Catching and Releasing a Yearlong Dream
Updated: Jun 9
If you’ve been toying with the idea of doing something new and different with your life, like bicycling to Alaska or quitting your job to become a chef, don’t mention a word of it to Shelley Walchak unless you’re ready to start drafting an action plan. She is that rare type of confidante: part quixotic visionary and part pragmatic strategist, who will inspire you to set your dreams in motion. It’s no surprise that she is a librarian -- that’s what they do.
In 2012, Walchak served on the planning team for an innovative national library conference. Its theme focused on embracing change. That experience stirred her to make a big change in her own life. Something unique and even daunting that would involve her favorite pursuits: the outdoors, photography, and finessing her new-found passion for fly-fishing. Her plan? Wander the Rocky Mountain West for one year, by herself, fishing a different river each week.
Once her plan was hatched, Walchak quit her longtime job in Denver, bought a laptop, a travel trailer, and a slew of maps and guides. In January 2013, a few short weeks later, she packed her waders, rods and tackle and hit the road. She headed for the South Platte River in Deckers, Colorado, kicking off the new year and her big new adventure.
Along the way, she recounted her experiences in weekly posts to her new blog, 52Rivers.com. An engagingly written mix of her humorous fly-fishing foibles, fishing lore, and heartfelt reflections of the journey, the site is supplemented by stunning photography of the rivers she fished and the panoramic Western landscapes she traveled through.
Often, Walchak’s actual fly-fishing activities seemed incidental to the grander experience of meeting and learning from the people she encountered at each new location – fishing guides and other travelers – and developing some abiding new friendships as a result.
Walchak’s journey forced her to live in the moment, reconnecting with the natural world in all its big sky, golden sunset glory, but also its snowstorms, freezing temperatures, ferocious winds, and dead of night. The circumstances of traveling alone honed her skills at facing fears with logic, adapting as needed, and enduring to finish what she started. She reflected on the many lessons she was learning at every turn, tapping out her thoughts at each day’s end – often exhausted -- on the laptop in the snug solitude of her mini-trailer.
In December 2013, Walchak wheeled into Durango, Colorado, where she met up with her husband Florian, and together they fished the Animas River, officially marking the end of her fly-fishing marathon. By now, she was tying on 1/16th-inch flies like a seasoned pro. As it turned out, she didn’t get a nibble that day, but it didn’t really matter.
Her adventure took her to more than 52 rivers in Colorado, Arizona, Utah, Wyoming, Idaho, Montana, and New Mexico. Her blog had attracted a following of 2,000 friends and supporters. A personal challenge undertaken was now inspiring to many others around the world. She has since given more than 100 presentations to talk about her book and other experiences, during which she encourages women to chase their dreams, no matter what they look like.
“I think fear really gets in the way of a lot of things,” Walchak told The Durango Herald in 2018. “We can’t do anything about our past, and we have no idea what the future is going to bring. So, we better just live in the moment and take the next step.”
“52 Rivers: A Woman’s Fly-fishing Journey,” a beautiful coffee table book complied from the writings and photographs of Walchak’s blog by the same name and enhanced with additional notes, map, and a handy fly-fishing glossary, was published in 2014.
For whatever reason, fly-fishing has been considered a male-dominated endeavor. Did you get any unwelcoming reactions from male fly-fishers that you were intruding on their territory, so to speak?
Never. Fellow fly-fishers, whether recreational or professional, male or female, really want to enjoy and appreciate the great outdoors and welcome anyone else who wants that experience.
This wasn’t just a weekend at the cabin. It was an entire year devoted to honing your skills, fishing by yourself under every conceivable natural condition. Were you prepared for the downsides?
This may sound “Pollyanna-ish” but there really were no downsides. That’s because the whole nature of the trip was discovery, so each “challenge” was welcomed and embraced. In fact, I looked forward to the challenges because it gave me something more juicy to write about.
Did you ever go fishing with your mom or dad when you were a kid?
No, I never did. Our family did take outdoor vacations involving activities like skiing, swimming, canoeing, and waterskiing, but nothing really adventuresome. I was privileged in that I was sent to a camp in Vermont for three summers, where we did overnight horseback rides and canoe trips. I have always felt at peace outdoors.
Lots of people these days – from 20-somethings to seniors – seem to be looking for a way to take a break from their day-to-day lives to be free to do something wild and wonderful for once. Was there a point for you when you suddenly realized it was time to stop dreaming, that you could really do this?
Everything happened quickly with this adventure. I discovered that I loved to fly fish and felt compelled to learn more about it and make up for lost time. I don’t think there has ever been a time in my life when everything seemed so clear and been so seamless to implement. I wanted to do it, gathered information, planned, and did it! There were never any doubts or hesitations about what I was going to do. There were a few logistical issues – like getting the camper, buying equipment, and quitting my job, that took time – but it was less than a year in planning.
Now that you’ve accomplished the 52 Rivers project, are you eager to embark on another similar adventure?
I feel like the last six years of my life since “52 Rivers” have been an adventure, but of a different sort. I took on the leadership of a very successful, high-performing public library and accomplished some really satisfying things – passed a mill levy, built a park, and added over a million items to our collection of materials. It was a very different kind of adventure, but one nevertheless. Now that I’ve retired from that position, I am exploring new opportunities.
I am in the process of writing a children’s book about clouds and drawing on my photography skills once again. I’m on several arts and culture boards because I believe music is important in unifying people to create social change. However, I still have the wanderlust pulling at me, and perhaps I will find another reason to get back in my camper. I have since moved to a home on the river so I can live my fly-fishing dream every day!
Do you feel like you now know how a fish thinks?
I certainly have a good idea of where a fish needs to be in the river in order to feed and survive. That has been part of the thrill of learning about fly-fishing – it has helped me to understand our rivers and the life within. Scientifically, their brains are minute, and most experts believe that fish do not feel or think. Because of that, they don’t remember being hooked and don’t experience pain.
For me, I still feel a little uncomfortable hooking these creatures and try to be very responsible about releasing them without hurting them. I think if I were a fish, I’d rather just swim and eat my life away and not have to deal with anglers.
What’s your one most precious takeaway from this experience?
My precious takeaway is that I had a year that will provide satisfaction for the rest of my life. Metaphorically, I feel like I put the icing on the cake of my life. I think about my year every week and remember the myriad lessons that I learned and the constant joy of the experience. I can live very much within myself and not allow the challenges of life to penetrate or get in the way of my internal contentment.
Photos (from top): Shelley Walchak with her catch at the Provo River, Utah/photo by Carlton Wing; the Scamp trailer -- "home away from home"; the Colorado River at Lee's Ferry, Arizona; Silver Creek, Idaho; taking a break/photo by Nick Streit, Taosflyshop.com; Williams Fork River, Colorado.