You always remember your first. No, I’m not talking about that first awkward kiss behind the gym bleachers, I’m talking about that first heart pumping adrenaline rush that comes from hooking your first wild steelhead.
Some 16 years ago, a good friend of mine Paul turned me on to the idea of “having a go” at trying to catch a steelhead. Having never even heard of this mythical beast before, I keenly listened in to story after story of endless hours casting in search of steel with no luck, on wet and snowy winter days here on Vancouver Island. “Took me two years before I caught my first one” he said. “Be lucky if you got one at all really, but they sure are worth it”. How can this be I thought….are these fish so smart and elusive that it really takes that long? I was skeptical, but as time went by I heard more of the same from a few other fishermen that I respected and I decided that this might be something worth pursuing.
I managed to convince Paul to take me out and give me a chance to try the following winter. Not being experienced in this type of angling, I had no idea what to use for gear and relied heavily on Paul’s generosity to set me up for my first attempt. I rigged up and old spinning rod, and threw on a really ugly looking crocodile spoon, and off we went. I had no waders, no waterproof jacket, and certainly no style. But I was stoked that I was finally getting a chance to try.
I’m not really sure what I had expected would happen that day, but I’m pretty sure Paul thought he had a very good idea. I’m certain he envisioned me with tangled lines, lures suspended in mid-air from tree branches, and absolutely positively 100% no doubt fishless. We arrived at a small river with a little pool a few rod lengths away, which to me looked like a poor place to even try. Rod in hand, Paul announced he was going to head up river a little and see if he could spot any fish. Fair enough I figured, time for me to give this whole steelhead fishing a try. As Paul turned and began to leave, I brought back my rod and let loose a cast, landing just on the back side of the little pool. Within seconds of landing in the water, all hell broke loose.
Whatever was living in that pool smashed my lure and took off, making mad leaps all around the pool and giving me a thrill of a lifetime. Screaming with excitement I yelled at Paul that I had caught one and that he needed to come over and see right away!
“Impossible” he said. “Your first cast, and your first time, and you think you have a steelhead? No way. Not a chance”. I think Paul must have thought I was delusional, but when he came over to where I now had the fish at my feet, his jaw must have dropped to his feet. Sure enough, I had landed a really nice winter run steelhead. It was dime bright too, with just a tinge of red. “I don’t believe it” he said.
But believe it he must. And for me it became the running joke for the next 16 years about how easy it had been to land that first one. The next year saw me try hard to duplicate that experience, with no luck. I had been afflicted with the steelhead curse and there was no turning back.
Fast forward now to 2012, and I’ve developed my steelhead hunting skills to a moderate level. No expert for sure, but I’ve long since moved from pencil lead and pink worms on to two handed spey rods and fancy flys. Not to say I have abandoned gear fishing all together, but I prefer to do my fishing now with more traditional gear. Having made a new fishing friend Todd at a new job, I decided to share some local knowledge with him and told him to meet me on a local river where he can give his skills a try.
Knowing that I would sharing one of my favorite fishing spots with someone new, I got up extra early and hit the river with my girlfriend DeAndra before daylight, so that I can fish some of my favorite runs through a few times before he got there. As the sun came up and morning began to wane, he also showed up with his girlfriend Becky in tow and I pointed them to a spot that I had just finished running my fly through for the past few hours with no luck. Feeling discouraged (and a bit tired from our early morning) we set off, and told them to meet us back at another spot in a few hours.
Lunch time came, and my girlfriend and I had arrived back at my truck just as my new found fishing buddy and his girl came driving up to meet with us. “How did it go” I asked, fully expecting to hear that despite his best efforts that nothing had been caught.
“Becky caught a monster!” Todd beamed. “Just exactly where you said it would be too!”
Crap. Not wanting to believe it, and also knowing how much a joker Todd can be I totally dismissed it and said “Whatever show me the picture then and prove it”. And he did just that. Not only had she caught one of the largest steelhead I have ever seen from that river system, but a second chrome one as well.
I could hardly believe my eyes, it just seemed so unfair! I had fished that run hard for two hours before he came, only to have his girlfriend catch my fish!! And this was not only the first steelhead she had ever caught but the first time ever using a bait cast setup!! What the heck!!
And then it hit me. I was now Paul. It had taken 12 years, but history had come full circle and now it was me staring incredulously at the prize that I had been chasing just hours before. I know that Becky and Todd won’t soon forget that amazing day, and god knows Todd doesn’t let me ever forget it. I’ve been the brunt of that story ever since, but I really don’t mind that much. It was a great day for all of us, and an especially great day for one lucky rookie. I guess that’s just how it goes.
It’s mid-October on Vancouver Island, a time when the local rivers start to see the biggest push of Coho and Chum salmon and it’s traditionally a time for me when I begin thinking about a fishing trip somewhere. After a summer of trolling and casting for salmon and halibut in the ocean, I’m ready to reconnect with the rivers and spend some time knee-deep in some cool water, casting flies and quartering my way down as many rivers as I can. As much as I love being out the boat, my happy place is and will always be swinging a fly somewhere, while being serenaded by the sounds of the river dancing over the riffles and rocks beneath my feet.
After missing out on an earlier fishing trip with some friends in the early part of October due to work commitments, and being unable to convince any of the usual suspects in my crew to come with me on an adventure, I was faced with the prospect of a solo trip this year. To be honest I don’t mind going alone, as the solitude can be rewarding, introspective, and more restful at times than going with friends. After a particularly crazy year at work, I was looking forward to some down time, with no set schedule and being at the whim of wherever I felt like traveling each day. I could fish as hard or as light as I felt like, with no pressure, and no agendas. This was going to be awesome.
My destination this fall was going to be the most northern tip of Vancouver Island, roughly 650 km from my home base in Victoria and about 10 hours of driving. After hearing from friends of a great forestry campsite along the San Josef River, adjacent to Cape Scott Provincial Park, I jumped into my normal pre-trip planning mode of scouring the map books for potential rivers to fish, researching on the internet for reports and run timings, and sorting through gear. Cameras were charged, camping gear laid out and prepped, fishing gear checked (and double checked), pontoon boat broken down and stowed, clothes packed and food organized. At 9 AM on October 18th, the truck was gassed up and everything was green for go. I was off!
My plans were set. I was going to use the San Josef recreation site as my main base, and fish the San Josef, Mac Jack, and the Koprino Rivers in search of early winter run and late summer run steelhead, as well as fresh returning northern Coho and resident Cutthroat. My research told me that the San Josef River, which flows west to the Pacific into San Josef Bay, offers rich tea colored water full of hungry Cutthroat trout year round, and if one floats the river to the ocean will find a gorgeous white sand beach. The Mac Jack promises similar fishing, and although a smaller system empties its waters into Raft Cove, a popular spot for hikers and fishermen. The Koprino River is further to the south, and winds its way from amongst the mountains into Quatsino Sound and Quatsino Provincial Park. From all accounts, all three of these spots would give me lots of terrain to explore and some fabulous wildlife photography and I was excited to get up north and set up camp.
After driving for about 9 hours, stopping in Nanaimo and Port McNeill briefly to chat with friends along the way, I finally made it to the tiny logging community of Holberg, situated about 40 km west of Port Hardy, the most northern town on the island. Holberg is your typical west coast logging town with a year round population of 200 people or so, one gas pump, and the Scarlet Ibis Pub where the many a weary hiker stops in for a fabulous meal after hiking the grueling North Coast Trail, and the Cape Scott Trail. I pulled in to the Pub ready for a nice hot meal before heading out to my final destination, another 20 km down logging roads to the recreation site. My trip so far had been uneventful and the weather while overcast had not really produced much rain or any other unpleasantness, making the drive easy. As I got out of the truck, the rain had begun to fall and I cursed it quietly as I knew this meant I would have a wet set up of camp. But, still being excited about my trip and the adventures that lay ahead, I didn’t really waste too much time on the rain. After all, it is the north-west coast of Vancouver Island where winters are long, wet, windy and dreary, with some parts of the area receiving as much as 300 inches of rain a year. If you don’t come prepared for rain in this part of the world, you really aren’t prepared at all. As a seasoned camper and outdoorsman I was more than prepared and had fully expected to be wet for most of the trip so this was nothing new to me.
After a nice hot supper of Sheppard’s pie, a couple of Lucky Lager’s to wash it down with, and watching the final period of the hockey game while soaking up the warmth of a nice hot wood stove, it was finally time to head out and push the last few kilometers to the camp site and tuck in for the night. As I headed out to the truck, the rain had increased its intensity now from a minor annoyance to a shirt soaking deluge. Running to the truck, with the last of the daylight now becoming a thing of the past, I fired up the engine, and blasted the defrost to discourage the immediate onset of a steamy window from my damp clothes, and headed off onto the logging road leading to the recreation site.
I bumped along the logging road, dodging potholes and the occasional deer that was out and about in the rain and not suspecting traffic on a wet and dark night. Given the remoteness of the location, my cell phone coverage had long since stopped, so I was surprised when the familiar sound of an incoming text message came across. It was a message from a colleague at my work, concerned for my well-being as most of my office mates are not used to people going on remote solo trips to parts unknown. The message read “Expecting 120mm of rain in your area, get the hell out of there and head to Campbell River!” Townies I thought. They worry too much.
Arriving at the campsite some 20 minutes later, I drove around checking out the 10 or so forestry sites at the San Josef recreation site that were there available. I was all alone, as predicted, since who in their right mind other than a crazy steelhead fishermen would be out camping in this neck of the woods in the winter, not to mention at 8PM at night. It was dark and the rain had not let up, continuing its staccato beat on the roof of the truck as I scouted around for the best site to park in. With the rain falling so hard and the intense overwhelming darkness, I decided that it was a good night to camp in the truck and set up camp tomorrow in the daylight. Even with the rain falling, daylight just makes things easier when setting up and I wanted to check out the entire rec site for the best location. As I drove through the site, I came across some water flowing across the road, only a few inches deep and about 6 feet across and at a low spot that had water pooled on the one side. I looked and decided that it was most likely an abundance of runoff from the main logging road which was above grade from here, and dismissed it as nothing to really worry about. It was probably just an overwhelmed culvert and certainly not something to stress about. After a few laps around the site I finally decided on a nice spot directly across from a set of outhouses, thinking that in the middle of the night this might be useful for a late night dash to the facilities! At 8:30 I stretched out across the front seats of the truck, tucked into my sleeping bag, and turned in after making a quick GoPro video stating where I was, how hard the rain was falling, and my concerns that I might get stuck (in the mud as the ground was quite damp). Before turning off the lights, I switched on my hand-held VHF radio and tuned into the weather channel, hearing a forecast of 60-70 knot winds and 12 foot seas predicted for Cape Scott that night. No mention of rain however, which I did find a little unsettling given what was going on around me. With the rain coming down hard I drifted off to sleep, cosy and warm, and looking forward to waking up and getting camp ready after a hearty breakfast of maple sausage, bacon, and eggs.
I awoke with a start in the middle of the night, to this day I don’t know exactly what it was that woke me from the depths of sleep. It was 2AM, almost on the dot. As I opened my eyes and shook off the cobwebs of deep sleep, I immediately noticed that my truck was doing very strange things. The headlights and the dash lights were flickering on and off rapidly, making an odd sound as the relays switched on and off in time with the lights. “Shit” I said out loud. I must have fallen asleep on the remote for the truck and somehow this was causing the lights to go on and off. My first thoughts were that the battery had been drained and I had better check right away to see if the truck would start. I grabbed my keys off the dash where I had placed them as I went to bed, put on my glasses (I am blind without them), and swung upright in the driver’s seat. It was then that I got my first indication that things were going in a very bad direction. When my feet hit the floor, they made a splash.
“CRAP”! Yep, that was the first word (or three) that came out of my mouth as the sudden wash of complete fear and panic washed over me, bringing me instantly to a very clear frame of mind. I was in trouble! Quickly I jammed the keys into the ignition and turned them to start…and amazingly my truck sprang to life. I was immediately both relieved that it started, and then shocked to see that under the illumination of my headlights I could see that I was surrounded by muddy brown water!! The worst thing that could have happened had happened. The river had flooded and the campsite was now under water. Thinking fast, I figured that maybe, just maybe, the truck was in a low spot and I could back out of there and find higher ground, thus reducing the damage to my already flooded interior. I threw the truck into reverse, and started to slowly move backwards but because of the lack of light and the driving rain, I could see nothing behind me and was immediately stuck with the thought that I could be making things worse. I needed to get outside and have a look. In my shorts, T-shirt and North Face vest, I jumped out of the truck and into about 3 feet of standing and muddy water. I grabbed the only flashlight I could see, a small 1watt bicycle headlight, and set about to see how bad things were.
The truck had water now at the bumper level, and directly behind me the outhouses were just above water. Deciding that the truck was in jeopardy I quickly went back and jumped in, figuring I would back up with the door open to see where I was headed. In the truck, I pulled on the shift column to put the transmission into reverse, and was hit with another disappointment. The transmission, now fully underwater and flooded, was controlled electronically. There would be no more shifting of gears.
Things were progressing to another level now, and I knew the truck was no longer worth struggling over. I hopped out again, and decided to start unloading everything I could as quickly as possible and move everything to higher ground. Out came the cooler, my dry bag of clothes, my fishing rods and bags, and my totes containing kitchen equipment, camping gear, and lanterns. All of this I humped through the water to the outhouses, placing some things inside them to keep them dry. On my third trip to and from the truck, I could see that the water was rising fast and had already now reached the top of the bumper and was not looking like it was stopping. Glancing over to the outhouses and shining my flashlight around in the driving rain, I knew that it would not be soon before the dry land at the outhouses would be no more. I had to move again.
I set off and waded up the road, desperate to find dry ground and after about 50 yards or so reached one of the two lean-to shelters used to keep firewood dry in the summers. “Perfect” I said, looking at the nice tin roof and dry concrete pad underneath the three walled structure, “I can set up here for the night and wait things out. This is not so bad”. Off I went back to the outhouses, floating what was water tight on the water as I moved making things easier to manage between locations, and carrying everything else. On my second trip back to the lean-to, I had another nasty surprise…the water had now overtaken it and was flowing across the concrete floor!
Once more I knew I had to move again. In the distance I could now hear the truck exhaust gurgling underwater, and my mind began to assess the situation. No matter what options I had available now, none were good. I had not been here before, and I had no idea how close or how high the river was relevant to where I was camped. I knew that the campsite was surrounded by massive old growth trees, and with the huge winds that were now sweeping through the area I was concerned about limbs falling down and hitting me. Yep, things were going in a bad direction. I had to make the call.
Grabbing my hand-held VHF radio, I splashed my way back to my truck and climbed up onto the tool box in the truck bed. With my rapidly cooling body temp and nerves that were now on their last tendril, I pushed the call button and asked for help.
“Pan, Pan, Pan…Tofino Coast Guard Radio…this is Adrian South I am at San Josef Rec Site near Cape Scott and have been caught in a flash flood and need assistance!” Immediately the response came back.
“Person calling Tofino Coast Guard Radio, do you require assistance?”
“Yes, I am in a flood, my vehicle is underwater and the water is rising rapidly I need evacuation please!!”
“Understood, in need of rescue, you are at Cape Scott. Can you confirm if you are in the water or on land?”
“I am on land” I replied. “I am alone, and in need to help. I am in the San Josef Rec Site 19km from Holberg”
The radio crackled to life once more “Adrian this is Tofino Coast Guard Radio, understood you are in need of assistance, however we are unable to read your last message, please resend”.
Again I told them I was on land, and in trouble. And again I heard the same response “Adrian, this is Tofino Coast Guard Radio, we cannot hear you your signal is too weak. Please try again”.
Desperate now to get out the message, I tried again but the radio battery was too weak. Not having charged it fully before I left, I had only charged it for 1 hour during my drive up, using an on board inverter I bought just the day before. Looking around at the water continuing to rise, I shut the radio off, and went back to my now flooding lean-to, being sure to get my wallet and my keys out of the truck (which had now died completely) before leaving. As I thought about all the stuff I had rescued from the truck, I couldn’t help but think I was Robinson Crusoe, rescuing provisions from his demolished ship. I even managed a chuckle out loud.
When I got back to the lean-to I started forming my plan to survive the night. I knew from experience that hypothermia would be the biggest issue for me as I had now been wet for about an hour. Grabbing my fishing gear, I took out my waders and my long johns, and while balancing on one of my bags to avoid falling into the rising water managed to get my waders on, a dry shirt and fleece sweater, and my rain jacket. Now dry, and protected, I felt like things were at least in a better place for me. I had hope!
Leaving the lean-to, I set about moving further down the road seeking higher ground, and found a camp site about 150 feet away that looked like it held the most promise. It was above water! For the third time I started ferrying my stuff down the road to the new spot, hoping that this would be my last move for the night. I was getting tired now, and my arms were killing me from the cold and my lack of energy was becoming a problem. It was now about 3:30 AM, and the rain was still falling. As soon as I had all my things ferried over, I started to think about shelter and some light. I took out one of the tarps I had brought with me and hastily draped it over the pile of gear I had placed on the picnic table, thinking that at least this was the highest and driest spot I could find. I then went back to the truck, making the journey though the water for the last time. The truck was an eerie sight, as the tail and headlights, now completely under water, cast a ghostly glow in the dirty water. I hopped up in the truck bed, and opened up the tool box to salvage my Coleman stove and fuel, lantern, camp axe, and dry kindling. I figured that perhaps once I had a tarp up that I could light a fire, and all would be well until morning.
Heading back to my Camp 3, I turned around and took one final look at the truck. It was a sad sight, and I knew that this would be the end for my F-150. She had served me well, but there was no hope left that I would ever drive it again. I said a silent goodbye, and headed out. At Camp 3, I set about trying to light my lantern. All this time my little 1 watt bicycle light had been an absolute lifesaver, as without it I would have been completely blind in the dark. There was no moon and heavy cloud cover, making it completely pitch black. As the flashlight was water “resistant” at best, and had recently been broken during a camping trip with the kids, it hard started to crap out intermittently and I was really concerned it would completely fizzle out. Holding the bike light in my mouth, I tried to get the Coleman gas lantern going. Feeling it was almost out of fuel, I set about refilling it, then pumping the pressure back up. After what seemed like forever but probably only 5 minutes, I tried to light the mantle. With the wind and the rain making deafening noise now, I couldn’t hear if the fuel was flowing when I opened the valve, so after a few attempts with no ignition, I tried pumping more. For some unknown reason the pump was not working, and try as I might I could not get the pressure to build high enough to force the fuel through the lantern. I gave up, with a now bloodied knuckle from pumping the lantern and hitting it.
I turned my attention now to the tarp. If the lantern wouldn’t light, at least I could get a tarp up and get out of the rain for a few hours. Looking around the campsite for the first time, I realized that the trees around me were…massive! Trying to get ropes around the trucks for tarp lines would mean that I needed to get physically around the trees. Grabbing rope and heading off to my first one, I stepped off the campsite…and into water. The forest was flooded.
Cursing under my breath, I took a further look around the edges of the campsite. Sure enough, I was starting to be on my own island. I managed to get three out of four ropes secured, and with the fourth one I drove a 6 inch galvanized nail into the trunk of the largest tree at the site, thus securing the four corners of the tarp. Having built many a tarp fortress over the years, I was used to this exercise and it did manage to settle my nerves a little, as I was feeling like finally I was making some headway. With a sloppy looking tarp shelter now established, I moved some of my stuff under it and turned again to the lantern thinking I would have another go. When I approached the picnic table where it was sitting however, I was overcome with the smell of fuel. In my hurry to fill the lantern I had left the top off the fuel container and it had toppled over, spilling almost a whole liter of white gas on the table and from there, into one of my totes.
“Frigging lovely, just another cluster fuck to deal with.” Once again I abandoned the lantern after another 10-15 minutes of struggling to pressurize it. “Of all the times for this damn thing to fail, it has to be NOW?!” I said in anguish.
With the lantern a no go, my flashlight on the blink, and a shelter sort of up, it was time to take a further look around to see what the rest of the rec site looked like. I kept thinking in the back of my mind about the water I had seen running over the road at the campsite entrance, and wanted to see if this had been the root cause of all of this. I headed down the campsite road towards the overflowed culvert and the entrance to the site, noticing as I went that the water was getting deeper and deeper as I got further down. When I was about half way there, I could see that the second firewood lean-to was now almost half-submerged, and that the water was all around me. Giant stumps that had previously been along the side of the road on the way in, were now submerged. It only took a second for me to make my decision. The time had come to abandon ship and get the hell out of there. All I could think about was that the river was close, and could at any moment divert its flow over the site and all would be lost.
Heading back to Camp 3, I starting turning things over in my mind. I was in deeper trouble than I had thought, and why the hell had I not listened to my gut instincts when I saw that blocked culvert earlier? Would it have made a difference? Was I just an idiot? How could I have not foreseen this! Either way, my thoughts turned from making it through the night at the campsite, to survival. Back at Camp 3, I grabbed my large dry backpack, and hurriedly started packing essentials while huddled under the floppy tarp that was now collecting lots of water. I knew I should have shelter, so I packed my tent and my backpack air mattress. My sleeping bag had already been saturated with water and remained in the truck, so that was not an option. Next came some dry underwear and socks, and a dry fleece sweater. For food I took protein in the form of two packs of beef jerky, a pack of honey garlic pepperoni, and a block of cheese. I also dropped in my handheld VHF, my Garmin GPS, my wallet and cell phone, and finally my lightweight MEC tarp. I closed the bag up tight and with a heavy heart I took a last look at my fishing gear, and the rest of my things. I knew that there was a good likelihood that all of things would be soon be gone, washed away by the rising water.
Backpack on, and with my bike light still working, I started out of the campsite. As I got nearer and nearer to the previously overflowing culvert, the water levels began to take on an alarming new depth, and I could feel a current now. Time was of the essence! As I continued to wade, the water rose up to my armpit levels, almost flooding my waders. To avoid this, I took off my backpack and used it as a PFD, and by “moon walking” my way through the deepest of the water I managed to get to a point where the water was shallow enough to walk normally. Finally I reached the entrance point to the rec site from the logging road, and for the first time in a few hours felt relief that I was out of the water and back on firm ground. Looking up the logging road that I had come in on just 5 hours earlier, I was shocked to see that the road was completely submerged. There would have been no getting out of here even if I had been able to move the truck.
After leaving the campsite, I started walking along the logging road in an uphill direction, hoping to find a spot to rest. Roughly 300 feet up the road, I came across a small bridge, and decided that this was as good a spot as any to take a break. Sitting on a big cedar log on the side of the road, I took out my MEC tarp and draped it over myself, trying to get out of the rain, with my bike light under the tarp with me for some comfort. All around me I could hear the wind and rain growing more and more intense, and for the first time in a few hours I tried to rest. Sitting on the log, I decided to give the VHF another try, hoping that enough juice was left to get one more message out.
“Tofino Coast Guard radio, this is Adrian at San Josef Rec site, I need help!”
“Adrian, this is Tofino Coast Guard, can you please confirm that you are not in the water?”
“No I am on high ground but require assistance please, my vehicle is now completely under water and I am waiting for daylight”
“Adrian, we are unable to read your last transmission, can you please repeat?”
“My battery is dying, I can hear you but I cannot transmit!’
“Adrian can you please repeat your message, we cannot hear you. We have dispatched the RCMP to your location, if you can hear this please respond”
“Understood, RCMP en-route.” I turned off the radio, not knowing if they had heard my last message. But at least I knew that help was on the way.
The time was now 5 AM. According to the GPS, daylight was another 2 ½ hours away and I knew that there was not much point wasting energy until it was time to leave. With Holberg on 19 km away from where I was, I figured that I could walk out within a day if need be. Under the tarp, I could now feel the rain coming through the material due to the wind and the deluge of water landing on me from the heavy clouds. I abandoned my thoughts of sitting in the rain under the tarp, and decided to take a look under the bridge to see if I could find shelter. Looking under the steel bridge, I could see that there was just enough room to crawl underneath out of the rain, so without much hesitation I clambered down the bank and under the bridge. Being out of the rain felt good, and although I was still cold and wet, at least I could relax a little. With my bike light pointed directly at the river racing by in front of me under the bridge, I began my vigil for daylight.
By 6:30 AM, I was decidedly cold. The effort I had spent in getting my tarp set up at Camp 3 had meant that water had run down my jacket sleeves and into my clothes each time that I had been raising my arms to attach ropes. This had then seeped down into my waders, and with not much physical movement over the past hour I had begun to get very chilled. My teeth started to chatter a bit, and I was getting very tired. The threat of early hypothermia was a distinct possibility, so I decided to go for a walk to warm up. I went down the road, back to the campsite entrance, and then back up again to my hiding spot. Climbing back under the bridge, I heard the rain let loose again, as another massive blast of rain just about wiped out all other sounds. I had left my dry bag out on the road by the bridge, thinking morbidly that if something bad happened to me, that they would know to look here. I guess looking back now it wasn’t the most optimistic thing for me to do, but I wanted to be found if things went…sideways.
As I sat in the damp and occasional darkness as my light died, I started to weigh my options while all the time watching the river in front of me in case it flooded me out from my spot. I knew that there was only one road in or out of here, and that help was on the way. On the other side of the bridge, about 2 km from where I was hunkered down, was an RV campground at the Cape Scott trailhead that was managed by an old homesteader, named Doug. I tossed around the idea of walking there for help, but after agonizing over it thought better of it. What if Doug had packed up for the winter? Does he live there year round? And what if I just wasted 4 km of energy going there and back for nothing? My decision was made for me, I would walk out to Holberg and to the payphone that I knew was outside the pub. From there, I would be able to get more help.
At 7:45 AM, daylight finally came. It was still fairly dark when I crawled out from underneath the bridge, shouldered my backpack, and began the trek out. It actually felt good to be moving towards rescue, and I was glad not only to be generating some much-needed body heat, but for the daylight. Being alone, wet, and in the pitch dark with no company wasn’t much fun. The logging road was flooded in many sections, and as I made my way out I would cross large sections of the road that were under water, and each time I left the water for dry ground I was met with more water whenever I crested a hill and saw the next low section. All around me I could see the damage from the night before, with piles of gravel washed up on the road, grass and bushes flattened on each side of the road as the water had passed through, and even a large section of washed out road. Looking at the road conditions, I knew that there was no way anyone would be able to reach me yet, not until the levels had receded. I could see that things were on the drop, but that there was still far too much water to safely pass. As I walked I could hear rocks shifting and branches breaking, as sections of the river bank were collapsing from the deluge of water. At 6km out from the rec site, I reached a high spot and turned the radio on once more.
“Tofino Coast Guard Radio, this is Adrian at the San Josef Rec site, I need help!”
“Adrian this if Tofino Coast Guard Radio, we can hear you. We have dispatched the RCMP and Search and Rescue to your position as well as a helicopter. Please respond if you require medical assistance”
“I am fine, I just need evacuation” I replied, hoping that the radio had enough juice to transmit. Looking up at the sky and the overcast conditions and high winds, I knew that a helicopter rescue was very unlikely.
“Adrian, we still are having issues hearing you. We would like to try something else, please respond with one click on the mike for yes, and two for no. Do you understand?”
I clicked the mike once.
“Adrian we are still not able to hear you, can you please key the mike once if you received the last message?”
I tried again, and again the message came through that they could not hear me. In desperation I decided to try one more thing, so I keyed into the mike the Morse code signal for S.O.S., three short and three long taps in the mike.
“Adrian this is Tofino Coast Guard Radio, please respond by keying the mike if you can hear us, we are not able to hear your transmissions”
I keyed the mike once more, and the battery finally gave up and died. I was on my own.
At 8:45 AM, at about 8km from my starting point, I finally caught a break. As I was walking I heard a vehicle, and out from a side road behind me came my salvation. Two loggers from Holberg, having heard from their offices that someone needed help, had struck off in their own vehicle to search for me. As they rolled up to me, they asked if I was Adrian.
“Yes I am Adrian, and I am glad to see you guys!”
“We’ve been looking for you”, they said, “the logging company refused to send out any trucks to look for you due to the road conditions, but we decided to come anyway in our vehicle. Hop in, we’ll take you to town”. I was rescued! The guys in the truck, in true Holberg fashion, were sipping on some Lucky. As I went to get in the back of the truck bed, I turned and asked “Hey guys…you got any more beer in there? I could really use one!”
“Sure thing! As long as you don’t mind that it’s warm!”
“Nope. Not at all”. And with that I hopped in the back of the truck and was delivered to the Holberg offices of Western Forest Products. My vacation or lack thereof, was over. Later I would find out that the RCMP had in fact attempted a rescue at 5:30AM that morning, but had truck problems of their own after they flooded their vehicle while trying to cross a section of the road. They had hoped I had started walking out, as there was little chance of getting in to me.
The helicopter was called off, and the RCMP drove me to Port Hardy. From there over the next few days I was able to recover my truck, and all of my gear, from the San Josef Rec site. The truck was a total loss, having been submerged up to the top of the headrests but thank goodness my fishing and camping gear was saved. The only other victim was my nice Nikon D90 DSLR and lenses, which had been in the foot well on the passenger side of the truck prior to me removing it. After a few hours in the water, it had succumbed to rust.
Looking back now, I can’t help but turn over the events of that night in my mind. Each morning I wake up it’s top of my mind, and I think it will be some time before the images from the night fade. But I am grateful for all that went right during a night that so many things went wrong. My calm head during crisis, lack of panic, and foresight to get into my fishing gear saved my life. If I had been forced to stay wet for the night, it is likely things could have been much, much worse for me. And I won’t be forgetting to charge my VHF radio any time soon. I may have lost my truck and some pride, but the most important thing of all survived that trip and lived to tell the tale.
Sometimes, the most amazing places are the most unexpected. You set out with your friends for a fun day of fishing, exploring spots that you haven’t tried before. And then, you find it. Paradise. A stretch of river so clear and clean that you swear that if there was no breeze you wouldn’t have believed that water even flowed there. And surrounding all of this moving glass, a carpet of incredibly rich green moss so vibrant that even your camera has a hard time capturing it.
These amazing spots can produce fish, and sometimes not. But in reality they are so beautiful that even if they turn out to be unproductive fishing destinations, does it really matter? After all, you are out with your friends sharing laughter and breathing in the good life. Moist air fills your lungs, the sound of water soothing your soul, and for a short time you forget what troubles are on your mind. You focus on the immediate, the challenge of finding those special places where wild BC Steelhead live. A depression here, a rock or riffle there, some nice walking pace slicks of emerald green water just begging for a fly to be tossed and swung. These are the moments that recharge me, and make all the torn waders, scuffed boots and breathless climbs up steep unstable shale slopes all worthwhile.
Welcome….to Vancouver Island.