Reel­ing in the Years

A West Coast fish­ing trip brings re­flec­tions of fam­ily and friends

ZOOMER Magazine - - CONTENTS - Bill Macpher­son

eN­VI­SION END­LESS sky and ocean. Imag­ine, feel within you the vast ex­panse of blue-grey shades as they blend and melt to­gether on the dis­tant hori­zon. Then rel­ish the quiet; long slashes of de­serted drift­wood­strewn beach that stretch in­fin­itely be­low the en­com­pass­ing sky and sea. Seren­ity de­scends in slow cas­cades of bliss. Tran­quil­ity and con­tent­ment washes over as the mag­nif­i­cence of soli­tude is am­pli­fied by space and dis­tance.

This is Haida Gwaii. To the north of this B.C. archipelago are the des­o­late fiords and is­lands of the Alaskan pan­han­dle. Due west is only ocean, the mighty north­ern Pa­cific roil­ing 3,000 miles to Rus­sia’s Kam­chatka Penin­sula. At the very top end of the archipelago is lit­tle Lan­gara Is­land. It is a mag­i­cal place that just hap­pens to be the epi­cen­tre of the best salmon fish­ing in the world.

An un­der­stated spasm of ex­cite­ment pulses through the pas­sen­gers gath­er­ing in the south ter­mi­nal of Van­cou­ver’s air­port. It’s hardly busy, early morn­ing: 6:30 a.m. An­glers drib­ble in slowly in groups of twos and threes. Feigned non­cha­lance is ev­i­dent as every­one waits. It’s ap­par­ent in the news­pa­per read­ing, the strolls out­side in the misty light rain for a smoke, the cof­fees pur­chased and pre­pared, then con­sumed as ca­su­ally as pos­si­ble.

A char­ter jet waits on the tar­mac. Ex­cite­ment builds. By board­ing time, it is pal­pa­ble. Every­one is anx­ious and over-ready. Re­leased fi­nally, there is a dis­or­derly stri­dent march to­ward the wait­ing jet. Seated with my three mates, I take a deep breath as the plane roars sky­ward. Off to a place I read and dreamed of as a boy in a small town li­brary. Now I am about to ex­pe­ri­ence it in per­son.

This trip is all thanks to my friend. His gen­eros­ity in cel­e­brat­ing a mile­stone birth­day has made this hap­pen. I’m in­cred­i­bly grate­ful, too.

The flight is pleas­ant. We drink cof­fee laced with Bai­leys as we de­scend into Mas­set, then onto a fleet of he­li­copters. They lift off one at a time with a baker’s dozen an­glers in each. It’s a short but spec­tac­u­lar ride to the lodge tucked into a south­west lee. The he­li­copter drops onto a float­ing land­ing pad – we’re here. It’s a very spe­cial place, and every­one knows it. Big grins all around as we dis­em­bark the he­li­copter. Re­turn­ing reg­u­lars are greeted with hugs and a heart­felt “Wel­come back!”

For many, it’s an an­nual pil­grim­age. Lan­gara Lodge is renowned for its at­ten­tion to de­tail, its su­perb cui­sine, com­fort­able ac­com­mo­da­tions, shared lounges (found ar­rayed through­out the two float­ing struc­tures) and crea­ture com­forts. Soup and sand­wiches as you fish, a steam room and sauna to soak weary bones once off the ocean.

Most of all, it is about the fish­ing. The walls of the lodge are filled with pho­tos and mounts of be­he­moth salmon. It is an an­gler’s par­adise, and we’re jazzed to get out on the ocean.

Four rods – each reel a dif­fer­ent colour – are baited with her­ring and dropped to vary­ing depths. Like many guide-an­glers, ours has his su­per­sti­tions, and three is a lucky num­ber to him. The flash­ing her­ring bits spi­ral down into clear cold wa­ter with 13, 23, 43 and 53 pulls of the var­i­ous lines.

He knows his stuff. I’ve got a beau­ti­ful Coho – all glit­ter­ing scales and flashes of sil­ver danc­ing across the wave tops – in the boat within five min­utes of play­ing out my line. I claim first fish honours, ac­cept con­grat­u­la­tions from all and have our tra­di­tional swig of brandy as re­ward.

It burns, clar­i­fy­ing and sharp­en­ing thoughts and emo­tions. I rel­ish in the spec­tac­u­lar set­ting, my good for­tune to be bob­bing off Haida Gwaii en­joy­ing the ca­ma­raderie of spe­cial friends. A flood of mem­ory washes over me in the still­ness, waves slap­ping the boat the only sound. I pull up my line and move to the bow.

Fish­ing gives you lots of time to think, to ponder. Two mem­o­ries are fore­most in my mind as the lazy rock­ing of the boat rolling through swells soothes and com­forts. The quiet vast­ness of the sur­round­ings – sim­i­lar to grow­ing up in a small north­ern fron­tier town – leads me to re­flect.

Like me, my dad wasn’t much of a fish­er­man. Like me again, he en­joyed the so­cial bonds of an­gling more than ac­tu­ally catch­ing fish. He worked a high-pres­sure, stress­ful job and trav­elled the far north through­out my child­hood, away for weeks at a time in the Arc­tic. So week­ends when he was home tended to be re­lax­ing with a good book and the plea­sure of his fam­ily around him.

I pic­ture him clearly on a rare week­end­out­ing.We’re­onPros­per­ous Lake 25 kilo­me­tres out­side of our home­town, Yel­lowknife. The lake is a grey chop; the clouds scud

low and men­ac­ingly. Rain is on its way. We’re trolling in a lit­tle alu­minum 12-foot skiff on a big lake, our des­ti­na­tion a rus­tic cabin on a small is­land in the mid­dle of it. I’m 10 or 11, fright­ened but try­ing not to show it.

The Canada-USSR hockey se­ries starts that night in Mon­treal, and I’m hop­ing we can lis­ten to it on the tinny por­ta­ble ra­dio in the cabin that I know – de­spair sur­fac­ing in a flash – is our life­line to the out­side world. If we make it off the lake, that is. My dad senses my worry, smiles from the stern.

We putt-putt slowly across the grey lake, throw­ing back abun­dant pike as they hit ev­ery lure. He hooks a stun­ningly big lake trout just as the sun peers through the stacked grey cloud, il­lu­mi­nat­ing him as he stands, rod bent and feet splayed, the mo­tor idling. The mo­ment is seared in my mind – his calm, his com­pas­sion as he re­leases the 25-pound trout be­cause we’ve al­ready got a six-pounder in the boat. Only take what you need, he tells me.

He died very sud­denly about the age I am now, 35 years ago. I miss him fiercely.

A tri­umphant shout from the back of the boat jolts me from my reverie. A mon­strous Chi­nook has been landed. I give thumbs up, look­ing at my friends hold­ing it up for pho­tos. Goa­tees are laced with grey. Bald spots glis­ten; crow’s feet shroud the eyes on wind-burnt faces. We’re older and thicker, wiser per­haps and more af­flu­ent. It makes me smile, in­stantly re­mem­ber­ing a fish­ing jaunt taken while in uni­ver­sity.

The four of us, 30-plus years ago. We’re youth­ful and ex­u­ber­antly bois­ter­ous, care­lessly crammed into a tin car top­per on a lake in east­ern On­tario. It’s sunny and hot, and the world lies at our feet. We are unstoppable, un­trou­bled by any­thing. We drink beer as the sun slowly sinks into the lake, a fad­ing half cir­cle of fiery orange. We joke, bull­shit, tell out­ra­geous tales of con­quests, sport­ing ex­ploits, ex­ces­sive im­bib­ing.

I look at th­ese guys and I know – in an in­stant – we will be life­long friends. I feel crazy emo­tions bub­bling in­side me along with seven or eight beers. Strong­est of all is gen­uine love: of them, of the mo­ment, of our un­ques­tioned in­vin­ci­bil­ity.

You don’t know very much at 22, but I knew with cer­tainty what I felt then would be for­ever.

And here we are. Older, on a big­ger boat, in a spec­tac­u­lar place haul­ing in fish. Noth­ing is re­ally changed though. Moves across the na­tion and to other coun­tries haven’t di­min­ished our friend­ship and never will. An­other fish is bend­ing one of the back rods dou­ble. I wres­tle the gaff from the bow rail, feel my dad’s pres­ence all around and clam­ber back to my long­time friends, grin­ning like a fool with un­spo­ken hap­pi­ness and con­tent­ment.

Later, we en­joy a fi­nal glass of wine be­fore bed. It’s 9 p.m. but the lodge is quiet al­ready. We’re go­ing to forgo get­ting up at dawn to fish – we’ve al­ready caught our lim­its.

Glasses clink in uni­son with toasts: to our friend who made it hap­pen, to the lodge and es­pe­cially to the un­for­get­table ex­pe­ri­ence of it all. This trip will stay in my mem­ory for­ever, adding to those so vividly in­voked by it – my friends and me so very long ago, my fa­ther ever-present.

The au­thor with his catch; with his fa­ther, Norman (NJ) Macpher­son, in Yel­lowknife after a ca­noe trip on the Cameron River

The fish­ing mates

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