Eric Jackson's Better Halvey
Snow is a soluble elixir. At elevation it clings to the steep and jagged, providing the structure for a backcountry session. When warm air forces it to come unglued, it feeds healthy rivers of new opportunity. In Northern British Columbia, during late winter through early spring, these two worlds coalesce. And although snowboarding and flyfishing run at divergent altitudes, they follow a similar timeline. It’s this phenomenon that flows through Alignment, Eric Jackson’s new film that invites his two loves into the room for a full season of brilliant equilibrium building.
Nestled just south of Alaska’s Tongass National Forest, in the one-brewery town of Terrace, British Columbia, I find Jackson holed up in an A-frame at Skeena Spey Lodge, steps away from the broad Skeena River. It’s March, and Jackson has been squatting here since January, breaking trail, compiling footage, and, apparently, forgoing the razor. Sporting what looks like a thriving old-growth forest on his face, the 30-year-old snowboarder has a mid-season fishing adventure in mind. And that’s why I’m here, to sample the water.
In the lodge, we order a round of Caesars, Canada’s spicy, clamjuiced version of a Bloody, and sitting at the bar we begin scratching together plans for our push into a remote stream that may or may not have ocean-run fish in it when we arrive. That’s the beauty and curse of steelhead fishing. Just like mountains, rivers don’t come with guarantees. But for Jackson, after two months in the alpine, they hold another kind of promise—renewal. Or at least a road toward it.
The path to Alignment began four years ago, during the lead-up to another anticipated film. Travis Rice’s three-years-in-the-making The Fourth Phase project was about to go live, and Jackson, who would play a hammer-heavy role in the final product, had just been let go by two major sponsors. “It was supposed to be one of the biggest action-sports movies ever,” he says, “and throughout shooting, I was heavily branded by those guys, which ended up hurting me. For the next couple of years,” Eric continues, “I really had no money and no travel budget. I was in limbo.”
It wasn’t total oblivion. X Games Real Snow picked up some travel tabs, while Jackson collected a bronze for his commanding backcountry part in the venture. He also teamed with his sibling, John, piecing together a couple of good seasons. But the sponsorship meltdown left him feeling gutted. And with more downtime across the snow calendar, a recalibrating of goals followed. Jackson thought hard about what his ideal winter would look like, and he created a mental map of the elements he’d need to make it happen. “To be honest, all I really want to do in life is have the ability to fish and snowboard. If I can do those two things, and have my family, I’m centered. And this story, of how snowboarding and fishing balance my life out, is something I realized I had to tell.”
Any hustle, whether rolling burritos or vaulting cliffs for paychecks, inevitably calls for a semi-regular timeout. Since Jackson started his snowboarding career, at 14, fishing has become his off-season salve. When he and John were groms, living in Crowley Lake, California, on the outskirts of Mammoth, they deployed a couple Walmart-bought rods to terrorize the trout in their backyard pond. And during the ensuing years, as E-Jack developed his powerful style in the mountains, flyfishing came along for the afterparty. If a murky forecast led to a canceled shoot, there was typically a clear river to explore. Whistler, in particular, held an enticing duality. Late in the season, when backcountry blower congealed into grout, you could find Jackson crittering around Squamish-area rivers, fishing for steelhead with fellow Alignment rider Curtis Ciszek.
Jackson and Ciszek spent much of their youth together in Mammoth, earning reputations as a couple of shits. Those microstool samples, during their embryonic years on snowboards, also possessed overachieving talent, sharing numerous podiums on the USASA contest circuit. Ciszek and his family later relocated from California to Bend, Oregon. In the shadows of Mount Bachelor, Ciszek continued his snowboard onslaught and also fell hard for the same flyfishing experiences that consumed Jackson, and he turned to the Deschutes River to feed the habit.
Oregon’s Deschutes is a kaleidoscopic masterpiece complete with emerald flows framed by rust-hued hillsides and tall basalt walls, as it pours toward its confluence with the Columbia River system. It’s also a haven for steelhead—a supercharged rainbow trout born in rivers, but wired for ocean travels. This superability to live in both fresh- and saltwater makes a steelhead, by definition, an anadromous fish—much like a salmon. The difference is that salmon spawn and then almost immediately die. Steelhead, instead, can throw a frothing river orgy without the fear of imminent doom. After coupling, they eventually return to the Pacific for a good long feed, traveling as far as Russia’s Far East and the shores of Japan. This forage-rich lap allows steelhead to quadruple the size of your average stream-resident trout. Pink-cheeked fish pushing 12-plus pounds are caught seasonally from coastal NorCal up through AK’s Aleutian Islands. Near the upper swath of that range, the wild rivers of Northern BC form a zone that feral anglers call Steelhead Paradise.
Terrace is a hub in that holy land. Jackson made his first pilgrimage there at 18, to shoot with Standard Films. He remembers arriving to near-perfect conditions: fresh, stable snow, and ample sun. But just as he was about to board a chopper with shred legend Mads Jonsson, an officious Canadian pulled his ID for closer inspection. “They told me I was too young to fly, so they crossed my name off the list and basically said, ‘Fuck you.’” Jackson, pondering his options, decided to fish through his sorrows. “A guide at the lodge hooked me up with a sixer of Molson and some fishing gear,” he says. “I walked out to the Skeena, drank all the beer, and didn’t catch anything. But looking back, it really is the most beautiful example of what fishing means to me.”
After a major letdown, immersion in a flowing river cured his ills. The beer didn’t hurt either. Redemption came full circle when E-Jack returned to Terrace the next several winters, honing his on-snow craft with the Standard crew. Those experiences have come to mark a seminal time in his riding career. “It’s a special connection to the area for me,” Jackson notes, “I learned so much during those years filming. It really helped define who I was going to be as a backcountry snowboarder.”
Jackson has now been exploring Northern British Columbia—the Coast Range and the rivers it feeds—for more than a decade. But it’s often been a one-followed-by-the-other affair. After a high-mileage winter in the mountains, he’d return home to chill for a couple months. And when early fall re-entered the picture, he’d drive back to Canada with a tight crew of fishing friends, spending weeks living in tents, chasing steelhead on the Skeena and its tributaries, without snowboards. Alignment re-wrote the program, and with it in the works, Jackson’s dream of blending his two passions into a symbiotic, Caesar-filled season finally had liftoff.
TransWorld SNOWboarding Senior Photographer Darcy Bacha has been one of Jackson’s steelheading co-conspirators ever since they met at a bar in Pemberton and learned they both suffered from fishing addictions. When Jackson shared his designs for Alignment, no surprise, Bacha wanted on board. But as the season became a reality, the challenges came into focus. With a limited heli budget, most of the riding would be accomplished via blood, sweat, splitboard, and sled. And most of the access points they unlocked led to even more question marks. “There were no easy routes,” Bacha explains. “Once we found the alpine, we’d realize that hitting the next peak would often mean sledding back down, maybe crossing a gnarly gully, and starting from scratch.” Sometimes it paid off. Other times it didn’t.
Early trial runs produced the kind of lines that required shoveled runways into mostly jump spots. “Eric is really keen on finding natural features, so we don’t have to build half the day. But you also have to take advantage of what’s given to you. When Eric was here with Standard, it was all heli-access. This was a completely different animal.” E-Jack, Ciszek, and filmer Connor Winton spent one hellacious morning scouting the Kitimat area in the pissing rain. While their sleds were losing battles against sticky, top-heavy conditions, a snowcat came tearing up the trail. The cat hit the brakes, and the conversation that followed resulted in some solid intel. More would come.
“Unlike Whistler, with a ‘build a jump here, every year program,’” Ciszek says, “This was more like ‘launch the sled here, try to access the alpine there, and hopefully we find some cool stuff to ride.’” The crew also spent hours deep-diving into Google Maps, searching for old logging roads and cutblocks good for punching through the treeline. “But the locals were helpful, too,” Ciszek continues. “It’s a pretty small sled community up there, and guys like Mikey Pederson took us out and showed us some great spots.”
If local slednecks were generally friendly, the steelheaders they encountered while shooting the fishing segments for Alignment were generally saltier. Owning the label Steelhead Paradise, after all, presents a thorny paradox when overcrowding turns utopia into a free-for-all. “People would be like, ‘How’d you get here?’ Ciszek says. “And, ‘What are you even doing here?’ They’re not necessarily rolling out the welcome wagon.”
That “welcome to paradise, now shut-the-hell-up-about-it” sentiment is standard on coveted water. While blueprinting our sled-accessed fishing shoot, Jackson, Ciszek, and Bacha tell me that our beyond-the-beyond river goes by a codename: The Moose. It’s called “Moose”, I learn, because on an earlier recon trip Jackson found Bullwinkle’s single hind-leg sitting in the snow, still steaming. The rest of his body likely hauled off by wolves or bears.
Does the river have a real name? Sure. But that name is hard-won, and you’re not going to find it covered in glitter and splashed across the Interwebs. Which may seem ironic, considering the total number of fish we hooked at this top-secret locale was exactly one. A single steelhead between four anglers over the course of three long days. Steelheading’s allure, when based solely on metrics, can be a head-scratcher. But what meager numbers fail to capture is the elusive experience—the fireside camaraderie, the mysterious animal-parts encounters, the mind-calming silence that comes with the search. Whether or not the fish want to cooperate in the river, and whether or not the snow wants to cooperate in the backcountry, it’s the peripheral elements that combine to make a trip memorable, or in this case, to make a movie that’s worth watching.
On our third fishless morning, we woke up under a fully cratered tent, entombed by a couple feet of fresh snow. It would have been the perfect scenario had we been gearing up to blast into the adjacent mountains. Instead, we dug out and warmed cold hands over a wad of bacon sizzling in the skillet. If Jackson was worried we were missing out on something at higher elevations, he hid it well. And after the coffee was drained, we pointed our sleds through snow-laden trees toward a section of the river that hadn’t yet been explored. That’s when the balance suddenly tipped in our favor. A miracle steelhead appeared, buttoned to a barbless hook at the end of Jackson’s line. An ocean-bright, eight-finned leveling agent. Alignment incarnate.
Snowboarding is fueled by the pull of gravity. Steelheading happens at a much slower pace, a methodical shuffle as you work through a piece of water from top to bottom. Discovery runs through both.
“Eric’s endless curiosity is really what made this film possible,” Bacha says. “We spent a lot of blank days in good conditions, just trying to find that new incredible place. People go to ski resorts and ride their favorite trails, or go to the river and only fish their favorite runs. Eric is different. He’s always looking beyond the next ridge.”
...and the cast is the yin. It’s all about balance.
Launching like this has made Curtis a household name in snowboarding. This took place at a point on the trail that would be easy to sled past. Sometimes it’s right below your nose.
John and his brother Eric have wandered a similar path—one that always leads back to the mountains, ideally with a river nearby.