Find your happy place A single momma's quest to give her sons experiences as gifts

By Melissa Macarages

During my life, I have had many heartaches, and I have struggled. During those times, I have fallen back on my experiences with nature to soothe my soul. This is a coping skill that I have tried to pass along to my little fellas. Get outside, because it is there you will find what nurtures your soul—your "happy place."

We all have our happy places. For me, visiting the ocean or any salty shore is the equivalent to hitting a reset button for my head and my heart. There, I am 100 percent present, and my mind is free. The smell of oyster bars means an adventure is about to happen. It’s been that way since I was 16. The passion that I have for the ocean and fishing has never left me. I have leaned on it many times during my life.

When I was 15, my 11-year-old brother died in a tragic accident. I was devastated and broken. My world was upside down. Living through this type of trauma leaves its mark.

My brother Nicholas Dahlberg passed away in a tragic accident when he was 11.

The next year as a junior in high school, I enrolled in a marine biology class. My teacher was electric. Trust me—you have never met anyone more passionate about science. His classroom overflowed with saltwater aquariums of spider crabs, pufferfish and sea urchins. Even as a lifelong Floridian, I had never seen anything like it. Before then, I never ventured past the surf at the beach.

As fate would have it, I began dating his son, and we quickly became high-school sweethearts. I was now part of their world. Instead of gifts, that family gave me experiences. Everywhere we went and everything we did was new to me.

I learned how to snorkel for scallops in sea grass meadows. I loved to run my hands through the blades of grass as I swam. It was so calming. I caught lobster and saw an octopus hiding in sponges in the Florida Keys.

I started fishing offshore—one of my favorite activities to date. We went eight or so miles out in the Gulf to catch Spanish mackerel. I grew up freshwater fishing. My granny had a catfish pond. My papa took me fishing at lakes. And my stepdad taught me how to surf fish as a little girl. But offshore saltwater fishing was next level. My stomach still gets butterflies when my line hits the water.

If you have never seen a fishing rod bend in half and heard the line squealing while it is spooling off of a reel and hollered, "Fish on!"—then friend, you’re missing out. There’s nothing else like it. All of those experiences lit a fire in me.

Macarages fighting a goliath grouper in Pine Island, Florida 2015

Early in the morning, on the boat ride on our way out of the channel, we would pass the oyster bars. For me that smell was everything. I would close my eyes and breathe it all in. It meant that my mind and my heart could rest. I would have a break from heartache. I was free.

Macarages during a goliath grouper catch-and-release in Pine Island, Florida in 2015.

Years later, times and hearts changed. I married someone else, and we were blessed with two boys. We divorced, because sadly, life happens to us all.

A month, almost to the day later, my former marine biology teacher (who I had remained close to for twenty years and who had given me away at my wedding) lost his battle with cancer, and we lost a wonderful human.

As I tried to recover, I remembered how my outdoor experiences in high school shaped and changed me and helped me heal. I decided that I should provide that for my boys. We needed some adventures, and soon.

Macarages with her sons Paxton (10) and Cooper(13) in May 2018.

So, that's what I give them.

We started taking beach trips for surf fishing. You don’t know tired until you have taken a 9 and 6 year old surf fishing. I have fought the wind and the current all while tying lines and baiting hooks, casting lines all with the hopes that they would just catch something and maybe love it the way I do.

It didn’t happen the first time. But that second time, Paxton cast his own line and caught a shark. I don’t think I’ve ever seen someone so happy (except for maybe me when I caught my first Spanish mackerel). He made a scene, dancing and singing. Strangers even stopped to take pictures. He was hooked, and my heart was full.

When they were a little older, I chartered their first inshore fishing trip. We were on a mission to hook basically anything that would be a fun fight. As luck would have it, we caught our limit of redfish. These were the biggest and fastest fish they had ever caught.

We have had lots of fishing trips and laughs since then. Most recently, we had a “blast-and-cast” trip. We went duck hunting in the morning and fishing in the afternoon. That day, they both bagged their first ducks and snook.

They learned we take only what we need and release the rest. We leave more for the next folks or the next trip. If they love catching trout and redfish, their passion for the ocean and its inhabitants will keep them fired up about protecting and preserving the coastlines and the estuaries that they love so much.

Macarages with her sons and brother in Port Charlotte, Florida in 2017.

I wanted to light a fire in them, to have passion and to find their “happy place.” I wanted them to have safe haven, not just a hobby, in times of heartache and struggle. I wanted to drive them to be passionate protectors of this beautiful planet and stewards of the environment like their Momma.

We all need a happy place. It is never too late to start looking for yours and, it is always the right time to have an adventure.

Macarages with her sons in Horseshoe Beach, Florida in 2017.

In loving memory of two wonderful humans with the most beautiful hearts that I have ever had the good fortune of knowing: Nicholas Dahlberg, my brother, (12/7/83-12/27/94) and Larry Joye, my teacher, my second dad, and my friend, (10/21/1948-12/3/11). My boys and I honor both of their memories on the anniversaries of their passing by getting outside and enjoying the outdoors.

Melissa Macarages is a wanderlusting, adventuring, fishing, hunting, ocean-loving gypsy soul who is always ready for the next adventure. Two little boys call her Momma. She graduated with a degree in biology and works for Florida Sea Grant, one of 33 programs across the U.S. focused on coastal research and student scholarships. Follow her on Instagram: @one_salty_gypsy

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