Photos and Story: Holidays on the River

Written by: James Sampsel, Humble Heron Fly Fishing

Kait, James, Juniper, and Aster the dog plan their lives around the Rogue River in Oregon.

As rafting and fly-fishing guides, my wife, Kait, and I have built our lives around water, and we make our home—with our two-year-old daughter, Juniper Rogue—in Grants Pass, Oregon, on the banks of the Rogue River. Because our immediate family, relatives, and friends don’t live close by, we have found it challenging to hold on to past holiday traditions, so we’ve been focused on creating new ones. Our current celebrations revolve around this glorious river valley, which has so much to offer her visitors. We take advantage of any chance to share the Rogue, with no expectations and open hearts.

Just being out on the water is a joyful experience, especially when you’re with family.

The Rogue is an incredibly special place for our family: I even asked Kait to marry me on an overlook above Huggins Canyon in the Wild and Scenic River Corridor, her favorite stretch of the river. We started Humble Heron Fly fishing in 2016, and being outfitters is a dream fulfilled for both of us—a dream that allows us to continue the legacy of the river and pass on the lessons that the Rogue has taught so many.

Kait and James’s wedding party stops during their celebratory float trip.

However, our tradition of gathering during the holidays will always be focused on the people first and then the place. Although our family is small, it’s a staple for a healthy life, and when we connect with each other, we fill our cups. In recent years, we have combined people and place via a family river float. We typically gather for several days, and at least one of them is spent on the river, either fishing or rafting. We celebrate birthdays, Thanksgiving, Christmas, full moons, and just about any other excuse to coast the river.

Juniper gets some quality time swinging for steelhead with mom.

Kait and I started this tradition four years ago, soon after we met, as an opportunity to connect with each other’s family. It coincided with the start of our business but became something much more. When we share our skills and knowledge, we create new bonds, learn more about each other, and break through barriers. Many of our family members have long dreamed of fly fishing and running rivers, and now we can provide all of this for them. Our community is growing stronger because of it.

Bringing two families together on the river creates strong bonds.

Our family is a mixed group of individuals who bring a lot to the plate. Kait’s side, the Baileys, are surfers who are obsessed with waves and the desire to ride them. They respect and study the swell, currents, and energy of the ocean long before they ever enter. Their relationship with the ocean is a wonderful combination of knowledge, respect, and always gratitude.

My family, the Sampsels and Brenes, come from a completely different set of traditions: My roots are both Pennsylvania Dutch and Puerto Rican. These are wildly different cultures, and I was brought up amidst the clashing. Luckily, a love of fishing, both in the ocean and rivers, is strongly rooted in both sides, which formed my passion to seek fish and adventure.

James teaches his young cousin, Lucca, how to Spey cast on the Rogue River.

Kait’s mom, Mary Kay, brings the traditional Thanksgiving fare–homemade pies and turkey, classic stuffing, green beans, and marshmallow yams—and from our first holiday together, the introduction of Puerto Rican rice and beans, tostones (fried plantains), mofongo, and empanadas was an instant hit with the Baileys. My grandmother, Santia, taught me well. Next is stuffed onions, three-bean salads, scrapple, and oyster stuffing from my father’s side. This was far off the radar of “classic” holiday fare, but my grandmother Winnie was an expert in cultivation and canning and nothing went to waste. Everyone enjoys this culinary mash-up of cultures, and these meals bring us all together in new ways. Our future goal as a family is to have a huge holiday meal on the river, combining the float trip with the foods that are unique to our families.

Planting a local Douglas Fir Christmas tree after the holiday is a Sampsel tradition.

Covid-19 has created challenges for us all. Mostly we have not had the ability to visit one another, as we live in different regions of the country and beyond. Since gathering in closed spaces isn’t recommended, what better way to come together than an outdoor experience? Several boats and river beaches will provide us with the perfect venue to reconnect with our loved ones. The river has been our biggest saving grace. One new tradition is that we give each other experiences and memories instead physical gifts. We hold on to memories the most, and they help shape and mold us individually and together. In all these new holiday traditions, our goals are touch the hearts of those we love, share nature, and ultimately grow.

Nana’s Puerto Rican Beans

1 envelope of Sazon (Puerto Rican Condiment)
2 Cans or 30 oz. dried pinto, kidney, or white beans. Combinations are always great.
1 Small ham shank or 10 ounces of Pork Salt
1 Green Pepper
1 Small whole yellow onion
10 oz. Spanish Stuffed Olives and splash of olive juice
3 Cloves of garlic, minced
2 Tablespoons tomato paste
1 Bullion cube (Chicken or Vegetable)
Salt to taste

  1. In a medium saucepan, saute diced onion, garlic, and bell pepper (sofrito) in a small amount of olive oil.
  2. Add ham shank or pork salt until tender and browned.
  3. Add beans and olives, then cover 1 inch over with water.
  4. Add chicken or vegetable bullion. 
  5. Cook on low simmer until beans are tender and the liquid thickens.

James Sampsel and his wife, Kait, own and operate Orvis-endorsed Humble Heron Fly Fishing on the Rogue River in Oregon.

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