FISH CAMP AT THE END OF THE UNIVERSE August 2023 Ekaluk River, Victoria Island, Nunavut
Updated: Feb 4
“A towel, it says, is about the most massively useful thing an interstellar hitchhiker can have” - Douglas Adams
A towel and perhaps some good karma. Anymore, when one embarks on one of these exotic fishing adventures to the extreme corners of the globe a serious dose of reality needs to be injected with all the expectations and hype. The marketing for these trips is always superb, hooking us instantly. The pictures of the fish, the promise of x-number of fish/day, the you tube videos with the cerebral music are all set up for the gullible angler to blindly write their check and begin the planning process months in advance.
The planning of these endeavors, becomes as elaborate as the actual trip. One will agonize and fuss over the precise colors of the flies, the amount of flash, and the amount of weight that the flies need. Then there is the leaders and the sink tips, the layers of clothes, the extra reels, and the precise weight of all the crap that you will be lugging on your trip. It is, after all, August and currently 90 degrees F where you live but you are packing as if you are going to the summit of Mount Everest. In reality, we are actually going to be closer to the north pole then any major city. You tell yourself this is as much about the adventure as it is about catching fish, but in the end, you don’t fool yourself, you are a junkie and you need that fix. Catching fish is the only reason you are embracing this insane journey, and the adventure aspect is simply window dressing.
Commercial air travel since COVID has become so nonsensical that describing it as a clown show is actually complimentary. Heavy considerations and back up plans with flexibility is essential in any sort of travel these days. It gets much worse when you intend to go to some of the most remote areas of the world. Plan on sleeping in the airport or if you are lucky, a nearby hotel, even if it is not on your itinerary. Then you must factor in natural disasters, biblical weather events, plagues, lost luggage, passport issues, customs, canceled flights and entire cities and airports being shut down due to massive wildfires. Still you convince yourself it is worth it, just like a crack addict and their pipe. I am convinced that once you step into an airport terminal and begin the TSA process that it takes precisely 42 hours to get from Point A to Point B. It doesn’t matter where you are going, that is how long it takes or at least it feels like it. Time warps and time zones jade reality. Airplane coffee numbs your senses and the hum of airplane engines puts your mind in this state of suspended animation.
On arriving at this primitive camp in what can only be described as an alien landscape, you are instantly faced with conflicting paradoxes. How simple and yet so complicated. How uninviting and yet how familiar this tundra feels. Since the last ice age the Aboriginal people of this region have managed to live in harmony with the eco system without totally screwing things up. Our camp is composed of whitewashed, plywood boxes for sleeping, a large “mess tent,” an out house, a generator, a pump that literally runs water up from the river to the cooking kitchen and oddly enough, a Starlink Satellite dish. The place has this backwoods Appalachia vibe going on. Again, the conflicting paradoxes. The native kids are busy air drying fish in a large cage. They live simply doing their chores in these primative conditions while turning their brains to mush in their downtime by watching hours of mindless, Tik Tok videos, thanks to Elon and that Starlink connection powered by the generator that runs during the daytime hours. The stark contrasts are everywhere in this camp.
Being above the tree line, where the tundra has been ground flat for as far as you can see, the place is more lunar than terra. As a bonus, Victoria Island is one of the few places on earth where you stand an equal chance of being eaten by a polar bear as you do a grizzly bear, however you are more likely to run into a rogue musk ox. If you’ve never seen one, they are about the size of a side by side, and resemble a larger shaggy American bison. They are deceptively quick and move about as fast as a side by side so you don’t want to get in their way. Their nature is one of mild intolerance to humans. Certainly not as aggressive as a moose but they don’t seem to appreciate your presence all that much. They look prehistoric and would be more at home next to a wooly mammoth and a sabretooth tiger then a 21st century adventurer with silly fly gear. The tundra is absolutely miserable to walk on, consisting of rounded rocks about the size of a small loaf of bread with lichen growing all over it. There is no firm ground anywhere. I have to imagine the ancient ones who traversed these lands suffered from chronic broken ankles.
It is late August, and even when the sun makes an appearance, nobody would mistake the weather here as pleasant or even summer-like. The air is always wet and the temperatures are just hovering above the freezing mark. Arctic winds from the sea remind you, just where you are. Having the right gear certainly helps. You can’t help but try and imagine what this place is like in December when there is 24 hours of night and everything is frozen.
The char are on a tight schedule, and for that matter we are too. Salvelinus Alpinus is a peculiar one. These particular Salmonidae, have an interesting life cycle that can span decades! They spend a large portion of their lives under the darkness of the polar winter in frozen freshwater lakes in a state of suspended animation. When the ice leaves in early June the char awaken and head to the sea. They have only one mission, to gorge themselves for a period of six to eight weeks on any and all sea creatures that will fit in their mouths. These fish can double in size in a matter of weeks eating around the clock. They must return to the river and get back to the safety of the lake before winter and the ice sets in or they will die in the arctic sea. The timing is very specific over the course of just a couple of weeks when the fish must head back home for the winter. Oddly some of the char will spawn but others will simply go back to sleep. Fully fed and in a state of peak physical fitness, these creatures more closely resemble a fresh steelhead than any kind of colorful char. They are shaped like torpedoes with a chrome armor exterior. Their flesh is bright red and their bodies are perfectly engineered to survive in these harsh elements with massive fat reserves.
The river feels heavy and there are few resting zones for the migrating char. Their journey is short but they still must travel through some treacherous water. The current is pushing hard in the middle of the river so the char are using the softer banks and pockets for their migration route back to the lake. The water is crystal clear so stealth is important. We quickly learn that the game is to try and keep the fish in the shallows once it is hooked, because if it turns and goes out in the middle of the channel, it will turn back to the sea and use the force of the river against you and your fly rod. You will quickly be sprinting a half a mile down the river in pursuit of one of these chrome demons with little chance of success. If this happens, the char will empty your spool and likely break off one of your prized flies that you agonized over. We learn that if you don’t apply a lot of pressure in the initial hook up and battle, there is a good chance of keeping the fish tight to the bank, and a good chance of landing it. During the course of the week, we land fish of all sizes from maybe a foot long to over 3 feet long. The biggest fish exceed 15 pounds and top out over 20 pounds with the average around 10-12 pounds. Every day one unfortunate fish is either hooked deep in the gills or is injured to a point where it is brought home for the dinner table. The remaining fish are carefully released to return to the lake.
The blizzard arrives at the end of the week, uninvited. The game is quickly over. It is time to go, It is time to head back on that 42 hour journey to where we came from, and just like the char, it is a treacherous trip.