“We were in our vests, waders, the whole nine yards, standing in a beautiful stream where you could literally reach out and touch these torpedo-size trout,” says Anne Caffee, an experienced fly fisher. She is talking about the first Casting for Recovery Western PA retreat for breast cancer survivors. Jenny, a fellow survivor who had never been fly fishing, was simply there to catch the joy of the moment.
“Jenny couldn’t care one bit about learning how to fish. It’s pretty amazing when you can stand in water up to your waist and not get wet, and she just wanted to be there and become part of the stream. We just talked and she was so happy and uplifted,” Caffee says.
Casting for Recovery is a nonprofit organization and provides retreats in 35 states at no cost to participants. Most have never been fly fishing before, but it turns out the activity is therapeutic to those who have or have had breast cancer. According to the national Casting for Recovery website, it’s beneficial on multiple levels. Physically, “the gentle, rhythmic motion of fly casting is similar to exercises often prescribed after surgery or radiation to promote soft tissue stretching.”
Ask those who’ve attended the local and now annual retreats and they’ll tell you that just being in nature, surrounded by the support of others who’ve battled breast cancer, is just as important. The word they mentioned most often when describing the retreat experience? Healing.
Dizy Kapalka was chosen to participate in the 2013 retreat, after a recurrence of her breast cancer in 2012. “The retreat can really be life-changing,” Kapalka says. “You learn a new skill, and just being in nature, being in water, whether you catch a fish or not, is healing.” Also fun. Each of the 14 participants has a river guide and Kapalka got along with hers swimmingly. “We were laughing and giggling and just having the best time. We were like Laurel and Hardy out there.”
In 2014 and 2015 Kapalka served as co-leader and co-program coordinator of the retreat, as she will at this year’s, August 26-28 at HomeWaters/River Village in Spruce Creek, PA. She’s just one of many volunteers who work at the retreat and throughout the year with planning. Fundraising, she says, is the most challenging aspect of what the coordinators do: It costs around $15,000 to stage each retreat.
To help raise those funds, Casting for Recovery is hosting “Fish Tales & Ales” on Saturday, March 19th from 6:30-10pm. Toll Gate Revival in Lawrenceville, one of Pittsburgh’s hottest shops featuring American Vintage and reclaimed goods, is donating their space, and the $40 per person donation includes Grist House beer and food from Antonio’s of Brookline. The evening will be highlighted by a silent auction of items including fishing gear autographed by April Vokey, a celebrity in the fly fishing world. Attendees will also get a chance to spin their biggest whopper of a fish tale and the winner, judged by audience applause, will take home a prize (plus the honor of being the most entertainingly dishonest.)
Erika Michanowicz, the retreat’s co-leader and co-program coordinator, says many women who attend feel a bit shy or hesitant at first, particularly about the fly fishing aspect. One woman insisted she wold not be in the water or touching any fish; she just wanted to be among others going through breast cancer, Michanowicz says. “So she was just sitting on the shoreline and then suddenly we all heard a shriek of excitement because she had caught a fish. Her guide helped her reach out of her comfort zone and she loved it.”
It’s catch-and-release for most at the retreat, and there’s a profound metaphor in returning the fish to water, to life. “You’re participating in this age-old dance,” Caffee says, talking about the thrill and the skill when the fish takes the fly.