Don’t even hear the murmur of a prayer, It ain’t dark yet, but it’s getting there.” – Robert Zimmerman
It’s not wise to set out for the river late in the day, late in the year when the light is scarce and fleeting because, if for no other reason, it imbues an enterprise with anxiety. John and I didn’t mean to leave late, but small chores and obligations got in our way with the result that we weren’t rattling over the ruts on the Nass Road until noon.
The year was reaching its expiration date. It was cold. Wool pants, mitts, socks, and never remaining too long in one place would make the fishing bearable. Fastening on to some steelhead might make the trip downright pleasant. To increase the odds of that happening, we were headed for the Mini Canyon.
The Mini Canyon was where Ronnie Tetreau, the man we used to call the Human Net for his habit of catching more fish than anyone else, liked to hunt chinook salmon. It was the place where Mike and I, on a mission to collect scales and stick tags into the scaly, grey backs of steelhead for the Fisheries Branch of the Ministry of the Environment before that institution was eviscerated by successive Liberal governments, brought more Kalum steelhead to the snowy beaches than any two anglers should be allowed to. I’d passed my take on these exploits on to John. He was eager to go and get a feel for the place.
We came at the river from the right side. Mike and I had always worked our way down to the canyon from river left, but that was a slower and longer route. We really didn’t have the time. I parked the truck as far off the road as the snow would permit, then we scrambled down the steep icy pitch to the river. Only moments after we reached the rocky beach, Mike and his girlfriend, Jaquie, came walking up the far shore. Mike was the last person I wanted to see. Mike used bait exclusively and his prowess at steelheading was legendary, as I could testify to after fishing with him for that species for almost a decade.
When they were within earshot I yelled across the river.
“How did ya do?”
I looked at John. He looked crestfallen.
“It’s all right,” I told him. “They couldn’t have got them all,” knowing full well they probably had, and if they hadn’t they would have hooked all but a few.
We worked down stream, casting and watching the tops of our floats bob through likely spots unmolested. Light snow began to fall. By the time we reached the Heart Attack Hole, so named because if you arrived there in a raft not knowing about the big canyon, the realization of what you were about to be swept into would likely give you a heart attack, and because walking all that way in deep snow from the Mini-canyon Road, as Mike and I had done a few times, might have the same result, daylight was fading. We sat down on large rocks to regroup. The trip back was long and uneven. I looked up to what appeared to be the road we’d recently travelled.
I suggested to John that we could go straight and then up over the ridge and eliminate a lot of walking. I was wrong, but persuasive. John agreed. We set out.
After tramping for what must have been forty minutes, following the tracks of a moose, we reached an expansive tract of frozen swamp. Even without its leaves the brush was nearly impenetrable.
“Bad idea,” I said. “We need to get back to the river.”
John turned and took the lead. After walking for longer than it had taken us to reach the swamp in the first place, I asked John if he was still following our tracks and read his face to mean it hadn’t occurred to him to do so.
We were on a flat area, to be sure, but we could hear the roar of river. I started out toward it. In minutes I came across moose tracks interwoven with ours.
It was almost dark when we reached the riverbank.
“Unless we reach the trail head before it’s dark,” I told John, “we’ll have to spend the night here.”
I didn’t relish the prospect, having no matches.
Since I knew where we had to go up, I told my partner I would race ahead as fast as possible and sit there until he showed up.
I jogged over the snow and ice filled boulders stumbling a few times until I reached the broad tail of the Mini-Canyon Pool. There was it was dark, but the what little light there was reflecting off snow patches on the unclear night enabled me to find the trial head. I sat and waited until John showed. Together we picked our way up the nearly vertical, but mercifully short trail to the road.
“Would have been nice if we’d hooked at least one fish,” I said.
“That’s steelheading,” said John.