Heroes on the water in Pennsylvania
Navy veteran Adam Gagne is very familiar with the healing power of nature — especially when experienced by kayak.
“The tranquility of being on the water — seeing deer, eagles and everything else – you don’t get that unique sense of peace on the couch watching Sports Center,” said Gagne, who now works as a Civil Engineering Technician primarily focused on agricultural impacts on water resources. “It revitalizes your spirit just being out there.”
That’s why Gagne stepped in six years ago as a coordinator for Heroes on the Water a national non-profit that organizes kayaking opportunities for veterans and their families. In a way, it’s healing for him to share his love of the water with others.
That’s really how Heroes on the Water (HOW) got its start. Air Force Vet Jim Dolan, a Texas bass fisherman who wanted to help his fellow servicemen acclimate back to everyday life, founded HOW in 2006 — by making simple connections on the water.
“I started visiting the local veteran’s hospital, working with burn victims and amputees,” Dolan explained. “But I also realized that many of the real issues weren’t caused by the physical scars, but more so by the mental ones.”
So Dolan and his friends began inviting veterans along on informal kayaking and fishing excursions. The results were so positive he decided to offially launch HOW and share his model of service with others. The idea caught on — eventually expanding to include first responders, since they encounter trauma as well. To date, 80 chapters nationwide have served over 50,000 people.
In August, the largest HOW gathering in Pennsylvania took place on the Susquehanna River near Wrightsville. The Chesapeake Bay Foundation, Shank’s Mare Outfitters, local Kayak Anglers Associations, and the Donegal Chapter of Trout Unlimited joined efforts to help make the event possible.
Volunteers showed up from Allentown, Philadelphia, and even Baltimore to help guide the veterans and their families on 70-plus kayaks, which were launched several times over to accommodate all the participants.
One of those volunteers was Mike Reinhold, of the Kayak Anglers Association of Central PA.
“You can really see the effects of these experiences,” Reinhold explained. “A guy will show up quiet and kind of down, but then after an hour of paddling around, he opens up, starts talking, smiling, having a good time. It’s pretty powerful.”
Both Gagne and Dolan commented that many veterans even return as volunteer guides the following year because it’s in their nature to continue to serve their brothers and sisters in arms.
Devin Winand and his father, who own Shank’s Mare Outfitters, are perfect examples. They hosted the staging area for the event, as well as the venue for the barbecue meal that followed, at their York-based business.
“Both my dad and I are veterans,” Winand said. “We are happy to give back to our fellow veterans, many of whom might not get to experience something like this otherwise. For a lot of people, getting out on the water is a new and exciting experience.”
One veteran was overheard telling his son, “I’ve never been in a kayak before,” as the pair walked toward the launch area, but they soon received all the necessary instructions. In fact, the location couldn’t be more appropriate for beginners to learn from experienced mentors.
“This area is dam controlled so it’s flatter water, which is good for new kayakers because they don’t have to worry as much about the current or rocks making it too difficult,” Winand explained. “It eliminates some of the apprehension people have about kayaking on the river.”
“Whether they show up once a year or fall in love with kayaking, we’re just happy to expose them to this form of recreation. In some cases, families can’t afford the equipment, but it gives them something to look forward to on an annual basis. We just love supporting the veterans and their families.”
One Vietnam vet from Manchester brought his whole family along — wife, grandkids, and in-laws — to spend time together on the water. “Last year I had back surgery and couldn’t kayak,” he explained. “And earlier this year, my wife had a heart attack, so we’re just thankful to be able to participate and enjoy the day. It’s so great what they do for the veterans here.”
Bill Nolan, who heads Donegal TU’s Veteran’s Service Partnership, along with fellow chapter members, provided fly-casting demonstrations and joined in the camaraderie of the day.
“This is a great program, and we are happy to assist,” Nolan said. “Working with the veterans is a real privilege, and everyone has a great time doing it.”
Pennsylvania’s Executive Director for the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, Harry Campbell, echoed those sentiments.
“Partnering with HOW and Shank’s Mare Outfitters has been a very rich experience for all of us,” Campbell said. “Every day, we enjoy sharing the river we love with people of all stripes, but to be able to do that with and for our military veterans is even more fulfilling.”
“We have a deep respect for veterans, and it’s a small way to say thank you for their service to our country. But more importantly, nature has a power to heal, and experiencing that value of healthy exposure to nature is so critical to everyone – especially our veterans, who potentially can benefit from it the most.”
Perhaps founder Jim Dolan said it best when he explained the simple but lasting impact of Heroes on the Water events.
“We’re just taking folks kayaking and fishing, but it’s been extremely effective in getting people back out there,” he said. “These men and women may have come back from wherever they were serving alive … but we help get them back to life.”
Anyone who’s ever paddled the grand expanse of the mighty Susquehanna by kayak most assuredly knows the difference.