Well-Known Outdoorswoman Lived Life Passionately
by Martinique Davis
Aug 26, 2009 | 6025 views | 0 0 comments | 33 33 recommendations | email to a friend | print
TELLURIDE – When beloved local fishing guide and unassuming humanitarian Hilary Fitzgerald died after a car accident near Paonia last Friday, friend Hilary White struggled to explain the death to Maya, White’s young daughter.

Fitzgerald and Maya had a special bond. “Hilary stepped into my life at a time when I really needed help parenting,” White said. “She was just there.”

The simple act of being there, whether she was opening the world of fly-fishing to awe-struck visitors, being a steady but often inconspicuous warrior for local environmental and educational endeavors, or simply stepping up to help a friend care for her daughter during a rough patch, proved to be the most dazzling gift Fitzgerald brought to those that knew her.

“Not too many people have no ego involved whatsoever,” White said, “but she was one of those people – she was always so interested in what other people were doing, she always wanted to help. So many people are so wrapped up in what they have going on – and she always had a lot of things going on – but she would always find time for other people.”

Fitzgerald was passing through Paonia last Friday between fishing trips when a 17-year-old girl driving a Pontiac Grand Am struck the Vanagon van Fitzgerald was riding in, at the intersection of Highway 133 and Sam Wade Road.

Fitzgerald, who was in the passenger seat, was thrown out of the vehicle as it rolled. She was later pronounced dead at the Delta County Memorial Hospital. She wasn’t wearing her seatbelt.

She is survived by parents Mike and Jonna Fitzgerald, most recently of Hawaii; sister Sarah Fitzgerald of Missoula, Mont.; and a large circle of friends and family.

The driver of the Vanagon, fellow Black Canyon guide Joshua Cranson, suffered minor injuries. The teenage driver of the other vehicle was uninjured. The Colorado Highway Department has not released information on whether charges will be filed.

Fitzgerald grew up in Montana, surrounded by the trout-filled rivers, native forests, and towering peaks that sparked both her love of fly-fishing and telemark skiing, as well as her commitment to environmental preservation.

She first visited Telluride in 2000, returning four years later to make it her home. And while she built a reputation as one of the region’s premier (and most stunning) fly-fishing guides, who spent her summers guiding trips on rivers like the Gunnison, San Miguel, Uncompahgre, and Dolores for regional outfitters Telluride Outside, RIGS Fly Shop, and Black Canyon Anglers, Fitzgerald was much more than simply one of the Telluride community’s most respected outdoorswomen.

“Hill put down four lifetimes worth of miles in her 29 years,” said sister Sarah Fitzgerald, noting her sister’s worldly travels to places like Africa, India, South, and Central America, Mexico, Nepal, and Southest Asia. “She lived fully and passionately, traveling all over the world and the U.S… but she chose this place as her home.”

Fitzgerald came to Telluride brimming with a love of adventure, spending her winters honing her skills as a radical telemark skier and sharing her love of fishing with captivated clients during the summers. But her passion for wild places ran deeper than simply seeking the adrenaline rush unearthed when landing a prize trout or skiing a fresh line.

Fitzgerald received a B. A. in Environmental Studies and a second degree in Cultural and Regional Studies with a focus on Sustainable Development, from the environmental program at Arizona’s Prescott College. Prior to coming to Telluride, she helped create a sustainable development strategy in Oahu, Hawaii; worked as a backcountry ranger in her native state of Montana; and was hired as a field instructor and naturalist for a private environmental science school in California.

When she came to Telluride, Fitzgerald quickly engaged in local sustainability efforts. She lived briefly at Tomten Farm, a solar-powered organic farm on Hastings Mesa, and when The New Community Coalition was formed, Fitzgerald was one of the first to assist the local sustainability-minded nonprofit by authoring a research project that looked at other communities’ sustainability efforts. “Her enthusiasm and passion was amazing,” said director of TNCC and Tomten Farm founder, Kris Holstrom. “She loved the mesa and will be sorely missed.”

In September of 2008, Fitzgerald took the position of Program Director at the Pinhead Institute, another local nonprofit foundation committed to science and education.

While her educational background in environmental studies and sustainability gave Fitzgerald the knowledge to become a valuable member of the local environmental movement, those who were closest to her knew that her community involvement was ultimately an effect of the seemingly bottomless wellspring of compassion that guided everything she did.

“It was more than just her formal education – it was her compassion, and her desire to do good in world,” her sister Sarah said. “She showed that on one hand by being an influential guide, and on the other with her understanding of and dedication to sustainability. She always had this desire to do more, and give more.”

That inborn drive to do and give had carved a new path for Fitzgerald. She was slated to begin her studies in naturopathy next month in Portland, a move her family says fit perfectly with the person they knew her to be: As friend and boss John Duncan described her, a person with “old world knowledge.”

“It was her way of coming full circle, being the old soul she was,” Sarah said of Fitzgerald’s decision to pursue a new path in oriental medicine. “Hilary was a healer in so many ways, and coming up on 30 she seemed to reawaken to an old calling – a calling of healing, on a new and deeper level.”

Those who remember Fitzgerald, in the wake of her death, remember the telemark skier, fishing guide, and world traveler who brought a dazzling smile to the wildest of places. They remember, also, the low-key environmentalist and community activist, who was fiercely protective of the landscapes that couldn’t protect themselves.

But they also remember the simple, stunning essence of this daughter, sister, and friend: A young girl whose passion for wild places was ignited after explorations of Glacier National Park with her parents. A teenager, who bought an amethyst necklace to match her sister’s while the two were on a six-week trip across England – the first of her many worldly adventures. A student who adopted a kindergarten-aged orphan in Honduras through a humanitarian organization, and who has continued to support the child through her recent graduation from high school. A woman who fished rivers and skied powder and worked for nonprofits, but who also always remembered to write beautiful letters to loved ones every birthday, anniversary, or special occasion.

They remember a person who wasn’t especially comfortable with kids, but who nevertheless became a very important friend to one little girl at a time when her mother needed help.

White said she was crushed by the news of Fitzgerald’s death, but daughter Maya – who spent much of her formative years with Fitzgerald – told her mother not to cry. “Don’t worry Mommy,” she said. “Now she’s an angel, and she’s everywhere.”

A fund has been set up at Alpine Bank in Hilary Fitzgerald’s name, to support global humanitarian charities.

A memorial service is planned for this evening (Thursday), on Hastings Mesa at the home of Isabel Harcourt. To get there, take a right just before you get to Sawpit; there will be signs and arrows leading the way. The evening will start at 4 p.m. with a gathering, followed by dinner at 6 p.m., and then a bonfire afterward. People are encouraged to bring something to read or say, and while there will be food and drinks provided pot-luck salads would be welcome.
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