By Tom Woodman
The big moment came at 3:35 in the afternoon when, after a long early-morning drive, setting up tents in the rain, and some dry-land training at a grassy airfield, Drew Moses pulled in a small trout on the West Branch of the Ausable River.
For the group of six boys from inner-city Albany, the catch set off a scramble through the shallow waters to help the successful angler celebrate. In sneakers, jeans, and sweats they jumped, trotted, and stumbled over the rocky riverbed to where Drew posed triumphantly, then gently released his catch as if he were an old master of Adirondack waters.
“What was that, six inches?” someone asked.
“That was seven inches at least,” he corrected, showing an instinct for one part of the angler’s craft: the optimistic estimate.
For the group leader, Brother Yusuf Burgess, Drew’s joy was not a surprise. It’s the kind of moment he has helped city teens discover for years as part of his work with Green Tech High Charter School in Albany and the national Children and Nature Network. But it was still something to celebrate as a moment of achievement and discovery for these boys, and as a story that will live on among friends back in the city. There it will kindle laughter and excitement and, for some, an interest in finding their own wild experiences in a natural world that can seem impossibly distant from their streets.
A family-intervention specialist, Brother Yusuf also has worked in gang prevention and as an environmental educator for the state Department of Environmental Conservation. He has become a passionate leader of efforts to introduce city kids to nature. He heads the Boys Outdoor Leadership Team for the Green Tech school, introducing the guys to skiing, snowshoeing, hiking, and fishing in the Adirondacks and Catskills. He joins with them in tree-planting and other projects to improve the natural part of the Albany environment.
This group of fifteen- and sixteen-year-old boys rose before six this morning in neighborhoods where the teenagers’ world can be limited to just a few blocks of urban landscape. They crammed into a car with Brother Yusuf at the wheel, fortified themselves with a bag of Jolly Rancher candies, stopped off to buy some rain ponchos near Schroon Lake, and arrived a couple of hours later at Chapel Pond near Keene Valley. There they rendezvoused with Dan Plumley of Adirondack Wild, Friends of the Forest Preserve. He would be their fly-fishing instructor and guide for the weekend.
Their introduction to fly fishing had a landlocked beginning, with Dan showing them the fundamentals of casting at Marcy Airfield. Don’t break your wrist. Move your arms in a ten-o’clock- to-two-o’clock range. Pause at the back of your cast to let the line catch up.
Soon they were lined up six across with line flying everywhere, making surprisingly rapid progress. They’re clearly having fun.
Yusuf sees a deeper attraction:
“Fly fishing is an art. It’s a sort of recreational break from the noise that they have inside them. Get up. Go to school. Put my radio on. Listen to my iPod, call somebody, listen to somebody call me. When they take this break it’s almost a meditation, a relief from the noise of so many advertisements and buy this and be a consumer and take care of this and do the next thing. These kids give themselves permission to be adolescents by doing this edventure [his word for educational adventure].”
The truth of this is evident even to an outside observer. On the river, these guys aren’t concerned about projecting a cool image or protecting themselves from others’ judgment. They let loose and have a grand time, even when they are bested by unfamiliar challenges.
“You’re catching more trees than fish,” teases a friend when an errant cast sends a fly into the branches.
Confronting the unfamiliar is the point, and Yusuf returns to it often. When one of the boys discovers muck oozing around his feet as he wades into the river he exclaims, “Whoa, that’s disgusting!”
“Substitute different for disgusting,” Yusuf instructs. “Then you’ve got it.”
“Some of these young men don’t explore the possibility of doing things differently,” Yusuf says. “This is connecting with the outdoors. It’s bringing them to a new excitement level about being in nature. It’s important for them to know and be a part of the Adirondacks, that it’s a public park, that it’s theirs as much as anybody else’s. … This kind of transformation is carried into other areas of their life. They think they can’t do the biology classes or some of the math. But when they learn that they can do something new they can take that same energy into the classroom, the home and try to do something different because they’ve experienced success at doing something different.”
After releasing his fish, Drew reveals his secret, a strategy developed in just a short time in the water: “I was down the river more, and I didn’t feel any flies around me. I came up the river and I felt flies all around me, so I said, there’s got to be fish over here. So I came over here and started casting and I just caught one. I saw a fish dropping over a rock in the current so I cast there.”
There’s an innate calling back to nature for all human beings, Yusuf believes. Listening to the boys chatter with excitement on the way home he knows that they’ve touched something that was in them. They’ve awakened something inside of them and they want more.