Written by Harold
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Given how everything ultimately played out, you could easily say that these were the “lost” papers about a partially “lost” week – but more on this later.
Rummaging through a drawer that I rarely open in search of a lost document, much to my surprise I came across another “lost” document which just happened to be the field notes from our trip to Trophy Lodge, that ran from July 16 to the 23rd in 2005.
I’m usually pretty diligent about writing up, and publishing a summary of our experiences on Great Bear shortly after the trip is over, but in this case, either because subconsciously I wanted to block it from my memory, or for that matter deliberately decided to try and put it behind me, it sat in the aforementioned drawer for over thirteen years, perhaps just waiting for me to get over it, and put it online for all to see.
In any event my apologies to our august assemblage that consisted of Ed and Rodney Harback, Alex and Joe Rich, Art Ross, Mike Brown, aka “Brownie,” and Kenny Gold who were with me on this somewhat ill fated trip, and have no doubt been waiting patiently for the opportunity to relive that unique experience
Day 1st – July 16, 2006
3’s A Crowd- No – Make that 4
Most of you have probably heard the expression that things often times “happen in 3’s.”
These “things” obviously can be good experiences, bad one’s, relatively benign or a combination of all three, but in this particular instance you can add another to the pile, bringing the total to 4 – all of them bad.
The day started normally enough, but when checking through security at the Winnipeg airport prior to boarding the charter to Great Bear, I was told that my vintage sipn’ rum, which I had decanted into a relatively crush proof aluminum bottle, could not be carried onto the aircraft.
What the hell?
Although I explained this was my common practice, and that it had never been an issue in the past when clearing security to board our PRIVATE charter, apparently something had changed. The security personnel went on to explain that if it had been in the original, and highly breakable GLASS bottle – no problem.
There was clearly no use in arguing, so I just stomped off muttering something to the effect that perhaps aluminum had now been added to the endangered species list – because otherwise this made no sense whatsoever.
Our flight to the strip at the main lodge went off without a hitch – Plummer’s was still chartering a 737 in those days – as was our flight over to Trophy.
In fact on the way to Trophy, we saw three separate herds of Muskoxen, each consisting of between ten to fifteen animals, all of which were located east of the Naiju River.
Being what I suppose you could call a veteran group when it came to fishing out of Trophy Lodge, having been doing so since 1991, there is a specific routine that we follow upon arrival, which includes, among various other ritualistic idiosyncrasies, sleeping in the same room year after year.
Call it superstition, or just plain old stupid, but it was all part of the routine for getting set up for the week ahead, and was our somewhat unique way of ensuring that the stars and planets were in precise alignment.
Checking the room assignment sheet tacked up on the wall beside the bar, all appeared to be in order, so I didn’t immediately go to “my room,” but just hung around in the lobby area, signed my fishing license, grabbed some lunch, and waited for the luggage to make it over from the strip.
Once our gear had arrived, I grabbed my bag and came to a complete stop just inside the doorway of “my room,” because Alex and Joe – who will hereinafter be referred to as the “assholes,” assuming I make any further reference to them at all – had appropriated MY room, and had gear and cloths scattered everywhere.
Between clenched teeth I managed to squeeze out that if they had bothered to check the room assignment sheet, it clearly indicated they were in the room across the hall.
They could see that I was really pissed, and even offered to pack up and move, but rather than run the risk of starting a feud, moved my gear into the room across the hall, and then sat down on what was clearly the wrong bed, and began plotting my revenge.
One thing that I had not seen among the pile of gear scattered throughout the lounge area was my rod case.
It contained both my rods, and those belonging to Brownie, who by the way was making his first trip to Great Bear. In fact it could be said, that given his overall experience, he had been there twice on one occasion – first and last!
I asked the guys who had brought the gear over if there was more to come, but was told that other than a few groceries, as far as they knew, there was nothing else remaining.
They offered to check around, and would take another look in the plane, assuming it had not left as yet.
In the meantime I paid a visit to all of the rooms in the oft chance someone had picked it up by mistake – but it was nowhere to be found. The lodge manager offered to contact the main lodge just in case it had somehow been missed when transferring the gear from the 737 to our aircraft, but he was unable to contact them until the following day, and was advised that a random rod tube had not turned up there either.
Fortunately Brownie and I were able to borrow a couple of rods – although they didn’t get much of a workout as it turned out.
Just in case you were wondering, the rod tube never left Winnipeg, and upon our arrival back in the “Peg,” there it was waiting for us with a shattered rod tip poking through the cap of the tube. It appeared as though someone had used it as a battering ram causing the tube to collapse, pushing the rod tip – or what was left of it – through the top.
I was temped to add a #5 with respect to the broken rod tip, but that would probably be pushing it.
And now the real story begins…
Assuming all went well – see above reference to the planets and stars being in precise alignment, and the assholes – we planned to camp on Ekka Island for 3 days.
We spent the remainder of the day organizing our gear, packing up provisions, and ensuring that our guides for the week – Paul Reynolds, Harvey Anderson and Rob “Stewy” – had enough fuel both for fishing, and making the trip to and from Ekka.
They planned to leave right after dinner, following which we would fly over after breakfast the next morning and meet up on the island, but unfortunately the wind had picked up, and while they got as far as First Light, it was too rough to risk continuing any further.
Plan “B” was then hatched, and given that it was not uncommon for the Bear to calm down at night, the guys were going to give it another shot around 3am. They did in fact try, but were unable to get much further than they did the previous evening.
Day 2nd – July 17
Pike for Your Drink?
Realizing that it was going to be a waste of time to try and punch through to Ekka at this point, we headed off in the direction of Bydand Bay.
The first stop was Robin’s “R” spot, and after about an hour of washing lures in 40-degree water, we headed into Bydand, and made our way back to the Whitefish River in hopes of scaring up a few Pike.
While the others in our group were not what I would call enthusiastic Pike fisherman, they eventually joined us in the River after bouncing around in the Bay for a time, and fortunately while out there, managed to catch a few trout, that would later be transformed into shore lunch.
We fished both sides of the River from the mouth, up stream to where the “white boats” were pulled up on shore.
The story is that the guy, who used to take over Arctic Circle Lodge every year while on his “white whale” obsession to catch the world’s biggest Lake Trout, had the boats cached there so he could fly in and fish the area – including I suppose the area around Trophy as well - whenever the spirit moved him.
Bydand is one of the first areas to be clear of ice because of the warm water flowing into the bay from the River (the water temp in the River was 56 degrees the day we fished it), so I suppose he may have thought it would be a good early season spot. Who knows?
All I know for certain is that the “white whale” managed to elude his grasp.
There were Pike all over the place, with most fish being caught by swimming large gold, and red and white Johnson “Silver Minnow” type spoons tipped with a white grub over the weeds.
When it was all said and done, Kenny and I had caught and released well over 100, with numerous fish in the “teens,” including a 24 pounder for Kenny, and a 26 pounder for yours truly. Not surprisingly, the other guys caught more than their share as well.
Shore lunch was served at the “white boats,” and featured a delicious salsa and cheese baker that Robin put together.
The east wind that had been blowing since yesterday continued strong throughout the day, so when it was time to leave, we knew it was going to be a bumpy ride home, and while most of us had ridden much bigger waves on Bear, Brownie was given his first real “taste” of what the lake had to offer when it was in a somewhat grumpy mood, as we bounced our way back to the lodge in 3 footers.
Upon entering Ford Bay, the wind abated somewhat, and did something of a 180, because it was now coming out of the south/west, with all of us hoping that this was a sign of better things to come – weather wise that is – and we could finally make it over to Ekka.
Alex and Joe – aka the “assholes” – chose not to join us in Bydand, but instead did a fly out to Macintosh Bay. They caught a bunch of fish in the “3 Rivers” area up on the sand, with the only trophy being a 46 pounder for Alex. The 2 other guys who flew in with them didn’t catch very many, but did manage a 47 pounder off Goodfellow Point.
Day 3rd – July 18
Hi-Ho, Hi-Ho It’s Off to Ekka We Go!
Ok, so it’s a bit corny, but one of the advantages of having your own soapbox/blog is that you can write pretty much whatever pops into your head at any given moment!
The day dawned calm and sunny, and baring a radical change in the weather, Paul, Harvey and “Stewy,” who had left at 6:30 am, should not have any difficulty getting there.
We arrived at Ekka around noon, and proceeded to set up camp, including what I like to refer to as “Ed’s Jumping Castle,” which consisted of a rather large tent, filled to overflowing with a big, thick bouncy air mattress.
It was a sight to see, and while Rodney didn’t have any particular difficulty getting in and out, Ed pretty much had to roll out of the tent flap and onto the tundra before he could get up onto his feet.
Once everything had been set up, and some lunch consumed, we finally hit the water around 4pm, with all 3 boats heading over to the mainland, and began fishing the area known as “white rock.”
Water temperatures were in the 42 to 47 degree range, and by the time we finished for the day, everyone did very well in terms of numbers and otherwise.
Ed boated a pair of 28 pounders, I landed a 20, 30 and 37, but Rodney led the way with a 31 and 50! Brownie almost made the board, but he was just a pound short, his biggest being a 19.
Not a bad start I’d say.
Everyone was for the most part using T-60 Flatfish in various colours – the hot one for me being orange/gold scale - and oddly enough we caught most of our fish when we were trolling into the wind. I’m not at all sure why, but perhaps it had something to do with the somewhat slower boat speed while heading into the wind.
And speaking of Flatfish, one thing we rarely have a problem with are break offs and loosing lures, because the areas we tend to fish at this time of the year primarily feature a sandy bottom with a with a few small rocks thrown in for good measure, so snags and break offs are usually few and far between.
For reasons that I haven’t figured out to this day, Kenny and I were loosing lures left right and centre, both as a result of snags, and on fish.
The good news is that unless they are wedged under a rock, or firmly implanted in a fish’s mouth, Flatfish usually float to the surface, and while we recovered most of them, at days end Kenny lost 5 and I was down 2.
What really hurt though is that while it was a pain, and a rather expensive one at that to loose so many lures, the Sampo swivels we also lost cost damn near as much as the Flatfish.
In the event we make it back to Ekka next year, there were going to be several heavy - duty fluorocarbon shock tippets in our tackle bags.
The fishing shut down around 7, so we all headed back in and prepared dinner. After dinner Brownie and I went for a bit of a hike, taking pictures of the midnight sun as we strolled along, which was putting on one hell of a show.
We also came to the realization that “we are not alone” having spotted a large bull caribou that was kind enough to let us share his island.
Day 4th – July 19
It’s An Ill Wind That Blows Nobody Good
It was almost “Star Trekish” in nature, where a playful Scotty decided it would be fun to transport the lot of us to some distant, desolate, freezing cold planet, and while Ekka could be described as being somewhat desolate (“Ekka” roughly translates into “treeless,” which it definitely is), when we crawled into our tents the previous night, there was not a cloud in the sky, the wind was calm and the temperature on the warm side.
But what a difference a day – or in this case night - makes.
I remember waking to a flapping sound, that while still half asleep I was unable to put my finger on, but once I got my bearings, came to the realization that it was our tent. Not only that, I was a bit chilly, not having zipped myself into my sleeping bag last night, but rather used it as a blanket, because as mentioned, it was pretty warm when we turned in.
Kenny unzipped the flap of our tent to check things out, and it really did look like we had been transported to an entirely different location.
Heavy dark clouds filled the sky, the wind was howling, and the temperature had dipped into the mid 40’s.
Once everyone was more or less up and about, we got breakfast started, and I can assure you that eating bacon and eggs off of a tin plate that was cold to begin with, in a screened tent with the wind howling through it, was not how any of us planned to start the day.
In my view none of this would have happened if the assholes had not commandeered my room, thereby bringing on some seriously bad juju – but on the bright side, there were no bugs!
Look, we were after all in the Arctic, and it was not the first time the weather did a 180 on us; therefor it was either mope around and complain about the weather or suck it up, get out there, and catch some fish. We chose the later.
Man it was cold out there!
As the wind had whipped the lake into something of a frenzy, we sought out some sheltered water, which is not the easiest thing to find around a relatively flat, treeless island, but we fished east of our campsite (the wind was coming out of the north/west) on the south shore, and while we didn’t pick up anything of size, caught about 20 “red fins” in fairly short order, with the biggest being about 18 pounds.
Oddly enough we continued to experience further break offs. I began to think that perhaps we got a hold of some bad line, but it was fresh (or so we were told), we were not using the same brand, nor was it purchased at the same store, consequently the mystery remains unsloved to this day.
I also didn't discount the Alex and Joe factor as being the possible cause for all of the break offs.
After a couple of hours the wind had abated somewhat, so all 3 boats headed back over to “white rock,” but other than a 21 for Ed and a 42 for Rodney, there was not much action.
Clearly this cold front had either pushed the fish out of this area, or their mouths were now frozen shut – much like ours.
Someone suggested that lunch and a warm fire would be in order, and it took no persuasion whatsoever to get unanimous consent to immediately act upon this brilliant idea.
As for the warm fire, that proved to be a tad more problematic.
Have you ever tried to build a fire on a treeless island?
Fortunately we scrapped up enough driftwood to get a decent fire going, but as the week wore on, we had to widen our search area considerably in order to find enough wood to keep it going.
Lunch consisted of hot coffee, because it was now absolutely forbidden to brew tea on Ekka, which is the subject matter of the Bear Tale – “Tea for One,” that you can find at: http://www.greatbearlakeoutdoors.com/stories/bear-tales/item/96-tea-for-one, and what was to become our island staple, grilled cheese sandwiches.
With the exception of Kenny and myself, the rest of the guys decided to retire to their tents after lunch and roll up in their sleeping bags, in a somewhat futile, albeit optimistic attempt to get, and stay warm.
We fished the north/west end of Ekka, including what we refer to as “Ross Point,” and the largest island of the relatively small archipelago that is clustered around the western most point.
The structure was beautiful, sand bottom with scattered patches of small rocks, and decent water temperatures in the 45 to 47 degree range, and with the wind blowing in, it should have been productive, but unfortunately no one told the fish.
After several hours of fishing, our efforts were rewarded with 5 small “red fins.” But then again it was better than staying on shore, hunkering down in our tent wrapped up in a warm sleeping bag – right? Sure it was. Sure it was. Sure it…
The larger island in the aforementioned archipelago was lousy with Arctic Terns, and in fact it appeared to be something of a rookery, although in fairness they may have all been roosting in that location because it was relatively sheltered, and they wanted out of the wind as well.
We got pretty close, and under normal circumstances I have no doubt that given their aggressive nature, it would have resembled a scene from the Hitchcock’s somewhat creepy classic “The Birds,” with them swarming our boat, and pecking at our heads together with any other extremities we were short sighted enough to leave exposed.
Perhaps their little webbed feet were simply frozen to the ground…
Around 6pm, we finally came to the conclusion that the rest of the guys had it right in the first place, and made a beeline for shore, our tent and sleeping bags.
To be a fisherman is to be an optimist, and after a late supper, even though the wind continued to howl, the temperature continued to drop, and Mother Nature decided to throw in a few ice cold showers for good measure, like idiots – sorry, I mean optimists – we sat around the fire, looked up into the sky, and to some degree managed to delude each other into believing that the weather was showing signs of improving.
Day 5th – July 20
The Ice Man Cometh…
Anyone who has followed these narratives over the years will know that Rodney usually comes equipped for virtually any eventuality that may arise.
In this instance, he brought along a watch that among several other features, measured the air temperature.
We have all heard the expression “too much information,” and after finally rolling out of our sleeping bags this morning, Rodney advised us that the temperature was a somewhat brisk 34 degrees, which of course did not include the wind chill – and trust me – there was a wind chill.
Ice-cold rain had now transitioned into ice pellets, and on my word of honour, there were even a few brief snow squalls tossed in for good measure. I don’t think I mixed up the dates, we were there in mid July – right?
Coming to the somewhat specious conclusion that it was better to be sitting in a boat bouncing around in 4 - foot waves in a snowstorm, rather than either sitting beside the fire, or tucked into our sleeping bags, off we went first to the “white rock” area, following which Kenny and I worked the shore from our campsite to the eastern most point of the island yet again.
Mind you we did catch 26 fish that morning – all of them pretty small – but around noon we had all had more than enough, headed back to camp, and consumed copious quantities of grilled cheese sandwiches between naps.
Come to think of it, by the time we were finally voted off of the island, it took a while, and a great deal of fibre to get things moving again – if you catch my meaning.
Despite our clearly misplaced optimism, the weather system that was assaulting us remained locked in, so we simply stayed put, and other than me taking a stroll over to the north side of the island out of sheer boredom and frustration, and making a few futile casts - the wind actually grabbed my spoon and threw it back at me a couple of times – no one fished for the remainder of the day.
Although pretty much everyone crawled back into their bags, at least one person had to remain on watch, because the wind was so strong and the waves so high our boats, which were pulled well up on shore, were in constant danger of being swamped and/or being turned and pulled off shore by the force of the waves.
Day 6th – July 21
Beam Me Up Scotty – Now Damit!
Continuing with the Star Trek theme, there was not a person in camp who by this time would not have given up their life savings to make that happen.
Today was going to be yet another day of forced confinement, high winds, freezing temperatures, and grilled cheese.
Now you may be thinking that grilled cheese was all we had to eat – but au contraire – we had plenty of other vittles, but with a few exceptions, no one – even Chef Rodney – was motivated or otherwise inclined to stretch their culinary wings.
The fact is, they were warm, easy to make, and seemed to be exactly the right thing to be eating under the circumstances. Hey, when you were a kid didn’t you just love grilled cheese sandwiches together with a steaming hot bowl of Campbell’s Tomato Soup on a cold day? Well I sure did, and the next time I camp on a treeless island, I’m going to pack in a few cans.
Although we were having such a GREAT time (can you hear the sarcasm dripping like a leaky faucet?), all things – good, bad or otherwise – must come to an end, and today was supposed to be pick up day.
Given the current weather conditions, and while the Beaver could have likely made the flight over, there was simply no place to put it down given the size of the waves. We confirmed what we already knew via a satellite phone call with the lodge, and simply left it that if the wind died down; we would let the lodge know, and hope for the best.
We decided not to pack anything up just yet, because if they didn’t come for us, we were going to need our tents and sleeping bags. The thing is, if we knew the Beaver was on the way, it would not take very long to break camp, and we did pack away as much as prudence would dictate, in anticipation of making a quick get away.
Around noon, I had had more than enough of my tent, sleeping bag and constant rounds of grilled cheese, so I managed to talk Brownie into embarking on an excursion to “Ekka Lake,” which is located near the centre of the island, if for no other reason to stretch my legs.
Rumour has it that there were trout in that ‘thar lake, so off we went with rods in hand, and more enthusiasm than we had been able to generate in the past few days.
Now from the air, which is the only vantage point from which I had seen the lake, my guess was that it was at most only 3 or 4 kms from camp, but after walking for about an hour, and clearly being not much closer than when we started, my estimate was obviously a bit off. Truth be told, I measured the distance on a topographic map once back at the lodge, and it was a lot closer to 10 km than it was to 3 or 4.
We continued on a bit further, when either Brownie or myself – I don’t recall who – pointed at something in the distance that looked somewhat “bear like.” Hmmm.
The 2 of us stood very still and stared at it for several minutes, while having an ongoing debate as to whether it was moving, or nothing more than a stationary object.
Neglecting to follow wilderness protocol when it comes to bear encounters – or more particularly taking steps to avoid them - we slowly began walking towards it, all the while wondering if it was moving away from, towards us, or simply standing still.
The good news was, that if it was a bear and it charged us, with all of the grilled cheese we had been eating, neither of us would have filled our shorts!
We continued to stalk whatever it was, and began to convince ourselves, that not having seen the Caribou since the beginning of our stay, perhaps we should consider beating a hasty retreat.
This common sense thinking notwithstanding, I was bound and bent that I was going to figure out what it was, and to his credit, Brownie stuck with me step for step.
Ducking behind some bushes, and using my telephoto lens, we were now close enough to positively identify it.
We are now pleased to tell you that there was no bear, but rather the extremely rare Ursus arctos Plantae, or for you non - scientific types, the Barren Ground Grizzly Shrub.
What a couple of goof balls.
We were obviously suffering from a severe case of island fever, and at that point decided to head back to camp, both because we didn’t want to be too far away if the conditions changed and they dispatched our ride home, and didn’t want to run the risk of running into any more bear like shrubs.
While we were off shrub stalking, there had been some further discussion with the lodge, and they were going to send the Beaver, which should arrive between 10:30 and 11pm, by which time the water would have hopefully flattened out enough to land.
There is a story that is often told about Chummy Plummer’s “deal with the Devil.”
While no one other than Chummy really knows what his end of the bargain was, the Devil’s end of it was to ensure that regardless of what the weather had been like for the entire week, when it came to change over day, the skies would clear, and the wind would abate just long enough to get the incoming guests in, and the departing ones out safely.
I’ve never seen the Devil welch on his end, and whatever Chummy put up for collateral must have been pretty damn good, because the “deal” also extended to getting people who might be otherwise stuck out on the lake back to the lodge so they could fly home with the outgoing guests.
As quickly as you can say Lucifer, or Chummy for that matter, just before 10pm, the lake began to flatten out, and when the Beaver arrived, it was able to land and get us off that God forsaken pile of treeless rocks.
With the wind having died down, we were hopeful that Paul, Harvey and “Stewy” would have a smooth ride home, but apparently the deal did not extend to guides, because the guys didn’t get back until the following morning, explaining to us that virtually right after we lifted off, the wind started howling once again.
It’s kind of spooky when you think about it.
Oh, and by the way, the air temperature, sans wind chill, was 33 degrees just prior to take off.
Day 7th – July 21
What’s So Great About Fishing Anyway?
Good question, the answer to which is perhaps nothing, because we obviously were not all that interested having only fished for about 2 ½ full days out of the 7 we were at the lodge.
Fortunately our guides made it back safely the following morning, although they were clearly tired, hungry and chilled to the bone, so there was no way we were even going to suggest going out later in the day, even after they had a chance to grab some food, warm up and rest.
To be perfectly honest, we were quite content to pack all of our gear away, take a long hot shower, and chow down on something other than grilled cheese sandwiches throughout the rest of the day.
Day 8th – July 22
Well, a Deal’s a Deal
In keeping with the aforementioned “deal,” we awoke to sunny skies, calm winds, and had a smooth, uneventful flight back to the main lodge.
We flew right over Ekka, and the island sparkled like a rare, precious gem.
Ya right, rare precious gem my…
While frustrating and a bit sketchy at times, this trip, not unlike all of the others that came before it will never be forgotten.
Fishing in the Arctic can be challenging under the best of circumstances, because you never know what it will throw your way during any given, week, day or in some cases, hour.
That said, I could never even begin to imagine not going back year after year, and come 2019 I’ll be working on number 41 if my math is correct.
And pay no mind to some of my less than complimentary comments about Ekka. I had been there before, returned again the following year, and have enjoyed some the finest fishing the lake has to offer in that area. It truly is a beautiful place, and for those of you who may get a chance to visit, don’t pass up the opportunity.
Regardless of some of the challenges we faced, there were many positives as well.
The lodge staff were very helpful as always, our guides were the best of the best, we did catch some very nice fish, everyone got to Ekka and back safely, and lets face it, we were able to fish Great Bear Lake yet again.
As for the “lost” rod tube, shit happens and this was the first and only time I ever had an issue with my gear.
Now if only those 2 assholes had stayed out of my room - who knows how the week would have turned out…