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.
At 46 years old, you might think that I’m mature. Or at least heading in that direction..right? I mean, after all, I’m past the age of feeling invincible and doing stupid things that can get me hurt. At my ripe old age I’m supposed to be all “hey careful you don’t take your eye out!”, and “slow down people, this ain’t the mainland!” My stepsons will vouch that I am always on them about not going to close to the edge of cliffs, being careful with pocketknives and fire, you know, normal stuff that kids (especially boys) are naturally drawn too. Don’t even get me started on the topics of bows, arrows, and pellet guns! But as it turns out as men age, we tend to revert back to our younger foolhardy ways at the first opportunity we can.
Who among us doesn’t have a tale or two about when crazy Uncle So and So who had way too much rum one night and ended up falling into the bonfire? Or how about when Grandpa took his first test drive on a quad and ended up slamming into the neighbors trailer during their family reunion dinner? I mean, I can personally think of many stories that start with “Oh man…remember that time when..”, or perhaps “I thought I would never stop laughing when…”. Not to mention I suppose that for some reason or other I seem to have been the star performer in some of these, er, memorable moments.
Consider if you will the phrases our parents said to us, that we as kids felt were just ridiculous and would never ever happen, especially to someone like us! For example “It’s all fun and games until someone loses an eye”. Classic. Or maybe “Don’t run with that!”. Or even more relevant “Always cut away from you!”. Pffft..as if. Parents…sheesh!
As a kid, I certainly got into my share of broken bones, skinned knees, fat lips, knocked out teeth, deep cuts, and of course too many bumps and bruises to even count. We called them War Wounds. Medals of Honor. They were the starting point of a great story and something to show off with pride! But as I grew older, and my taste for the extreme and painful became more and more averse, I figured that come adulthood all of these mishaps were behind me. Certainly I had learned my lessons the hard way. Right?
It turns out that as you get older (and I debate the wiser part) you bounce along without incident for the most part, following societies rules for safe behavior as you go. Don’t drink and drive. Don’t swim on a full stomach (is this really even a thing? I mean, the last thing I want to do after inhaling a large plate of poutine is go swimming!). Don’t play with matches, always point the business end of a weapon away from you. You get my drift. But then an opportunity arises that you didn’t account for that takes you back to those days of recklessness and foolhardiness. Let’s just call these opportunities what they are. MAN TRIPS.
A MAN TRIP by definition can take numerous forms, making it the chameleon of trouble making potential. It can sometimes be as simple as a trip with a buddy to the store down the road. Or perhaps a quick trip down a dirt road that has previously not been explored. Or maybe its a weekend away with old friends or new. It can be short in duration, or long (and sometimes painful) depending on the circumstance and can take place at home, abroad, or even in the house. Yes, the MAN TRIP is a dangerous yet seductive beast that is legendary and yet with all it’s inherent risks it is not only sought after with vigor by men all over the planet but ranks second only to the most dangerous of all MAN TRIPS which of course is the Bachelor Party.
As I was sitting down at home tonight thinking of what to write about for this weeks post, I was skimming through some old photographs from adventures past and I came across some classic incidents and accidents that I’ve been in. For example, remember the old “eye” warning? Just so happens that is true, since I almost took one of mine out with a nice tree limb.
Then there is the infamous meat draw story. One day, after a long day of saltwater fishing for salmon off Sooke, BC, my buddy Paul and I decided to head into town for a meal. Not wanting to hang out in town, we took the twenty minute drive into the city to hit a pub for supper. By the time we arrived it was quite dark, and due to it being a Saturday night the parking lot was full. Not finding anywhere in the pub lot I found a place across the street and we pulled into a dirt lot and got out and prepared to cross the road to the pub. Just as we were getting out of the truck, I heard an announcement over the pub’s PA system telling the patrons that the last chance for the prime rib meat draw was coming up, and to hurry and get tickets! Well..enough said!
Paul crossed the road first, and since I was fumbling around with my wallet and keys I had fallen behind so in order to not miss my chance at the meat draw I took off at full speed to cross the road. Unfortunately, I did not see the asphalt island in the road, and promptly tripped and flew through the air, landing on my outstretched hands and arms. When I hit the ground, I knew right away from the immediate wave of nausea that things had gone horribly wrong.
“Hurry up man!” Paul was yelling, not wanting to miss the draw. But when he turned to have a look for me he saw me on the road, curled up in the fetal position, with a car heading right towards me. He ran into the street, grabbed me by the belt, and literally picked me up and dragged me to the side of the road. “Jesus ya silly Newfie, what the heck are you doing?”
“My arm is busted” I said. “Take me to the hospital”.
“Seriously” he said, not believing me, “I’m starving man!”
“Seriously. Sorry bud, dinner will have to wait”.
So off we went, and it turns out that it takes a considerable amount of trying to convince an Emergency Room admitting nurse that:
A) You have haven’t had anything to drink. Honest.
B) That it is normal to be running to a pub for a meat draw, I mean…who doesn’t?
C) See A.
After hours and hours of waiting, it turned out that I had in fact broken both arms, and cracked a rib or two. And while it was actually really funny to both Paul and I and makes a hell of a story, I can tell you that wiping one’s posterior with two broken arms is a challenge that I don’t recommend anyone take on. Lucky for me they left one arm in a sling rather than a cast, so while it took twice as long to heal I was able to maneuver.
Of course broken limbs and almost poked out eyes aside, there are other more subtle dangers that MAN TRIPS can produce. For example, there’s always the case of extreme sunburn because you decided that for the first time in 20 years you would expose your normally lily white stomach and back to the harsh rays of the sun while boating for 8 hours. Thank god you got that “base burn” over and done with hey? Or how about the copious amount of bee stings you received one time because you decided to go “off trail” and be all rugged and stuff? Did I mention I am allergic to them? Luckily not to the point of death, but most definitely to the point of incredibly painful swelling and tenderness for weeks.
These are just a few choice selections or my own history, and I bet if you are reading this you will no doubt be recalling some of your own injury stories too. But MAN TRIPS can often make you do other things that a sane person wouldn’t consider on a normal weeknight. Take for example the Viking Funeral.
If you follow your history lessons at a kid, you will know that a Viking Funeral is when the Norsemen would lay their dead in a boat, light it on fire, and push it out into the ocean so that the dead can be sent off to Valhalla in a blaze of glory. So how does this relate to the MAN TRIP? Easy. Nothing spells fun in the woods with your friends more than white gas in a zip-lock baggie, some fireworks, and a bear banger or two. Combine ingredients with something that floats, add some flammable starter material such as newspaper or wood shavings, set all on fire and push off into the water. This is usually followed by hiding behind the nearest rock, tree, or friend who may have nodded off, while you wait for the whole darn thing to “go off”. Sound dangerous? You bet!!
Now, I don’t recommend this of course. I am in no way advocating the reckless use of gunpowder and white gas. And after a few MAN TRIPS when things got a little hairy at said Viking Funeral, we have since stopped the practice.
So what is the point I am trying to make you are wondering? What do any of these things have in common? I guess my point is that if I could do all of them over again, I would. I’m a strong believer in the statement that you are only as old as you feel inside. Apparently I am 11.
The only thing I will say though, is that when things do go wrong, they hurt a lot more and for a lot longer. As I write this now for example, the spots on my arms where I broke them ache, as they do now more often than not. That’s why they invented ibuprofen though I am pretty sure. It was probably dreamed up by a someone who just recently came home from a MAN TRIP. And even though you may get the odd injury from time to time, the healing you receive from spending quality time with family, good friends, and the good old outdoors more than makes up for it. After all, without the adventures of old Uncle So and So, life would be pretty boring indeed.
LONG LIVE THE MAN TRIP!
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.