The week-long, Bristol Bay Fly Fishing and Guide Academy* is arguably the favorite part of my job. Over the years, the pursuit of success for the graduates and program has become very near and dear to my heart.
I’ve been involved with the Academy for five seasons now, and they’re each tied to important personal milestones, which were on my mind constantly while I was at the 2018 Academy over the past week.
Red Quill Lodge, Iliamna – 2014 (a.k.a. “The Best Year Ever”). Sam and I were finally finding our stride in Alaska and the state was beginning to feel like home. He was healthy, it was my first trip to Bristol Bay, and the Academy was one of the first major projects I’d worked on that told me how awesome my job is at Trout Unlimited.
Kulik Lodge, Katmai National Park – 2015. We were coming out of the Best Year Ever, and as I left Anchorage for the extra-remote lodge that season, life was good.
On the third day of the Academy, I stood in Kulik Lake in a very remote, roadless area of Katmai National Park. Rod and reel in hand, I had my waders on and fly rod rigged. I had been excited to fish there with the students for weeks. I was literally stepping into the boat, when I very suddenly had an inexplicable change of heart. I told a co-instructor that I changed my mind, and was going to stay at the lodge and get some work done that afternoon instead of fishing. He looked at me confused, but said that was fine.
I quickly went back to my cabin, changed out of my waders, and headed to the lodge. Moments later I opened my computer to see a few messages from Sam. He was heading to the ER for an emergency appendectomy. They were worried about his blood counts. Within half an hour, I made it onto a cargo plane – just barely catching the only one to be leaving the lodge for a number of days. Within two hours, I was sitting in Regional hospital with Sam in time for him to find out his leukemia had relapsed.
From that day at the Academy on, we spent a horrible next nine months in the hospital in Madison, WI. They’re well documented on this blog. They were long, scary and at times, we thought we’d never make it back to Alaska. I worked remotely from UW-Hospital all year that year, helping coordinate the Academy logistics and applications from afar, in addition to all my regular job responsibilities.
By May 2016, Sam was in remission and his doctor cleared us to head back to Alaska – just in time for the Guide Academy.
Mission Lodge, Aleknagik – 2016. Life was good again. We’d been back home in Alaska for only a week or two from Sam’s treatment before I left for the Academy. Sam was understandably still nervous about his health, but while I happily spent time with a great group of teenagers, Sam built his truck camper with Andy that week and was so energized about getting his life back, and eager to get out on summer adventures. We made the most of that summer, though he had health troubles throughout.
Three months later, he relapsed and we’d head down to Seattle for another shot at a cure, which of course never came. After Sam received his terminal diagnosis, he began telling me that he wanted me to find love again, and never to settle for someone who didn’t treat me well and make me happy. He told me to live fully despite the loss he knew he’d cause. I promised him I would.
Intricate Bay Lodge, Kokhanok – 2017. Sam died less than a month before the 2017 Academy. It was the first year that I didn’t have the capacity to help do much planning or coordinating at all. I didn’t have much capacity for anything other than caring for Sam in his final days, and then staying afloat after he died. For a program that’d become so close to my heart, I was barely aware that it had commenced, and almost forgot to ask how it had gone after it was over. As with many things that spring, the Academy got set aside to just survive the devastation of loss that consumed me.
Bear Trail Lodge, King Salmon – 2018. It has now been over a year since Sam died. My love for him is unchanged – as strong as the day I first knew we were in love, as when we moved to Alaska together, as when we fought his cancer together for so long.
Of course, time continues to move forward, and there I was last week – back at the Academy, thinking about Sam. I caught my first fish of the season and as I released it, other instructors standing around me, I dedicated it to him aloud. I cried from the boat later at the stunning beauty of the Naknek River, wishing Sam would have been there to enjoy it with me. I wished that Sam would have had the chance to see the Bristol Bay region as he so desperately wanted to. He was the one who taught me to fish, and I now recognized in myself the frenzy he used to get as I rushed to get my line in the water over and over with grayling and rainbows rising all around me.
In other moments throughout this week though, when not busy with the students, someone new occupied my mind.
This January, I met Connor and we started dating long-distance – a perfect pace for what I need right now. Because personal milestones are magnets to the Academy for some reason, Connor happens to work at a fishing lodge just down the road from the host of this years’ Academy. It was frustrating to be just downriver, but unable to see him for more than a few hours throughout the week as I was busy with the Academy and he was helping to get his lodge up and running for the season.
Thinking about Sam and Connor over the course of the week confirmed a lot of what I’d learned since January. Getting to know Connor has shown me that two very special people will never compete for space in my heart, but instead that it would expand to make room for them both. It has been confusing and difficult at times, but so beautiful, too. Connor is incredibly understanding of my grief and ongoing love for Sam, and choses to love me despite the complications. I feel lucky to have met him and, though it’s so strange, grateful to Sam for giving me the knowledge and confidence for someone as cool as Connor to even take interest in me. I know I wouldn’t have connected with him if it weren’t for all that Sam taught me.
I don’t know what will happen with Connor. Of course, the relationship is new and we’ve been long distance for most of it. It’s difficult to even admit being with someone new so publicly, but I think I owe my new young-widow friends the honesty and openness to share that it’s OK for widows to fall in love again and to move forward. I was lucky enough to get Sam’s blessing on this, but it’s hard nonetheless.
There’s no clarity in dating or love after death of a spouse or partner. There’s no end to “Sam’s era” and beginning of someone else’s. There’s no rulebook or timeline.
But there are two amazing men, who are similar and different in a hundred ways. And there will always be the Academy, where my brain will work overtime trying to connect and disconnect it all.
*Through the course of a week, a handful of volunteer instructors and certified guides teach about 15 local youth from the remote villages of Bristol Bay the skills they need to become fly fishing guides on their world-class home rivers. The program is helping break down barriers between the sport fishing industry, the commercial fishermen, and the indigenous people of the region who often see the lodges as outsiders capitalizing on their resource and not giving back to local communities. We’ve made impressive progress at breaking down some of these walls. We teach the students other important skills – how to complete a resume and succeed in an interview, about conservation, fisheries management, customer service, and more. And of course, throughout the week, we get to go fishing on incredible rivers that I’d never otherwise get the chance to explore.