the Practicaster, Emma talking to guests at her dad’s booth, and the other girls networking with our guests. It was official! We were in the presence of the next generation of fly anglers, instructors, conservationists, guides, influencers, and leaders – both on AND off the water.
When it was time for the panel, the audience gathered to hear what the six young anglers wanted to see brought forward this year in the sport of fly fishing. When the topic of social media and technology was brought up, I was once again in awe of the girls on stage. They shared about how we needed to spend more time on the water and out in nature, off of our phones, to really embrace the experience. They shared about bullying on social media and how it didn’t matter how or where you fished, as long as you were having fun and being a good steward of the environment.
I was particularly proud of my step-daughter when she made the point that it didn’t matter if you fished wild streams, stocked rivers, private “pet” waters, lakes, ponds, flats, or even ditches. It mattered that you were out there enjoying your time with friends and family and making memories.
This statement really hit close to home for me and has had me thinking about the power of social media. A few weeks after the event, I experienced my first Facebook bullying. Having gained a few followers since I started actively working within the fly fishing industry through my nonprofit work, I had reached out with a post asking anglers what type of pack they preferred. I was contemplating moving to a vest and wanted the opinions of other anglers. “I think they sell a vest with a pocket for trout pellets,” a male fly angler commented.
Still feeling inspiration from my weekend with the water warriors, I politely restated my stepdaughter’s words to the fly fisherman – who immediately removed his comment. The message here? We have a lot to learn from these young people.
While the girls learned a lot from the female anglers that weekend, the adults walked away from the experience with a newfound respect for these young people. Thank you, ladies, for leaving us inspired, encouraged, and certain – without a doubt –
that our future is bright.