At the outset of her career asa fly fishing guide, Flathead Valley native Whitney Milhoan reached out to a nonprofit organization that provides free, therapeutic fishing retreats to women diagnosed with breast cancer.
She’d heard about the program while listening to an interview with Joan Wulff, also known as the First Lady of Fly Fishing. Inspired by what she heard, Milhoan contacted the organization to inquire about opportunities for an unpaid internship. The nonprofit politely declined.
More than a decade later, Milhoan’s career has evolved from a whitewater rafting and fishing guide in West Glacier to the program director for the nonprofit First Descents, which empowers young adults diagnosed with cancer by helping them overcome outdoor challenges like whitewater kayaking.
Her professional life recently came full circle when Milhoan was named executive director of Casting for Recovery, the national organization that sparked her interest in and passion for nonprofit work, despite turning her down as a free intern more than a decade ago.
“It was serendipitous for me because Casting for Recovery was the first nonprofit that I ever showed interest in back when I was working as a guide,” she said in a recent interview.
Raised on the doorstep of Glacier National Park, Milhoan is the product of the outdoors and her career path is a fitting complement to her lifestyle. Her father worked for the National Park Service as a wildlife biologist and her older sister, Hilary Hutcheson, is the co-host of Trout TV, having introduced Milhoan to the sport that would forge her professional path.
As a teenager, Milhoan’s familiarity with the three forks of the Flathead River helped her earn the chops of a seasoned rafting and fishing guide, which served as her livelihood for nearly a decade as she worked her way through college and into the nonprofit world, where her career took off.
Since 2007, as the program director for First Descents, which was started by fellow Flathead native and professional kayaker Brad Ludden, Milhoan has dedicated herself to providing therapeutic outdoor adventures to young adults with cancer. Although she remains passionate about the First Descents program, Milhoan said the opportunity to join a national organization like Casting for Recovery and remain in Montana – Milhoan now lives in Missoula – was too good to pass up.
In past years she has volunteered with Casting for Recovery at its West Glacier retreats, and said the therapeutic benefits, both mental and physical, to women diagnosed with breast cancer are myriad.
“It’s kind of a dream come true for me,” she said. “We grew up in the Flathead Valley and fly fishing has always been a big part of my life. I feel really fortunate to be able to stay in Montana, raise my kids here and maintain and pursue that kind of lifestyle that every Montanan is passionate about, while also being passionate about this work.”
Milhoan will divide her time between Montana and Vermont, where the national office is based, and will be on hand at the upcoming Casting for Recovery retreat in Glacier Country, which runs from Sept. 6-8. The retreats are free to participants and apply counseling, medical education and instruction in fly fishing to help women of all ages and at any stage of treatment address survivorship issues.
Last year, the program ran 44 retreats in 33 states and served more than 600 survivors. Since it was founded in 1996, the program has served more than 5,600 women.
The therapeutic properties of fly fishing are manifold, both as an outdoor activity and because it mimics the range of motions used to help breast cancer patients convalesce in physical therapy.
“The sport itself is therapeutic because it’s an introduction to the natural healing properties of the outdoors, while the physical motion of casting a fly rod is beneficial to women recovering from breast cancer,” she said. “It has that double element of being therapeutic as an outdoor sport and at the same time offers a range of motion that studies show really benefits women.”
The local community has been supportive of Casting for Recovery retreats in Glacier Country in the past, Milhoan said, and local guides volunteer as fly fishing instructors.
“The local support has been outstanding,” she said. “These retreats are run by teams of volunteers who work extremely hard. We are very grateful.”
Casting for Recovery’s national fundraising event will be held in Hamilton, the heart of the Bitterroot Valley, on Oct. 4 and 5. All proceeds from the single-fly fly fishing tournament will benefit Casting for Recovery. Visit CastOneForHope.org for more information.
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