For a long time I've been pitching a trip to Tofino to my friends over at Pelagic. We're usually in Cabo or PV when it happens, and it's an understandably tough sell to talk Canada when you're in shorts and flip flops fishing for marlin.
"Canada?", they ask, "isn't it a little cold up there???"
"Well, yes, sometimes."
"Aren't the fish on the small side for you these days?"
"Yes", again, "but it's different. Really, you should just hop a flight north for a change and see it for yourself."
On and on the conversations went until i'd all but given up on the hope that they'd ever show for a trip.
Mike changed all that this August when he announced that he was going to make the jump up here to Tofino for his b-day, a revelation that couldn't have come at a better time. With the Grady back in the water, and an epic fishing season already in the books, things were certainly looking good for an all-time Canadian experience. A few quick emails and phone calls back and forth and Mike was elected scout for the Pelagic team, bravely heading north to Canada for the first time, where he'd either disappear into the wilderness forever, never to be heard from again, or return triumphant to Pelagic HQ with a box full of salmon and halibut, some bonafide British Columbia dirt under the fingernails, and a mountain man stubble growing on his chin.
Bright sunshine and arguably hot weather greeted Mike when he landed in Vancouver. Quick to pick up on the Canadian vibe he shortly found himself nestled up to the bar at the Flying Beaver, a local hangout for bush pilots and airport workers, on the shore of the Fraser River while he waited for his flight from Vancouver to Tofino. Float planes come and go from the docks at the Beaver all day long, taking off and landing in the narrow river channels with precise and calculated rhythm. The planes, most of them Beavers and Otters circa 1950-1960, offer a quintessential glimpse into life in the Canadian north. They're antiquated but dependable vehicles of exploration, mostly under-appreciated until they fail to show up. There's an old joke about a couple of bush plane pilots sitting at the bar at the end of the season trading stories. Suddenly, one of the pilots smacks himself in the forehead and runs out the door, remembering a group of fishermen that he dropped off a few days ago and forgot to pick up. Something that has been known to happen every now and then.
I'm sure that as Mike sipped his Canadian beer at the bar of the Flying Beaver watching the planes take off and land he wasn't thinking about those mistakes, or worse. I'm sure he envisioned himself heading out to some remote salmon and trout filled river or lake. The adventurous spirit of the north must have begun to seep into his psyche, forcing out the comforts and amenities of life in LA. I can almost see the stubble begin to grow along his chin, the weathered look of a seasoned wilderness traveller creeping into his skin. I wonder if Mike envisioned anything close to what was coming, or if he would have tore ass back stateside if he did.
Below : Mike poses with a healthy mess of Halibut!
With a few beers to lubricate his imagination Mike boarded a twin turbo prop plane from the south terminal in Vancouver and took off towards Vancouver Island. The majestic waters of the north Pacific replaced the cityscape of Vancouver, and it wasn't long before the endless wilderness of Vancouver Island loomed into view. Flying in a small plane over such rugged country is always an adventure, and I have to travel a long way back in my memory banks to recreate such an exhilarating experience for the first time. The smile on Mike's face when my daughter Soleille and I met him at our small airport here in Tofino brought it all back though, and i found myself reliving the freshness of adventure for the first time through Mike's eyes.
We bounced along the dirt road from our local municipal airport to the only paved road that runs through this part of the world. Past logging trucks, campers, and all manner of 4x4 vehicles along the way. After a few minutes Long Beach and the crashing, endless north Pacific surf peaked through the old growth temperate rainforest and Mike got his first look at what life along the edge of civilization is all about. Tofino is an eclectic mix of amenity and self sufficiency, a town quite literally at the end of the road where it's possible to enjoy a five star meal in a world class eatery, while gazing upon the seemingly desolate wilderness just beyond the grasp of town.
Below : Tofino is a mystic paradise for all Sportfishermen alike!
With only two thousand year-round residents Tofino is considered a small town, even by Canadian standards. From humble beginnings as a remote commercial fishing and logging village, Tofino has bloomed into one of the most popular vacation destinations in western Canada. Home to a diverse and sophisticated tourism industry, Tofino has an incredible collection of quaint seaside resorts and restaurants, and offers travellers a dizzying array of activities including world-class fresh and saltwater fishing, whale watching, sea kayaking, hiking, surfing, scuba diving, horseback trips, fly-in adventures and more. This little sleepy fishing village has endured quite an evolution in the last thirty years.
Despite the luxurious amenities in town, one merely has to set foot off the main drag to find pure, unspoiled wildness. The mountainous backcountry and endless waterways can quite literally swallow whole tour groups whole, with little trace or reminder that they have passed. It's this kind of relationship between luxury and amenity, and untamed adventure that makes Tofino so special. The place between two worlds.
Below : Enjoying one of the most beautiful places in North America...
We spent our first afternoon checking out the town, and eventually saddled up to my favorite local hang-out, the Shelter, for several rounds of Dark and Stormy's while we planned our loose itinerary for the week. We checked the weather and indeed wind would be a problem for a few days, but decided to head out for some salmon fishing in the morning. After a long night of storytelling and drinking the twenty five knots of wind that greeted us in the morning was not a welcome addition to the itinerary i assure you. Screw it, we said, Mike didn't come all this way for nothing, and away we went.
Choppy four to six foot seas greeted us as we left the harbor, but we were determined to make a morning of it anyway. After a short run to the salmon grounds it was obvious this wasn't going to be an all day affair. Thankfully, the fish were biting with a vengeance and it didn't take us long to limit out on prime, feisty salmon up to twenty five pounds. Adam Dewolfe shot some pretty cool video of the action, catching Mike clearly throwing an illegal shoulder check my way en route to another bouncing rod on the downrigger. Too bad he missed Mike chumming over the side shortly thereafter!
With our limit of salmon out of the way we opted to let the wind sort itself out and headed back to the marina. Dock to dock with a boat load of fish in under four hours, you just can't complain about that. We quickly filleted out the fish and tidied up the boat, headed up for a hot lunch and talked about what to do next. Mike, who's an accomplished golfer, suggested we should go have a look at the nine hole course down the road, how could i say no?
Below : A timeless adventure continues...
Despite all the years i've lived in this town i'd never actually played the local course, though i've partied out there during events over the years more times than i can count. To be honest i didn't have high hopes about either the condition or the design, and having played some truly top shelf courses with Mike around the world, I was sure he wasn't going to be all that impressed.
We pulled into the pro shop and had our first of many run-ins with Gibby, our local Course Troll. Gibby's as tall as a full grown bull moose, antlers and all. At six foot five he is a hulk of a man who looks like a lumberjack and smells and curses like one too. He didn't seem like he was all that pleased to have customers. Mike and I both looked at each other as Gibby grumbled and nattered away, wondering how such a cantankerous individual could possibly last in a customer service environment. I guess that's what happens when logging towns go tourist, and lumberjacks like Gibby get relocated from clear-cuts to golf courses. You can take the woodsman out of the woods...
Anyway, Mike and I were laughing as we teed up, only in Tofino we said, something we'd repeat during the course of the next week over, and over again.
It turns out that our little nine hole up here is, for lack of a better description, a diamond in the rough. Mike said it was one of the toughest and most challenging nines he's ever played. Definitely a compliment to the local scene, the course, as it turns out, is one of the most coveted in western Canada. Mike got a kick out of the local course rules, which give players a free drop should a bear interfere with your shot, or should a cougar appear and chase you from the course. We joked that we could handle the wildlife if it came to it, and that it was really Gibby we had to watch out for.
We both enjoyed an excellent afternoon playing the course for the first time, and found Gibby just as cantankerous as we had left him when we reappeared to turn in our rental gear.
Below : Fish the size of this small Rainbow can offer endless thrills in the streams!
"See you tomorrow Gibby!" we told him as we were leaving, planning on playing the course again if the wind continued to blow.
"Arrgghhh...." was Gibby's reply.
As it turned out the wind would dog us for the next few days, so we got to know the course, and Gibby quite well. Mike and I played four rounds in the first three days, growing accustomed to the difficulty of the course, and the troll-like manner of it's proprietor.
On the third day of Mike's trip we tried to get out for some halibut fishing, but being September the wind had other ideas. We managed to get a mile or so offshore before the eight to ten foot seas turned us around. Not to worry, i told Mike, i have another idea!
I grabbed my cell phone and dialled up my friend Jay who owns a local float plane company. Mike was excited, having never been on a float plane before, and having had a taste of their adventurous spirit while visiting the Flying Beaver I'm sure he was looking forward to finally partaking in the adventure for himself.
Unfortunately my friend's plane was our of commission for a few days due to routine maintenance inspections, so i called my back up company and booked a flight into Pretty Girl Lake with them instead. The girl in the office, an old friend, assured us that despite the wind the flying was fine and to meet the plane down at the dock in an hour. Mike and I ran around my place trading halibut gear for fly rods and trout lures and away we went.
Below : Taking advantage of the warm summer up North...
Down at the float plane base my office friend introduced us to our pilot, someone whom i had never met, and two other people who we were going to drop off at the hot springs on our way into the lake. The pilot, a youngish individual newly arrived in town, proceeded to load our gear and helped us aboard the plane. Nobody seemed interested in the copilot seat except me, a move that would prove fortuitous, though none of us knew that yet.
The wind, which by this point had increased to thirty knots, literally rocked the plane as we sat tied to the dock. I initiated some small talk with the pilot, and discovered this was one of his first flights in the area, having moved here just recently from Vancouver. I didn't really think much about this at the time, figuring any commercial float plane pilot had certainly earned his salt.
As the pilot proceeded through his checklist i noticed he seemed a little nervous, checking and re-checking things multiple times. Having been on literally hundreds of float plane trips in my lifetime this is where that little warning light should have gone off in my head, but eager to get out and do some fishing the little man on my shoulder reached out and turned off the switch.
The pilot gave us the safety speech and then jumped out of the plane to untie us from the dock. I turned to Mike and the newlywed couple we were dropping off at hot springs and told them that what the pilot forgot to mention in the first aid kit and lifejacket speech was that if something serious were to happen they'd be better off bending over and kissing their asses goodbye instead. Nobody laughed as we rocked back and forth in the wind.
We had a little trouble getting away from the dock, again the little man reached for the switch and firmly shut the warning light off. But i promptly forgot about all of that as we went airborne in a hurry with thirty knots of headwind in the harbor. Sometime during takeoff the pilot turns to me and says he hates flying in this kind of wind. Oh good, i thought, hoping nobody heard that behind me.
The fifteen minute flight into hot springs was mostly uneventful, except for the landing. As we jostled and jockeyed for position on our approach i knew this pilot was still very wet behind the ears. The plane rocked back and forth on all of it's axis, barely managing to touch down on the choppy waters of Hot Springs Cover, the rookies in the rear of the plane all cheered and applauded, oblivious to how bad things had been.
Mike followed the couple out of the plane thinking our flight was over, I'm not sure what he was thinking as i told him to get back in his seat.
In relative terms, the approach into Hot Springs Cove is fairly easy compared to where we were going next. Hot Springs is a little protected cove on the coast, with lots of room for take off and landings. Pretty Girl lake, however, is buried deep in the mountains and descents and ascents into and out of this lake are not for the faint of heart, and that's with an experienced pilot on a good day.
I was thinking about all of this as we took off from Hot Springs Cove in the general direction of Pretty Girl Lake when the pilot suddenly turned to me and asked me how many times i'd been to the lake. Lots, i told him. Good, he said, and then asked me exactly where the lake was and what was the best way to get in there.
Below : Hooked up on a quality Salmon !
Mike, who was sitting right behind us, had no trouble hearing this conversation despite the deafening roar of the single prop Beaver. He would later tell me that he forced himself into a happy place for the remainder of the flight.
At first i thought the pilot was kidding, having endured some fairly rough bush pilot humor over the years, but by the look on his face it was quite clear he was not. I tried to radiate confidence to both the pilot and Mike as i described the lakes location and what the usual approach was. I told him that it was absolutely necessary to fly right at a cliff face and make a last minute turn down and to the right to properly line up the approach into the lake. The pilot said we should go and have a look before we land, and i fervently agreed.
Never one to shy away from adventure, the little man on my shoulder somehow found the electrical control box and firmly pulled out the fuse to that little red light, ensuring it wouldn't bother us anymore. As we approached the mountain range where the lake is located i was actually talking myself into believing that this would be fun, i mean come on, how many times have i got to tell a pilot how to get into a hidden wilderness gem like Pretty Girl Lake!
The pilot seemed impressed with my directions, and proceeded to make a cautious circle high above the lake. And then he made another. During the second circle he kept asking me about the approach, obviously not OK with the difficulty of the situation. Finally he must have come to terms with something as he decided to have a go at it.
We made a long sweeping turn to the west and lined up the mountain range, but instead of continuing on towards the cliff face the pilot went for the low lying ridge too quick. From the copilot seat i knew right away that we were coming at it wrong, having flown in and out of this lake dozens of times. Instead of going right at the mountain face he tried to sneak it over the ridge and there is simply not enough water to make a safe landing. As we approached the heavily treed ridge the wind, now at our tail, dropped the plane faster than the pilot had anticipated so he instinctively gave it more throttle to bring us back up to altitude. The problem was the ridge was approaching faster than the plane was climbing, and i felt myself pulling back on my imaginary stick harder than the pilot.
We managed to climb a few hundred feet in altitude but the trajectory was all wrong. Just about the time that i was going to scream the pilot hit the throttle with everything that 1952 single Beaver had and we literally punted a few pine cones off of the trees as we barely made it over the ridge.
I turned to Mike in the back seat, who had the foresight to close his eyes, and then to the pilot who was visibly shaken and wiping his forehead with his sleeve. I took a look at Pretty Girl Lake as it passed below us and nodded my head when the pilot suggested that perhaps we'd better head back to Tofino and save the lake for another day.
As we flew back to Tofino i did my best to count the trees out my side of the window, trying hard not to look in the pilots direction or at Mike saying Hail Mary's in the back seat. We did make it safely back to the dock, though i can tell you Mike and i didn't stick around too long to hear any more "Geez i'm sure sorry" from the pilot. After a few sturdy double Dark and Stormy's at the Shelter shortly thereafter, Mike and i elected to cut our losses and go try our luck with the Course Troll instead. Mike shot one of the best rounds of his life, and i believe i even pared a hole or two.
There's a few lessons in there somewhere, and probably a few more flying lessons before either Mike or I head out with that pilot again too.
Mike and I agreed that we wouldn't be taking any float plane trips in the near future, so we opted to try our luck with the halibut fishing the next morning instead. Despite the sporty conditions we managed a brace of salmon at first light and roared up the coast a ways to one of my favorite big halibut spots.
Below : Mike poses with an awesome Salmon on light spinning tackle!
I set the anchor and proceeded to put out three oversized baits in hopes of something over 100 pounds for Mike. It didn't take long before the 40 - 50 pounders found us. Mike, whom had never landed a proper halibut before, seemed to be enjoying the tug of war and harpooning that comes with fishing big flatties. When the fish find you it can be pandemonium and with just the two of us on board we struggled to keep three lines in the water.
At one point we had just brought another 50 pound class fish on board. I was busy getting the harpoon out of it's head while Mike threw buckets of water on the deck in attempt to clean up some of the carnage, catching fish is after all a messy business. All of a sudden i hear "CLICK...CLICK...ZZZZ" and then "CRAAACK!!!!" I look over just in time to see one of our rods fly through the air and disappear into the water. Mike screams "WHOAH!!! JESUS!!!" as what's left of the rod holder plops into the water. I must have set the drag too tight after the last fish and well, when a very large halibut comes along and decides to eat, there's not much in the way that's going to stop it. Pissed me off because it was a brand new reel too.
Back to the Shelter that night to celebrate the fact that we were still alive and there was a bruiser of a halibut out there swimming around with my new rod and reel. We decided that to finish off the trip we should head up to the Megin River and see if we couldn't get Mike a salmon or wild rainbow or two to round out the trip. We both agreed that instead of taking the float plane we should load up the canoe in the Grady and head up via water instead.
The next morning dawned clear, sunny, and calm. Oren, Kyle, and Cath decided to join us so after a quick stop to pick up the canoe blasted off up the coast towards the Megin River. It takes about an hour to get up there, and the entire way Oren is driving and taking us through some seriously tight short cuts in my Grady. Born and raised up here the kid knows his stuff, but seeing my boat going thirty knots with six inches to spare in rocky passes gives me the shivers. Mike and I continue to drink beer.
That last day we spent up the Megin is the kind of day that makes adventures up to this part of the world worthwhile. Canoeing up a remote salmon, steelhead, and trout river with your closest friends under sunny skies in your shorts and bikinis and catching fish the whole way is the stuff that dreams are made of. We spent the entire day up that river giving Mike something of a cherry on top to an already great Canadian adventure. He caught his first wild rainbow, silver, and got his first up close look at black bears and eagles in the river. While we all couldn't stop smiling, Mike's was surely the grandest grin of all.
Mike left the day after with a box full of salmon and halibut, and more than enough stories to last the winter season. Near death experiences, virgin wilderness, and plenty of fish to go around. Maybe the next time we're down in Mexico talking about Canada, Mike will have a few stories to share of his own.
Happy birthday amigo!!!
(Cath and I took off for Whistler the day Mike left. We spent the night in Vancouver attending the Quicksilver premiere of Julian Wilson's new surf flick, it was an awesome party at the Molson Brewery looooong into the night. The next day it was fly fishing for rainbows on the Birkenhead River north of Whistler and another party in Whistler village, loooong into another night. Back home in Tofino now, kinda tired, but geeked up to go fishing something around home. )