My good friends, Matt and Oren, and I once planned a remote fly-in excursion to a productive watershed here in Clayoquot Sound. The plan, as simple as it sounds, was to head up to a remote lake and fish/canoe our way down the outflow river to the estuary, where the same float plane that dropped us off in the morning would return to pick us up at the end of the day. The boys and I have done this dozens of times before, no biggie.
In hindsight, the mitigating factor that made this one particular trip different from the rest of our prior excursions was the appearance and inclusion of Oren's older brother, Matt. And also his dog, Harvey.
The dog didn't worry me, I've known Harvey for years, he's a good dog. What did worry me was the fact that Matt showed up wearing his Canadian Coast Guard Search & Rescue (North Pacific When The Chit Hits The Fan Edition) survival drysuit. That is never a good sign, particularly when you are supposedly just going fishing.
Matt tries to shrug off our inquiries with the kind of calculated, experienced ease that often veils the underlying truth of what he is really thinking - namely that he is expecting something gnarly, and as such he has sufficiently prepared. Oren and I are left wondering, eyeing each other up in our waders, if this trip is even a good idea at all.
Matt, Oren, pilot Josh, Harvey, and I all cram into the float plane. Oren is riding shotgun, Matt and I are in the back seats, and Harvey is drooling on the both of us from the cargo locker. I cannot imagine what we must have looked like pulling away from the dock.
We require a bit of extra time during takeoff, the plane is noticeably listing to port, thanks no doubt to the terrible burden of people, canine, and gear. I'm seated on the left side of the aircraft, so i have a nice view of the rocks and trees as we finally clear the water and zoom, albeit slowly, off.
Harvey seems to enjoy flying, thankfully, because Matt lets us know at that moment over the intercom and headphones that he usually throws up in the truck, a lot. I start to pay more attention to Harvey, and notice that he is drooling considerably. I'm not sure if that's a good sign or not.
The flight into the lake is spectacular, there is very little that can compare in the way of beauty to the aerial view of Clayoquot Sound on a sunny, bluebird day. Millions of acres of pristine fjord wilderness, countless rives, streams, and lakes. Whales, cetaceans and mammals of all kinds, working the shorelines, feasting on abundant shoals of baitfish and krill. We admire our backyard and tell stories and laugh over the headphones. We are happy to be alive, we feel free.
Pilot Josh eventually banks around the mountains and lands on a perfectly still and silent surface, taxying across the lake to a large gravel bar where the upper river flows in. Fish are jumping everywhere. Three species of salmon roll in the lake and river, and trout are gorging themselves on a diverse hatch of bugs. It's all we can do to get the canoe unlashed, and the rest of the gear put together. Harvey bolts upstream in the direction of the canyon as we push the plane off and give Josh directions on where to meet us later that evening. Don't be late, he tells us, we can't fly in the dark. Roger that one, Matt says, we'll be there.
We don't waste any time putting a line in the water. I dive for my 5-weight, Matt goes for the spinning rod, and Oren produces a small fly reel from his jacket pocket.
“You didn't bring a rod?” I ask him.
“No need for a rod dude.” he says, stripping line from the reel and twirling it around above his head. He builds up momentum and then eventually lets the twirling mass of fly-line and lure go in the direction of the river. His line and lure shoot off. Oren is the only person i've ever seen hand-line for trout and salmon, ever. I ask him why he chooses to use a fly reel and fly-line for this particular endeavour. It's easier to see in the water, he says, as though this were an obvious fact. He catches a three and a half pound wild cutthroat trout on his first cast, I do not.
After a half-hour of catching fish, Matt is showing obvious signs of restlessness - he likes to fish, sure, but he is not what I would consider a die-hard fisherman. He suggests we head upriver for a while and see if we can make it to the canyon. “The upper river canyon?”, I ask, remembering stories Oren and Matt have told me from past adventures up there. “Yes!” he says, “come on, it will be fun!
The little man on my shoulder makes an appearance. He takes one look at the position of the sun, deduces that despite the hour of the day we still have plenty of time, and forces the words from my mouth “Let's do it!” And we are off.
We spend the next two and a half hours alternately dragging and paddling the canoe up the upper river. Negotiating some severe class-3 rapids, log jams, and long stretches of turbulent whitewater along the way. We see three bears chasing salmon through the rapids, and at one point I ask Matt if he thinks we should stop and do some more fishing. The canyon is just around the corner, he says, we really have to reach it, it's breathtaking. He says this twice more during the next hour. Almost there, he says.
Finally, after what seems like an eternity, we reach the upper river canyon. Steep, slippery walls guard the upper canyon, and there is a very large spillway at the entrance to the gorge, a vertical drop of whitewater that looks all of six feet. We need to get up and over that spillway, Matt suggests, and lays out his playbook.
“Ok Josh, you need to sit in the front of the canoe. When Oren and I paddle up to that rock face on the left, jump out with the bow line and keep us steady in the current. Then, Oren and I will climb out and we'll all drag the canoe up and over the ledge. Ready? OK, GO!!!”
It wasn't pretty, but we actually managed to pull it. Except that we lost half of our stuff on the first try dragging the canoe over the rapids. Finally, on the second try we did it, we were somewhat safely afloat and paddling through the canyon. Matt was right, it was breathtaking.
After a while Oren said something about the hour of the day. Something like - it's getting dark, isn't it?
We turned the canoe around in a hurry and paddled like mad. Don't worry, Matt said, it's a lot quicker going down then coming up. The little man on my shoulder agreed with him, and urged me to paddle faster. Faster is good.
We made our way down river in a hurry but Harvey was falling behind, no doubt exhausted. Matt suggested that we load him into the canoe in order to speed up the procession. It seemed like a good idea at the time.
I noticed the sound of the spillway before i actually saw it. I turned around to look at Matt in the stern of the canoe, he was smiling. He was zipping up his drysuit. Oren and I began to cinch up our waders, I remember thinking i should have at least brought a lifejacket, but the little man on my shoulder reminded me that I was a good swimmer. I closed my eyes and braced myself for what lay ahead. Harvey shrank in the bottom of the canoe, he looked nervous. I couldn't blame him.
We hit the chute with all we could muster, but it wasn't enough. Our fourteen foot canoe was unceremoniously ejected as the bow fell over the rapids and Harvey leapt, dismounting. The force of the dog jumping over the side was no match for our inertia, and we capsized in mid-air, dumping the canoe, and all of it's occupants, into the river. It would have definitely happened anyway, but Harvey flying out of the canoe certainly didn't help as the centrifugal spin he caused as he leapt free made sure everything made it into the water.
Class-3 rapids are not a friendly environment. The freezing water hit my body and I screamed, blowing bubbles under the water. I thought of a bear fishing my body out of the river downstream as I kicked with biblical fury towards the shore. I bobbed to the surface with various pieces of our gear that had managed to float. I scrambled up on the rocks, fighting for air. I saw Matt float by, buoyed by the air trapped in his drysuit, he was still smiling. Oren crawled out on the opposite side of the river, dragging himself up on the rocks, the canoe was half-sunk and disappearing downstream. Harvey came kicking by next, holding a paddle in his teeth. Good dog.
It took all of us to put the pieces back together. Finally, after a long, wet, shivering eternity back down the river we go. Harvey is back in the canoe. I don't care at this point, it's already gone terribly wrong.
There was a particularly nasty corner and log jam that we had to negotiate on the way upriver. It looked far worse and ultimately more dangerous coming down. Half-way through the corner one of the logs that stuck out into the river peeled us in rapid succession from the canoe, dumping us into the river once more.
Every man went for himself as the current swept us through logs and stump wads, I pulled a mid-river Tarzan as I reached out and successfully latched onto one of the limbs and swung myself up and onto a log, safely. Matt floated downstream, holding onto the overturned canoe, while Oren managed to reach the opposite shore once again. My waders were now completely brimming with water, adding a new meaning to the term bone drenched and freezing. I had to pull them down and contort myself upside down on the logjam in order to drain most of the water out. Harvey floated past me as I was doing this, whining like he'd been hit by a car.
By the time we finally manage to get going again, we hear the sound of Josh and the float plane in the distance. “I hope he thinks of checking the upper river when he see's we're not downstream in the estuary” Oren says. Matt suggests we paddle harder.
The sound of the plane disappears in the distance, my attitude, already dampening, becomes forlorn. I do not like the sound of a night soaking wet in the wilderness.
All of a sudden the sound of the plane is back, and Josh, god bless him, literally scrapes the pine cones from the tree-tops as he buzzes the river valley. He see's us, but just barely. The sun, already set, is leaving the sky growing dark.
Before we reach the lake we dump the canoe once more. Do not ever let anyone tell you that whitewater canoeing is easy.
It is a race to paddle out to the float plane, unload what remains of our gear, strap the canoe down, and literally force Harvey back into the plane. Matt and Oren have to stuff the snapping, convulsing animal into the cargo bay, it doesn't look easy. Good boy, Matt keeps saying as he dodges Harvey's teeth, good dog.
Oren and I are literally shaking once we go airborne, frozen from the inside out. A short time later, as we chase the last of the daylight home Harvey pops his head out of the cargo netting, coughs twice, and vomits all over my neck and right shoulder.
– Captain Josh Temple