Tents, Tarps and Monsoons! How to Survive a Freight Train in a Two Man Tent.
It’s Saturday, October 2009, the 11th to be precise, and I am about to embark on an adventure to a new river system on Vancouver Island that I have yet to explore and as usual I am psyched. 2009 was a tough year for me, having recently lost my full time job in September and ending a two year relationship just a few months prior to that. A lot of changes in short order, that’s for sure, but all for the best. I don’t do well with change for the most part, but sometimes you have to just roll with and realize that all things happen for a reason. And even though money is super tight at the moment, probably worse than its ever been in a long time, I just need this trip. I need to get away and regroup, reconnect with some great friends who help me get back to my center, where I am content and focused and can start making plans for new possibilities.
Joining me on this trip are some good buddies, a motley crew of usual suspects who are part and parcel of the experience and partners in crime. Bruce, chief trip organizer and story teller has spearheaded the trip and as usual has taken care of all of the food preparation. His brother Steve is also with us, a great big bear of a guy from Vancouver with a constant supply of laughs always at the ready. Bud is on his way from Victoria, meeting us at the rally point in Tofino as is his normal routine, always the lone wolf who prefers to travel alone rather than in convoy with us. My buddy Paul is along for the trip, but then again Paul has not missed a single one of the many trips that Bruce has organized, and I think this particular one is Paul’s 15th or 16th journey (and Bruce’s 30th or 40th!).
At around noon, we all converged at our launching point, the Government wharf in downtown Tofino. After coming to this area for about 7 years at this point, either for vacations or fishing trips, it always feels very comfortable coming here to kick off our trips. Tofino holds so many memories and its certainly not the first time that I have been party to unloading a mountain of gear from our trucks and down the steep pitched ramps to the floating docks below, in preparation for the arrival of the water taxi.
The preparation for these trips is always one of the most fun parts for me, stirring up feelings similar to when you are a young kid eagerly awaiting the arrival of Christmas. For weeks before our actual departure, nights are spent prepping gear, tying up flies, and sorting through equipment stored away from the last trip. As the gear is packed, you feel giddy with excitement that fun times are just around the corner, and new stories are in the making.
The water taxi arrives (sort of round about when it was supposed to), and the transfer of gear from the dock to the boat begins. Over the years the gear taken on these trips has varied from the ridiculous (fitted sheets for the plush queen air mattress, complete with night stand and reading lights for the 5 person condo tent) to the super skimpy (thermarests and backpacking tents). Having been a part of both scenarios, there’s something to be said for comfort, but not when it comes at the back breaking cost of having to hump all those totes, bags and coolers from the boat to the campsite. After we stack our gear on the decks and in the cabin of the water taxi, canoes and small boats are next, piled on top of the cabin and lashed tight to the deck. i think I love this part of the trip the most, feeling like one of those early explorers heading out into the wilds.
As we head out from the dock in Tofino, we start our trip to the Megin River, about an hours boat ride north west from town, nestled at the edge of Shelter Inlet in Clayoquot Sound., After a smooth journey through the maze of small islands and channels near Tofino, then across the infamously rough Cat Face Pass, our skipper edged the boat into a secluded section of the Inlet and we prepared to unload. Since there is no dock or easy beach access, the unloading process is accomplished by ferrying ropes to and from the shore to the boat, and then using smaller boats to ferry all the gear back and forth until all is piled safely ashore. With the weather co-operating for once (we normally get SOAKED), we managed to stow the gear ashore in short order and began the process of setting up our camp for the next week.
Unless you had been there before, the Megin River doesn’t really reveal much of itself from the ocean. It spills out into Shelter Inlet through a small gap between two rock bluffs, perhaps 20 feet wide at it’s largest. If you didn’t know it was there, you might just miss it all together, or dismiss it as a little creek. But once through the entrance point and on to the river system its a gorgeous place and a good spot to try your luck at summer run Steelhead. The river flows down from an elevated lake above, and it’s possible to fly in via float plane and spend a few days drifting down to the sea.
With the good weather, camp was set up quickly, and I decided to pick a spot next to the shoreline, tucked underneath the protection of a few huge old growth cedar trees. For this trip I was trying out a new piece of equipment, a super light weight tarp that weighed next to nothing and fits into a pouch about the size of a large zip-lock bag. Camping in this neck of the woods, and especially in the Fall, requires rain protection over and above what your tent fly can provide, as the amount of rain fall and constant dampness can ruin a week long trip pretty quickly if you are not prepared. For some reason I always get stressed about the initial set up, and tend to struggle with getting my tarps set up just right in anticipation of the deluges that I fully expect to come. After all, there’s nothing worse than being snug in your sleeping bag and having to head outside in the pitch darkness at 3 AM, half naked, to fix a tarp that’s gone amok!
As usual our chief tarp rigger and master of bush construction Paul, had our communal fire pit tarp and kitchen set up in record time, and was even able to locate the prop-pole that he had fashioned and left behind from the previous year. Amazingly, it was exactly where he had stashed it on the last visit, just out of reach of the high tide line, where it had remained untouched. Paul also showed me an old abandoned canoe that was also resting in exactly the same spot as where he had found it prior, with the only change being a slightly thicker layer of moss and brush now creeping over the gunnels.
With camp now set, the beer flowing, and dinner on the way, the gang gathered around the fire and we listened to the sound of Stellar Sea Lions playing in the inlet, chasing the schools of salmon gathering for their spawning runs in the rivers when the fall rains and rising waters allowed. Every now and then we would hear loud slaps across the water, as the seals managed to catch a fish and seemed to take great joy in throwing it around in the air, like a cat playing with a mouse. There hadn’t been much rain of late, and the rivers were quite low, so the large number of fish waiting at the river mouths meant that the seals had a smorgasbord of food to choose from. After a good supper of Bud’s infamous seafood jambalaya and beer margaritas, everyone had full stomachs and happy hearts as we all made our way to our tents in anticipation of big fish to be caught over the next week. I should mention here that even though I am a Newfoundlander, and a fisherman, I am not that fond of the taste of fish! Since the food preparation is shared among us all, I soon discovered that everyone (except me) had prepared seafood meals of one sort or the other for the entire week. I had no choice but to eat what was brought, and gratefully so, being sure to wash it all down with some sort of drink to make it less painful.
Over the next few days we made successive trips back and forth from camp to the river, using a zodiac we had brought along to ferry us from the beach and through the rock gap in the river. With the low water levels we were able to explore a fair section of the river, having to retreat to the bushes lining the river at only a few spots where the water was too deep to wade. I was pretty thankful for the low water, as the bush here was incredibly thick, more than what we normally encounter on these trips. Combine that with carrying a 14 foot spey rod, and it gets a it tricky bashing through the underbrush, Everyone managed to catch a number of fish, all Coastal Cutthroat, with no sign of any Steelhead to be seen anywhere.
Walking these rivers in areas not often visited by outsiders, and being in black bear country, it’s always wise to let our furry fisherman friends know we are close by so as to not suddenly surprise one. Last time I checked, my sprinting abilities in the water, over slippery rocks and wearing fishing gear, is not particularly noteworthy for speed or grace. With the water levels being so low, and not many fish being seen, I was expecting that the local bears would be hungry and anxious to start building up their fat reserves and may not be that tolerant of people splashing about in their backyard. With that in mind, and being alone for a bit in a nice stretch of fishy water, I started singing a rousing rendition of a famous Stan Rogers song, “Barrett’s Privateers”. If you’re from the east coast you know this song well, having sung it over pints of beer many times in the local pubs while dreaming of being a pirate (hey,who doesn’t!). It’s one of my favorite songs to sing in the bush, mostly because I know the words and it’s one of those things that take you back to your youth I suppose. But those poor bears had to listen to what only can be described by others as some sort of banshee howl.
Just as I expected, as I rounded a bend in the river I came across a large black bear, searching the waters edges for an easy meal of salmon. The bear, not having seen, heard or smelled me, was slowly making his was towards me, seeming completely unaware of my presence. I gave the bear some fair warning by making myself big and noisy, shouting across the water to him to let him know I was around, but he didn’t even flinch. He lifted his head and pointed his ears in my direction, and began sniffing the wind for my scent. Finding no apparent threat around, he simply lowered his head and continued on with his search. There was only one problem however, in that he was heading directly towards me! When he reached a distance of about 50 feet from me, I decided that he had come close enough.
Now usually bears in remote areas don’t bother me at all, in fact none of us ever take any firearms on these trips other than bear bangers and bear spray, neither of which any of has ever had to use. For the most part we travel in groups of two or more on the river, which seems to both deter the animals and give us an extra set of eyes to watch out for trouble. But in this particular instance I was alone, and Mr. Yogi Bear was getting too close for comfort. I quickly took out my bear banger and launched the charge straight up in the air, with the loud boom causing the bear to quickly scatter away from me and into the dense bush on the river bank. I waited a few minutes to see if he would reappear, and when he didn’t re-emerge from the trees I continued to make my way downstream, being careful to keep my eyes on the spot where he had disappeared and making lots of noise the entire time. But Yogi was gone, he had vanished into the bush and I wouldn’t see him again for the rest of the day. It never ceases to amaze me how such a big animal can move so quickly and quietly, and then simply disappear.
When I finally ran into Bruce and his brother Steve further down river, Bruce had the biggest shit eating grin on his face so I knew that their efforts must have produced something a little more exciting that trout. The story soon emerged that Bruce had hooked a large fresh Coho and had played it for a good twenty minutes before finally landing it on the bank. Bruce couldn’t have been more pleased with himself, and as I listened to him tell the tale (as only Bruce can) and watched him fish, he landed a really nice Rainbow trout as well on a chartreuse wooley bugger.
As I watched the two brothers fish, my eyes were drawn to some movement in the water about 20 feet from me. To my surprise it was a brown rough salamander swimming directly across the river towards me, where it then climbed out of the water onto the very rock I was standing. I had run into some salamander’s a few days before, having unearthed a few under the bark of some old fallen trees near camp on a log I was planning to use as a tarp anchor. It’s little finds like this that I really like, and it makes the trips out here more special. No one else stopped to notice this little guy, but for me it was a cool additional to my day.
Heading back to camp at the end of the day, the rains had started to come and it looked like we might have a wet night in store for us. The good news was that as we made our way downriver, we could see schools of fresh salmon surging up the river, perhaps in response to the rains, so we were all very stoked about the potential fishing the next day. Back at camp that night we sat around the fire and celebrated a great day on the river, and many drinks were passed around as we listened to Bruce, now well lubricated with fine scotch, retell the story more than once of the “twenty pound coho, fought for twenty minutes, on ten pound test”. Man..we all laughed hard that night.
The next day brought with it heavy rains and we humped our way up miles of river, searching pool after pool, but not finding any of the fish that we were hoping had stayed overnight in the river. The weather was cold, and decidedly miserable, with the worst weather of the trip so far. After flogging some of the pools and runs that had been productive the day before, including the now infamous twenty pound coho pool, we were all soaking wet and figured we may as well return to camp and lick our wounds as the fishing was slow and our stomachs were growling. We spent the rest of the day relaxing in camp, and were rewarded late in the afternoon when the rain broke and the sun came out, treating us to an absolutely spectacular evening sunset. The sun shone directly across the little bay where our camp was nestled, and with the combination of darker shades from the still rolling rain clouds being pierced by shafts of golden light, the scene was like something out of a National Geographic magazine cover. As we sat around the fire and soaked up the scene, a local bear made his appearance across the inlet from us, and stood for awhile on the rocky point adjacent to our camp, head held high, sniffing the moist air as if to enjoy the warmth of the sun that was now growing low in the sky. Even as I write this story now, I can still picture that bear in my mind, standing proud on his rock perch surveying his kingdom. As the sun began to set, the bear lowered his head and slowly made his way along the beach, turning over the odd rock here and there in search of his evening snack.
Dinner that night was a feast of Bruce’s famous baby back pork ribs, along with a side of freshly caught Dungeness crab that we caught in our trap earlier in the day. By far, and with no word of a lie, this was the best camp meal of the entire trip (perhaps because it was not entirely seafood!), and probably the best one I have ever had on any of the trips we have done. The flavor of the crab was fantastic and combined with the heavenly goodness of the ribs and beer that followed made it simply perfect. That night everyone went to bed early, at about 10 pm, with full stomachs and high hopes of an exciting day tomorrow. As we made our way to our tents the rain began to lightly fall again, serenading happy fishermen to sleep with dreams of huge salmon runs making their way up the river overnight. As I lay in my tent, I quickly went to sleep to the sound of the rain on my tarp, enjoying the melody it played as it grew heavier and heavier in intensity. As the camp grew silent…none of us had any idea of what was about to come.
It’s 1 AM and I am suddenly wide awake (Sound familiar? If you have read one of my previous posts..you will completely understand!).
I’ve been through a few rainstorms in my camping career so far, heard the odd tree fall down from heavy winds and been kept awake all night by rains that just won’t let up. But nothing could have prepared me for what I was hearing now. After falling asleep for just a few hours I was woken up by the sounds of incredible winds and rain, so strong and so loud that it actually scared the crap out of me when I first woke up. My tent, pitched about ten feet from the edge of the beach, was being rocked violently back and forth by wind that howled so loudly through the branches of the old growth trees above me that it sounded like a freight train. The rain was subsequently hammering against the side of the tent, as if someone was aiming a pressure washer towards my tent and my tarps. I switched on my LED lantern hanging from the roof of my tent, only to see it swaying wildly back and forth with each passing wind gust, as if I was adrift in a tiny lifeboat in the middle of a massive typhoon.
With all of the wind, I could hear the other old school heavy tarp that I had strung up to protect my gear making one hell of a racket, so I knew that something must have torn loose. I scrambled to get into my rain gear, and poked my head out side of the tent to see that it had indeed come loose and was threatening to tear in half if I didn’t get out there an secure it A.S.A.P. I scrambled out of my tent into the driving rain, blowing wind, and falling branches and was just barely able to wrestle the tarp back into shape and tie it off. The sound of the wind never relented, but instead got stronger and stronger, at times building to a crescendo only to get louder still . My thoughts were of the trees above me, wondering if at any minute a large branch (or tree top) would snap free and fall onto my tent where I lay cowered in my sleeping bag (this has happened before by the way, but that’s another story…). I’ve experienced some storm cells passing through before, but normally they are short lived with gusts lasting five or ten seconds at a time. But this storm was unreal! The wind would build, and build..with no relief and with incredible intensity. It just blew like a hurricane…for hours.
I tried to go back to sleep, but left my LED lantern on in case I had to make a quick escape. I had visions of the ocean throwing waves up onto my tent, or worse yet tossing large chunks of driftwood on top of me! I thought of the 100+ year old trees all around me, wondering when they would succumb to the storm. And I thought of my friends nearby, camped further up into the woods, wondering if they were awake also, and safe., I couldn’t have gone and checked on them even if I had wanted to, as the storm surge and high tide had now cut me off from my beach access to them. In defeat I hooked up my iPod, trying to drown the sounds of the storm out with some music, but even with my earbuds in I could barely hear the tunes. The wind was simply that loud. Shelter Inlet my ass!!!!
By 8 AM the wind and rain had let up, with the heaviest part of the storm now past. When I got up and out of my tent, I found that the ocean side of my tent had been completely plastered with mud and leaves, as if it had been shot out from a cannon. Surprisingly, and much to my amazement, my new lightweight tarp had survived completely unscathed, As I made my way across the beach to check on my buddies, I ran into Steve who was huddled under the campfire tarp looking decidedly soggy. His tent, like mine, had been close to shore and with the wind and rain had filled it with water, drenching Steve and his now wet sleeping bag. Next was Paul, who emerged from his tent proclaiming that he had heard nothing and really didn’t know what all the fuss was about! Bruce and Bud woke up last, checking on their tarps, and like me had experienced the worst of the storm and had gotten very little sleep. But we had all emerged unscathed, with the only damage reported being the odd torn grommets on tarps and some general grumpiness about lack of sleep.
Bruce had found our coolers however to be completely filled with water, even though the lids had been locked shut. The force of the wind had driven the rain under the lids, flooding the coolers. Thankfully only some of our food was damaged beyond use, while the rest was salvageable. As we sat around the fire and told our stories of survival, we could see huge trees and foam sweeping out across the inlet, having obviously been swept down through the river that was just around the point from our camp. The line of foam stretched as far as we could see, and the once small waterfall about 100 meters from our camp had now turned into a thunderous torrent, spreading equal lines of brown frothy foam and debris along the water in front of us. We could only imagine what the river would look like! By our estimates (based on containers we had left out overnight) over eight inches of rain had fallen in less than eight hours, just an amazing amount of rain in such a short period of time.
By mid-morning we decided to go and investigate the river conditions, prior to suiting up for fishing. To be fair, none of us thought the river would be fish-able, given the amount of rain, but nobody was prepared for what we saw. When we rounded the point and got our first view of the rock gap where the river flowed into the inlet, our jaws dropped. The gap was now a raging blur of white water, stacked up about 8 feet higher than the previous day and exploding out of the rock pass as if it was coming from the bottom of the Hoover Dam itself. What a sight! The water level in the river must have risen at least five or six feet overnight, and we knew immediately that our fishing trip was done. I have never seen anything as violent, and I could only imagine what the river would now look like. Judging from the color of the water spewing out into the inlet and the debris that accompanied it, we knew that it would take at least a week before things would settle down enough to explore.
The rest of our day was calm and peaceful, and as we gathered up our gear we heard over the VHF radio that severe damage had been reported up and down this part of the coast, with winds reported to have reached as high as 130 km/h. We were lucky on this trip, perhaps using up some good fortune that we hadn’t expected to need (I had also narrowly avoided a sharp stick in my eye the first day as well, and Bud almost sank the zodiac miles away from camp…but I digress). With just one day remaining before our scheduled pick up by the water taxi, we spent the rest of our time relaxing, telling stories, and preparing for the trip back home.
The Megin River is a great island river, and although it kicked our ass this trip, I will be back again some day. Great memories were made on this adventure, and as I headed home to a hot shower and a comfortable nights sleep in a soft bed, I am already thinking about my next trip.
I guess that’s just how it goes.