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Salute to Veterans: A newly renovated bank on Spring Creek offers vets the chance to heal in nature

Clair family

Dr. Gerry Clair, a State College physician who passed away last year, knew the therapeutic nature of fishing. After all, being out in nature, listening to and watching the stream, and telling fish stories with like-minded friends sometimes is just what the doctor ordered.

Clair served in the United States Navy and Air Force from 1957-1965, so he also knew that many disabled veterans needed just the therapeutic opportunity that fishing provides. He had a dream of providing such a location for disabled veterans on his section of Spring Creek along Trout Road in College Township. Susan Clair says the idea seemed to literally come to her husband in a dream. 

“He woke in the middle of the night; what made him think of it? I don’t know, but he wanted to have a place where disabled veterans could fish,” says Susan Clair. “That was his dream. … He was a vet, and he was a doctor. I guess you put the two together, and this is what you get. … He always supported the vets and when you get a little bit more mature, you do things that maybe you wouldn’t have done when you were younger.” 

Spring Creek is a world-renowned stream and it draws people to fish its flowing waters from all around the region and country; but sometimes getting to the stream can be difficult for people with disabilities. Roots, rocks, and ruts can make it difficult to navigate a trail to the stream in a wheelchair or with a cane. Fishing while in a wheelchair is made much more practical if a fisherman has a flat surface on which to operate. Dr. Clair wanted to find a way to allow all veterans, no matter their mobility level, to fish his part of Spring Creek.

In order to help that dream come true, the Foundation for Pennsylvania Watersheds awarded a $17,500 grant to the Wildlife for Everyone Foundation, a conservation-focused organization headquartered in State College, which partnered with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to restore a 1,000-foot section of the stream. The restoration work includes stabilization of the creek bank to prevent bank erosion, which will improve aquatic habitat.

Dave Putnam, wildlife biologist for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service office in State College, has worked with the Clair family on the project since 1995. In accordance with Dr. Clair’s wishes, the USFWS designed a trail and installed log cribbing structures to allow wheelchair access to the stream. The trail is a work in progress, but currently is accessible by all-terrain vehicles that can help people in wheelchairs access locations along the stream bed that are flat and easy to navigate.

“We have the stream set up so that disabled veterans can fish,” Susan Clair says. “We have a section set up where veterans in wheelchairs can get closer to the stream. … That was his dream.”

Putnam, a disabled veteran himself, says that while physical disabilities are often the first thing people think of when they hear the term disabled vet, the location can also serve as a benefit for veterans who are struggling with PTSD or other emotional and mental health concerns.

“It really has been a special opportunity for me to do what I do, fixing the stream, and have it be for disabled veterans,” Putman says. He said many area veterans will benefit from the program, and with the help of Trout Unlimited Veterans Service Program, he hopes to see more group outings organized soon.

The project fit in well with the Wildlife for Everyone Foundation’s mission to promote wildlife conservation and education in Pennsylvania.

“Partnering with the USFWS on this project is a good fit for us. The Wildlife for Everyone Foundation is a conservation-focused organization that facilitates stream restorations and we are on the cusp of breaking ground on two accessible wetlands in Centre County. The idea of nature for all is central to our initiatives,” says Wildlife for Everyone public relations coordinator Barbara Schroeder. “There are limited fully accessible natural areas that persons with physical limitations can navigate to experience nature and reap the restorative benefits it offers. Being outdoors and connecting with the natural world is proven to have therapeutic value. It clears minds and emotionally recharges lives. All persons should have access to nature.”

She adds, “Equally, individuals who suffer emotionally (not necessarily physically) like veterans who suffer from PTSD will benefit from the therapeutic value that being in nature offers. Fly fishing allows individuals quiet space to focus thoughts on an activity. This project achieves stream health and human health. This project adds to the limited number of places where persons with physical and emotional limitations can recreate and enjoy nature. It’s a positive for the community.”

“In partnership with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Wildlife for Everyone Foundation is proud to promote conservation, wildlife, and accessibility for all persons,” says Russ Schleiden, chairman of the foundation. In October, the Wildlife for Everyone Foundation was to break ground on the Julian Wetland, the first of two wetlands in Centre County that will be enhanced with ADA-compliant features to make nature accessible to all.

While providing a place for disabled veterans to fish, the project on the Clair property will also improve the quality of Spring Creek and all the bodies of water into which it flows.

“We hope to see an increase in the multitude of macroinvertebrates and fish species,” notes John Dawes, executive director of the Foundation for Pennsylvania Watersheds. Because Spring Creek is part of the Chesapeake Bay Watershed, “improvement of this section will represent a small contribution to the recovery of the Chesapeake Bay, which has deteriorated in recent years due to nitrogen and sediment loading.”

Susan Clair plans to provide a system for veterans looking to fish, in order to set up a time and a guide to the location. In the meantime, she is happy to see the final steps in her husband’s dream come to fruition.

“It just makes me thrilled to be able to carry through what my husband started. It was something that was near and dear to his heart and it is important to me,” she says. “He had gotten involved with a veterans fishing group and I have become very good friends with the group as well. There are a lot of good things that you can do for veterans. There are a lot of veterans that need a lot of help.”