The Deschutes River Became My Therapist and Healer

"The pain I fought, the darkness I navigated, and the loneliness I endured as a navy veteran fighting PTSD would leave my body the closer I got to the river to fly-fish."

By Chad Brown June 8, 2023 Published in the Summer 2023 issue of Portland Monthly

Chad Brown and his service dog Axe pose for a photo on a recent fishing excursion in Alaska. 

I stumbled onto a haven in Central Oregon, at first naively realizing neither how special it is, nor how popular it has been historically. Some folks call this paradise a "blue-ribbon river," a designation for high-quality fisheries, and it doesn't disappoint: the waters splash with diverse trout, salmon, and bass. Nature’s theater surrounds, with flourishes of bighorn sheep, wild running horses, and many reptiles.

I was a homeless veteran, and the Deschutes became my escape, a safe place to hone my fly-fishing skills and connect with anglers who took me under their wing. It's where I would later become a fly-fishing guide, taking clients to run the river rapids in rubber catarafts and, occasionally, in the good ol' classic wooden drift boats.

But at the beginning, I was broken in spirit by my fight with PTSD. Some days the river was my sanctuary, where I would fall asleep on the banks of the Deschutes River: the sounds of the river, the smells of sage, and the warm sun was healing for my mind and soul. Some days it was my church: the river was a Southern gospel choir, giving me the sounds for rest and the melodies to dream. Some days the river was a road map for chasing red band trout or steelhead. What a fish to hook into: a steelhead's power demands respect.

My world was simple: pray, walk in faith, and stay close to the river. Fish hard, fish for fun, and yell out “fish on” when hooking in on a fish. The one thing that I knew in my soul was to stay close to the river, as she would never hurt me or judge me or where I was in my life. The pain I fought, the darkness I navigated, and the loneliness I endured as a navy veteran fighting PTSD would leave my body the closer I got to the river to fly-fish.

Even though I stuck out as a Black man, I did not allow this to create a barrier from fly-fishing. I just continued down my path of healing. Most of my moments of feeling unsafe came from strangers looking at me like I should not be fly-fishing on the river. But the river speaks to me, telling me that I do belong here. The way I see it, regardless of the color of my skin, I served this country and I have every right to exercise my freedom to roam this river, hike this river, and fish this river any way I want so long as nature and other humans are respected. I greeted whoever stepped into my path with a firm handshake and a smile, and the moment became yet another shared experience of this special river with another angler.

The Deschutes River has become my therapist, my mentor, and my friend. The river is for everyone. She has the answers, and all we must do is open ourselves to her and listen to her guidance. She welcomes everyone—the access is easy, even for folks who are physically challenged—and everyone has the right to exercise their freedom to roam this river respectfully, consciously, and with curiosity, filling our healing souls with joy in nature. 



Chad Brown is the founder and president of Soul River Inc, a Portland-based nonprofit that helps veterans and urban youth connect with the outdoors, nature, and environmental conservation through fly-fishing and other expeditions. He’s also the founder of the nonprofit Love Is King, which works with BIPOC leaders to engage conversations around the preservation of public land and protection of wild rivers. He recently directed and appeared in the documentary Blackwaters, about the relationships and tribulations of five Black outdoorsmen on a fishing excursion in Alaska.