There's a distinct pride among guides in being able to lead even the most amateur of fishermen to a catch. But while there are hundreds of thousands of trout in the Green River this time of year, not a single one had landed in Bolton's drift boat on a Saturday earlier this month.
He had guided fly fishermen on the Green River for a decade with very few stretches of such poor luck. And then, within view of the boat ramp where Bolton's truck and trailer were waiting, J.C. Wicks saved the day, pulling a 14-inch rainbow trout out of the river in the last few feet of a 7-mile trip down the Green.
From the boat and the banks, a great cheer echoed against the rugged red canyon walls. It was exactly the kind of magic that a small, startup nonprofit called Rivers of Recovery is hoping to conjure again and again as it hosts disabled veterans on all-expense-paid trips to Utah's fly-fishing magnet. The group, which completed its three-weekend pilot program Sunday, aims to bring dozens more veterans to the Green next year - and prompt similar ventures in outdoor recreation areas across the country in years to come.
The trout Wicks hooked wasn't a big one. But it was a big deal for the former Hill Air Force Base airman - who up until Friday had never so much as lifted a fly rod.
"You saved me," Bolton said, reaching up to exchange a high-five with Wicks, who beamed as the rainbow dashed away from the boat ramp.
Over dinner later that Saturday night, Wicks said the clutch catch "did a lot for my confidence." And these days, every little bit helps.
It was just four years ago that Wicks - a veteran of the wars in Kosovo and Afghanistan, and a victim of the 1996 Khobar Towers bombing in Saudi Arabia - found his 10-year Air Force career over shortly after he was diagnosed with manic depression and post-traumatic stress disorder.
"A year earlier I was getting letters from my commander, letters of recommendation and things like that, saying, 'Hey, you're an outstanding troop, you're doing such a great job and we love you,' " Wicks recalled. "You know, you're on top of the world - and then one year later, it's like you're a broken tool . . . like you've been thrown in the garbage."
Wicks, who now works for the Disabled American Veterans in Salt Lake City, said he tries hard to make sure that other wounded veterans don't feel the same way as he did - and he said programs like Rivers of Recovery are a big help. "To be able to have programs like this, where you can enable somebody who is messed up and say, 'Look, you're not broken, you know, you can go out and still enjoy your life' - that means a lot."
Program founder Dan Cook said he can't change what has happened to the veterans he escorts down the Green - and he's not so naive as to believe that he can completely change their lives - even with the help of one of the most awe-inspiring settings in the western United States.
"We're just trying to give them a foothold," said Cook, whose crumpled straw cowboy hat, matching blond locks and scraggly beard belies his not-so-distant history as a former Wall Street executive and energy trader.
Cook's brother, champion Paralympic skier Steve Cook, helped guide the pilot tours, serving as a silent ambassador to the idea that no wound is so great as to rob life of its diverse joys.
Having watched his brother take charge of his life after a farming injury claimed his leg as a teenager, Dan Cook said he wanted to help others find an outlet to do the same. The idea for the Rivers program came to him during a round-the-world fly-fishing expedition last year, when he saw a program on a cable news station about the struggles faced by wounded veterans when they return home.
When Cook got back to the U.S. he poured his energy into the concept with the same intensity of purpose that he had devoted to his former career -funding the first year of the program out of his own pocket with help from friends, family members and the community of Dutch John.
Bolton said he was thrilled when he learned that the company he worked for, the venerable Old Moe Guide Service, had been selected by Cook to guide the program's trips.
"To be able to guide a program with a purpose, instead of just for the almighty dollar - that's awesome," said Bolton, whose brother served a tour of duty in Iraq and whose father served in Vietnam. "We can really show these guys that we care about them."
The compassion and commitment coming from people like Bolton were meaningful parts of the Rivers program for participant Dan Rioux, who lives in Layton. His high-speed, low-drag career as a Navy diver - including a four-year stint with a SEAL team - ended after he fell from a tugboat onto a barge, breaking his back and causing severe trauma to his brain.
"Everything stopped," said Rioux, who had to relearn how to walk and talk as a result of the brain injury. "That's the hardest thing - slowing down. . . . It's good to know that there are people out there who won't quit on us just because our lives change."
Nick Cantrell agreed. The post-traumatic stress symptoms he suffered as a result of his tour of duty in Ramadi, Iraq, between 2004 and 2005, left him feeling as though no one could understand him - not even his wife, who left him and took the couple's two sons with her when he wouldn't stop his abusive drinking. Now, seven months sober and back together with his family in Colorado, Cantrell said that it's important for veterans to see overt signs of community support, like the Rivers program, to help counter feelings of isolation and abandonment.
After experiencing the Utah program first-hand, Ed Duffey is convinced of a need for a similar program in his home state of Tennessee. Duffey, who was injured after he was blown off the side of an Army vehicle by a mortar in Iraq, has about 70 percent mobility in his right arm and 40 percent in his left. "That leaves me just about perfect for fly fishing," he said.
When Duffey is released from the Army - hopefully later this year, he said - he hopes to work with Cook on starting a similar program that will take veterans from the eastern United States on guided fly fishing tours down Tennessee's famed South Holston River.
"I don't think there's a better way to spend a day, watching the river and thinking about the future," Duffey said.
And as long as the fish are biting, he said, the future will be good.