GRAND LAKE STREAM, Maine — The lawn outside the main lodge at Weatherby’s Resort was abuzz with excitement on Thursday morning.
Decked out in their waders, the participants and volunteers in Maine’s second Reel Recovery retreat chatted before heading to the iconic fly fishing waters of Grand Lake Stream.
Eight men from Maine, North Carolina, Massachusetts, Virginia and New Hampshire made the trip for the chance to wet a line and experience the calm and beauty of this picturesque town.
The road to Grand Lake Stream has been long, and often difficult, for the group of men coping with cancer.
Reel Recovery is a nonprofit formed in 2003 to help men recovering from cancer by introducing them to fly fishing in a safe, supportive environment designed to help them share their experiences.
After wrapping up one of their “Courageous Conversations,” during which the men privately shared some of their personal struggles, they still had one important task.
Reel Recovery Executive Director Stan Golub gathered the group in a circle for the traditional vest ceremony.
Retreat participants select a fly fishing vest to wear during their stay. Each bears the names of their Reel Recovery predecessors along with the place and year they took part.
The Maine group did likewise and wrote their names alongside those who have taken part in one of 331 events across the U.S. and around the world.
“There is a legacy of men in these vests and when you put them on, feel that legacy,” Golub told the group. “The 3,700 men that have come before you, and hopefully that many after you, will wear your name and feel that brotherhood and that camaraderie that is held in these vests.”
It was at the same time uplifting, in celebrating some victories over cancer, and somber in the realization some of the men did not survive.
On Thursday morning, each participant paired up with one of the fishing buddies, volunteers whose job is to facilitate the experience. The guides were recruited by Mike Pratico of Sinclair, who organized Maine’s first Reel Recovery retreat in 2019.
The men lent their fly fishing expertise and support to the fishermen while carrying an extra rod and a net, taking photos or providing whatever other assistance might be needed. They are not allowed to fish.
Pratico was inspired to help people with cancer after losing close friends Lynn Hughes, who died in 2011, and Jim Ekedahl, who passed away in 2018.
“It was really, really tough and I wanted to do something, somehow, to honor Jim’s legacy and Lynn’s legacy,” he said.
Pratico, an avid fly fisherman, heard a podcast about “Casting for Recovery,” a fishing program that works with women dealing with breast cancer. That led him to Reel Recovery.
After speaking with Golub, Pratico agreed to coordinate and direct a new retreat in Maine.
“It came along at the perfect time in my life where I just desperately needed something like that,” Practico said.
He recruited some of his closest friends, men who share his passion for fly fishing, to serve as the mentors. They included representatives of Orvis, the principal sponsor, which also provided gear.
“I’m so blessed with really good close friends, almost all of which fish,” Pratico said.
Orvis, Atlantic Sportswear through its Maine Unites program, and Spectrum Healthcare Partners are this year’s corporate sponsors.
Among the participants two years ago was Ron Smith of Freeport, a retired Orvis employee who also worked for Patagonia and L.L. Bean. As a cancer survivor, he understands the importance of the retreat.
“There was a lot of talk about family and friends and fate and fear,” said Smith, who has been cancer-free for 40 years. “Most of the guys were still in the throes and they’ve been going through it for a long time.”
Pratico said Smith’s story provides hope and inspiration.
“That’s why it’s so great to have him back as a volunteer because he’s a guy that beat cancer and is able to share his stories,” Pratico said.
Participant Chris Sewall of Hope is a chemist for Ocean Organics in Waldoboro. In October 2018 he was diagnosed with Stage III esophageal cancer.
He went through chemotherapy and radiation, then had surgery in March 2019. He was hospitalized in Boston when the COVID-19 pandemic broke out.
Sewall is a longtime fisherman who started fly fishing four or five years ago.
“This is a great program, pretty amazing,” he said.
Sewall had planned to attend last year, but all Reel Recovery retreats were canceled because of the pandemic. Being there this week marked an important milestone.
“This was one thing that I always kept in my mind: after surgery, I’m going to get better and I’m going to be able to go on this trip,” he said. “It was something to look forward to and hope things are going to work out; I’m going to get to go fishing.”
Bob Parsons of Plymouth, Massachusetts, has been fly fishing since he was in high school, 50-plus years. The accomplished fly tyer was diagnosed with prostate cancer in 2016.
“It just takes me away. It’s really neat. I enjoy it so much,” he said of tying flies.
Parsons, who also was scheduled to attend a year ago, spent the spring of 2020 making flies to donate to fellow Reel Recovery fishermen.
He took suggestions about fly patterns from Pratico and created some of his own, drawing rave reviews from the group.
“I call them my COVID chemo flies,” said Parsons, who at the time was undergoing chemotherapy, this time for bone cancer.
This year Smith served as a fishing buddy. On Thursday morning, he was paired up with Ray Babineau from North Carolina.
Having fished all over the country and across the world, Babineau knows how to cast. Smith provided support and lent a hand when the 80-year-old needed help negotiating rocks and rough terrain.
Babineau, making his fifth visit to Maine, is an 11-year prostate cancer survivor.
“I’m hopeful, but you never know, cancer’s a crazy-ass thing,” he said of his prognosis.
Babineau, who has worked with Project Healing Waters, a fishing initiative geared toward disabled servicemen and veterans, is feeling well right now.
“I’m way more fortunate than most of these guys,” Babineau said. “Some of those guys have been through real hell.”
The time spent at Grand Lake stream gave the participants the chance to just be one of the guys for a few days.
“All your other worries are gone. You don’t have to worry about anything,” Parsons said. “It’s just a great thing to be able to come up here.”