Shelley Walchak fell in love with fly fishing like a teenage girl falls in love with a boy. She was about 59 at the time, so older than a teenager, but the draw was similar. The woods and the water became her church, allowing her to examine her thoughts and connect with living things.
At age 62, Walchak decided to pursue her love and follow her dreams. She left her stressful job in 2012 and hit the road, fishing a different river every week for a full year in the Rocky Mountains, which included seven states.
“The experience was about being able to stand in the middle of a river and see all this beauty around me and to be able to understand the river well enough to get a fish out of it,” Walchak said. “There are so many different things that need to come together to make that happen, and some of that is science, and some of it is art.”
Walchak, who is director of the Pine River Library, completed the trip in 2013 and wrote a blog-turned-book titled “52 Rivers” to document the adventure. She has given more than 100 presentations about her experience and encourages women to chase their dream, no matter what it looks like.
The Bayfield resident attended a conference in 2012 about risk-taking and realized she needed to get uncomfortable to fulfill her dream. She wanted to show a woman could master the art of fly fishing, and do it alone.
Walchak said her father had died and left her some money. She bought a 13-foot camper, fishing gear, camera equipment and supplies and set off in January 2013, starting her trip on the South Platte River near Denver.
She worked her way through Colorado, Arizona, Utah, Wyoming, Idaho, Montana and New Mexico, taking photos and journaling along the way. She would post to her blog daily and had 2,000 followers by the end of her journey. For Walchak, it wasn’t just about the fishing; she wanted to share her experience to inspire others to take chances.
Walchak said she never would have accomplished fishing 52 rivers if she thought of all the things needed to make it work. She had to take small steps, like learning about how to match a fly with a bug and knowing where to find fish on a sub-zero day.
In “52 Rivers,” Walchak wrote: “One of my goals for this year was to encourage others to follow their passions ... and to try fly fishing.”
Felicia Libo, a licensed professional counselor practicing in Durango for 18 years, said taking small steps toward a goal looks different for all women, depending on their background and upbringing.
She said financial and health issues can get in the way of fulfilling a dream, but positive thinking turns situations around.
“It’s important to choose people who are encouraging and limit time with people who are not, even if they are in your family,” Libo said. “People need to be heard so their dreams are taken seriously.”
Walchak said her husband was supportive, and she found friends who understood her passion.
Find people who support your dreamCarol Oglesby was one of those friends. Oglesby met Walchak at a fly fishing show when Walchak was looking for encouragement.
“No man has done what she’s done,” Oglesby said. “She stuck with it and saw it through, even during the winter months. She’s a gutsy woman.”
Oglesby has fished for 30 years and said her favorite part of fly fishing was meeting Walchak and supporting her dream.
“Shelley’s such a strong supporter of other women and encourages them to find their passion, whether it’s fishing or writing or art or something else,” Oglesby said. “She’s a great mentor in all areas.”
Walchak learned to face fear and tackle small goals. During the yearlong trip, there were plenty of challenges, but nothing she couldn’t handle. She felt accomplishment with each river fished and felt stronger as a woman.
Walchak got snowed in her camper for five days, fished in minus-11 degrees and locked her keys in her truck the same day she dropped her camera in the water.
She looks back on the year and says there wasn’t anything that was too hard to deal with on her own.
“I think fear really gets in the way of a lot of things,” Walchak said. “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.”
‘Take the next step’Dr. Donna Rockwell, a therapist who specializes in celebrity mental health and helping women develop mindfulness and self-love, said in an interview with The Durango Herald that women are naturally drawn to caretaking, and as a result often neglect themselves.
“Millennial women seem to have found a better middle ground, and it would be wonderful for older generations to explore areas of interest, dedicating time, effort and presence to fully manifesting these self-fulfilling enterprises,” Rockwell said. “It is never too late for self-discovery and personal growth.”
Walchak said toward the end of her trip she focused on turning her blog into a book. This became her next goal. After publishing, she worked on perfecting her presentation and encouraging women to take chances.
What’s next for Walchak? She plans to re-create the fly fishing adventure in France.
“Does it seem a little intimidating? Yes. But right now, I just have to figure out how to take it one step at a time,” she said.