Waking up to a shell of frost on my tent on the second morning in Avalanche brought back memories of my first camping trip. I was an undergraduate, a geosciences major, more a sci-fi nerd than outdoorsman, on a three-day trip through Wisconsin and Minnesota looking at various types of soil (don’t everyone get jealous at once). On the first night it rained; on the second temperatures dropped below freezing. I had a 50-degree sleeping bag and every possible layer of clothing wrapped around me and still spent a sleepless night freezing.
This was different; warmer sleeping bag, better layering system, better reason to be out here. This was the week that Project Green Teen (PGT) took over the West Fork Sportsman Club, which included numerous support staff and a legion of volunteers ready to offer their guiding services to the PGT students. This was my first year volunteering to guide for PGT, but I have been working with the PGT students since earlier in the school year teaching them the basics of fly tying and casting. Now came the chance to see those skills come together for the first time on the water.
Project Green Teen has existed for a decade. Described as an “experiential service learning class”, it is an unique opportunity for a select group of students from Shabazz High School to learn and apply science to a wide variety of land wand water issues through the lens of fly fishing. There’s more to it than that, of course– for a better understanding of the scope of the class, check out the PGT website or this Isthmus article from a few years back— but fly fishing certainly is the most fun. I was drawn to the opportunity because it reminded me of the river entomology classes I taught at Riveredge Nature Center when I lived in West Bend. That, and it gave me an excuse to camp and fish for a few days.
PGT Week at Avalanche goes something like this: the students go about their school-ish duties during the day (one morning they built lunker structures; another day took a canoe trip through the Kickapoo Valley Reserve). Guys like me, the volunteers, fish their asses of during this time. In the afternoon we then get matched up with a student and take them fishing. The evening brings a banquet-style dinner, then the customary campfire stories late into the night (well, as late as we can all stay up these days).
It’s an experience that draws in a diverse crowd. Several different TU chapters were represented. John Bethke, creator of the Pink Squirrel, was there. On Wednesday afternoon Nome Buckman, a guide from the the UP and contributing editor to Dun Magazine– and special guest at Tuesday night’s SWTU meeting– dropped by with Amy Klusmeier to guide for a few hours.
The students are similarly diverse, and it doesn’t take them long to open up to us guides and share their perspective on the world. One student likes to make jewelry, though she uses unconventional media that includes human teeth and roadkill; another tells me about the time he spent moving across the country from Georgia to Oregon and finally Wisconsin following a divorce; over dinner one student matter-of-factly states that pepper spray is a necessity for her neighborhood. One thing they have in common is their enthusiasm. Despite a full schedule, cold and rainy weather, and sleeping accommodations that might make most teenagers blush, they’re excited to be here and (mostly) looking forward to fishing.
One thing I learned was that I’m far from being a professional guide. The first afternoon I took out Charlie (I won’t use the students’ real names here to protect the innocent; I’m not worried about the guides since we’re all guilty as Hell) just as a cream-colored craneflies were coming off the water. Charlie’s cast was nice, and I handed him an Elk Hair Caddis and simply let him work. He landed three browns in the short time we were out there. Charlie spoiled me into thinking this was going to be easy, matching the hatch and point out rising fish and these kids take care of the rest.
The following afternoon I took Kevin to the same spot, same situation, same dry fly. Unfortunately Kevin’s cast left a bit to be desired, and as I watched him botch cast after cast into a pool of eagerly rising fish I screamed in my head givemetherodmanI’llgetemjustcastitrightovethereI’llgetem repeatedly. I can’t blame Kevin for the situation; each student received about four hours of casting instruction tops, and none of us were throwing like Tim Rajeff our first time on the water. A real guide would have likely still gotten Kevin some fish; but I was disappointed to walk away from the water without helping him land one (luckily his no-fish streak ended the next day with another guide and a handful of Pink Squirrels).
After three days camping I came away from PGT with a few new fishing spots, new fishing stories, and maybe a few new anglers to count among the Driftless converts. To me that is the most significant part. Even if the PGT students never pick up a fly rod again, I hope they come away from their time at Avalanche with some of the love and appreciation that all fly anglers share for the Driftless area. It is becoming increasingly difficult to find younger anglers out on our trout waters, and PGT is one of a handful of successful programs that not only takes them there but gives them an opportunity to experience it at a depth that few people ever do. If these places are to continue to thrive, we’ll need the next generation of anglers and conservationists to love it just as much as we do.
Spending a few days on the West Fork helping foster that love and an appreciation was a privilege.
Note: A few days after I got home from this trip I saw an message from Tina Murray, one of the lead instructors and founders of PGT, asking for donations of new waders and boots for the PGT program. Accompanying the message was the image of some of the program’s current stock of wading boots: torn and sutured together with thick layers of duct tape. In order to keep PGT humming Tina and the other teachers invest a lot of personal time and money. If anyone out there might have some gently-used equipment to spare, consider sending it Tina’s way at the following address:
c/o Tina Murray
Shabazz High School
1601 N Sherman Ave.
Madison WI 53704
She asked donations be made during the regular school year (sent before June 8th or after October 1).