Most summer mornings, when the sun rises over the trees along Saskatchewan’s Tobin Lake, you’ll find Blake Emmons quietly casting a line, shooting ripples across the glassy surface as he sits in contemplative serenity. He says Tobin lake has the best walleye fishing in the world. He says he knows a spot where they’re always biting. He says he’ll never tell me where that is. Emmons has spent the majority of his summers on that lake, and he fondly recalls the times he’s spent making memories with friends, family and, perhaps more importantly, fish.
Last Memorial Day, Emmons was fishing with an old military buddy when they began to talk about the men they knew from the service. “We know a lot of guys who were injured, both physically and mentally, and we wanted to do something to show that we care,” Emmons said. The two men talked about inviting a few wounded veterans to Nipawin, Saskatchewan for a weekend of carefree camaraderie and a chance to experience world-class fishing on the Saskatchewan River and Tobin Lake. “We had no idea it was going to turn into such an big event,” said Emmons. “After word got out about the weekend, we kept hearing from vets who wanted to get involved. How could we say no?"
After teaming up with Wounded Warriors, an organization with American and Canadian branches that offers support for wounded veterans, Emmons and his team helped to organize the Wounded Warriors Weekend in August, giving 112 wounded American and Canadian veterans an opportunity to get out on the water and have some fun. The Wounded Warriors team knew they needed more support to make this event a success, so Emmons reached out to Lund about a sponsorship. “I've always been a fan of Lund boats, and since much of the weekend centered around fishing, they were the first group I thought to contact. I didn't expect that they would take such an interest in the event.”
Lund donated a WD-14 with a 9.9 Mercury engine and a Shoreland’r trailer for the event, and for every $10 donated, patrons received a raffle ticket for the chance to win the package. Emmons continued, “We called the fishing portion of the weekend ‘The Lund Fishing Challenge.’ It was a challenge, not a tournament. It wasn't about winning. It was about having fun.”
Joe Rustenburg, a Canadian veteran living with post traumatic stress disorder, and his wife Melanie found out about the weekend through Facebook. Initially, Melanie didn't think about attending the event as a guest. She wanted to volunteer. “I read about it, and I was immediately hooked,” Melanie said. “The weekend sounded like such a great idea, and I wanted to help in any way I could.” After offering to volunteer, Melanie was encouraged to participate in the event with her husband. “I can’t explain how much it meant to me to see Joe feeling comfortable and relaxed – to see the real Joe just having fun and being himself,” Melanie said.
Joe took up fishing in 2009 after returning from his second tour of duty in Afghanistan. “It has a peaceful, calming effect on me,” said Joe. “Getting out on a boat and casting a line into the water really helps me feel peace.” As a lifelong fishing enthusiast, Melanie was excited when Joe turned to fishing as a means for therapy. “He never really fished before, but he loves it now,” she said. “When we’re fishing, everything is okay. All of our problems go away, and we can just relax and have fun with each other.”
Justin Bednar, an American Army veteran, participated in the event after the American branch of Wounded Warriors reached out to him. “When they called me and told me about the weekend, I immediately wanted to participate.” A lifelong fisherman, Joe was excited about the opportunity to fish with a group of people going through similar circumstances as his. “I’ve always enjoyed fishing. Now, more than ever, I can see the therapeutic effect it has on me. When I’m on the water, I can forget about everything and just fish.”
After sustaining combat wounds in April 2007, Justin found himself in the same position as most of the vets who participated in the weekend. “You get out and you think, ‘This is it. How am I going to adjust to this new life?’ It’s easy to get depressed, and I think a lot of guys have a really hard time with that. The Wounded Warriors Weekend gives us a chance to connect with one another – to share stories and offer support. You talk to different guys and you see the hope. You see that this isn't the end. You see that there are guys just like you who wake up in the morning wondering how to get through another day. A weekend like that really clears your head, and I think a lot of guys walked away thinking, ‘Well, maybe it’s not so bad.”
Out on the waters of Lake Tobin and the Saskatchewan River, the wounded veterans forgot about their mental and physical scars. They forgot about their limitations. They forgot about all of their struggles and just fished. Joe and Melanie Rustenburg had heard that Lake Tobin was known for great walleye fishing, and they were excited to experience it for themselves. “Even though this weekend wasn’t about winning, Melanie and I had a little competition ourselves,” said Joe. “I caught nine walleye. I won.” Other vets reeled in scores of walleye, northern pike, and lake sturgeon, two of which weighed in at over 40 pounds.
The Wounded Warriors Weekend gained immense popularity throughout the town of Nipawin and surrounding areas of Saskatchewan, drawing praise from local and provincial officials, as well as residents who enthusiastically donated time, money, and their own boats for use during the weekend. Joe Rustenburg said, “You know, we Canadians aren't known for being as patriotic as Americans, but when I saw how many gracious men and women donated their boats so that there would be enough for all of us, I knew that the support was there. It was comforting to see how many people care about us.”
Reflecting on the weekend, Blake Emmons said, “What started out as a couple guys getting together and fishing turned out to be so much more. There was a lot of healing that happened, and it’s the kind of healing that has nothing to do with pills. We’re so happy about what we did.”
So will there be a 2013 Wounded Warriors Weekend? “It’s a go," Blake says. "I called Lund and asked them to sponsor again. Before I even finished asking they said, ‘We’re in!’ This whole event pivots around Lund. Without them, there would be no Wounded Warriors Weekend.”