Tranquility Found on the Banks of the Moyeha River
It’s early summer in Victoria and it’s that time when everyone is looking to brush off the damp cobwebs of the Vancouver Island winter and get back to exploring the world class wilderness playgrounds that are literally at our front doors.
As is the tradition with our group of die hard fishermen (and of course fish story masters and pathological liars) the phone calls started up between all of us to see who was in for a spring fishing trip, and who was too busy. For the five or six of us who are on “the list”, responses can vary from enthusiastic gungho’s and “when do we leave” to the “aw man I wish I could but work is just mental right now”, and even sometimes the “wish I could but I just can’t justify more time away from the family”. I am extremely fortunate and grateful to have a wonderful partner who understands that these trips are not simply about getting away from our lives to booze it up and be belligerent. Nor are they reasons to shoot guns and revert back to primitive man and be idiots. For all of us, especially me, these are the times to reconnect with what makes us who we are. To get back in touch with what inspires us and recharges our souls, and to let go of all the crap that weighs us down after too much time in the urban jungle.
This years trip planning started with four people, then reduced to three, and finally ended up with just two of us. I was shocked to hear that Paul, the second longest veteran of the group, couldn’t make it this time because of work commitments. So in the end it was just myself and Bruce who nailed down the dates, booked the time off, and committed to the adventure.
Our destination this spring would be the beautiful Moyeha River, a river that I had fished once before and was very keen to get back to. Bruce had been there a number of times, but had not been able to get the timing of the fish runs to line up with previous attempts. One of the equally frustrating and also exciting parts of these trips is doing the research during the planning stages to try and best estimate the absolute perfect time to be there. It’s very similar I am sure to how big wave surfers agonize over wave and weather forecasts for weeks, trying to decide when the perfect opportunity will present itself to catch the biggest and most gnarliest waves. The main difference however is that while a professional surfer has the luxury and budget to hop on the next available flight withing 24 hours (or less) notice, we need to plan our dates months in advance.
In previous years, we had tried to time our trips with the influx of Northern Coho Salmon returning from their three years in the open Pacific to spawn. As an added bonus, the Moyeha also boasts a small run of Steelhead, which of course always takes everyone to the brink of giddiness as we dream of rarely fished spots that will yield legendary fish. The last time I was at the Moyeha I couldn’t believe the huge numbers of salmon fry observed in the river as I waded and hiked it’s banks, which told me that this was a healthy system that could certainly support Steelhead as well as other forms of trout life. But for this trip, we would be targeting Anadramous Cut Throat trout that should be lurking around in the estuary as well as in the lower sections of the river, picking off salmon fry as they made their way in and out of the river mouths.
With the dates set and gear packed, Bruce and I made our way to Tofino and met up with our ride at Tofino Air. Normally we make our way to the river via water taxi, which makes sense when you have a larger group of guys due to the amount of gear we take. But as it was just the two of us on this trip, we charted a float plane which would make the transit time to and from camp in about a quarter of the time it would take by boat. In the excitement of packing for this trip, and in getting up early to make our departure time, we had both forgotten to pack our camp chairs so we made an emergency stop in Port Alberni on the way to Tofino where we procured two of the finest twenty dollar camp chairs money could buy (thank you Wal-Mart). Since they were only rated to support 250 pounds, I remarked that I would have to go easy on the food and beer this trip.
After amazingly cramming all of our camping gear into the de Havilland Beaver that was to take us to the river, and making our introduction to the pilot Randy, we climbed aboard and strapped in for the short flight. I have always loved the Beaver and Otter float planes, as nothing reeks more of romantic Canadiana than the image of one of these bush plane pioneers taking to the sky with those glorious radial engines filling the air with their symphony of noise. These planes were instrumental in opening up the interior and northern reaches of Canada, and it’s pretty neat to be embarking on a remote trip in one, especially considering that the plane I am on is older than I am by a considerable stretch!
As we started our taxi out into Tofino harbor, lining up with the wind for takeoff, our pilot Randy informed us that he had accumulated some 8,000 hours to date flying the Beaver, and a whopping 17,000 hours flying float planes of various types in his career. That’s an impressive statistic! We dodged small boats and water taxis in the harbor, finding our clearance for take off and Randy brought the throttle forward to full power and the roar of the WASP radial sprung us in motion. As we flew towards our destination, we were rewarded with some fantastic airborne views of the rugged coast and islands of Clayquot sound, and after a brief twenty minutes of flight time we were soon circling the mouth and estuary of the Moyeha River and making our final approach for landing.
As Randy brought the Beaver down with a gentle bump, we taxied in close to our camping spot to start the offload. Our pilot was able to get us very close to our site, nudging the plane in to a little cove and after spinning around had us hop out in our waders and tow the tail of the plane as close to the shore as he dared. With the tide being quite low on our arrival, we were able to get all of our gear offloaded and safely on the beach within thirty minutes, making the amount of downtime for the airplane nice and short. With the offload complete, Randy fired up the Beaver and taxied out, taking off in the direction of the river mouth. After gaining some altitude, he passed low over our site, wagged his wingtips, and headed off to other locations. As the sound of the engine died out and the echos from the surrounding mountain sides faded, we were left in peaceful silence, except of course from the natural noises of the wildlife around us.
With the gear now on shore, we began the process of setting up camp and getting ourselves situated for the next seven days. The weather was unusually hot for the time of year, which did nothing to help me deal with the horrible migraine that hit me just was we were leaving Tofino. The pain in my head had begun to make me feel very sick and dizzy, so after quickly setting up my tent I attempted to drown it with water and ibuprofen. With the heat being what it was (it was 37 degrees Celsius in the damn tent), and my head pounding like hell, I didn’t get much rest but did manage to knock my headache down to a dull roar. With somewhat renewed energy, Bruce and I set about securing all of our gear, including suspending all of our food in a large tree about 200 meters away, a Herculean effort I might add given the weight of the provisions we had brought. Normally we don’t bother with this degree of bear proofing our sites, but on the last trip here there had been trouble with a bear, including a rude visitation inside of Paul’s tent. So for this trip, we decided that it would be better to be more cautious than normal.
A note on bear proofing campsites before I continue…in the past we have been quite slack with storage of our food provisions only because it has never (NEVER) been a problem. I am not saying that we are lackadaisical about bear awareness. Not even close. And we never, ever, ever keep food or anything that even remotely smells like food in our tents (including toothpaste). Could we be more cautious? You bet. And I recommend that anyone who camps in bear country should be. We have just been extremely lucky in that the bears we see are normally more scared of us than anything, as they don’t see many humans. Or eat them. At least not on a regular basis anyway. OK..moving on…
With tents set up and dinner on the fire, Bruce and I sat back in our newly purchased “deluxe” folding camp chairs and raised a few drinks to toast to the successful start of our adventure. The first night always seems to most exciting, as you settle in to a new location with a good friend, good food, and lots of discussion about the river and the fishing forecasts for the next weeks worth of effort. Of course there always are stories to be told (and retold) of prior trips, fish caught, and funny things that have happened over the years. But as the sun finally went down and the heat began to wane, both of us felt the exhaustion from the days efforts of loading and unloading, and we called it an early night. With both of us sawing logs in our tents and sleeping bags, the world around us got used to these two new residents and sung us softly to sleep.
With the start of a new day, and a filling breakfast of home made egg McMuffins, we loaded up our gear and decided to take our first foray on to the river. From where we were camped, the river mouth lay about thirty minutes walk along the beach, then up and through the tall grass lined river channels that cut their way through the sediment deposited after years and years of flow from the river itself. The weather was overcast in the morning, but the heat had returned making it a very muggy hike through the terrain.
As we walked through the waist high grass, tinted bright green by the fresh spring growth, we had to be very careful not to slip and fall down from the treacherous mud that was underfoot. With felt soled boots this might as well have been a sheet of ice, even with a generous amount of carbide metal studs screwed into the soles.
After another thirty minutes more of slipping and sliding our way through grass and small channels, we finally got to the river proper and began trekking upstream to the cut over point through an overgrown island towards the main channel of the Moyeha. Bruce had blazed a trail with my friend Paul a few years back, but due to the rapid rate that the salmon berry canes, devils club and salal bushes grow around these parts the trail was very difficult to find among all of the other brush. With some determination we found the entrance point of the trail and with Bruce leading the way with a set of hand pruners clearing the overgrowth I fell in behind carrying the rods and clearing the debris as I went.
Thankfully the trail led us to some easier terrain, which we followed for another three kilometers up river, parallel with the main channel. As we approached the point where access could be gained, it was clear that the most expeditious route was to cross a massive log jam that was blocking our way. To the untrained eye, this might seem like an easy crossing, but having stepped onto many a log jam over the years I know that they can contain hidden dangers. On the west coast of Vancouver Island, the logs in these piles are often massive, reaching anywhere from four feet to eight feet in diameter. These logs, all stacked haphazardly together, can often be unstable and can appear to have solid areas of smaller stacked wood and branches that turn into traps when you step on them only to find that they are covering a deep hole between logs. Not to mention the pucker factor one encounters when a large log you have just jumped to in order to cross a gap suddenly begins to move in a less than fortuitous direction. Bruce is not known for his agility due to years of playing rugby and having the knees to show for it, so as we crossed this last barrier to the river I may have overheard more than his fair share of curse words being uttered. Even so, we both made it through and were thankful for it.
By the time we reached the main part of the Moyeha, the sun was high in the sky and we both decided to take a quick break for food, water, and strategy. The river in front of us was in prime shape, although a bit low, with the usual clear and cool water that we are used to here on the island. The Moyeha is fed primarily from glacier and snow pack from high up on Mariner and Lone Wolf Mountains, and is typically quite cold and clear. After a quick bite and conference, we set off to fish the first section of river and we were soon hard at it, quartering our way down through the various sections. While Bruce laid claim to a large tail out section, I started at the head of the pool hoping to find some fish lurking close to the cut bank and just under the riffled fast water spilling into the clear emerald tinged waters. Once I had worked through the run, I put my rod aside an found a nice warm patch of smooth river gravel to lie down on, and with the river running close beside me I was soon fast asleep and enjoying a well earned siesta in the sun.
I am sure that there are some of you out there who would mock this, and are probably wondering why the heck after such an effort to reach the river I would be resting and not fishing like a madman! I think it’s very simple actually. I enjoy taking it all in and in order to do that sometimes you have to step back, relax, and just breathe. Listen to the birds, look at the small details around you, and not be in such a hurry. A bit corny you say? I suppose for some of you it is. But the reward I get from slowing down and simply observing what’s around me far outweigh the fish count and bragging rights at the end of the day.
We fished for a few more hours, explored some new sections of the river, and eventually made our way back to camp after refilling our fresh water supply before heading home, as there is no water where we are camping. With the area being at sea level, we were being careful to time our trips back and forth to coincide with the incoming and outgoing tides. That being said however we made a mistake with our tide predictions and had a difficult time crossing the numerous cut channels in the estuary on the way back, but thankfully no swimming was required. It was not entirely uneventful though, with both Bruce and I both taking falls in the mud, now made even more slippery by the incoming water.
By ten o’clock that night both of sat stuffed in our camp chairs with bellies full of gourmet hamburgers, cooked over the open fire. With ample stacks of dry firewood stacked up near the fire (a result of earlier work) it was the perfect ending to a great first day of adventure. The wind was breathless on the surface of Hebert Inlet directly in front of us, reflecting the moon and the surrounding scenery like a mill pond. As I stared at the crackling fire, a solitary loon made it’s way across the water, stopping from time to time to slip beneath the slick surface and returning with a mouthful of fish. When it let out it’s haunting song, the sound reverberated off the hills giving a haunting echo through the still night air. With the last remnants of daylight slipping away, I took one more look out at the snow covered mountains around us before heading off to my tent and a solid nights sleep.
The next morning Bruce and I decided that it would be a great day to work on camp improvements, starting with Bruce’s construction of a kitchen gazebo for both shade and possible rain protection. With the temperatures so far being unusually hot, we were both dying for a cool spot to sit under during the heat of the midday sun. While Bruce constructed the kitchen structure, I decided to make myself useful and set up a camp shower along a dry river bed nearby. When out in the bush, it’s nice to have the chance to wash out some of the campfire smoke and sweat, especially when the weather is so warm. I had brought a solar shower along on this trip, which I filled with salt water and let sit in the sun for most of the day while we messed about with the camp, tightened and adjusted tarps, and made general improvements around the place to make our stay as comfortable as possible.
With the solar shower baking in the hot sun for the afternoon, my curiosity got the better of me so I took my thermometer and tested the heat of the water. Unbelievably it had risen to 115 degrees Fahrenheit! More than hot enough for a shower, that’s for sure! I could hardly wait to try it out later, but decided that for the rest of the day I would try my luck searching for Cut Throat Trout along the sloping pebble beach as the tide was coming in. Unfortunately I had no sooner started my hunt when the winds began to pick up, making fly casting somewhat of a dangerous occupation. Not willing to give up, I kept at it until I pushed my luck too far and ended up hooking the back of my hat with a very sharp hook, followed shortly thereafter with a hook in my shoulder. Since becoming a pin cushion for fly hooks is not in my wish book, I packed it in and decided instead to gather up some oysters to stockpile for taking home when we left. The oysters in this area were huge, most of them the size of my hand!
With the sun starting to get a bit lower, I set off for camp and upon arrival joined Bruce in the work of preparing our firewood stack for the night. As I was picking up dead fall and looking for the driest pieces, I was pleasantly surprised when I picked up a flat piece of old cedar and found a field mouse starting back at me in shock! The poor little guys eyes were as wide as saucers as I uncovered his hiding spot, and for an instant he froze, not quite sure whether to run or remain in place. But he soon plucked up his courage and hopped away into the grass, leaving me with a big smile on my face that I had been lucky enough to visit with him. After all, I was a guest in his home, so it was only fair we made our acquaintance!
After a nice hot shower in my new luxury bathroom stall underneath a giant fir tree (complete with inlaid flat slate stone flooring and towel rack!) I feasted on Bruce’s famous rib dinner, managing to consume an entire rack and a half of ribs before rolling (literally) into my tent for the night. Late that night, I was awoken by the sound of tiny footsteps in my tent vestibule, which may well have been my new neighbor coming to pay me a visit. It was the end of another super day in the wilderness.
We woke up the next day to another super morning, and settled in for a hearty breakfast of french toast, maple sausages, and eggs. During breakfast we talked a little about the complete lack of bears so far, which given the close encounters of the furry kind experienced during the last trip to the Moyeha seemed very odd indeed. So far on this trip we had only observed one pile of old bear scat, and a solitary footprint in the mud. We speculated that perhaps the berry crops had come to ripen quickly due to the heat, and that the bears had moved inland now away from the grasses they feed on in the spring and were looking for tastier treats. Or perhaps the weather is just too warm for them to be comfortable, forcing them deeper into the cooler forest to take shelter from the sun. And while we were glad to not be sharing our tents with the bears, it was a bit sad not to see them as we normally do.
Today Bruce and I fished the beach together, again in search of those illusive Cut Throat Trout. Bruce was excited when he got a nibble and hooked into a fish, but we were soon roaring with laughter when it was brought to shore and we could see it was only a tiny little flounder than fit nicely in the palm of my hand. I on the other hand, had much better success, catching what I estimate to have been a three pound starfish! What a catch! By the time we had flogged the beaches for the rest of the morning it was soon time for lunch, and we called it quits. As I was packing up to head up to the kitchen, I heard a rustling in the seaweed by my boots and saw that a big garter snake had been resting quietly in the warmth, it’s long tongue darting in and out as it tasted my scent in the air. I snapped a quick picture, watched for a little bit, and then stood by as the snake quickly slipped away in the to brush. Too cool!
Later in the day, I took a solo venture down towards the estuary again, and was able to time it with the lowest point in the tides which meant I now had full access to all the sections of the estuary. I crossed over to the furthest point where the main channel fed into the ocean, and soaked in the view of the waterfalls that were spilling down over a a cliff face nearby. I knew from looking at maps of the area that these waterfalls were fed by a small lake at the base of Abco Mountain, so I determined that I would call these Abco Falls. I have no idea what the actual name is, but I really didn’t care. They were beautiful, and I was there alone to claim them.
By the time I got back to camp I had walked quite a distance, crisscrossing all of the little fingers running out of the estuary from the river, taking time to poke around and explore all the details as I went. The area was full of beautiful wildflowers, only a few of which I have seen before. The amount of biodiversity surrounding me was stunning, and the sweet smell of the tall grass mixed with the salty tang of the salt air was more refreshing than any spa treatment I can think of.
Over the course of the next few days, Bruce and I would make a few more trips down to the estuary and up into the river, always searching for the fish that we knew must be in there somewhere. Again I was amazed by the large quantities of salmon fry that were abundant in the river system, including the warm tidal areas in the estuary, but we had yet to spot a single predatory Cut Throat Trout on the hunt for a quick meal.
Although the fishing was not as productive as hoped, Bruce and I were party to some pretty amazing sights including one day that could have been right out of Lorne Greene’s “Untamed Wilderness” (maybe I am dating myself by using that reference, but who recalls that old seventies nature show?) On that particular day we were making our way back from the river when we spotted a couple of eagles circling and diving on the river, obviously working as a team of hunters. The birds were so preoccupied with their work that they didn’t pay much attention to us as we crept up to a point close enough to see what was going on. A pair of Merganser ducks, with about eleven freshly hatched chicks, were struggling to get away from these two Bald Eagles who were intent on having Merganser Nuggets for lunch! As we watched the eagles swoop down and attack again and again, you couldn’t help but feel bad for the little ducklings and their parents who were no match for these two apex predators. While we knew it was natures way, she sure teaches some harsh lessons at times. The next day we saw the same pair of Mergansers in the river, travelling much lighter now with only five chicks remaining. Poor little buggers! As we sat around the fire that night, gorging on pasta with fresh chorizo sausage, artichoke hearts and olives, I guess we really weren’t any different. Ah yes…the circle of life.
Our final day of the trip arrived sooner than we wanted it to, and Bruce and I spent a lazy morning in camp drinking tea and coffee, soaking up the morning sunshine, and thinking about the flight home. As had been the case every single morning, we were greeted by a little speckled Fox Sparrow who came to perch on an old stump near us and would sing his heart out to us for about an hour. Determined to get a good picture of him, I set up the GoPro camera on the tripod nearby and waited for him to come flitting back. Not to be disappointed he did in fact do just that, allowing me to capture his song and his image on the camera on our last morning.
By mid-afternoon we had packed up our camp, removed all garbage and sign of our stay, and had piled up our gear on the beach in preparation for the float plane. As we sat on the beach and waited I felt very content inside, having spent a week with a good friend in an incredible setting. Sure the fishing had sucked, but who cares. The scenery and the wildlife had more than made up for it, not to mention the laughter and the new memories made and shared. I don’t really care about the fish count that much, although of course I love to catch them when I can. But this trip was a good one none the less, and I thank Bruce for his friendship and his stories.
At the appointed time the sound of the Beaver’s radial engine could be heard echoing through the valley, and we soon saw him circling above the estuary and gliding down for a soft landing. We greeted our pilot with wide grins and happy hearts, as we loaded up for our return to civilization. The flight home was quiet this time, with little chatter between Bruce and I as
we sat with our faces pressed to the windows, saying farewell to our home for the past week. The end is always bittersweet, but I figure you have to end one trip to begin a new one, so it’s all for the best. As we unload our gear at the docks in Tofino and prepare to head back to Nanaimo and Victoria, we are already thinking about the next trip in our minds, and guessing about Salmon run timings, Steelhead, and all things fishy. And I wouldn’t have it any other way.