Chad Brown kayaks in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge

Texas Rodeos to Arctic Healing

Photo: Chad Brown

How Chad Brown rose from humble beginnings to become a nationally renowned conservation leader.

There’s no short way to introduce Chad Brown. He’s one of a kind: U.S. Navy combat veteran, survivalist, fly-fishing guide and outdoor trip leader, he’s also a PTSD survivor and a social justice advocate. He’s the founder of two nonprofits: Love is King, which connects BIPOC and other marginalized communities with conservation nonprofits, and Soul River, Inc., which helps at-risk youth and veterans find healing and purpose in the outdoors. On top of that, he’s a successful filmmaker, photographer, and conservationist.

But no one is born all these things. The path to leadership is often a winding one, and Brown had to overcome a number of hurdles in both his personal and professional life to get to where he is today. Now, he channels the darkness and pain he’s experienced to create a force of healing—for both people and planet. He recently sat down to share his story.

PUBLIC LANDS: Tell us about growing up amid the Texas rodeo scene.

CHAD BROWN: I came from a family of hunters and farmers. My upbringing was pretty rare in a way, being African American and being born in a small town and raised in the country. My grandfather owned 80 to 100 acres of land. My grandparents raised hogs, cattle, and horses, and we went to markets and went to the Black rodeo on Sundays. My grandpa used to compete, and my father wrestled bulls. I didn’t even know there were white rodeos. The Black rodeo was all I knew. It was a community, and it was my life. Even my mother was an archer. She actually put a bow in my hand when I was young. It was a way for me to stay focused and stay out of trouble.

And you had a pet deer as a kid?

One day my father and grandfather were hunting and they came across a deer that was dead, and there was a baby fawn by the deer. My dad picked up the fawn and raised it. That deer was my pet and we were inseparable. I was the only kid in town walking to a grocery store with a deer on a leash. I didn’t know the damage we were doing to the deer, of course—we eventually had to release it when it grew up, and it’s hard to know whether it would have made it—but that was my upbringing. Maybe that was my intro to the conservation space in a way: just my love of the outdoors and love of animals.

Chad Brown looks on at Arctic National Wildlife Refuge with his dog Photo: Chad Brown

What was the transition like from farm life to the Navy and beyond?

As I got older, I went to college and the military. There, some things happened to me and I was challenged mentally. After multiple deployments, I experienced PTSD. When I left the military I came to New York for college. There I was living in New York City, immersed in the design world and in fashion. I was disconnected from the outdoors, but I realized later that I was using that fast-lane lifestyle to cope with my mental challenges—I was so busy that I could only focus on what was in front of me instead of what was in my mind and behind me. It wasn’t until a job opened up in Portland, Oregon, and I moved west to where there’s a slower-paced lifestyle, that my mind was able to slow down enough to relapse. There, in the midst of that darkness, was when fly fishing was introduced to me.

Why was getting introduced to fly fishing so critical at that point in your life?  

Around this time, I was like a walking zombie. I was filled up with a lot of medication, and I was borderline about to commit suicide. But I had a friend who was into fishing. They said when they were going through their divorce, that’s when they would fly-fish. So when I was down on my luck dealing with PTSD stuff, they took me to the river.

How did fishing bring you back to yourself?

Fly fishing woke me up and reminded me of where I come from. It re-rooted me back into nature, which is where I feel most comfortable. It gave me drive and passion and sight. And it was just like medicine to my soul, and it became a new journey for me. The more I fly-fished, the stronger I became. Eventually, I was able to start teaching and educating people about the sport. I’m more than an angler now—I’m a trained photographer and director, a survivalist and a backpacker—but fly fishing is a vessel that gave me an opportunity to float into the next chapter of my life.

What made you go one step further and get involved with conservation, as well?  

Being around fellow anglers, hunters, scientists, and conservationists, I’ve spent a lot of time having conversations about things aside from catching fish. Many of those were centered around protecting our land and waters. Others were with our Indigenous brothers and sisters, some of whom I crossed paths with and took me under their wing. I learned a lot from the Quinault and the Navajo and the Gwich’in in particular about conservation. Learning from them made me want to take a stand with them.

How did you get involved with protecting the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge?

Through my work with Soul River, I spend a lot of time in the Arctic and have good relationships with the Gwich’in [who are the land’s historical inhabitants and land managers]. The Arctic is a healing place. To me, and to the youth and veterans who come up there, it feels like home. And because the Arctic Refuge speaks home to me, it means the work to protect it is personal.

I was working on a new deployment [which is what Soul River calls its youth and veterans’ trips] to the Arctic Circle when the Alaska Wilderness League reached out to me. They were running a big campaign to help protect the Arctic at the time, and the work really resonated with me. Now I’m proud to be a board member with them. It puts me closer to the space and helps me support the great work they’re doing there.  

For those who have never been there, describe what it feels like to be in the Arctic landscape.

When the Gwich’in speak about the Arctic Refuge, especially when they refer to the calving grounds of the Great Caribou, they say, “This is where life begins.” That resonates with me, because when I go back to the Arctic, it’s not really the landscape or the animals or the mountains that I notice—it’s a higher spiritual space that I step into. It’s kind of like a rejuvenation of my soul and spirit. It’s like I’m transforming myself from being in the city to being in a space that’s so big it makes me vulnerable, and at the same time makes me whole.

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