“This is it,” Capt. Ansil Saunders said, raising his hands, embracing the stillness and beauty of the place. “This is Holy Grounds.”
It was 2009, and Saunders was zipping along a mangrove-lined creek in the Bimini backcountry. The slinky maze of water wasn’t much wider than Jewel, one of the custom skiffs that he built from African mahogany and a locally grown wood known as horseflesh.
In the mangroves was a carved, wooden statue of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. In 1968, Saunders had taken King to this very spot and shared a moment that the bonefish guide has recounted countless times.
“When I stopped the boat, there were some birds overhead, the tide trickled by, snappers were running under the mangrove roots, and a stingray was burying and reburying itself,” Saunders told me, the words both practiced and heartfelt. “Dr. King looked up and said, ‘There’s so much life here, so much life all around us. How can people see all this life and yet not believe in the existence of God?’ ”
Saunders answered King by reciting a psalm that the guide had written. He recited the same words to me there in his skiff — his church. I sat amidships, listening to the guide talk about rivers, mountains, brothers and sisters, creating an image that God is everywhere.
After leaving Bimini, King traveled to Memphis to deliver a speech to a group of striking sanitation workers. The civil rights leader spoke of going to the mountaintop and seeing the Promised Land. The day after that speech, he was assassinated.
Mighty Waters, a new film by Cold Collaborative, details the life of Ansil Saunders, his longtime fight for equality, his pursuit of bonefish and that fateful day with King at the Holy Grounds. Watching the film brought back memories of my own time with Ansil, as I’m sure it will for anyone who has fished with the Bimini-born guide, who is 86.
After listening to his psalm, with the tide rushing out of the creek, Saunders told us to get back into the boat to search for fish. We ran to East Wells. I walked the flats with Saunders, his pressed shirt flapping in the breeze. He found a pair of small crabs mating and said he didn’t want to break up their party, but the smaller crab was the perfect snack for a permit. He separated the crabs and put it in his breast pocket.
About a half-mile down the flat, Saunders eyed a stingray. There was a permit behind it, picking through the sand and debris the large ray kicked up with its wings. Saunders baited my hook with the crab from his pocket. I cast over the stingray and came tight to a gorgeous permit.
Saunders is a natural storyteller. He pulls you in, captures you. I hung on his every word. He told me about his world-record bonefish, a 16-pounder that Jerry Lavenstein caught in 1971 on 12-pound test; the record has held for 50 years. He told me about the history of the island and the politicians, writers and celebrities he’s met over the years. At the end of the day, my time speaking with him was more precious than the fish we caught.
Anglers are a fortunate bunch. We get to meet interesting people in interesting places. Mighty Waters celebrates that.
“When I first heard Ansil’s story, I knew it was a story the world should hear,” says filmmaker Shannon Vandivier. “Ansil chose a path in life where wealth isn’t measured in dollars and cents but, rather, how he spends his time. He has chosen to spend his currency of time by helping and inspiring as many people as he can, Martin Luther King Jr. included. I know for me personally, the Mighty Waters project, and specifically Ansil, have completely changed how I define wealth and what it actually means to be wealthy.”
“We will not be satisfied until justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream.”
— MLK during his 1963 “I Have a Dream” speech