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Giving vets a taste of the lake

By Carlienne A. Frisch


Editor’s Note: Steve Gillaspie, the founder of Veterans on the Water, who is featured in this article, passed away on May 16, 2023, at the age of 73 at his home near Arlington. Internment will take place at Fort Snelling National Cemetery.

“I’ll bait the hook, I’ll take the fish off the hook, but you’ll have to make up your own fish stories,” Kerry Wuetherich, a volunteer with Veterans on the Water. Wuetherich pilots a pontoon on which military veterans enjoy fishing--or just relaxing--on the water. In addition, he’s a board member of this non-profit organization that provides any U.S. military veteran and spouse with fishing trips, fish fry events, and occasional overnight excursions beginning in late spring and continuing into early autumn. (Ice fishing excursions are not offered because of liability concerns.)


Steve Gillaspie, founder of Veterans on the Water, took some veterans on Lake Waconia during this excursion in 2019. The crew reeled in four bass, 15 crappies, and 64 sunfish that day. Contributed photo

Regardless of the length of a veteran’s military service, whether a few years or 20 -- he or she can enjoy going out on Minnesota’s lakes and casting for fish on trips offered by Veterans on the Water volunteers. (Catching fish is not guaranteed, of course, but swapping fish stories--and other stories--is part of each trip.) These mini vacations are an opportunity for veterans to experience not only a fishing trip, but also the companionship and fellowship of others who have served in the military.


The non-profit organization Veterans on the Water was started in 2016 by Steve Gillaspie, an Arlington businessman who had bought a small pontoon for personal use. By his own description, he “tore it up, put it back together, and then painted it red, white and blue.” After taking a neighbor (a veteran) out fishing on Lake Waconia near his home, Gillaspie asked himself, “Why can’t we do this for more veterans?” He began picking up more boats, always painting them the three patriotic colors. And as reports of his endeavors spread through veterans’ organizations, he acquired more passengers and more boats.


Gillaspie, a Vietnam combat veteran and decorated U.S. Army Ranger, said his goal--and that of fellow volunteers--is to provide veterans with the excitement, fun and laughter of fishing trips at no cost to the veteran. It goes without saying that every overnight trip includes a fish fry. (Three overnights are planned in July and August this year.)


The Veterans on the Water fleet consists of 25 boats, all painted red, white and blue, even down to each boat’s nuts and bolts. Any observer of the veterans on an excursion will recognize that the passing boatload of people is a patriotic group.


Planning the day trips on various lakes is the responsibility of Phil Klenk of Winthrop. (He also serves on the eight-member board of the non-profit organization.) He explained, “We have a day trip every weekend. We start in June, after Mother’s Day, which is Minnesota’s Fishing Opener, and go through Labor Day. We have several overnights, all indoors--no roughing it. Even with COVID last year, we had day trips, keeping our distance outside and following all of the guidelines. There’s a lot involved in the trips. We have a minimum of five volunteers for every trip, and most veterans are willing to jump in and help out when needed.”


Veterans on the Water was started in 2016. All of the pontoons are painted red, white and blue. Contributed photo

What if the veterans don’t catch many fish? They won’t go hungry--a varied menu offers something for everyone. Klenk, a member of the volunteer crew, also donates his time and talent in the kitchen.


“We take food with us for the entire trip--baked beans, potato salad, coleslaw. There’s a few of us that do the cooking. All of the resorts in the area allow us to use their kitchens. And yes, we do have fresh fish,” said Klenk.


On overnight trips, the veterans may spend the night in cabins on land, but there are sleeping accommodations for 45 passengers on the multiple pontoons that make each trip. All have “heads,” the naval term for toilets. Some of the overnight trips bring veterans to lakes on the U.S.-Canadian border. No passport is necessary, however, because the veterans and the crew remain on board their boat, observing U.S. Coast Guard vessels patrolling the water.


Most of the day trips, which are scheduled every weekend from May through October, begin with veterans boarding buses in Arlington, where parking is available for the veterans in a lumber company lot. (The buses all accommodate wheelchairs.) A trip’s destination might be Lake Washington or Lake Jefferson, both near Mankato, or Belle Lake near Hutchinson, or a lake closer to the Twin Cities, such as Lake Minnetonka or Prior Lake. The buses, which leave Arlington at 6 a.m., arrive at the destination lake within an hour. Once there, a lift can be used to move a wheelchair onto the pontoon if arrangements have been made in advance.


“Whatever the needs of the veterans, we will figure out a way to take them fishing at no cost,” Gillaspie said. “We take anyone who has ever served--any branch of service--combat or no combat--Army, Navy, Air Force, Marine, Coast Guard and Merchant Marines. Our only requirements are that they served honorably, they swear allegiance to our country--and that they are alive.”


Some veterans arrive at the pontoon in a van driven by Wuetherich. He picks up veterans at various locations and delivers them to the pontoon, of which he is the captain. On board, he often observes how time on the water provides the opportunity for veterans to benefit from time spent with other veterans, regardless of the era in which they served.


“The veterans like to tell stories,” Wuetherich said. “They relate to one another and can open up about their experiences. I’ve even had a 98-year-old veteran from World War II on my pontoon.”


The various aspects of Veterans on the Water continue to benefit veterans of several generations.


For more information about Veterans on the Water, go to www.veteransonthewater.com

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