Mending the spirit
Thu, 05/18/2023 - 8:46am caleb
Military veterans build their own fly rods and go on guided fishing trips during annual Bamboo Bend Project
Caleb Casey | Managing Editor
They call it “mending the spirit.”
Veterans built their own bamboo fly fishing rods and participated in several other fishing-related activities during the annual Bamboo Bend Project event held in Lovells Township (and other Crawford County locations) last week.
Mark Mackey, Bamboo Bend President (and veteran of the US Marines), said this year’s group mostly featured students/veterans from the midwest, including participants from Pennsylvania, Indiana, Virginia, Michigan, and Minnesota, and volunteer instructors came from all over the country, including California, Virginia, Michigan, and Kentucky. Mackey said the group included vets from the Vietnam era all the way up to one participant who is still on active duty.
Mackey said Bamboo Bend instructors are volunteers and do not receive financial reimbursement.
“Their soul gets reimbursed,” said Chris Wikel, Bamboo Bend Operation Officer (and US Air Force veteran).
Participants stayed at the North Branch Outing Club in Lovells, Mackey said.
“They have once again been amazingly gracious hosts. Extremely professional and accommodating,” Mackey said.
Mackey said people from the community stopped by to say hello to the veterans and some of them brought snacks. Wikel said the veterans memorial in Lovells was a welcome sight for the Bamboo Bend participants.
“Bamboo Bend is blessed to have such a wonderful network of community support,” Mackey said. “I don’t think we could leave Lovells if we wanted to.”
Bamboo Bend organizers said students were also able to get some professional fly casting instruction, tips from fishermen, and fishing trips with local guides. Wikel said students went to Gates Au Sable Lodge for master fly tying instruction during their stay.
Mackey said the veterans were able to sit around the campfire and share stories.
“It’s not intentionally a group therapy session but sometimes it turns into that,” Mackey said. “We all have a similar bond, similar experiences.”
Mackey said Cedars for the AuSable – “a restoration/reforestation project of the Au Sable River Property Owners Association,” according to cedarsfortheausable.org – has partnered with Bamboo Bend to give the veterans an opportunity to plant a tree and put their name on it.
“It’s really neat to go back and see that tree six, seven years later and see how big it is. In a tiny little way I’m contributing to the stability of the natural surroundings here, helping the environment, helping the stream,” Mackey said.
One of the main events of the Bamboo Bend Project is to give the veterans an opportunity to build their own bamboo fly rod. On Saturday, the Bamboo Bend team had a BBQ planned for the students and volunteers and other supporters during which the instructors would present the veterans with their finished rods.
Mackey and Wikel are both former students of the Bamboo Bend Project (Mackey in 2016 and Wikel in 2018).
Mackey said some students return to the project as volunteer instructors.
“We call it ‘growing our own.’ We try to identify students who can come back. The knowledge for building from hand bamboo rods is shrinking because a lot of these fellas are getting elderly,” Mackey said.
Mackey said some of the volunteer instructors are veterans, some have a connection to the armed forces through friends or family, and others have “absolutely no affiliation with the military and this is their way of saying thank you.”
“It can be just as healing for the volunteers and instructors as the students,” Mackey said.
“Rejuvenation of the soul,” Wikel said.
“Mending of the spirit,” Mackey said.
“To get to study with some of the best is a pinch-me moment. To be able to assist and foster what we do is another pinch yourself moment that we get to do every year,” Wikel said.
“It’s not just the rod building. It’s the experience of meeting new people and that bond that forms in a really short time,” Mackey said. “It’s the entire experience.”
“Mutual respect is inherent in the program,” Wikel said.
Mackey said the Bamboo Bend Project did not have classes in 2020 or 2021 because of the COVID-19 pandemic but organizers were happy to bring them back in 2022 and 2023. Mackey said this year’s event went well overall.
“It’s just wonderful,” Mackey said. “I just wish we could do this more than once a year.”
Mackey said Project Healing Waters – a national nonprofit organization “dedicated to the physical and emotional rehabilitation of disabled active military service personnel and disabled veterans through fly fishing and associated activities,” according to projecthealingwaters.org – helps the Bamboo Bend Project by selecting students for the trips. Mackey said there is a waiting list for the class, and “the best way get in” is to become involved in Project Healing Waters or the Lovells Bamboo Bend Project.
“That’s the most direct way to get here,” Mackey said.