March 26, 2019
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At 20 years, Maine women’s retreat organizer reflects, celebrates

Community Author: Genie Jennings
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Emily MacCabe Photography | Contributed
Emily MacCabe Photography | Contributed

On August 4, alumnae of an outdoor retreat for women with breast cancer in Maine will celebrate a milestone in Oquossoc, Maine.

That’s when past participants, friends, and family will gather to celebrate 20 years of healing at “Casting for Recovery,” a nationwide organization that provides retreats for women with breast cancer at no cost to the participants. In Maine, retreats are held each year at a different sporting camp for about 14 participants. Each retreat offers a weekend deep in the Maine woods among like-minded folks.

Much of the success of Maine’s program is due to Program Coordinator Bonnie Holding. Holding has been a registered Master Maine Guide of sports trout and salmon fishing for 25 years, according to her online biography, and has been organizing the annual retreat in Maine for 15 years.

Bonnie has been fly fishing since she married Blaine Holding, and she said the activity has shaped her life. She originally worked in the fly fishing department of LL Bean before moving to Stratton, when Blaine became the game warden in that area. Although there were several other female Master Maine Guides when she began, Bonnie was unique in that she guided full-time every summer until 2014 when she accepted the position of Director of Information and Education at the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife.

For decades, Bonnie has been a seasonal worker. In the winter months, she runs Gold/Smith Gallery, her own jewelry store and art gallery featuring local artists.

She first learned of Casting for Recovery while attending a women’s health symposium at Bowdoin College. Representatives of the program were there to explain how their program could benefit women who were recovering from breast cancer. As she listened to the benefits and the way the programs were conducted, Bonnie thought, “I could do this.”

And she did. For years she has organized, located fishing resorts who would accommodate them, recruited volunteers, oversaw the retreats, and held fundraisers. Attendees are responsible only for getting themselves to the designated fishing area. From that point, everything is done for them. There is lodging, meals, fishing equipment, guides. There are classes in tying knots and casting, entomology, and related flies. There is a psychotherapist to lead group discussions open only to the attendees.

As Bonnie has described the program, it’s “all about fly fishing, and not at all about fly fishing.”

Over time there have been regular volunteers, chief among them Nancy Taylor and psychologist Margaret Atwood. “Fly Fishing in Maine,” a non-profit organization dedicated to preserving Maine’s fisheries, began by donating to the program. It now conducts a “reunion” each year for alumnae of the retreats, the only one of its kind in the country. Each year there are volunteers to teach the classes, as well as a private guide for each of the 14 participants.

The most meaningful aspect of the program, said Bonnie—the thing that makes her happiest—is “the smiles. The instant gratification that you could take away, even briefly, from the hideousness of it all. It is selfish. I get so much from the smiles. The smiles and the fun.”