A group of men battling cancer who met for the first time last month to go fishing in Grand Lake Stream said they don’t know many other men who would cry, or talk about their emotions, especially with strangers. But on a crystal-clean salmon stream way Down East, at the first Reel Recovery retreat held in Maine, that’s exactly what happened.

Reel Recovery was founded in 2003 to give men battling all forms of cancer the opportunity to participate in an outdoor retreat that offers strength and support through fishing. Today, more than 30 Reel Recovery retreats are held in the United States and New Zealand.

The program is modeled after Casting for Recovery, which was started in Vermont in 1996 for women with breast cancer.

The retreat at Grand Lake Stream, held Oct. 7-9, was the first in New England. The 10 men with cancer who stayed at Weatherby’s Resort came from across Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, Massachusetts and New York. Many left two days later surprised at the genuine friendships they found here.

“The fishing was the excuse why we all needed to be there. But what we needed most was the opportunity to share our stories and support each other during a difficult time,” said participant John Klatt of Lyndonville, New York, who was diagnosed in 2016 with multiple myeloma.

“All the conversations we had, my sense is we rose above our circumstances because we supported each other,” Klatt added. “It was very real.”

‘COURAGEOUS CONVERSATIONS’

The Maine retreat was organized by fly fisherman Mike Pratico of Falmouth, who raised $10,000 to pay for the meals and lodging so that all participants had to pay for was the cost of travel. Pratico was inspired last year to become the director of the first New England Reel Recovery retreat after he lost a second close friend to cancer. A zealous fly fisherman, Pratico recruited 12 of the best fishermen he knew to volunteer as guides for the Reel Recovery participants and make sure to “put them on fish.”

Reel Recovery director and co-founder Stan Golub came to the retreat to help guide the participants in a series of conversations, but also to guide the volunteers. Golub instructed Pratico and the other volunteers to lend a shoulder to lean on to the men with cancer they fished alongside, both figuratively and literally, since many of the men were weak physically. But the main thing Golub asked: Be open to listening should the opportunity arise.

Jim Evans, right, a volunteer from Manchester, Vt., helps participant Mark Oliver of Haydenville, Mass., with his casting. Photo courtesy of Mike Pratico

Each day Golub led the men with cancer in what he calls “courageous conversations,” inviting them to share their stories. In a quiet room in the sporting lodge, Golub got some of the most reticent men to open up. He asked direct questions, but said they could share as much as they wanted. One of his first questions: How have the interactions with your friends changed, for good or bad?

“When you think of a question like that, and now you’re talking about it with nine guys you don’t know, something about it sets you free,” said Butch Corbett of Gilford, New Hampshire, who was diagnosed last April with stage four renal cell carcinoma, a form of kidney cancer.

“There was a lot of emotion coming out,” Corbett said. “A lot of guys in that place were carrying a heavy load. I think they needed to dump it out.”

By the second day, the courageous conversations spilled out onto the river, onto the woods trails, and the rocks leading down to the stream. Corbett was paired with an exceptional fly fisherman, a volunteer who taught him how to improve his casting and line placement. Suddenly on the river, the guide told Corbett his wife had recently been diagnosed with breast cancer. Corbett stopped and listened with understanding and gratitude.

“He’s in the middle of the hell storm,” Corbett said. “What I learned from that is the giving part. I felt maybe I was helping him. For him to let me in, it was significant.”

Participants at the retreat talked about being scared, about losing jobs because of illness, about realizing after being diagnosed that they lacked support from their families.

“It’s unusual for men to shed tears, especially around other men. There was a lot of that,” said Fran Simone of St. Petersburg, Florida, who came to volunteer and also attend with his father, who has leukemia.

At the retreat, Simone noticed a quiet man who kept to himself. The last morning, Simone was fishing with his father when that man came to fish near them, and began to talk.

“All of a sudden this guy found his voice,” Simone said. “He was asking me about my military service, and what was Florida like. I told him to stay in New England. That was typical at the retreat. People evolved.”

‘A QUIET, PEACEFUL PLACE’

Most of the single, 10-mile road that leads to the rustic sporting camps clustered around Grand Lake Stream passes through a world of lakes and streams. Tall evergreens cover this wild working forestland. Bald eagles and loons abound. It’s home to some of Maine’s most famous salmon waters.

A quiet moment on Grand Lake Stream at the Reel Recovery retreat. Photo courtesy of Mike Pratico

Frank Simone came here to be in what he described as “a quiet, peaceful place,” made even more beautiful by the brilliant foliage. Simone lost his wife to breast cancer in 2005, a year after he himself was diagnosed with chronic lymphocytic leukemia, which he’s now fought for 15 years.

The past four years, Simone has been on a trial drug that has helped his health. Every three months he goes to Boston to have his red and white blood cell counts checked. There he gets “another bag full of pills for the next three months.” Simone said he’s fortunate, but it’s a tough way to live – reliant upon regular hospital trips to stay alive.

He came to the Reel Recovery retreat to forget about cancer for three days. He left with friendships he didn’t know he’d find. “It’s not about catching fish,” Simone said. “It’s about being together in nature, having that peace, and people to talk to.”

He hopes to keep up a friendship with a man who lives just a few towns over from his own home in western Massachusetts. And he wants to fish with the others again, too.

“At Reel Recovery, I broke down a number of times. I didn’t expect that,” Simone said. “Not very long ago, we didn’t know each other. Now it seems we’re all connected.”

On the last day of the retreat, Golub gathered the participants in a circle and asked them to hold hands. Then he asked the volunteers to stand behind them and put their hands on the shoulders in front of them. Golub told them to remember this moment. Their lives would not be defined by their careers, he said, but by how they lived right now and what they brought to other people going forward.

“I remember standing behind the participants with my hand on a guy’s shoulder and seeing a lot of the guys looking at the ground,” Fran Simone said. “Then they started looking up and listening to Stan, and slowly looking at each other. Then you could see the men getting emotional. It changed everyone who was there.”


Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.