When not guiding, Katie spends her free time at her metalsmithing bench creating jewelry that depicts her love of life in the mountains and on the river for her Etsy shop Dirt Road Wares. She is actively involved in the conservation of her native Chattooga River Watershed, has developed a near obsession with vegan butter and spends as much time as possible on the water with her husband Daniel and their dog, Beans.
Article by Catie Webster, a writer and fly-fisher based in Boulder, Colorado.
Katie Cahn is a natural. When she wants to do something, she just does it, in the most straightforward way possible, learning through trial and error.
“My mom gets a lot of the credit here—she got me a kayak when I was 12. I’d just take it down to the river without a spray skirt and get totally beat up. When I was 13 she invited some of her river-rat friends for dinner, and I thought they were so cool; I wanted to be just like them.”
Growing up amidst mountains and rivers, Katie’s course has often followed theirs. After kayaking, she started guiding, running jet boats, taking photos. A natural progression, if you’re Katie Cahn. She was well on her way to being a river-rat, and the more time she spent on the water, the more she recognized how it changes you, how it has a strange ability to be coming and going simultaneously that inevitably brings about a shift.
After years of working on the river, Katie felt that shift. While her love of the water hadn’t changed, the way she wanted to experience it had.
“I moved away from kayaking because I was tired of being nervous every time I put my helmet on. I just kept thinking that there had to be something else out there that I could be good at, that made me feel good about myself.”
Her college campus in western North Carolina sat on the banks of the Tuckasegee River, and she picked up a fly rod and learned to fish much the same way she learned to kayak—by doing it.
She asked friends for tips and advice, Googled “how to cast” and watched countless YouTube videos, but more than anything else, she went fishing. The river was 500 yards from her front door. So, before class, between classes, after class, she fished.
“I’d just be out there trying to get knots out for hours, and I’d catch one fish and it would all be worth it. But then I’d have to hike back to my truck.” She laughs at this. “I’d always go further than I meant to, than I wanted to sometimes, because I’m always wondering what’s behind that boulder. Half the time I was probably trespassing because I figured no one would get mad at me, just this girl trying to fly fish.”
Not one to play it safe, she hopped fences, accidentally discovered the timing of dam releases, and learned which property owners cared about a young woman with a fly rod traipsing across their property.
“Sometimes I’d get into these ridiculous situations. This one time a storm hit, and I was way up this gorge, and it flooded, and all these trees started washing down, and I was a mile and a half upriver with no one around. I had to cross a few times to get out and it was so sketchy. I’d taken my backpack off before the storm and then couldn’t find it. So, I got back to the truck and then had to go back out to find my backpack and saw a rattlesnake the size of a boa constrictor—like the size of one of those ones in the rainforest. That’s when I realized that fly fishing isn’t just this old man’s sport.”
In the fall of 2016, Katie had taken on a new adventure, marriage, when she found out she had cancer. Three weeks after her wedding, she was being prepped for a radical nephrectomy, and nine weeks after that she was on the operating table again, fearful that the cancer had returned. Though the second tumor was benign, she had her appendix and left ovary removed as a precaution. What was supposed to be one of the happiest times of her life was waylaid by fear and uncertainty. What if the cancer returned? What if it was incurable?
Battling depression, and even thinking about ways to end the pain quickly, she yearned for the old Katie, the carefree-just-married Katie that was planning fishing trips with her husband, not the one stuck in a hospital attached to an IV.
While she’d never be the Katie who never had cancer, she could be a Katie who’d beat it. She made her health her top priority, and, as with anything else she’d done, Katie took action. She gave up alcohol and meat. She refused to spend her days stuck in meetings about meetings, sitting under fluorescent lights and breathing stale air. This Katie would make a life that allowed her to move through the world in a way that helped her navigate fear and uncertainty with a firm grasp on her health and the future she would create.
And so, in February of 2017, when a call came from Headwaters Outfitters, just south of Brevard, NC, she was uniquely prepared to answer it.
The shop owner was looking for a female guide, just a day or two a week. Having completed her final surgery only weeks before, Katie’s schedule was wide open. “Not many people are able to quit their jobs to guide a couple days a week, but for me it was the perfect opportunity. When the shop reached out I was just like, “ME, I’LL DO IT!” I didn’t have anything going at that point, and it was perfect timing really. I was looking for a new kind of environment for myself.”
And she’s found it in the one that has always felt like home. “The best part for me personally is not being enclosed, not having four walls around me all the time. It feels good, especially in my recovery, to be outside, breathing fresh air, and I feel like I’m healing more and more every time I go to work. And getting to share that with clients, seeing them outside and able to decompress away from their jobs—I know that’s as memorable for them as it is for me.”
A life of reading water, first as a kayaker, then as a rafting guide, and now as an angler, has given her a unique perspective. “I look at life kind of like a river—sometimes you’ve got to eddy out, you know? Take a break. And then sometimes you’ve just got to go for it and not think too much. I’ve learned to take life as it comes—be patient, but also just roll with it. I’m still amazed, every time I go to the river, how it makes me feel and what it does to me. I feel at home in most rivers; it feels like I’m at my mom’s house.”
As spring turned into summer, Katie guided more and more, eventually transitioning to full time. When recalling her first day with Headwaters, she says that she went out with one of the guides and when they returned to the shop, all he had to say was “she’s a natural.”
She is most certainly that.
Photos by Becca Skinner. http://www.beccaskinnerphotography.com/