Now, a couple of hours north in
Pennsylvania, Martin and Earle are joined
by about 75 other participants looking for a
fun day on the water. What they will experience is a trifecta of therapy: physical therapy from paddling and fishing, occupational therapy from enjoying a lifetime sport,
and mental therapy from relaxing in nature.
Mount Joy resident Jon Cunningham and
his father Brian are regulars at these events.
Jon joined the military straight out of high
school in 2008. The veteran Marine
Sergeant served for four years as a motor
transport mechanic and did two tours in
Afghanistan. Brian bought a kayak in
2011—the year before Jon came home—
and shared his new interest with his son
when he returned. Jon took to the combination of fishing and kayaking right away.
“It’s a great way to come back and have a
good time,” Jon says.
Now, Jon is studying to be a civil engineer
at Penn State Harrisburg and works with
Heroes to introduce other veterans to
kayak fishing. I asked Brian what he
thought of his impressive son. “Enough to
have him as my best man,” he answered.
It is clear that kayak fishing gives Jon and
Brian a strong bond. In addition to Heroes
events, father and son have fished from little creeks to the ocean. Jon once landed a
sailfish offshore in a kayak.
Not all the participants were as experienced, but Heroes and Shank’s Mare were
generous with equipment and training.
On-site from Heroes were York County
Chapter Coordinator Adam Gagne and
Maryland Chapter representatives Wayne
Aubertin and Larry Johnson. Founded in
2007, Heroes on the Water helps veterans
from all branches decompress from post-
service stresses at guided fishing trips held
by local chapters around the country.
Shank’s Mare Outfitters in York County,
Pennsylvania, is the perfect setting for this
kind of therapy. Operated since 1978 by Liz
and Steve Winand, the retail portion is
housed in a historic 1880s general store on
the Susquehanna River in an area near
Wrightsville called Long Level. In its previous life, the store served the traffic along the
long and level stretch of the Susquehanna
and Tidewater Canal that ran from
Wrightsville to Havre de Grace, Maryland.
Today, the store features equipment and
clothing for kayaking, stand-up paddleboarding, hiking, cross-country skiing, and
snowshoeing. Outdoor programming
includes paddling lessons, guided tours and
hikes, adventure camps, and live music.
Bridging the two groups is Devin Winand,
the son of Shank’s Mare owners Liz and
Steve. For Devin, a veteran of Operation
Enduring Freedom and avid kayak fisherman, Heroes on the Water was a natural
link when the York County Chapter was
formed. He was hands-on at this event,
teaching paddlers proper technique and
helping them launch the kayaks.
Army veteran Francine Praught had visited
Shank’s Mare before and even paddled to
the Lancaster County side of the river to
check out a bird sanctuary, but this was her
first Heroes event. Francine, a Trout
Unlimited member, loves the water. “It
gives me peace in a way that brings me
back to childhood,” she explains.
I was enjoying some peace of my own on
the river’s edge when one of the heroes
asked, “You don’t like kayaking?” “I do,” I
said. “You don’t like fishing?,” he followed.
“I do like fishing,” I answered. Minutes later
I was wearing a life jacket, holding a fishing
rod, and paddling along side my guide
Scott Gasswint. It was wonderfully relaxing
weaving in and out of the buffered shore-
line, casting into the shadows and reeling in
the various lures that Scott provided.
Overhead a young eagle tormented its par-
ent relentlessly, begging for food.
I wondered if Pennsylvania Governor Tom
Wolf, who lives just 20 miles away, had
ever spent an afternoon here, lulled by the
scenery. The same way you have to look a
little deeper to recognize the stresses many
of our veterans face, you have to go beyond
the beauty to see the river’s impairment.
Where we fished, the river was over a mile
wide. The pastoral farmland on the
Lancaster side was beautifully lit by sunlight
dappled from the clouds. It was a warm day
and a welcome breeze kicked up while we
tried different spots hoping for a hit.
The only thing I caught was kayak fishing
fever and the remnants of the old canal
wall that ran parallel to shore. I wasn’t
ready to head in when dinner was
announced. Just one more hour and Scott
was sure we would catch something.
Back at Shank’s Mare, local band Blue Rock
Connection played as veterans and their
guests enjoyed a lovely dinner on the lawn.
The Susquehanna is a broad and shallow
river, but this event ran deep: the people,
the environment, the experience, all
exposing more reason to save this beautiful resource.
Loren Anne Barnett—CBF’s
Director of Creative Services
and Editor of Save the Bay
magazine—grew up on
Maryland’s Severn River.
Left to right: Devin Winand and Joe Pegnetter help Veterans on the Susquehanna participants launch their kayaks. The Long Level area of the Susquehanna
offers beautiful views of farmland on the Lancaster County banks. Local band Blue Rock Connection rocks the post-paddle dinner at Shank’s Mare.