Geographically, the term place can have many different meanings. We use it and think about it in reference to locations — of a town, a city or a region — across the globe. More specifically, place can define the unique characteristics within a location; not only the visual characteristics and features of a particular place, but also the feelings and associations we experience when we visit or talk about them. If you’ve ever looked at a photograph, told a story or listened to a particular song or piece of music that has reminded you of a specific place, you’ve experienced these intangible influences place can have on us. Phrases like place attachment or sense of place were invented precisely to describe this complex relationship between humans and their surrounding environment. And often, we become acutely aware of place when we travel. When navigating the unfamiliar, we lose our sense of “home” — our surroundings are different, the landscape is different, the weather may be different, houses and towns are different, people are different and even things like sounds and smells are not the same as we’re used to. For some of us, it’s this experience that can have the most profound impact on our lives. For Steve Davis, Founder of the fly fishing camp, On River Time, that’s exactly what happened when he visited Irwin, Idaho for the first time.
“There’s nowhere else quite like it in the world”
It was over a decade ago, but for Davis, visiting the Lodge at Palisades Creek in Irwin, ID changed his life. An avid fly fisherman for over 20 years, Davis was first drawn to the area for its picturesque landscape and a river that boasts over 5,000 fish per mile — “many of them the big, colorful rainbow and cutthroat trout that fishermen’s dreams are made of” (source). His first visit to the Lodge was planned with simple intentions: to discover new waters and new friends. And neither was a disappointment. “There is no better way to make a new friend than casting the cliffs of Canyon Run together or witnessing a bald eagle dive for its lunch,” he says of the trip.
When new friend, and longtime manager of the Lodge, Stan, passed away in 2011 Davis felt compelled to honor him. This place had become such a profound part of his life – and identity – that doing so would not only be an homage to his friend, but a dedication to the river and the experiences they both shared on it. What started simply as a memory book quickly grew into something much bigger over that summer. Davis spent a lot of his days on the river thinking about his friend and the memory that would live on through the book he was creating and for some reason, it just didn’t seem like enough. “Stan’s life was about children: He was an English teacher, a swimming instructor and a mentor to kids from around the world,” Davis remembers. Like the river, his memory deserved to flow on continuously.
What amounted was the creation of a non-profit, On River Time, that would serve abused, neglected or abandoned children by offering mentoring and relationship building experiences through the venue of fly-fishing and the beauty of nature. “To listen to the sounds of the river and observe the beauty of a trout rising to the surface soothes all wounds, and the purpose of On River Time is to share that experience with young people who have faced indescribable challenges.” Davis should know. As a child who suffered abuse, he knows better than most the healing power of the river.
An experience anchored in place
For two weeks each summer, Davis and his team now bring small groups of teenagers to the luxury Lodge in Irwin for one-week camps full of fishing and fun. This summer, the organization hosted 27 kids between the ages of 12 and 18, and their chaperones, from four children’s homes. The first week included kids from Still Creek Ranch in Texas and Homes of Hope for Children in Hattiesburg, Mississippi. The second week included kids from Palmer Home in Hernando, Mississippi and Big Oak Ranch which has a boys’ ranch in Gadsden, Alabama and a girls’ ranch in Springville, AL. “This beautiful lodge is a popular destination for some pretty special people (Henry Winkler, Terry Bradshaw, etc..) but they absolutely roll out the red carpet for these kids and make them feel like the VIP’s,” said the organization’s Executive Director, Wendy Garner, when we asked her about the experience.
For the most part, the teens spend long days on the water with local fly-fishing guides where they learn to “master the art of casting and mending, of tying flies and studying the current” (source). The territory is new, the sights and smells entirely different than home on the ranch, even the weather is a bit shocking compared to summer in the South. It may not feel like “home” at first, but it doesn’t take long for many of these teens to find their sense of place and peace in the lap of the water, the rustling of the breeze and thrill of feeling a fish bite the end of their hook for the first time.
On the culminating day of their week in the mountains, the group ventures into Grand Teton National Park where they’re joined by the guides of Wildlife Expeditions for a day-long wildlife safari. It’s the third year that the organization has incorporated the tour as part of the week-long experience and gives the teens an opportunity to see a different part of the ecosystem they’ve seen over the last four days. For Director of Wildlife Expeditions, Patrick Leary, it’s the small things throughout the day that make it special. “It’s coming up over the brim of the Park boundary and watching their eyes fill with awe when they see the Tetons for the first time…or feeling their excitement as they watch a mother moose and her calf. It’s peaking their curiosity when I’m explaining the difference between conifer needles…things that I forget or take for granted sometimes living and working in a place like this everyday… I’m reminded of the grandeur and power of this place, even in the small things, when I’m out with this group.”
Memories hooked on the positive
At the end of the week, it’s the positive memories — of catching fish, making new friends, eating s’mores, and seeing a bison or a moose — that Davis and his team hope these teens carry home with them. Because for children who have suffered abuse and neglect, memories, often negative, can shape how they see themselves. By creating new, positive memories, the trip has an incredible power to help rebuild these incredible kids. Reflecting on the importance and impact this trip has on the teens, Garner expressed that “the kids’ eyes light up with wonder and awe as they take in the beauty of the Grand Teton National Park. They see snow-capped mountains and wild animals like bison, moose, and elk for the first time. In addition they are surrounded by their peers, new friends from another state who are just like them and have experienced similar hardships in life. Together they laugh and are joyful. The guides are knowledgeable and kind and they are passionate about sharing the beauty of the park with them. Our day with Teton Science School is an incredible aspect of the On River Time trip that builds lasting memories, opens new horizons, and helps to lay a foundation for hope and healing.”