I stood on a glass-like lake in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan watching a steady stream of rising Brook Trout. I chuckled as I thought about how many I would catch, if only I could keep my fly on top of the water.
If this were any other autumn, I would have been unbearably frustrated with myself for having ruined a great day of fishing by forgetting something as simple as floatant. If this were any other autumn, I wouldn’t be standing in a lake on the Upper Peninsula casting to rising brook trout.
The diagnosis came four months earlier as I sat in a hospital room in Anchorage awaiting an emergency appendectomy. The good news was that the Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia I had fought six years prior appeared to be cured. The bad news was that the countless bags of toxic drugs that saved my life then had caused a different, more dangerous kind of blood cancer – Acute Myloid Leukemia.
Because no one will treat secondary leukemia in Alaska, I would have to return to the Midwest to receive treatment. I would have to leave my good friends and found-family in the state I now proudly called home.
I would have to leave the rivers and streams that I love, just as the salmon were getting ready to make their annual migration upstream. I would miss wading in crystal clear water chasing the Dolly Varden that gorge themselves on salmon eggs all summer long. I would miss chasing fat rainbows, drifting huge flies that mimic the flesh of salmon that have given their bodies back to the river.
For two months my wife Jenny and I lived vicariously through our friends sending us slabby grip-and-grin pictures as we sat in a hospital room watching bag after bag of hazardous drugs drip into my system. Then came the news that despite two rounds of the strongest chemo available, the leukemia had been knocked back but not defeated.
My only hope was getting on a clinical trial and having a bone marrow transplant. But first I would have to go through a series of tests to make sure my body was strong enough to undergo the transplant.
Fresh off pre-transplant evaluations, which included a bone marrow biopsy, heart tests, lung function tests, full body C/T scans and enough blood tests to make a healthy person pass out, Jenny and I decided to get out of town and escape the mundane clinical realities that have become everyday life. With ten straight days of chemo ahead and three weeks out from being hospitalized for 4-6 weeks, we would take a three-day weekend to head north to the Upper Peninsula – the closest thing to Alaska I have found in the Lower 48.
Friday morning I awoke with the raw nerves that accompany knowing that test results are back, sitting on a printer somewhere. Test results that will determine whether we can proceed with the clinical trial or whether they found something in the evaluation that would push me “off-study,” a wonderful medical euphemism for “fucked.”
I’ve learned that sitting around waiting for medical results is not an option. Allowing one’s mind to wander undistracted through all of the terrible things you might hear on the other end of that phone can (and will) drive anyone insane.
Armed with this knowledge, I picked up an atlas and started studying years-old notes on my favorite hikes and trout fishing holes. Wonderful memories that have been hidden in the depths of my mind came flooding back as I looked at the notes scribbled alongside streams, lakes, trails and gravel roads.
Having identified a long-forgotten favorite spot to hike and fish, Jenny and I loaded up the Subaru and headed through the stoic but scenic landscape of the Upper Peninsula. The familiar anticipation of putting on waders and lacing up boots for the two-mile hike in felt wonderfully normal. Regardless of what those test results at the hospital in Madison show, I’m here now. I’m in the woods. The sun is shining. I’m with Jenny. I’m heading to fish. Life does not get better.
The two-mile hike through a conifer and maple forest led to glassy water reflecting the blue sky, cumulous clouds and fresh colors of early fall foliage. A hatch of insects left perfect circles on the flat water. Occasional old brook trout would gracefully gulp them off the surface or small brook trout would leap out of the water brimming with youthful exuberance.
Standing deep in the wilderness rhythmically casting our fly rods and having the undeveloped lake to ourselves, the moment was perfect. The kind of rare moment where you live entirely in the present. The kind of moment where you stop to recognize its greatness, and take a moment to soak in the sights, sounds and smells that recharge your soul and become imprinted on the storyboard of your life.
It was only through the miracle of instinct that I pulled back on my rod as my fly disappeared off the surface. The rod jumped alive with the tug of a small but feisty wild brook trout. Holding it in the water in the palm of my hand I studied the white outline on the edge of its fins, the yellow, blue and pink spots shimmering in the sunlight. If there is a sign that god exists, it is in the beauty of a wild brook trout.
The only thing better than the feel of a wild brook trout in your hands is the moment it swims out of them, returning to its life underwater after having given you the gift of its presence. As I watched the fish swim back to its normal life, my phone vibrated deep in the pocket of my waders.
It was the clinic. Test results were back and everything looked good. The percentage of blasts (bad cells) in my bone marrow had come down slightly to 13 percent from 14 percent. The tests showed my lungs and heart are strong enough to move forward with the study. The first 10 days of chemo would start on Monday.
Statistics and odds, they’re not in my favor. They haven’t been for a while. There’s a long and scary road ahead. But with the opportunity to hold a fly rod, to catch a brook trout, to hear a rare set of good news, the pilot light of hope deep in my soul grew brighter.
As we walked out of the woods, I couldn’t help but smile as I thought of all of the evenings I’ve spent sitting on the tailgate, taking waders and boots off, drinking beer and laughing about the ones that got away.
Now it’s back to Madison, back to the clinic every day, back to fighting for the chance to get another go at life – the chance to get unhooked and swim freely back into the world that I know and love.
Sam Weis works in Alaska’s salmon conservation movement and is currently landlocked in Wisconsin as he receives treatment for Acute Myloid Leukemia. He is dealing with this life-threatening disease with unimaginable optimism, bravery, and grace. He is a big part of the Moldy Chum family, and we can’t wait to get back on the water with him after he kicks Leukemia’s ass for the second time.