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The river accepts everybody.

Was nature a part of your childhood? I’m from Texas, and I grew up in the city. But on weekends my family would head out to see the grandparents, who had some property outside of town. My dad’s side is hunters, so I spent a lot of time outdoors with my dad and my grandfather and learned a lot about nature and wildlife from them. Age eight, nine, ten, I thought I was a little Daniel Boone or Teddy Roosevelt, mounting expeditions by myself in the woods be- hind my grandparents’ house, setting traps that never caught anything. I was a tough, wild little kid. I didn’t realize it at the time, but now I recognize that mine was not a typical child- hood for a young African American boy in that era.

THAT’S WHAT CHAD BROWN likes to tell his teenage students as they follow him into the water. In those moments, these are words of encouragement to first-timers — a talisman against the foreign feel of the fly fishing rods and the unfamiliar pull of invisible currents. But for Brown himself, it’s a belief that saved his life. Brown is a U.S. Navy veteran who in the 1990s served in the Middle East, Guantanamo Bay, and Somalia. Years after he returned home to the states, the symptoms of posttrau- matic stress disorder caught up with him. He struggled with alcohol and homelessness. He contemplated suicide. But at his lowest point, Brown discovered fly fishing and the rivers of the Pacific Northwest. “Whatever medication I was on at the time,” he says, “I remember wading into the middle of that beauty and feeling really alive for the first time in I don’t know how long.” Brown chased that feeling, returning to the rivers until his

head started to clear. A few years after he first picked up a fly rod, he launched what would become a successful business, designing fly-fishing gear that reflects his urban roots and military experience. He named the venture Soul River Runs Deep — an homage to all he’s discovered on the water. And he didn’t stop there. With profits from the business,

Brown started a program that brings fellow military veterans together with students from predominately African American and Latino neighborhoods in his home city of Portland. To- gether, they study the art, science, philosophy, and discipline of fly fishing. Though busy preparing for a summer packed full of these

“deployments” — river trips from Portland to Michigan and all the way up to Alaska — Brown took some time out to talk about what he found when he went looking for fish.

You’re an artist and a designer as well as an outdoorsman. How did you get into that?

My mom had an artistic, creative energy: she balanced out that GI Joe mentality I got from running around in the woods as a kid. She had a sort of Woodstock hippie style in those days—involved in theater, always writing poems or singing— anything creative moves her.

As I grew up, I knew I wanted to pursue a career in the arts. I got into some art schools and started classes, but it just wasn’t affordable. So after a lot of soul-searching I made the choice to enlist in the Navy. I signed up because I had my eye on that diploma and I knew the GI Bill would help me pay for it. I made a promise to myself that I would come back and fin- ish—and after my tours of service, that’s what I did. I earned my degree and worked in the advertising world in New York for several years before I came out here to Portland.

That was a tough time for you. Yes. Moving to Portland—the slower pace and the distance from my family—it dislodged some of the darkness that I’d been carrying around with me from my time in the navy. I started drinking; I lost my job and then my housing. I was on and off heavy medications.

I started going fishing in part because I didn’t have a lot else to do. I’d done some rod and reel fishing with my dad when I was younger—where we’d dig up a can of worms and go fish for perch—but I learned to cast a fly from watching YouTube and reading books. I spent hours and days hanging around in fly shops. They became like my living room: good conversa- tion, people coming around to talk about this fly and that river. People there didn’t necessarily know my story, but they accepted me for who I was, and they were down to share what they knew. My friends on the river became like my family.


matthew dahl

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