Veterans and Urban Youth Discover “Healing Ground” in Alaska’s Arctic Refuge

(Soul River participants along Ivashak River, Arctic Refuge. Photo courtesy of Chad Brown)

It looked like the Ivashak River was going to win. It had not yielded one fish by the end of the hot July day in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

Carl Combs, a Marine veteran, spotted some promising water in the distance from where he and a teen from Portland, Oregon, unsuccessfully failed to lure a huge Arctic char to take their bait.

It was a rough slog through icy currents, so Combs set out alone, leaving the teen to continue fishing.

The distant spot had a perfect seam in the water that fly fishers look for, a place where fast and slow currents meet. Fish like to hang out in the slow water, just outside the fast, and wait for food to pass by them. They swim out and snatch a morsel and then return to the slow lane.

Combs cast his line into the fast water and worked it to the end of the seam where it rippled. A hungry char took the bait.

“He hit like a freight train,” Combs recalled. “The game was on. There was a current to the left he knew how to use.”

“I was under gunned. I was not expecting a fish of that size and tried to bring it in quickly.”

His whooping and hollering brought others from his group, members of the Portland-based Soul River, Inc., to see what was happening. They were just in time, Combs said, and helped him land the fish.

The Arctic char was the sole catch of the day, and a welcome dinner of fresh food.

The day of patience, struggle and beauty was part of the lessons the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge provides, Combs said. Learning the lessons were the reasons he, four other veterans and five inner city youth were there.

Soul River, Inc. brought them there.

Combs found out about Soul River, Inc. after reading a story about fly fisher and Navy veteran Chad Brown in a fly-fishing magazine. Brown started Soul River as a result of his combat-related post-traumatic stress. He wanted to bring together veterans and inner-city youth to share the art of fly fishing in a wilderness experience. He chose Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge for its remote wild rivers and beauty, a place so profound that it can only be truly appreciated personally. Combs was a member the latest group that went up in July 2018. It was Brown’s fourth trip.

Chad Brown and his service dog Axe in Arctic Refuge (photo courtesy of Chad Brown)

“It’s definitely a healing ground,” Brown said, a place he needs to be as much as members of his groups do.

Brown served for four years in the U.S. Navy. He was part of operations Desert Storm and Desert Shield during the Gulf War, as well as Somalia as part of Operation Restore Hope.

He recalls Somalia as a “wild, wild west environment” during his time there. Civil war had erupted and society had collapsed in the early 1990s. Essential services were scarce and the citizens began to suffer. The United Nations resolved to bring humanitarian aid and food. The country was so unstable, however, the U.S. led an international military operation to establish safety for the humanitarian efforts, as part of the U.N. resolve.

Brown was part of a Navy expeditionary logistics support group that handled shore operations, surface, air, and terminal operations, tactical fueling, and ordnance handling. They also formed the convoys that patrolled the port of Mogadishu. The group also used convoys to escort military personnel and supplies from airstrip command through the city of Mogadishu to military-established tent camps.

Military presence was welcomed by locals but met resistance by guerrilla fighters and Brown described atmosphere in the city the convoys drove through as vicious. Guerrilla tactics would push crowds of locals into stopping the convoys and mass around the vehicles. It would be chaotic, which is what the guerrillas wanted so they could slip explosives underneath a vehicle unnoticed. Brown and others were on high alert all the time. It was deadly work.

“It was like walking through a mined field regularly,” he said.

While he was decorated many times for his service, he came home with PTSD, although the extent was not apparent at first. He busied himself by earning a master’s degree in communication design at the Pratt Institute in New York. He then spent eight years in New York working in advertising and design, as well as a communication designer and photographer in the fashion world.

Life changed when he accepted a calmer job in Portland, Oregon, he said. Work wasn’t as busy and the internal noise of traumatic stress got louder. Anxiety and depression set in. He started drinking and lost everything. He became homeless, and even attempted suicide before getting help the Portland Veteran’s Hospital.

“PTSD is complicated and very hard to explain,” he said. “It’s hidden behind layers that some looking at you wouldn’t spot and otherwise think you’re normal. It’s a crippling disease. It’s hard to function in society.”

The veteran’s hospital answer to help Brown was to heavily medicate him, but that changed when a friend took him to the Clackamas River to fly fish. He hooked and lost a young salmon, but the few seconds he had the fish on the line gave him the first laugh he had in months. He soon spent hours on the water holding a flyrod, fishing for the pursuit of something greater than him and the occasional fish. Learning to fly fish took skill, apprenticeship and practice, but was rewarding, Brown said.

“It gave me a purpose,” he said. “It gave me a fight and from that fight came Soul River, Inc.”

One day, while standing in an Oregon river, he realized this was something that needed to be shared. Brown saw fly fishing as a way to connect veterans and inner-city youth, all while teaching leadership, and environmental and social justice. The summer 2018 deployment to the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge was Brown’s fourth “deployment.” Brown likes to use military order and terms to structure the Soul River mission-driven, environmentally focused, educationally rich fly-fishing deployments.

The group of five adults and five students flew from Oregon to Fairbanks in July. They drove to Coldfoot, Alaska where they were picked up by a Silvertip Aviation charter, that dropped the group by the Ivashak River.

(photo courtesy of Chad Brown)

The Arctic Refuge was established in 1960 and is 19.3 million acres of land, mountains and water in northeaster Alaska. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife oversees management of the refuge, which is one of the largest in the U.S.

People call Arctic Refuge the crown jewel of the refuge system, said Steve Berendzen, Arctic Refuge manager.

“It’s home to some iconic animals: the Porcupine caribou herd, Dall sheep grizzly bears, polar bears and moose,” he said.

It’s the rivers that attracted Soul River, Berendzen said.

“The rivers connect them,” he said. “It’s an opportunity to teach youth. There is fulfillment in passing on the knowledge of fly fishing, a real sense of accomplishment to be able to catch fish.”

The deployment also involves understanding the value of the Arctic Refuge. Congress declared four purposes in guiding the management of the refuge in the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act. They are to conserve animals and plants in the natural diversity, ensure a place for hunting and gathering activities, protect water quality and quantity and fulfill international wildlife treaty obligations. Soul River deployments teach those principles to the youth, as well as connecting them with the Gwich’in Athabascan who have are culturally connected to the Arctic Refuge.

Soul River participants in Arctic Refuge, Brooks Range in the background (photo courtesy of Chad Brown)

Sofina Gilbert, 19, had never seen a wilderness growing up in Portland. Her family didn’t have the resources nor the inclination to head out of the city for a camping trip, she said. Last year was her first trip to the Arctic Refuge and she was not prepared to comprehend the wild vastness of refuge There are no vehicles, no buildings, no telephone and utility poles, no pavement or sidewalks nor grocery stores and shopping malls.

Just rivers, mountains and tundra.

“It’s so beautiful,” she said. “No trees. Huge mountains. The rivers are so clear and so turquoise.” It’s difficult to take it all in, she said.

“It’s the best experience I’ve ever done in my life,” she said.

Gilbert had never seen a rural Alaska Native village, either. Last year, the Soul River group visited Venetie, a small community on the Chandalar River. The homes have electricity but no running water. The roads are dirt and a person wouldn’t get lost walking around them.

By comparison to her home in Portland, Venetie looked like a “third-world country,” she said.

“It was amazing to think this is in America,” she said.

This year the group flew to Venetie to spend seven days there. They set up a tent camp and spent time with community members, who told them how they live.

The group built expanded the community garden, weeded it and put up a fence. They also demolished an old outdoor basketball court and readied it for a new one.

Soul River at work with Gwich’in Community in Venetie (photo courtesy of Chad Brown)

“We worked alongside the Gwich’in, who gave us instructions on what they wanted,” Brown said. “We executed what the tribal members wanted to see happen.”

The community service work took place in the mornings. Afternoons were spent fly fishing the Chandalar River. The grayling in that river took bait more often.

The Soul River youth were given different topics about the Gwich’in, such as their history, food and language, to research before they left for Alaska, Brown said. They each had to prepare a presentation about their topic to give to the group while in Alaska.

“We also gathered with the Gwich’in folk and they shared many, many stories,” Brown said.

Brown is 50 percent mentally disabled from his PTSD and no one has expected him to establish and run Soul River. Back in Portland, part of his year is spent fundraising and preparing for the next deployment, but living with PTSD is hard, and he is usually forced to take a couple months off for selfcare.

It’s worth it, Brown said.

“I believe it enriched and deepened the lens for the youth and veterans,” Brown said. “We came to work and learn. It helped us to become stronger advocates of the Gwich’in.”

Finding fun and healingalong the Ivashak River, Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (photo courtesy of Chad Brown)

Diana Campbell is a longtime Alaska writer and is a Gwich’in/Alutiiq member of the Native Village of Venetie.

In Alaska we are shared stewards of world renowned natural resources and our nation’s last true wild places. Our hope is that each generation has the opportunity to live with, live from, discover and enjoy the wildness of this awe-inspiring land and the people who love and depend on it.