Two rods and reels. One change of underwear. One square of chocolate at dinner. No beer.
This would be a spartan trip.
We were flying into northern British Columbia backcountry 200 miles from the nearest significant town in a pontoon plane with a strict 750-pound maximum payload. The limitations of landing on a small lake in a remote mountain valley has a way of sorting out what’s essential for a fly-fishing adventure.
“How much toilet paper are you bringing?” asked Scott Wolff as we made a final equipment check before takeoff.
“I don’t plan on sharing,” I said.
Not counting the 125-pound bush pilot, our party was limited to three old friends – wilderness tested, compatibility confirmed – each one tipping the scales at around 160 pounds.
That left no more than 90 pounds apiece for fishing tackle, clothing, camping gear, portage packs, and food for a week, plus paddles, PFDs and boats that would enable us to navigate a roadless system of lakes, channels and rivers.
“Bulk is often the sticking point,” our Canadian pilot said at the weigh-in, which we easily passed. “We’ll have to take some items out of packs and stuff them in here and there to make everything fit. The bear spray and tents go in the pontoons.”
Food was limited less by weight and more to what we could store in our three 11.5-liter bear-proof cannisters. Finding a tree large enough for hanging food out of grizzlies’ reach would be nearly impossible where we were headed.
The trip we’d planned was made possible by a critical component that hadn’t been invented more than 40 years ago when Scott, David Moershel and I began adventuring together: Each of us had a packraft made by Alpacka or Kokopelli.
At about 10 pounds, they are light enough to meet the Cessna 185’s payload parameters and tough enough for wilderness travel.
They inflate to hold 300-500 pounds yet pack small enough – about the size of a roll of paper towels – to fit into backpacks for portages around gnarly rapids and waterfalls.
My daughter has used her packraft in Alaska for glacier skiing traverses in the Fairweather Range that end with 25-mile floats down icy rivers to saltwater.
These ingenious creations of modern materials open a new world to multimode exploration even for a group of buddies with an average age of 71.
Kevlar, the key component in bullet-proof vests, is incorporated into the rafts’ slick thermoplastic-polyurethane-coated nylon fabric bottoms. I pondered this as our pilot touched down on the small lake, where a grizzly sow and two large cubs stood watching us from the shore before disappearing into the abundant brush.
Tough as they are, packrafts are no match for a bear, I thought minutes later, soaking up the exhilaration of watching the aircraft leave us to our own resources. Food cannisters would be stored at cooking areas away from the rafts and tents.
We inflated the rafts using ultralight sacks with valves that mate with the raft valve. Scoop air with the open end, fold the opening shut and use arms and body to squeeze the air bagpipe-style into the raft. Repeat about 25 times. Top off with a few puffs by mouth. Done.
We had flown in wearing our Gore-Tex waders to be ready for wet wading and wet weather upon exiting the plane. As Henry Wadsworth Longfellow put it, “The best thing one can do when it’s raining is to let it rain.” No matter what the skies delivered, we were ready to go fishing.
British Columbia is said to have about 25,000 lakes. So, it was a formidable task for David to scout maps, query guides and call pilots as he planned this adventure. No wonder he asked us to keep the exact route to ourselves.
The idea was, for at least the first half of the journey, to be fishing where people rarely go. Where we made our first camps we saw tracks of moose and woodland caribou but no sign of humanity.
We would paddle through lakes, navigate rivers, cuss our way through brush-choked portages, and swat blood-thirsty skeeters for a week to experience something special, earned by going the extra mile.
We found our happy place, all right. But we didn’t find the fish. Not the first humbling day, that is.
“I could have got skunked at home,” Scott whimpered, looking for a beer to cry in.
“We don’t have any beer,” I reminded him. “Too heavy.”
The late spring, lingering snowpack, and high, cold water had served up difficult fishing conditions. Aquatic insects weren’t noticeably active, yet. The only rises we saw on the first lake were made by surfacing loons and beavers.
The hunt was on for finding the fish and what they would strike. Eventually, we got action at river bends and in lake outlets that dropped off to deeper holes.
About 10 fish after I discovered the trout were suckers for my one-and-only weighted white sparkle leech, I broke it off trying to remove it from the jaw of feisty 15-inch rainbow. Scott assured me that other patterns would work as he landed a nice bull trout on a black streamer.
On two days we broke with our catch-and-release ethic and bonked a couple of trout for dinner to supplement the minimal provisions stored in our BearVaults.
I filleted the fish and we grilled them over the coals of a small fire. Sprinkled with lemon pepper, the fresh trout transformed our couscous into a meal fit for a king.
For desserts, I would ration out a square of chocolate to my buddies.
And then Scott and I would eagerly hold out our cups as David would ceremoniously reveal his stainless-steel bottle as if it were the Holy Grail. Better yet, it was filled with fine whiskey.
David adhered to rigid portions – heartlessly dispensing barely enough for medicinal much less religious purposes – no matter how much we begged for more.
“This has to last for a week,” he said.
“Haven’t you ever heard of living for today?” I pleaded one evening, noting that we had survived 2.4 miles of portaging through shoulder-high brush, around a waterfall, and over beaver dams. “We deserve to celebrate.”
He magnanimously let me sniff the bottle before capping it for the night.
Like a crime scene
Isolated as we were, the evenings weren’t necessarily quiet. We were far north in British Columbia and east of the Alaska Panhandle. No one enters this wilderness during July without reckoning with mosquitoes.
Close your eyes on a calm evening and the whine of their wings would rival a Formula 1 racetrack.
We had head nets for the few really bad moments, but generally we endured by keeping most skin covered. We ate more than a few of them that dive-bombed into our food.
Our hats, sun gloves and sun hoodies had been treated at home with permethrin. When the wind wasn’t coming to our aid, we’d dab a little DEET repellent on our cheeks to ward off skeeters. Nevertheless, a few of them would try to penetrate our defenses by speeding directly into our nostrils or eyeballs.
As I stripped to bathe in a lake one afternoon, I had as much company as a rotten peach on an anthill.
At the end of the day, each of us would do an arm-waving dance before piling into the tent and quickly zipping the door closed. Then we’d devote another few minutes to hunting crafty skeeters that managed to sneak into the tent with us. We clapped, swatted and squished the buzzing pests against the tent. We never got them all.
By the third night, the inside of the tent Scott and I shared looked like a crime scene. Blood and mosquito body parts were smeared all over the ripstop nylon fabric.
“Seems a little silly to set up our cooking area away from our sleeping area,” I said. “We’d be just about as bear-safe if we were curled up in a moose carcass.”
Scott, David and I have joined for backcountry adventures for nearly five decades. We’ve learned from some close calls during our youthful daring to be a little more cautious in our advanced age.
“Let’s line the boats over this rocky ledge rather than trying to ride through,” David said at the outflow of one lake. “I don’t want to risk losing any fishing time to a repair job.”
Weeks before the trip, I would go to Medical Lake regularly to paddle the packraft and tune up my arms and toughen my hands. Most of the time I paddled the boat with no extra weight, and with each kayak stroke the bow would go one way or the other, wagging its way through the water.
But here in the wilderness, I lashed my food pack and fishing tackle on the bow and secured my other camping gear in a dry pack behind me on the stern. Soft camp gear could be stored in the pontoons if needed. After balancing the loads so the boat was trim with me in it, the raft tracked quite well on flatwater and was responsive as I maneuvered through rocks or caught eddies in moving water.
It was a joy to travel through such remote country with the weight off our shoulders. Arctic terns swooped to the water beside us. Common and red-throated loons played peekaboo and beavers slapped the waters around us. Mesmerizing.
We eased into a comfortable daily rhythm of fishing, paddling, hiking and camping. On our last two days we were finally blessed with dry fly action on patterns ranging from Parachute Adams to black foam beetles.
Serious-looking clouds rolled in at the end of our week, and we made a comfortable camp and prepared for the odds-on possibility of not getting a pickup flight as scheduled. David used his inReach satellite communication device to text back and forth with the pilot.
“Maybe tomorrow,” David reported. “We’ll check back in the morning.”
We caught fish for dinner to extend our food supply in case the delays went on for days. We used firestarter paste to make a blaze with wet wood we scrounged from the shoreline. We let it rain.
We caught and released more fish and sniffed the fumes of the empty stainless steel bottle. We passed a lot of time and reminisced about a lot of time passed.
I asked Scott how many days we’d have to be stranded before he got bored enough to light farts, as we did on a backcountry ski trip 45 years ago.
I think he said he didn’t want to find out. That was in the age of wool. It might not be safe in the age of synthetics.
In the end our planning had paid off. The packrafts did their job. The inReach did its job. Although we were out of chocolate and whiskey, we each had a day or two of rations left for emergency layover. Scott was down to his last square of TP.
And we took away memories of fishing waters where trout die of old age.
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