My friend and distant nth cousin-in-law Dave had proposed a float / fish trip in the headwaters of the Stikine River in central British Columbia. It's in the Spatsizi Plateau Wilderness Provincial Park and promised to be an adventure with fishing thrown in.
The plan was for Dave, his son Henry, and me to fly up to Smithers, spend the evening buying a few supplies and repacking, then fly in to Happy Lake the next day.
So much for plans. We all made it to Seattle, flew on Alaskan Airlines up to Vancouver, B.C., and then headed over to the domestic departure area where we were informed that Air Canada had cancelled our flight to Smithers. It wasn't clear why the flight was cancelled — the weather was fine, and they said nothing about mechanical problems.
Our bags were checked all the way through... We spent a boring night in Vancouver at a plastic hotel where we had a whopping $7 for breakfast, $10 for lunch, and $15 for dinner courtesy of Air Canada. By using them all up at once we could get a decent meal. We called our bush pilot and told him our problem; he said we would still have time to fly the next day as planned. Then we called our hotel, the Capri Motor Inn, and let them know we wouldn't be there but were still planning on staying before our return flight.
Since they had cancelled the flight up the night before, there was no flight back to Vancouver in the morning, as the plane was still in Vancouver. We had a slow morning and then flew up to Smithers in the afternoon, leaving at 13:15 and arriving at 14:54. Upon arrival we discovered
We were advised by our bush pilot that McBike and Sport was a good place to buy replacement gear, so we swung by there and Dave purchased two new rods, one for him and one for Henry to use. Then we swung by the Capri Hotel where we were supposed to have spent the night and picked up the three cans of pepper spray and tube of fire starter paste we had arranged to be delivered there. We didn't have time to do any grocery shopping but we figured we all had mostly what we needed. I was shy yogurt for breakfast and apples and oranges for lunches, but that's about it. Finally, we headed to the lake where our bush flight was waiting for us.
On our way to the lake for the bush flight, our taxi driver told us there is a big gold / silver / copper mine and smelter in the area and they ship refined metal out by truck. Apparently they send dummy trucks out all the time so it's never clear when one aftually has a real cargo. He also claimed they sent crushed ore to China for processing, which I find hard to believe but depressingly crazy if it is true. It makes sick business sense in terms of relaxed environmental concerns and regulation, but not in terms of world resources of planet health. One of the worst aspects of capitalism.
We were flying in with Alpine Lakes Air. Dave had arranged things with them and we had a total payload of 750#, or 250# each. We met our pilot, Wendell, and weighed in; I think we had about 30 pounds to spare. They have two planes, a small Cesna 185 (I think) and a larger one. We were flying in the small one. Our problem was space, not weight, but we managed to cram everything in. A plastic fastex buckle on one of my dry bags got broken trying to cram it into a pontoon, but other than that we were ok. We took off and soon left behind the orderly valley where Smithers is situated.
The flight to Happy Lake was about an hour and thirty minutes. We had a bit of rough weather and rain and it was rather smokey, from fires burning up near Anchorage, Alaska; but we could still enjoy the view some of the time. We passed over a lot of rugged territory with numerous small glaciers. We flew over the Skeena and Babine rivers.
Wendell dropped us at a small brush-free patch and we unloaded. We pumped him for a little last minute advice on camp spots and then he was off.
We got the tents up and a fire started using the fire starter paste. I'd never used it before but it was pretty amazing. I've since read a bit about ways to make your own fire starter paste. Seems like something worth trying. The mosquitoes were serious so we broke out our headnets; we pretty much lived in them most of the trip. It started raining just as we finished dinner. I managed to rig a hanging cache for the food that didn't fit in our Bear Vaults, and we retired to the tents.
It's non-trivial to make an effective hanging food cache in this country, as the trees are mostly stunted subalpine fir. They have bazillions of branches and are a pain in the butt to climb, and the only way I know to make an effective cache is to hang a rope between two trees about twenty feet up with a carabiner and a pulley in the middle which you use to raise up the food. We did that for the first few days until all the food fit in the bear vaults; we never saw any bears.
I had made a big tarp for shelter in camp but we never used it because there was never a good place to rig it due to lack of suitable trees. We could have worked something out with the paddles but it would have been a bit low and it seemed like too much trouble. If the rain had been worse we might have made the effort.
We went to sleep to the calling of loons, and woke the next morning to sunshine, mosquitoes and loons. The loons didn't seem to be too concerned by our presence.
By the time we launched and headed down the lake it had started to cloud up.
It was a short paddle to the outlet of Happy Lake, where we unloaded the big bags from the boats and then paddled them through a small rapid to the head of the first falls.
Dave and I had Alpacka packrafts, and Henry had a Kokopelli Rogue. Dave's and my raft have some storage inside the tubes so they were a bit heavier, so Henry ran first; no problem...
Dave was up next. He took the wrong entry and got hung up. Good thing the water wasn't any higher, although then maybe he wouldn't have gotten hung up in the first place...
I ran last, and missed the entry a bit but made it through ok.
We did a little fishing where we could; Dave caught a few nice ones but I came up empty despite having a few on.
There was a canoe wrecked just above the first falls. Apparently they swamped trying to run the part above the falls which we had just run. We asked the guides at the lodge when we took out what they knew about it but they didn't even know it was there.
We spent most of the day portaging around the two upper falls below Happy Lake. The portage was through incredibly thick brush with attendant mosquitoes on a trail so overgrown it was barely discernable; we lost it several times during our initial reconnaissance and while ferrying gear. Dave and I deflated our boats but Henry could carry his above all the brush because he's taller, younger, stronger, and it was lighter without gear inside it. We tried to find short stretches through thick brush linking scarce open spaces, but most of the open spaces were in the wrong places. The terrain close to the river was mostly just thick brush. We camped on a bluff about 20 feet above the river a few hundred yards down from the second falls.
After the long portage I discovered my waders had a small leak somewhere; I had wet feet for the whole trip. So now I need a new pair of lightweight waders, and I don't know if I can find what I want — tough uppers, well-sealed seams, and simple feet. No fancy scree collars or boot hooks, just good fitting feet that are tough and won't spring a leak. Is that too much to ask?
Hiding below all the brush were a few pretty wildflowers.
The meadow we were camped in was mostly a huge matt of lichens and other ground-cover, small hillocks the size of grapefruit everywhere and very little in the way of grasses. Henry found a lot of Boletus mushrooms, along with other cool fungi.
I had an MRE ("Meal Ready to Eat") that Sid had given me as a present a few years back. It was the heaviest and most space-consuming meal in my food collection, so I decided to try it out. To be blunt, the only good thing about it was it didn't require a stove. Otherwise, a good feeeze-dried meal with add-on sides wins over the MRE on all counts — lighter, tastes better, less trash (do I really need a new spoon with each meal?), easier clean-up, and probably more calories. Nothing in this one was particularly good. The modern army must leave a heck of a lot of trash in its wake even if it's not fighting.
We decided to take a layover day. We spent the morning fishing and did ok. We caught a few in the 15" - 17" range; I lost one about 20". In the afternoon we decided to see if we could hike up one of the nearby mountains. It was clear before we started that the hard part was going to be getting past the tree line. We tried to piece together open meadows as far as we could, then try to work our way up the edge of an avalanche chute. The mosquitoes were bad, it was pretty dang hot, and the avalanche chutes were choked with downed timber.
Eventually we decided to turn around. We weren't anywhere near the top, but getting higher wasn't going to achieve much. The view was pretty nice from where we were.
We decided it was a good night for a fish dinner, so we set out to catch a few. We ended up with two, 15" and 17", along with some couscous. Cooked 15 minutes on hot coals, wrapped in aluminum foil with olive oil, salt, pepper, garlic, onions... Yum!
Henry had told us the lichens and other things we pulled up to make a place for the campfire would regrow without any actual dirt; the next morning we did our best to rehab the spot.
We packed up and worked our way down to Lake Tuaton. The water looked outstanding and we fished it hard, but we didn't catch a thing. It was a big disappointment. I've never seen such good looking water in a remote place that didn't have fish. Later, we asked the guides at the lodge about it and they said that indeed, there weren't any fish there — one of them had snorkeled looking for them and come up empty. Apparently the fish are mostly only at the inlets to the big lakes.
Unfortunately, I lost my lens cap somewhere while packing my boat. Grrr. I need to remember to bring a spare.
We passed a lot of nice, fishy-looking water. We stopped and fished it hard. Dry flies, nymphs, streamers... nothing. It was really frustrating.
We hit Lake Tuaton with a wind blowing, so we paddled along the shore to try and find something to hide behind. We stopped for lunch, then continued on looking for a good campsite.
We passed a boat with motor on shore but didn't see the person who drove it there; then two overturned canoes. Maybe First Nation people?
We finally found a pretty good campsite, a big "meadow" with some low shrubs to provide shelter. Firewood was a ways away on a small hill, but at least it was accessible. Dave trolled his way down the lake to camp and caught us some dinner. Then while Dave took a quick bath, Henry relaxed and I gathered some firewood.
The next morning we dried out as much as we could, packed up, and headed on down the lake, planning on camping at the outlet or beyond where one of the creeks comes in. It rained on and off; the loons were talking up a storm as we paddled down the lake.
In the video below, you can't see the loons, but you sure can hear them. I don't know where they were, but the sound was floating everywhere. They were talking for a long time before I woke up to the fact that I could record them even if I couldn't see them. It was pretty cool.
We found a nice camp, but again we had to scrounge for firewood. I found a lot of dead small stuff in the thick shrubs surrounding camp, but big stuff was hard to come by. The best part was the fishing was pretty good. We needed one more fish dinner, and this was it. We saved three fish for dinner, which was just about right for the three of us with couscous on the side and applesauce for dessert.
There was a beaver working in the river just off camp; s/he didn't seem too concerned. It was one of the few mammals we encountered.
We awoke to a grey, unpromising day. We dried our tents as well as possible, packed up and started fishing our way down to Laslui Lake. The fishing was mostly poor, although Dave and I did ok in one spot where we both caught a couple of bull trout as well as smaller rainbows and whitefish.
When we got to Laslui Lake, campsites appeared to be scarce. At least campsites convenient to the lake. The thick brush and spruce forest make shore camping mostly impossible. We searched both sides of the upper lake and finally settled for the small spit just up from the fishing lodge. There was one nice spot across the lake from where we camped, but it was quite a ways above the lake and a fair slog getting up to it. When we flew out we could see what looked like some meadows up on the benches above the lake; in fact there was one just above where we camped. But it would have been unpleasant hauling our gear through the brush to get there.
Dave walked down to the lodge; they contacted our pilot who said he would pick us up about 10:00 the next day.
The lodge just changed ownership, and the new owners were away when we showed up in the morning to fly out. We talked to one of the guides, Luke Saffarek, who was friendly and informative. He said they have three planes and fly out to various lakes in a 90 mile radius from the lodge; that covers a heck of a lot of territory. Looking at the map they had on the wall, there are a lot of places they can access. It seems like a rather extravagant way for a global-warming concerned fisher-person to spend a holiday, however — burning aviation fuel every day of a trip. It's bad enough when you think about all the resources used and CO2 generated just getting someplace to start with. Unfortunately, given the way the fish are spread out, seemingly only at the mouths of streams emptying into lakes, there aren't a lot of good options for getting to them. It would take a lot of trails and trail maintenance to be able to get there on foot or horseback. That might employ more people, which would probably be a good thing; but it's expensive enough as it is for a week at the lodge. If society in general valued the work and the opportunity to explore on one's own, it could be made to work. It's kind of the same problem we have in our National Parks and Wilderness areas with lack of trail maintenance.
Wendell flew in the next day as scheduled, but this time he had the big plane, loaded with a few sight-seers and a lot of propane fuel and wine for the lodge. I noticed a paddle strapped to each of the pontoons; I didn't see those on the smaller plane, but they were probably there somewhere.
After time for everyone to look around the lodge a bit we headed out. We had better weather and better views on the way out, but it was still pretty cloudy and unsettled.
We spent the night in Smithers, cleaning up and repacking. The next day Air Canada cancelled our flight, so everyone was scrambling to get all of their connections rebooked. One guy hired a taxi to drive two hours to a neighboring airport to catch that flight. Then Air Canada fixed the airplane and put the flight back on and flew us to Vancouver. Of course, we were too late to make our connecting flights, so we spent another night in a hotel, but this one was better than the one on the way up. The next day we all finally got our flights home.
All in all, frustrating travel connections going both ways. An interesting trip, but for me, I would not repeat it. It was only fair fishing, and exploring was made unappealing by the bushwacking through dense thickets in the lower elevations.