The fine art of fil­let­ing on the west coast of Van­cou­ver Is­land

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Destination Afloat - TONY TAY­LOR

I USED to go to the western edge of the south­ern part of Van­cou­ver Is­land be­cause of the re­mote West Coast Trail.

The trail was built dur­ing the last days of sail early in the 20th cen­tury by the gov­ern­ment to help ship­wrecked mariners who had come to grief at­tempt­ing to en­ter the Strait of Juan de Fuca af­ter cross­ing the Pa­cific.

One of the world’s most dan­ger­ous coasts, that stretch was known as the Grave­yard of the Pa­cific, and many square-rigged ships, as well as some steam­driven craft, were driven on to its lee shore. There were more than 100 wrecks.

The gov­ern­ment cut a walk­ing trail through the great for­est run­ning south along the top of the cliffs to­wards Vic­to­ria, and built a shel­ter cabin about ev­ery 30km. They also rigged a crude tele­phone line at­tached to the gi­ant trees, and in each cabin there was a box where one wound a han­dle in or­der to gen­er­ate enough cur­rent to ring the coast­guard to the south.

Ca­bles were strung across the nu­mer­ous rivers, some with me­tal pas­sen­ger bas­kets so sur­vivors could fol­low the wire to meet res­cuers. Af­ter the ad­vent of radar in the early 40s there were far fewer wrecks and by the 60s the trail had been aban­doned for years.

I reached it at Tsu­siat Falls by pad­dling my ca­noe part of the way down Niti­nat Lake, then up the Ho­biton River into Ho­biton Lake, from where I shoul­dered the ca­noe and cut a portage to Tsu­siat Lake. I pad­dled across that and then down the Tsu­siat River un­til I reached the falls, get­ting out quickly be­fore they poured over the cliff into the sea. There I left the ca­noe and walked north along the beach. I then had ac­cess to many un­fished rivers where I caught salmon and steel­head.

In an ef­fort to save this empty area of wild coun­try from com­plete destruc­tion by the log­ging com­pa­nies, I wrote ar­ti­cles de­scrib­ing its virtues and call­ing it first the Niti­nat Tri­an­gle and at other times Van­cou­ver Is­land’s Own Lake Dis­trict.

I be­gan writ­ing about the beau­ties of this wilder­ness and the mag­nif­i­cence of the West Coast Trail in or­der to en­cour­age peo­ple to go there. The Sierra Club in Cal­i­for­nia be­came in­ter­ested and asked me for pho­to­graphs, notes and sketch maps of the area, which they turned into a guide­book.

Dur­ing the next few years peo­ple from all over the world started com­ing to walk the trail and it is now per­haps the most pop­u­lar wild trail in North Amer­ica. The pop­u­lar­ity of the trail and the crowded bays and new camp­sites wrecked the place for me as well as for the area’s few na­tive peo­ple

How­ever, I be­lieve that the num­ber of hik­ers is now limited, and one good thing did come out of it: the for­est on the west coast was par­tially saved and the trail is now part of the wilder­ness Pa­cific Rim Na­tional Park Re­serve.

The na­tives of the west coast are quite dif­fer­ent from the east­coast Sal­ish at the mouth of the Cowichan River. One of their vil­lages, Clo-oose, was just south of the Niti­nat Gap, where at one time all the wa­ters of this south­ern part of Van­cou­ver Is­land had emp­tied into the sea.

Per­haps I re­lated to them well be­cause, although they had been hit by many of the white man’s dis­eases, they seemed com­pletely in­de­pen­dent in their thought and un­cor­rupted by the white man’s cul­ture. They were iso­lated be­cause there was no road.

I once asked the peo­ple who lived at Clo-oose and who net­ted the mouth of the Ho­biton River for its sock­eye salmon if they ever went fur­ther up the river into the two up­per lakes, but all they said was, ‘‘Why?’’

It was an old lady from Clo-oose who taught me how to fil­let a fish. I met her one day when the sock­eye were run­ning and she had caught prob­a­bly over 100 in her net. Sock­eye re­turn from the ocean in July and spend less time in rivers than any other salmon. They only spawn in river sys­tems that run out of lakes with sandy beaches. They bury their eggs on the beach and die al­most im­me­di­ately.

Sock­eye are the best salmon to eat. When I asked the old lady how she knew when to set her nets, she told me she could al­ways tell by look­ing at the moon. She said the salmon did it too and that they al­ways be­gan their run half­way through the sev­enth moon. She had lit­tle English but while we talked she fil­leted dozens of fish at light­ning speed. She went so fast I begged her to slow down so I could see what she was do­ing but, laugh­ing mer­rily, she went even faster. Then to­wards the end she re­lented and showed me how to do it.

She worked on a piece of cedar slop­ing at 45 de­grees to­wards the water. In one smooth move­ment she gut­ted the fish and pierced a hole near the tail, slip­ping her fin­ger through while hold­ing the knife hor­i­zon­tally. She then pulled the fish up­wards against the knife edge and a per­fect fil­let fell on to the pile. Then she flipped it over and did the other side. She tossed the head and the skin into the water and rinsed her hands.

Be­cause of that les­son, most an­glers these days think I am very skil­ful with my fish knife but I will never be as good as the old lady, the fastest fish fil­leter I ever saw.

Now, years later, I re­alise she must have thought it odd that a man would be in­ter­ested in small things like salmon, for the men she knew didn’t bother with fish. They hunted whales. This is an edited ex­tract from Fish­ing the River of Time by Tony Tay­lor (Text Pub­lish­ing, $29.95).

Wheels for Hope re­cip­i­ents on a day out


Sock­eye spend less time in the river than any other salmon

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