The Pretty Girl River, and saying Goodbye
2017 has been a rough year, and considering it’s not even over yet it may get worse. Canada lost some pretty great people this year, most recently with Gord Downie of the Tragically Hip, and CBC Radio storyteller and host of the Vinyl Cafe Stuart McLean. And in our own family, my wife lost her brother Ferlyn suddenly and unexpectedly one summer night, breaking hearts amongst all of us. I mention these people not because I knew all of them well, but because they were people I felt I knew through their stories and their larger than life personalities. People who had made a difference in our small world to many Canadians, and touched many lives , and with whom I have both belted out a badly sung tune to as well as laughed out loud. But there was someone else we lost this year who I knew well. Someone who I spent time with, laughed with, and called a friend. That someone, was Steve Milne.
I first met Steve many years ago on my first ever back country fishing trip to the Burman River, just west of the small town of Gold River on Vancouver Island, BC. It was my first foray into the wild with a bunch of strangers (save one person) and although I didn’t know it at the time, it was to be the first of many adventures with the same motley crew. The trip had been arranged by Steve’s brother Bruce, who if you’ve read any of my other posts will know is a friend of mine who I have had the pleasure of joining on more than a few adventures. As a man reaching almost 50 now, when I think back to some of the life events that have shaped who I am as a grown man today, that trip will always hold a special place for me. Some day I will write more about it, but for this tribute to my friend Steve, it’s Pretty Girl Cove that brings me back to happier days.
In May of 2006, setting forth from the small coastal tourist town of Tofino BC, myself and six other fellow fisherman including Steve and Bruce loaded up a water taxi and headed north through Maurus and then Calmus Channels, then out towards Hot Springs Cove, a popular tourist destination as a result of the natural hot springs that occur there. From Hot Springs Cove we headed further inland until we arrived in the naturally protected Pretty Girl Cove, a stunning estuary surrounded by untouched forests that have yet to hear the siren song of chainsaws and the drone of logging trucks. On a good day, the ride out can be an amazing trip, once you pass through the ocean swells of Cats Face Passage, and into the more protected waters of the many channels and inlets of Clayoquot Sound. On a bad day, you might just lose your lunch! But for this trip we had a clear sky and calm waters, making for a fantastic ride out to our destination.
Upon reaching Pretty Girl Cove about an hour later, we set about launching our canoe and a zodiac to begin the arduous task of ferrying our mountain of gear to shore, as the estuary does not provide enough depth for the water taxi to get very close. Just as we began the process we spotted two bears grazing peacefully on the grassy plain of the estuary, quite oblivious of our arrival, and seeming to care very little for the human invaders. After having been on a few of these types of trips prior, we all knew our jobs and soon had everything ashore and waved goodbye to the water taxi for the next seven days. The bears being of little help, continued to graze until they caught wind of us, and soon sauntered off in the to bushes.
One thing you need to know about my friend Steve, is that he was never one to go without when on a camping trip. The man was known to bring at least four or five jackets, six rods, three coolers (one just for ice for his drinks none the less!) and was renowned for his infamous fitted Queen size bed sheets to fit over his air mattress and between himself and his down comforter. In fact, I believe that on this particular trip, there was even a side table brought, to put his radio on to listen to the Vancouver Giants hockey games, while in bed. Steve had grown up camping with his brother Bruce and their Dad Byron, so camping out was nothing new. But Steve knew two things and practised them well: how to be comfortable in the woods, and how to enjoy life.
For this particular trip, we were set upon fishing the two small rivers that feed into the estuary, which are the Ice River, and the Pretty Girl. This being my first time visiting this spot, I was keen to get on it and so spent the rest of the first afternoon rushing to set up my tent and get to the fishing as soon as possible. Unfortunately I didn’t spend enough time really looking at my surroundings and so upon completion of setting up my tent went to take a look around the area. Much to my surprise, I soon located a rather recently used day bed for bears about 30 feet from my tent! I considered moving my tent, but decided that if these bears were going to give us problems it wouldn’t matter where we camped. So I left it where it was, and hoped that the bears would give me some distance and I would do the same.
With camp set up, tarps strung, and beers already cracked, everyone set out for the first fish of the trip and after a short walk up the river everyone had fish on the line. Being a pretty small river system, and fed primary by Pretty Girl Lake at some elevation above, the water was not only very clean, but very cold. The odd thing about this little system (we all soon discovered) was that for the first few days of the trip the fishing was great, with everyone catching lots of feisty Cutthroat trout, and even one summer run Steelhead. But within about three days, the fish very quickly became hook shy and the success rate dropped rapidly.
To fend off the lack of fishing, and grumbling that would follow, the group decided that we would entertain ourselves in camp by foraging for clams and oysters, and taking some time to sit back and unwind while watching our big furry neighbours get fat on the succulent grasses. The estuary in Pretty Girl Cove gave up some fair number of huge oysters at low tide, as well as delicious Butter and Razor clams for us as well.
The Oysters were quickly dispatched by baking them over a camp fire until their shells opened, while the clams sat in a pot for the day with a mixture of salt water and oatmeal to cleanse them of the sand inside. While I am no fan of oysters, I will say that the clams were delicious and our party of seven enjoyed a bounty of shellfish delivered literally to our doorsteps. Not a bad way to spend a day, even if there were no fish on our lines.
As our week progressed, we were blessed with great weather and no rains, unusual for May in Tofino. In fact, we had some evenings that were so clear and cool that I recall waking up in my tent in the morning with completely frosted hair and wondering how on earth I was going to get warm again. But the benefit of the clear nights far outweighed the cool mornings, as I saw more stars in the night sky, untarnished by the light pollution of the cities, than I have ever seen before in my life. Sitting in a camp chair in the blackness and silence of the estuary late a night, I felt both incredibly lucky to be there with such good people, and incredibly small in the universe. More importantly, I felt privlideged to have been invited, to be part of the tribe so to speak.
Now as for Steve, the first time I met him I wasn’t sure about him to be honest. He was big, loud, a little obnoxious, a bit intimidating and definitly larger than life. I guess being someone like myself who grew up not having much confidence in myself around guys who were jocks, I felt a little twinge of that boyhood fear of being the odd man out, somehow not “cool enough” to be considered an equal. Steve and his brother Bruce had been rugby players for most of their high school years, and had the bum knees and war stories to boot. And I will admit that I wasn’t sure Steve thought too much of me, as I was the “newbie” on that particular trip to the Burman River, and certainly wasn’t a seasoned back country camper. I guess I shouldn’t have cared what he thought of me, but I did. I always do.
This trip to Pretty Girl was my second trip with Steve, and again I felt that awkwardness again of being the skinny geek that nobody wanted on their team. Always last to be picked, never seen as the guy you want to have. But I learned something about Steve on the trip that I didn’t know. Sure he was a big burly dude with an infectious laugh and seemingly endless number of stories. But he was also intelligent. Thoughtful. Kind. Caring. Respected. You see, I came to learn that while the Steve I knew on the outside was the brash funny guy with the big laugh, the professional side of Steve revealed much more. Steve was someone who stood up for the little guy. Fought against big corporations for the benefits of those employed by them. Steve gave a powerful voice to those who didn’t have the strength or the will to speak for themselves. So in fact, Steve was more than he let on, and if anything was the guy who would have stood next to me when the chips were down. When Steve passed away suddenly this spring, some three to four hundred people came to his funeral. People who were his friends, his team mates, colleagues, and those who he had helped over the years. His passing did not go unnoticed.
This past fall, Steve’s brother Bruce hosted a memorial weekend for his brother on the Stamp River, near Port Alberni. The Stamp holds a special place for the Milne’s, as Bruce, Steve and their Dad camped there often over the years, fishing for salmon and steelhead in the Stamp and Ash Rivers. It was a fitting place to gather friends and comrades to remember Steve, to share stories and tears, and pass quiet moments grieving the death of a good man and friend amongst people who cared about and loved him. There’s that expression that you never see a grown man cry, but I can tell you there were tears shed by more than one. As one of my dear friends told me that weekend, men don’t tell their friends often enough that they love them and it’s real shame that we don’t. We’re on this planet for such a short amount of time, and we should never feel ashamed to tell our buddies, our kids, our loved ones how important they are to us. You just don’t know when they will be gone.
At the end of that weekend on the Stamp, and with his brother and friends gathered around late at night, some of Steve’s ashes were released into the river, to mingle with the memories he and his family have made there over the years. It was a fitting tribute to Steve, and I am thankful to have been a part of it. I will never forget the memories shared with Steve, the outrageous meals cooked in camp, the expensive bottles of Scotch, bear bangers and white gas, tales of rugby mayhem on road trips abroad, and the infamous camping trips that I didn’t make it to.
That trip to Pretty Girl didn’t really stand out with regards to the fishing, but what it lacked in fish it made up for in breathtaking scenery, amazing opportunities to watch bears, and most importantly the sharing of time away from the world with a fine bunch of guys. So to Steve, I say thank you for showing me that my inner voice is not always right. That I am not the person I feel everyone else thinks I am. That I was in fact, “cool enough” to be considered your friend too. I know you loved Pretty Girl, as much as we all do, and especially the bears that liked to visit.
Rest in peace my friend, you will always be with us on the river.
Update: Found some more pics in the archives!