Robert Vessels

Fly Fishing in Yellowstone: How One Veteran Found a New Life in the Outdoors

By Lindsey Robinson

Evan Bogart never wanted to sleep in a tent again. Between 2004-2011, he'd served in the U.S. Army as an infantryman and spent three long combat deployments in Afghanistan and Iraq. He'd spent a good portion of his years in service living in a tent in hot and hazardous deserts. He'd had enough of the outdoors; he wanted to be in places with air conditioning, electricity and no reminders of the war-torn lands he had experienced.

Evan separated in 2011 as an E6 Squad Leader, with an honorable discharge and two Purple Hearts. But his own heart was heavy and troubled. He'd become disillusioned with the U.S. military and its goals in the Middle East. The violence and destruction he'd witnessed left him feeling both angry and guilty. He distinctly remembers one moment in Iraq: "An old woman told me I was a bad man, and I realized I agreed with her."

Leaving the Army and transitioning to civilian life proved to be a bumpy road, pocketed with heavy drinking followed by heavy cannabis use. Evan turned to a variety of substances to help him forget painful memories of his past. He moved around a few times, but felt directionless and unclear of his future. For five years, he lived with what he calls, "something of a death wish."

Then in 2017, one of Evan's closest friends, who had served beside him in combat, convinced Evan to participate in a trip to Yellowstone National Park with Sierra Club's Military Outdoors program. Evan agreed, knowing he was ready to move past his current lifestyle and become an active participant in the world again. He wanted a way to transition away from the drugs and alcohol and pursue an active, outdoors life instead.

The Military Outdoors trip to Yellowstone was designed to expose participants to the National Park's beautiful landscapes and ecosystem through the lens of fly fishing. Evan had wanted to learn the art of fly fishing for a long time, but he never knew quite how to get started or when to make time for it. The cost of gear and instruction had also been a barrier for him. This trip was exactly what he was looking for in his life.

Evan met the group of Military Outdoors vets in the Lamar Valley, where they stayed in cabins at the Buffalo Ranch. The Lamar Valley is a remote, glacier-carved region in the northeast corner of Yellowstone. It is often called America's Serengeti because it is home to so many animal species including elk, grizzly bears, buffalo, antelope, wolves, otters, coyotes and eagles. Evan found his favorite part of the trip was taking early morning hikes from Buffalo Ranch up to Ranger Hill. He would sit on the hillside, take in the sunrise, and enjoy the solitude and peaceful quietness.

During the day, the veterans received casting instruction and practiced fly fishing on the beautiful Yellowstone River. Many rivers run through Yellowstone National Park, but the Yellowstone River is special. It flows undammed for nearly 700 miles, making it the longest free-flowing river in the continental U.S. It is also one of the best trout streams in the world because the species' natural habitat is protected.

The veterans were joined by fly fishing guides Jesse Logan and Steve Harvey, who taught them how to cast and how to seek out the right time and place to lure the prized Yellowstone cutthroat trout. Jesse Logan shared his extensive knowledge of the greater Yellowstone area and how invasive species and floodplain development threaten the river's ecosystem. Another guest speaker, Doug Peacock, spent time with the veterans talking about the outdoors as a restorative place and the ways veterans can help protect wild places.

Before this trip, Evan had only seen Yellowstone as a "car tourist." Afterwards, he walked away more intimately familiar with the Yellowstone ecosystem and inspired to take his new fly fishing skills to other American rivers. Moreover, Evan felt the trip helped him get back into the outdoors and embrace an active lifestyle, which he found strengthened his mental health.

The Yellowstone outing wasn't the only big change for Evan this summer. He also participated in an OARS' raft guide school, thanks to a sponsorship the Military Outdoors program provides for a few veterans each year. At the end of guide school, Evan had come to enjoy the river running lifestyle so much that he accepted a summer job river guiding for OARS on the American River. He spent the summer at the OARS' outpost in Coloma, California—living happily in a tent.

From his time with Military Outdoors, Evan says that the value of these outings is how they reconnected himself and the other veterans to the outdoors. He feels that spending time in the outdoors might be one step toward healing the trauma that he and many vets experienced while in combat. Evan also sees the skills training aspect of the outings as a way to redirect one's life toward jobs or hobbies in the outdoors. He never imagined he'd learn to fly fish or become a river guide, but now he's done both. "These trips turned my life 180," he said.

Moving forward, Evan plans to stay involved with the Military Outdoors program and encourages other veterans to be part of the outdoor community. In the future he hopes to use the skills he gained to be a trip leader on other wilderness outings.

"I'd like to give my heartfelt thanks to the Sierra Club and the Military Outdoors program as well as all the volunteers at Yellowstone Forever and the personnel at OARS who have all made such a great contribution to my life and to my experience with their programs." — Evan Bogart

Photos by Cody Ringelstein or Sarah Chillson.

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