Like most people, I have important dates ingrained in my head. My kids’ birthdays, my parents’ anniversary, the day a favorite uncle died. A day of celebration or mourning is in order whenever the calendar rolls around to these dates. Sometimes it’s both. As in, “My child can’t possibly be that old!”

August 17, 2007 is one of those unforgettable dates. It is one that I celebrate despite the unpleasantness of the occasion. It is the day I, at 30-something years old, was diagnosed with breast cancer.

The motions of that day are a crystal clear memory. The call from the doctor telling me I needed to come in to review my biopsy results – as if that didn’t confirm my suspicions. Calling my parents to tell them I would have some kind of answer that afternoon. My dad insisting on making a four-hour drive to take me to my appointment. His hands shaking as he wrapped them around my left hand … and how old he suddenly looked.

The doctor sitting uncomfortably close to me and telling me my biopsy was positive. Accepting a mound of pamphlets and folders overflowing with information from a nurse. Then calmly telling her she had the hardest job in the world. Calling my mother to relay what we had just learned. The silent ride home. Hugging my dad goodbye and feeling like he was never going to let go. Explaining to my teenage boys what was happening to their only supporting parent.

Every minute of that day is etched into my brain. The whirlwind year of surgeries, treatments, therapies and appointments that followed? Not so much.

But, this is a story about fishing.

Fly fishing at the outlet of Little Kennebego Lake in Stetsontown Township. Franklin Journal photo by Dee Menear

A few years after I finished treatment, I had the opportunity to attend a Casting for Recovery weekend retreat. The once-in-a-lifetime fly fishing retreats are offered at no cost to 14 women each year.

The only requirement: a diagnosis such as mine. Fourteen strangers with a single common thread.

Honestly, I wasn’t even sure I was interested in learning to fly fish. I put my name into the lottery that year for two reasons. One, I was a brand-new reporter looking for a story. Two, it was the opportunity for a no-cost mini-vacation.

Little did I know I was about to be hooked.

As we arrived, we were given tiaras and crowned Maine Mountain Princesses by the CFR Maine coordinator, Bonnie Holding. The chance to unashamedly wear a tiara and be called a princess isn’t what captured my attention, although it did pique my curiosity.

We were taught how to tie knots. We learned how to dry cast a line. We inspected hatches to learn which fly to use.

Catch and release fly fishing on the Rangeley River. Franklin Journal photo by Dee Menear

Mostly we were left to our own devices. We formed friendships around the campfire. We compared scars as we swam in the pond. We shared our experiences and our fears as we paddled the waters. We giggled into the wee hours of the morning.

On the final morning of the retreat, we met our River Helpers, experienced fly fishers, who would take us on the water for our first fishing excursion. I thought it was appropriate that for my first time fly fishing I was matched with a first time CFR volunteer.

Rich Wilkins was patient with my wild casts. He offered guidance as I caught my line on trees and lost flies as they snagged on rocks below the surface. I think Rich wanted me to catch a fish more than I did.

I didn’t land a single fish.

I did have the time of my life.

I was hooked.

As our weekend ended, we found some of us had formed steadfast bonds. A few we never heard from again. The bravest of the bunch wouldn’t see another birthday. Fourteen strangers, one common thread.

Nearly 12 years since that unforgettable day. The cancer is gone … fishing is not.

When Bonnie talks about CFR, she frequently says, “It’s all about the fishing and not at all about the fishing.”

Rangeley River brook trout. Franklin Journal photo by Dee Menear

She’s right. The weekend healed me in ways I didn’t know needed healing. I left that retreat with a new-found passion for exploring the outdoors. It awakened a desire to spend as much time recreating in rural Maine as possible. I worked on my fishing skills and learned to hunt, hike and kayak. All activities that had been outside of my character for the first four decades of my life.

Yes, this is a story about fishing but its not at all about fishing. It is a story about how strangers introduced me to a deep-seated love for Maine’s forests and waterways.

Over the years, I’ve helped spread the word about CFR and its annual fundraiser, Fish Tales and Cocktails, but I never wrote the story I was after. Until now.

It is my turn to pass the torch. Occasionally, I will use this space to relay my outdoor experiences with the hope a reader may find the inspiration to discover, or rediscover, life outside … and maybe get hooked.

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