British Columbia Adventure
By Bill Hodges
On August 6, 1999, we flew in from Oregon and Northern California to meet in Vancouver, BC. The Middle Eastern cab driver from Richmond, near the airport, was quite proud of his English, though we could not understand a word he said. After a wonderful Italian dinner in the touristy Gastown District, we headed back to the Marriott and prepared for our morning flight to Williams Lake. We were headed for the Cariboo region of Central BC. This untamed area stretches nearly across the province from the fiords at the Pacific to the forested foothills of the Cariboo Mountains.
In 1859, a mass of prospectors, merchants and gamblers got word of a gold discovery near the Fraser River and migrated to the area. The Cariboo Trail north from Lillooet is marked on the map today showing towns with names like 70 Mile House, 100 Mile House – all distances from Lillooet, where the Fraser River Gold Rush started. Joyce Maitland, from 100 Mile House, picked us up at the Williams Lake airport, and we were off for a two-hour ride to Gotchen Lake and Eureka Peak Lodge, run by her and her husband Stuart.
This was the start of a great adventure, with the sights and sounds of this wonderful country already starting a quilt of memories we would remember for a lifetime. We only regretted that Scott was not with us that first day. This devoted uncle stayed behind awhile to attend his niece’s wedding in the San Francisco area, but joined us a day later. After we left Williams Lake, we arrived in the town of Horsefly, the name of the famous river we would be fishing soon. At the country store, Jim was good enough to treat us to t-shirts with a cartoon giant bloody mosquito on the front: "Welcome to Mosquito Country – Horsefly, BC, Canada". Since Mike’s two daughters were working at Lake Tahoe during the summer, he bought them t-shirts with cut-out and bloody slash marks front and back, and a huge Grizzly bear’s head and bloody teeth: "Welcome to Grizzly Country – Horsefly BC, Canada".
After Horsefly, the roads got narrower, the trees became more numerous, and we could tell we were heading UP, and into mosquito and Grizzly country. Soon, we turned onto a bumpy forest road – 5 more miles to the lodge. Flowers started to show off their pretty faces: Fireweed, Indian Paintbrush, Mountain Azalea. Then there was the "Face Plant", a rarely seen item that causes the viewer to burst out in uncontrollable, hard to catch your breath, laughter. (I’ll explain later). And berries ("bear food") such as blueberries, salmonberries, and huckleberries - were starting to appear all around. This was beginning to look like The Sound of Music terrain. The hills nearby yielded to mountains and snow-covered peaks, and the trees became taller, as we neared the lodge in ever growing anticipation.
When we rounded a bend, the Maitland’s horses appeared, eating freely on each side of the road, showing little concern for the passing Suburban. Then we topped a small hill and curved down to the lodge on Gotchen Lake. The picture on the web site (web site address: www.bcadventure.com/eurekapeak e-mail: email@example.com) did not do justice to the rustic and charming atmosphere of this place. One imagines a cabin in the North Woods, to run to when life’s toils scream at you. This was it. Our log cabin, and several others stretching out from the main lodge house, completed the sloping lakefront. A floating dock for boats and floatplanes bobbed in the crystal clear water, and beached canoes sat waiting for those wishing to escape for a solitary cruise at dusk or dawn. (Bill and all the guests would truly remember one particular red canoe, but more about that later).
The lake itself, stretching southward from the lodge, was one of those postcards that could change its image in an instant. Like Jordan Lake, the site of our Alaska adventure in 1996, this two miles or so of water, and its large island on the right, was a stage surrounded by ever changing scenery. The sky would be clear one moment, then filled with clouds that would come down to partially drape in and out of the surrounding hills. In twenty minutes, the carpet of mist would disappear and the sun would play on the surface of the lake. It could be flat as a mirror, then transform itself into foam and waves in a torrential afternoon thunderstorm.
Bald Eagles and Osprey were constantly diving from dizzying heights to snatch a hapless fish from its precarious cruise to the surface. During the day, Loons could be seen and heard from far away. They are much larger than most people imagine. Bill took the canoe early one morning to a jutting sandbar formed by a creek entering the lake. As he was about to cast, the huge head of a Loon splashed from below the surface ten feet away, totally unexpected, with an in-your-face yell that nearly knocked him off his feet. No doubt, he startled the bird even more.
We rejoiced at this scenery and activity, and accused the Maitlands and their staff of taking it all for granted. But we were wrong. These fine folks obviously held an even greater appreciation for their good fortune than we thought. It occurred to us from the start that Canadian citizens were a happy, friendly and helpful lot. Perhaps the glorious physical surroundings had something to do with this fine attitude towards each other and their fellow man. Whatever the reason, our hosts at Eureka Peak Lodge, on Gotchen Lake in the Cariboo Mountains, made our stay a happy one.
Joyce was the cook, lodge bookkeeper and Administrator. She made the place tick. Her breakfasts, sack lunches and dinners were the real highlight of the trip. Incredible food! Stu was the happy-go-lucky head guide and Chief of Operations. His ever present laugh, fabulous hunting and fishing stories, and joke telling kept the cheerful atmosphere alive and hopping for his various guests. Bill told him that if he were to come back in a latter life, it either would be as Jack Nicklaus, or Stuart Maitland.
Our two main guides were Shawn, the rancher, horse specialist and fisherman, and Kirk, the lake-fishing specialist. Kirk had a good knowledge of entomology, a must to really master the art of fly-fishing. Shawn preferred horses, so Kirk would do the fly-outs. Chris was the seasoned wrangler who’d take groups on 3-day pack trips into the bear-filled wilderness, and Brent was there to help, and happened to be a damned fine guitar player and country western singer. He would entertain us during coffee and dessert after dinner. Courtney did a good job helping with the cooking and cleaning.
Stu was the main guide who knew every hole in the Horsefly River, every lake in the Cariboo, every fly that worked, and every rock to avoid when drifting in his boat. The real money, he said, came from guided hunting trips, but his joy on the river was obvious. He’d drop the McKenzie boat and us at the river, drive the truck and trailer 5 or so miles down the road, then hitchhike back to the put-in point. He seemed never to have a care in the world. All of these folks went out of their way to make our stay enjoyable, and they clearly succeeded.
We are fly fishermen. There’s a wonderful art in deciding what the fish will eat, at that particular instant, at that particular time and at that specific place on the river or lake. It takes years to learn the signs, find the best fly, and even to tie the best fly. Stu and his guides had a pretty good idea what worked best where, and for a few bucks USA, the ideal fly could be selected from the great assortment created at the lodge’s superbly equipped fly tying bench. Most of us earlier had tied our own patterns that caught a lot of fish, but some "locals" worked so well, why tempt fate? The Muddler Minnow, Dragonfly Nymph, Gumphis and Gold-Ribbed Hare’s Ear Nymph did their job just fine. A single Hare’s Ear Bill tied for Scotty caught 32 trout in a day at Stinson Lake.
The lakes were between half an hour to an hour away from Eureka Peak Lodge, whether by truck or float plane, and all were unique in their beauty, isolation and "fishability". The most beautiful was Eureka Lake. But getting there had a price. Before rain washed out the road, you could drive up to the trailhead and hike in a short distance to the lake. Now, horseback was the only way. Shawn was dispatched to take us, two at a time on separate days, to this high mountain lake at the foot of Eureka Peak. Bill had his trusty new GPS to measure the altitude, speed and distance traveled, and a good camera to take some great shots.
Mike, Shawn and Bill mounted up at the horse trailer and headed for the lake. The road gained height through incredible mountainous countryside, over streams and rapids, past waterfalls and into the rain forest. We finally had to tie up the horses and bushwhack our way on up higher, lugging a float tube (called a "belly boat" in Canada), our rod cases and day packs. Before the lake, a sticky, slippery bog had to be transversed. To the side was a stream a few inches deep, with spawning trout splashing and clearly visible.
Once at the lake’s edge, a great sight presented itself, making the tiring passage well worth it. Eureka Peak’s snow-covered box canyon formed the entire backdrop at the other end. Two pedestal-like rock islands jutted out of the lake, with their high trees mimicking green cathedral spires grabbing at the thin mountain air. We found the boat among many logs damming up our end of the lake. Best of all, rising trout were everywhere. Mike took the float tube and headed out with his sink-tip line to get the low (usually bigger) trout. Bill and Shawn paddled in the boat to the islands, fishing as they went. The day shot by too fast in this isolated bowl of clear and unspoiled beauty, and we had to leave to make the 7 o’clock supper bell.
Stinson Lakeis known for its large number of smaller fish. The guides bragged of 100 to 150-fish days float-tubing this lake. Scotty, Bill and Shawn killed ‘em (actually, it was always catch and release with us), but nothing to have bragging rights about. Scotty was the champ, with his single Hare’s Ear Nymph, while Bill was successful with his Adams and Royal Wulff dry flies. The ride back revealed a large Black Bear in the road. Earlier, we spotted a momma bear and three cubs berry-picking on the flowery slopes.
Doreen Lake, like Eureka, was way up in them thar hills. Stu took us in his new, ultra-expensive double cab truck, with boat on back and all four Fishateers. The trip up was an experience in itself. Leaving the main road (the dirt and rocky one), Stu suddenly veered off into the woods. We discovered he was actually on some walking trail the pioneers must have made during the gold rush. The trail’s switchbacks left little maneuvering room for a high turning radius so without even slowing down, a few 3-inch diameter trees were jolted over – no match for the bumper. Ahead lay puddles of water, the depth of which was unknown to us. Stu plowed right on through and the road got even narrower.
Float-tubing this lake was quite productive. Damselflies with gorgeous blue bodies landed on our caps, but the trout won’t eat the adults. The green damsel under-water nymph, with lead eyes, was the fly of the day. Fished deep and trolled so slow paint dries quicker, these suckers killed ‘em. Jim and Stu in the boat had a double hook-up several times. What fun! But the real excitement was the ride back down the mountain. As we prepared to exit the float tubes and return the boat to the truck, the sky darkened rather quickly. Just as the last door shut, the clouds opened up. Halfway down the road, it started to hail…1/2-inch chunks of ice pounded Joyce’s favorite new mode of transportation. Then the boat started banging into the rear windshield with each new bump. Stu just kept on zooming down the trail-of-hail-to-hell in delight. Whew!
At this point, the Wild Turkey and Jack Daniel’s came out of the flasks and our minds drifted happily elsewhere as we bumped our way back home. Another Black Bear soon was spotted heading up the road to the lodge. Chris had seen two Grizzlies during his 3-day pack trip with a Virginia family, and had to detour through a different valley to avoid them. These brutes are taken seriously, but not necessarily feared.
Deception Lakewas memorable for Jim Purcell. Shawn took him, along with a dentist and his wife, on horseback to this lake, in remote Deception Valley. The trail from the lodge to the lake was muddy and treacherous in parts. Jim, on "HR" the wonder horse, got a bit too careless and was not holding on to the saddle horn when his equine buddy lurched up the hill. Descriptions of this incident from Shawn, and Dale the dentist’s wife, were a mixture somewhere between terror and hilarity. Jim’s perfect back flip off HR’s rump and onto his back in the mud had all present imagining a brief glimpse of either Christopher Reeves or Bozo the Clown. Fortunately for Jimbo, the mud was soft and the horse did not fall back on him. His arrival back at the cabin was a sight to behold. Mud all over, with a hint of unblemished clothing only barely visible.
Katherine Lakewas much closer to the lodge. Take the motorboat to the south end of Gotchen Lake about ¾ of a mile from the dock, spot the landing area (a rock and a log), then trek 30 minutes through the thick rain forest on an 18-inch trail along the river and through bear hiding places. Kirk was assigned to Bill as his guide for the day, while Jim, Mike and Scotty headed to the highly acclaimed and much touted Donnelly Lake in Dick Munro’s Cessna. Donnelly Lake had produced one gold and several silver pin fish trout, as described below, on earlier trips. Bill opted to decline the fly-out because, a) there was room for only three passengers, and b) it cost extra for the 40-minute round trip, which can buy a lot of Stu’s flies and Eureka Peak paraphernalia! Dick the bush pilot, in his 60’s, is an ex-world champion lumberjack, and well known throughout these parts.
So "Captain Kirk" and Bill headed for Katherine while the boys pursued their trophy trout at Donnelly. Stu has devised a clever way to reward his guests for fish landed. A Rainbow 20-24 inches long earned a silver pin, 24-29 inches a gold pin, and a 30-plus monster a ceramic pin with "Eureka 30" Club" engraved on it (we speculated why the ceramic was better than gold or silver, but what the hell). Anyway, by now Mike had caught a few silver pin trout, Scotty had landed a gold on his first day drifting the Horsefly River, and Bill and Jimmy were skunked up until then, though Jim got his silver pinfish eventually. Bill’s best was 18 inches (this came to be known as his "Formica" pin). To get a "pinfish" was always the goal.
The half-mile trail to Katherine Lake from the motor boat immediately revealed to Kirk’s keen eyes the large track of a wolf, a huge pad plainly visible in the thick mud. The two hikers became wary of all God’s creatures at that time, and the up and down trail and dark corners of lush vegetation took on a foreboding appearance. Each corner might hold some monster lurking in wait. When they got to the boat, Kirk the oarsman took over and headed to the far end, between the two islands known to house some nice "ceramics". Both trolled long lines deep, with Muddler Minnows that mimic sculpin fish, and began catching large numbers of Rainbows in the 15 to19-inch range, a very satisfying day. A torrential, lightning-filled thunderstorm caught them off guard in the middle of the lake. Bill’s suggestions to beach immediately led to Kirk’s comment that Stuart had once said, "A body has never been found electrocuted in an aluminum boat on a lake". Such relief!
They motored back to the lodge at about 5:30 PM, the time the flyboys were expected back to touch down on the lake alongside them. Kirk warned that Dick Monroe had a bit of a prankster’s touch, and enjoyed creating large waves from his pontoons to swamp the "boat rats". Bill and Kirk listened carefully for the Cessna as they headed back. Sure enough, there it was, coming in low from the south in strafing mode. But all of a sudden they nosed up for a photographic run over the lodge. We exited the boat a few minutes before they coasted into the same dock. Bill’s grin was enormous, yet few smiles emanated from the plane’s cabin. Was there something wrong? Had there been an accident? It soon became known that the float plane trip had produced a single trout all day. Kirk and Bill’s take was near fifteen. Hope they enjoyed the airplane ride.
The Horsefly River
British Columbia’s world-renowned fishing and the Horsefly River often are said in the same breath. This water’s upper, middle and lower sections should be fished with the experience of a crack guide, such as Stu Maitland. We split into two’s on alternating days to be entertained and guided by this resourceful and expert boatman. Mike and Bill drifted the middle Horsefly the first full day, and Kirk came along as an apprentice to learn the tricks of the guiding trade. Mike caught a pin and several other nice fish, though Bill’s first fish came just as the take-out area was approached. Frustrating. On the second trip out a few days later, Stu tipped the boat a bit unexpectedly and Bill did the famous "Face Plant" into two feet of "raging" river. This provided Stu and Mike with multiple laughs for the rest of the float, while Bill dried out during the drift.
This drift had two other rather interesting events. They could hear a horrible cry around the bend, from one of many ducks or geese that were near the river. As they investigated, two Otters had ambushed a poor duck and were hauling it off to their riverside den. One Otter turned around and grunted as if these fishermen were thinking of stealing his dinner. Later, they heard a "Hello, boys" from the opposite bank. This time they were ambushed. The CO (BC Conservation Officer) was peeking through the weeds signaling us over.
Immaculately dressed in a blue uniform, a 9-mm Glock in the holster to his side, this Canadian "game warden" asked Bill first to show he had bent down the barbs on his hook (he had already done this). Stu said later a fine of $200 Canadian ($140 USA) would have been assessed, if not. Mike and Bill then had to produce their BC fishing licenses and their special day river licenses, with today’s date written in. Again, they passed inspection. Bill had a picture taken of himself with this redheaded gentleman, since it was the first time in his life that any game or fishing license had ever been checked. The CO’s many "Ja’s" and "Eh’s" started sounding like the characters in the movie, Fargo, and Mike and Bill could barely suppress a smile. Stu knew the CO, and was pleased his group was within the law. He and Joyce try to make sure their guests have all the necessary licenses and that they are filled out properly. If not, a guide’s reputation can go down the drain, along with his income.
After one of Joyce’s fantastic meals one evening, Bill asked Mike to go fishing with him at the creek sandbar. Mike was enjoying the songs sung by Brent, and others were at the fly tying bench, so Bill decided to go it alone. This was the start of the war story of the trip. Bill went for his gear at the cabin and headed down to the lake to the bright red canoe, with little more than 30 minutes of good daylight left. Sensing a potential disaster about to unfold, Mike alerted the fifteen or so people in the lodge. Tying ceased, songs were cut off abruptly, and the crowd gathered at the large picture window, about 50 yards from the show.
Bill was oblivious to the unfolding drama, not knowing he was the star. He approached the canoe, and decided to put on the life vest first. He had changed into his fishing pants and a warm, clean shirt. As he pushed off the canoe and got in, it started to rock side to side. In the lodge, each tilt was punctuated by a collective oooh…..oh noooo! The atmosphere turned electric with anticipation. A true "Face Plant" was about as imminent as it could get.
As Bill lost control of everything dear, the canoe tipped right a fifth and last time, throwing Bill into 6 inches of water and mud, face down. As he got up, he then saw in the picture window what amounted to a group shot of fifteen gasping people, mouths wide open in laughter, hugging each other for support, tears running down their faces. Within an instant, Mike and Jim were hurtling down the hill from the lodge with cameras in hand, Mike praying his borrowed digital would catch the mud puppy in the fading light. Jim was clicking away like a madman.
Dejectedly, Bill slushed back to his cabin, tail between his legs, showered, changed into dry clothes, and sat on the porch alone, cigar and stiff bourbon in hand. Pleas to come join in the fun at the lodge were rejected. The next morning, he got up his nerve and entered the lodge for breakfast, half-heartedly offering "canoe lessons" to break the ice. But throughout that post-"face plant" day, loud, unexpected bursts of laughter from most all witnesses could be heard at any given moment. Stu offered Bill a 10% discount for providing the week’s best entertainment.
The final morning, August14, Mike and Scotty, resounding failures at Donnelly Lake after their fly-out, decided to get up before dawn and head to probable fishing success at Katherine Lake. They had to be back by noon so Shawn could drive the group to the Williams Lake airport. They returned with lavish big-fish stories and a successful trip. Before the final departure, we had a ceremony to perform. In Vancouver, Mike showed us his new straw hat for fishing. It made him look like an old lady tending her beet garden. With his permission to destroy this hideous headpiece, we stuck it on a stick, stuffed it with paper, and torched it. The resulting pose of Mike with his burning bonnet consumed the last of our film of this wonderful and glorious trip.
We thank the Maitlands and their wonderful staff at Eureka Peak Lodge for a British Columbia Adventure that will produce memories for our lifetime.
West Linn, OR