IT IS A MILD, SUNNY DAY IN UPSTATE NEW York, and a hatch of mayflies is blanketing the water as John Ellis rolls his wheelchair onto a platform beside the Willowemoc River. His friend Joan Stoliar looks on with pride as Ellis ties a tiny bundle of fur and feather onto his fly line and casts it up into the current. “I’d fished my whole life,” says Ellis, 63, a former mechanic who lost his legs when a car fell on them 34 years ago. “But when I became a paraplegic, I had to stop. I used to sit on the road and lake pictures of other guys wading down to the stream, and it just killed me. Now, thanks to Joan, I fish every weekend, if I got money for gas.”
Joan Stoliar, according to Ellis, is “the guardian angel of disabled fly fishermen.” An avid angler herself, Stoliar is the heart and mind behind Project Access, a volunteer effort to groom trails and build access ramps on two blue-ribbon Catskill Mountain trout streams so that impaired or elderly fishermen can get down to the water’s edge. “I don’t call this charity work—I call this sharing,” says Stoliar, a Manhattan book designer, of the project that Trout Unlimited head Charles Gauvin regards as a national model.
Stoliar got the idea for Project Access in 1983, when she shared a day of fishing with David Olsan, 62, an investment adviser who hobbles about on metal crutches. Olsan, who was stricken with polio at 25, had moved to the Catskills from California to be near fishing. The trouble, he discovered, was getting to the water. “Some banks are very steep and the rocks are slippery,” says Olsan.
Olsan’s travail became Stoliar’s cause. Joan enlisted Ed Van Put of the state Department of Environmental Conservation to select access sites on the Beaverkill and Willowemoc Rivers that were near good fishing and had both parking and terrain suitable for wheelchairs.
Stoliar got the Cat Hollow Sand and Gravel Co. in Roscoe, N.Y., to donate a mixture of clay, gravel and sand. Then she drafted volunteers, including her husband, Arthur, 67, to carve the switchback paths that provide a gradual descent to the water. “They are not putting these sites just anywhere,” says Ellis. “They’re putting them where the fish are!”
The sixtysomething Stoliar is mildly disabled herself. She has had arthroscopy on her knees and surfers from non-Hodgkins lymphoma. But she hasn’t let her medical problems stop her. “You persevere,” she says. “What’s the alternative?”
Ask Stoliar why she spends so much time on Project Access, and she answers with a story about a group of fishermen from New Jersey who brought a wheelchair-bound friend to see the sites. “I asked the guy in the chair, ‘Are you planning on fishing?’ He said, ‘No, this is the first time I’ve been out since my accident.’ He had been in an explosion. Later, it dawned on me that his friends were trying to help him realize there is life after an accident.”
Has Stoliar run into any resistance to Project Access? “Only one comment,” she says. “A man at a Theodore Gordon Flyfishers meeting told me, ‘I believe when you can’t fish anymore, you shouldn’t do it.’ But another man overheard him and said defiantly, ‘I’d die if I couldn’t fish.’ ”