Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Chasing Silver - Location X

As you may have learned from reading this blog, my darling fiancĂ© Ryan is obsessed with fly fishing. Actually, I’m not sure obsessed adequately describes his passion and commitment to the sport. Usually, he can be found fishing for his beloved brown trout in the rivers and streams in Missouri, Arkansas, Montana and Colorado.

But the ultimate saltwater fly fishing experience is flats fishing for tarpon. Tarpon are large silver coastal fish considered by many anglers to be the ultimate fly rod target. They grow up to 8 feet in length and sometimes weigh 200 pounds. The tarpon is considered one of the great saltwater game fishes, not only because of the size it can reach and its accessible haunts, but because of its fighting spirit when hooked; it is very strong, making spectacular leaps into the air.


A normal tarpon fly rod outfit uses 10-12 weight rods and reels spooled with appropriate line and using a class leader tippet of 12-20 lb. Pretty light tackle where the fish may weigh 10 times or more than the breaking strength of the leader! Typically an angler stations himself on the bow of a shallow water flats boat and with the aid of a guide searches for incoming tarpon on the flats (inshore areas of the ocean that are very shallow, typically no more than 3-4 feet deep). When a tarpon is sighted, the guide positions the boat to intercept the fish. The angler usually has no more than 6-10 seconds to cast out enough flyline and make an accurate cast to the fast moving fish. Accuracy and speed are paramount but the task is compounded by the inevitable excitement and nervousness of seeing a fish that may top 180 lb bearing down on the angler. Once the cast is made, hopefully a tarpon sees and pursues the fly. The hookset is difficult due to the hard mouth of the fish which has been likened to the hardness of concrete. For that reason many tarpon throw the hook on the first few jumps. If the hook stays secure, then the fight is on. Tarpon have tremendous endurance and are one of the most exciting gamefish to fight - frequent spectacular jumps, long runs, and stubborn bulldogging are all part of the game. The average angler can usually land a tarpon anywhere from just under one hour to more than three hours.

A few years ago, Ryan had his first taste of tarpon fishing in Key West, Florida. We flew down there for his birthday, giving him the chance to spend one day out on the flats with his friend John and their guide Joe. Towards the end of the afternoon, after "chasing silver" all day, Ryan had the perfect opportunity to catch the fish of his dreams. Although he’d been practicing the tarpon hookset all morning, he instinctively set the hook like he was catching a trout, and pulled the fly right out of the tarpon’s mouth. Fish lost…John’s turn. John, after learning the hookset lesson from Ryan’s painful loss, ended up catching a tarpon immediately. Although thrilled for his friend, Ryan was devastated and vowed revenge on the tarpon.


For the following two years he thought about the tarpon that got away. He became determined to have another opportunity to catch one. He read books and articles. And he began watching a show on the Outdoor Life Network called "Chasing Silver," all about tarpon fishing. Each episode of Chasing Silver was filmed in a different tarpon hot spot. Locations included Key West, Belieze, Boca Grand, Costa Rica, Nicaragua, etc. But his favorite episode was called "Location X."


Location X was an undisclosed location, where veteran tarpon anglers were blindly taken to experience the best tarpon fishing of their lives…on film. In a cloud of secrecy, the anglers are transported to a clandestine spot to fish with a masked guide, lured by reports of large, willing tarpon in shallow water. Passing through dark mangroves identified only by a lone stake with a black 'X' burned into its weathered surface, the unsuspecting anglers travel to wide, mottled flats backed by a featureless shoreline. It all looks normal enough, even sedate. Then they are awakened by some of the most spectacular tarpon eats yet captured on film. Pretty exciting stuff, and I don’t even fish!!





So last year for Ryan’s birthday I wanted to surprise him and take him tarpon fishing again. I knew he’d be thrilled about spending a few days fishing and hanging out in Key West, on the beach. Unfortunately, I waited too long to book Ryan’s usual guide Joe, who was unavailable (he said was completely booked by December). He looked into finding us another guide in the Keys, but no one had any days in April or May available. It appeared that Ryan was going to miss his chance to chase silver.

However, I had a call in to our good friend Steve, an incredible fly fisherman, who works for Orvis. He knew how badly Ryan wanted a tarpon and was determined to make it happen for him. One afternoon I got a giddy phone call from Steve who told me that he had two days guided tarpon fishing for us, but we had to say yes and not ask any questions. Hmmm…what does that mean? He needed an answer right away. That wasn’t a decision I was comfortable making secretly without getting any feedback from Ryan. I didn’t know where we’d be going, how long we’d be away from work, how expensive it’d be or any other details…and I couldn’t ask!

I immediately called Ryan and told him what I’d done. He was incredibly excited at the thought of tarpon fishing, but was apprehensive about agreeing to something without having any idea what it was we were signing up for. He called Steve and convinced him to give us the basics. Turns out, Steve got him two days of tarpon fishing, in Location X, with the guide from Location X!!!! Ryan was freaking out!! Steve said this was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity and not to pass it up. We still didn’t know where it was, but we agreed to go and booked the guide!!

A month later, now having all the details, we boarded our plane and headed to Location X. It was an amazing place. We had the guide booked for two days, but unfortunately, due to bad weather, Ryan only got one good afternoon of tarpon fishing. I even got to tag along and take pictures! We got up hours before dawn and headed to our top secret destination. The morning wind was rough and the water was choppy. Since tarpon fishing is all done by sight, it didn’t really work until the sun came out. In the afternoon, we saw about 15 tarpon, 6 sharks, some dolphins, and all kinds of jacks. Ryan did great - he hooked a couple, but didn’t manage to land any. Those fish can really jump!! But he learned a lot about tarpon fishing, and had an amazing experience. Still, the silver fish eluded him again.




However, the days we booked with the guide became ours – meaning we have them every year until we cancel. So, we’re going back!! We leave on Monday for Location X!! This year, it’s ON!! Happy hunting Ryan!!

Monday, May 19, 2008

Cassie in China

On Monday, May 12 in China, an earthquake of magnitude 7.8 with its epicenter in northeast Sichuan province, took place just 90 km northwest of the provincial capital Chengdu, with a population of 11 million people. Tremors from the quake were felt throughout China. Since that time there have been thousands of aftershocks which have rattled areas still reeling from the initial earthquake, shaking frayed nerves of survivors and slowing rescue and relief efforts.

Today, the death toll in worst-hit Sichuan province, southwestern China, rose to at least 34,073 with another 245,109 people hurt and thousands still missing. Authorities have estimated that the final death toll could reach 50,000, while millions more people have been left homeless by the disaster. The hardship continues to grow as Chinese officials have said that nearly 7,000 school buildings collapsed during last Monday's earthquake and now, at least 200 rescue workers have been buried by mud slides during the past three days. So far, almost 60 aid organizations from 13 countries have provided assistance to China in the aftermath of the quake.

As some of you know, my friend Cassie is a Peace Corps volunteer, currently teaching in Chongqing, China (one province away from Sichuan). She has continually been in my thoughts and prayers since I heard about the earthquake. Cassie is one of the most amazing people I have ever met, she’s smart, witty, charming, creative, goofy, sensitive, compassionate and beautiful. She is in China and safe. She’s alright, although understandably nervous, worried and concerned for her students and herself. I received this email from her yesterday and was so moved. I wanted to take the opportunity to share this with you.
____________________________________________________
Hello,

The Peace Corps has informed us that foreign and American media continue to report the aftershocks and following earthquakes and show footage of the destruction in Chongqing & Sichuan. Our country director has asked us to make sure our friends & family at home understand the current situation and know that we are safe.


The first earthquake happened here almost a week ago now, last Monday at 3 in the afternoon. That first earthquake was very difficult, not only because it was the strongest but also as there was a complete lack of information from the authorities and chaos reigned on campus for most of the day and night. By midnight on Monday, we were back in our houses and teaching again by Tuesday. Throughout the week, we have continued to have aftershocks, mostly at night. Then, on Friday there was another earthquake in the afternoon, and one that registered 6.0 on the Richter scale late Saturday night, at about 1:30 AM. We continue to evacuate with each subsequent earthquake. Please remember that Chongqing is a municipality, so most of the shots you see on the news of people sleeping outside and devastation in Chongqing are from the rural areas. The urban center has had almost no structural damage. They are still inspecting buildings and supports for bridges and large highways, but life continues almost as normal within the city.

For the most part, the effect for those of us in Chongqing has been mainly psychological. The students are worried and quiet in class. Everyone is exhausted from evacuating at least once almost every night this week. No one seems to be sleeping well. People are definitely on edge. I continue to be unnerved, and to be honest, I often wonder if it really is safe to be indoors or if we're just being told so to avoid public panic. So many of our students have friends and family that they still haven't been able to reach. We all seem to be in a perpetual state of limbo, just waiting.

But the hardest thing has been watching the 24-hour-a-day coverage of the rescue process, with the death toll rising steadily at the bottom of the screen. Horrifying pictures of little children and collapsed schools saturate the papers. The other night I threw up after watching shots of villages that have been completely leveled, with almost no survivors. It is one thing to be on the other side of the world and see pictures like that. But it is entirely different to know this is all happening in Sichuan, the province I trained in. Du Jiang Yan was one of the worst hit cities, with a high school collapsing and trapping 900+ students, and it was a city we've all spent a lot of time in with our host families. My heart breaks for these Chinese people. Inevitably, the places where the devastation is the worst are the poorest areas, affecting people who already had so little to begin with. As the week goes on, they are finding fewer and fewer survivors. They are projecting the death toll will reach 50,000 when all accounted for.

For me, it is an amazingly interesting, although emotionally difficult, time to be in China. Witnessing the government's direct and timely response to the disaster is giving not only the Chinese people faith but (I would imagine) also strengthening their image throughout the world. I can't help but think of Katrina and our government's catastrophic failure. Here, in a place still "developing," their response has been outstanding. After the disaster that has been the torch relay and the unrest in Xinjiang and Tibet, this has been a moment of change for China. For those of you who know a little bit about Chinese history, this has been the exact opposite of the 1976 earthquake that killed more than 240,000 people because the government ignored the reports and didn't respond for days. People here are proud of their country. The soldiers and firefighters are real heroes. Relief efforts are everywhere. My students have no money so they have started collecting clothing and other things to give to the Red Cross. I am helping them to organize donations, and the school has disaster fund boxes everywhere. But even the TV coverage is a new thing for China. Never before has the country been so open about matters of state, and people are able to know the reality of the situation, something previously disallowed. Politically, it is complicated and their motives could be multifaceted, but I hope that to some degree this signals the opening up of Chinese media. Even as I write, Youtube, Myspace, and Yahoo are still blocked, presumably for having unfavorable items up about China. But it is a start. I think it must be. I am hoping this is good news for this summer's Olympics and for freedom of speech in general in China.

I consider myself truly blessed to count such generous and kind people as my friends. I have had so many concerned emails and more offers of packages and money than I know what to do with. I don't need a thing. Really. I have everything I could ever want. I don't know if anything else could have driven that fact home for me more clearly than visions of these people who have lost everything and everyone that is important to them.

If you would still like to do something for me, I would strongly urge you to donate money to the Red Cross instead. Anything would make a difference. The devastation here is so complete and so widespread that it will cost billions of dollars to even begin to put these cities back together. Right now, people don't even have food or clean drinking water, and as the temperature rises and the rain continues, the chance of disease outbreaks and mudslides are growing daily.

In the meantime, just know that I am safe. The Peace Corps is doing a stellar job of keeping track of us all and talking to our schools and local governments. If the situation worsened or any volunteers were in direct danger, we would be evacuated immediately. Don't worry if you can't get through online or to my cell. Internet and phone service go in an out because so many of the towers have been knocked down in the aftershocks.

I miss and love you all. And I am truly looking forward to coming home. It's been too long.

Love, Cassandra

Red Cross Link for Donations & Relief Efforts:
http://www.redcross.org/news/in/profiles/Intl_profile_ChinaEarthquake.asp?s_src=pre_aspLink


Cassie with students.

Cassie celebrating her 26th Birthday.

Wednesday, May 7, 2008

Scouting Trip - Jackson Hole

As most of you know, Ryan and I are getting married next summer. We had a difficult time deciding where to have the wedding. Neither St. Louis nor Louisiana seemed like the right place. We wanted a destination wedding, somewhere a little exotic, with our closest friends and family there. We opted against the traditional beach wedding (we'll save the beach for the honeymoon) and decided we wanted to get married in the mountains! Exciting! But, there are a lot of mountians in this country...where do we go?

We started looking at a number of places online: Aspen, Vail, Breckenridge, Telluride, Lake Tahoe, Sun Valley, Jackson Hole, Park City, Steamboat, Keystone, Big Sky, etc. We liked the idea of Jackson Hole, Wyoming - its an up-and-coming but laid-back Western ski town nestled in between the Grand Tetons and Yellowstone. Jackson Hole had the most amazing quintessential mountain views and we really loved the feel of it's open ranges and roaming bison (they are NOT buffalo). The more we tried to convince ourselves that it would be closer and maybe cheaper in Colorado, the more we really started to love Jackson Hole more. So, after about a month of discussing pros and cons, we picked Jackson Hole.


So, I leave for Jackson Hole tomorrow for my first scouting trip out there to look at places and venues for the ceremony and reception. I can't tell you how excited I am!! Most appropriately for this Mother's Day weekend trip, my mom is going with me. Isn't that sweet?! My wonderful wedding coordinator has set up about a million appointments for us with hotels, ranches, photographers, florists, restaurants, and even a band. We're going to be busy, but I think we're going to have a fantastic time.

The ski resort where Mom and I are staying.


Antler arch in the town sqare.