Healing Waters at Tangle Lakes-Delta
Wild and Scenic River Corridor
It is late June in Alaska’s Delta Wild and Scenic River corridor in the time of the midnight sun. Even on cloudy days, full darkness rarely falls. In the soft dusk, several men stand thigh-deep in the Tangle River, lengths apart, their fly poles bent as they pull in their first sleek Arctic grayling along the banks of BLM’s Delta Wild and Scenic River wayside. At that instant, when the slack pole suddenly tugs and bends in an arc resembling a rainbow, there is the flash of a smile – a genuine smile -- one that some of these men have not experienced since before they were deployed to a war zone.
Earlier, a hint of that smile flashed when a four-year-old bounded in unrestrained joy into his father’s arms, laughing as he was swooped into the air, awkwardly embraced around the fishing vest and gear. The man’s buddies, intent on fixing their fly poles, couldn’t hide their own grins.
Now, along the river bank in the tundra shrubs, above the soft sounds of rushing water or sudden slaps at a mosquito bite, light chuckles bubble when a fish takes the fly. Even the brief conversations among the men are hushed, but for the most part, only the sounds of nature intrude. After catching his first fish, one soldier gently removes the fly and reverently kisses the fish before returning it into the clear glacial waters.
Having the opportunity to help and give back to those who volunteered to serve America is something BLM-Alaska staff considers a privilege and is why BLM-Alaska became involved in the Project Healing Waters program. Project Healing Waters is a national initiative that provides fly fishing, fly casting, fly typing and rod building classes at no cost to its participants. The project is dedicated to the physical and emotional rehabilitation of disabled active military service personnel and veterans through fly fishing and outings. The Alaska chapter of Project Healing Waters is in the middle of its third summer, and has been steadily growing with about 50 participants statewide. This is the second year BLM-Alaska has helped host Project Healing Waters.
From June 22-25, eleven participants, including two with their families, were part of the Delta Wild and Scenic River corridor Project Healing Waters. During those three days, BLM fisheries biologists and environmental education specialists guided the soldiers and two of their families out for catch-and-release Arctic grayling and trout fishing.
For the BLM staff, they won’t forget the sight of the soldier’s children pulling in their fish, not getting bored or wanting to leave, even when it rained or tundra winds came up or even after they had been fishing for hours. Those same kids wanted to get right back out there again the following day. Two young girls had made their own pink, purple, and brightly colored flies, which they named ‘the princess,’ ‘the ballerina,’ or ‘the fairy.’ They had matching pink PFDs and tackle boxes to hold their flies. Their parents caught their experience in video and recounted their adventures to others in the lodge during the group meals.
When they were not fishing, the group mingled at Tangle River Inn or around the campfire at the BLM Tangle Lakes Campground. Most of the time, however, the soldiers didn’t want to sleep or waste precious time away from fishing. The BLM staff were out most of those darkless nights guiding these soldiers, hosting a campfire the last night, and ensuring the project helped these soldiers return to a bit of normal in their world.
The Glennallen Field Office manages the Delta Wild and Scenic River watershed, originating south of the Denali Highway that includes the pristine Upper and Lower Tangle Lakes, the Tangle River, and the Delta River – about 150,000 acres of land, 160 miles of streams, and 21 lakes. Central to this, surrounded by arctic tundra with grasses and sedges, is the newly renovated BLM Tangle Lakes boat launch and campground and the private Tangle River Inn. These are near waters that are home to grayling, whitefish, lake trout, burbot, longnose suckers, and more than 100 species of migrating birds and waterfowl.
To watch the eagles, swans, moose, fox, loons, see fresh caribou scat, and experience the changing light in this land of the Midnight Sun is almost a spiritual experience. To ride in the river boats across the Tangle Lakes and along the pristine Delta Wild and Scenic River, the fresh breezes or light rain or intense sunshine caressing your face, fly poles and gear at your side, in the midst of these soldiers and the families, it was enough. To come to love the moving, living, untarnished waters, to sigh in happiness at the wilderness and those who live in it very much alive all around you. To see these men come as isolated strangers and through sharing a few simple days fishing, to leave as friends and those unconscious smiles come easier and easier, only then do you realize what Project Healing Waters is all about.
Upper Tangle Lake. Photo by Karen J. Laubenstein
Behind the Lens: The Photographer's Story
Bruce from WISE talking to the group around the campfire at the BLM Tangle Lakes campground. Photo by Karen Laubenstein
As a photographer, I chronicle life's moments, creating a story behind the lens. I work to capture emotions, milestones -- those special images people will remember long after they have gone home. This was also the second year that I made the 8-hour road trip from Anchorage to the BLM-managed lands in the Delta National Wild and Scenic River corridor. It is an unforgettable place, and one that left me feeling so very proud of the work the BLM does that helps make projects like this possible.
To be in this place, experiencing these heroes, and watching the dedication to make it become one of the best times in these soldiers and their families lives. To be out in this pristine land where time has stood still and remnants of the ice age are alive all around you. It was for those soldiers. It was for all of us. I caught some of it behind the lens, but most of it, in my heart.
-Karen J. Laubenstein
State Writer-Editor, BLM-Alaska