Travels with Mike: The final chapter

Columnist Rob Brown's series on his friend, Mike Whelpley, draws to an emotional close

I picked up the phone. It was Mike. He said: I want to get a picture of a steelhead rising to a free floating dry fly, and I know just the place to do it, and just the guy to get it done. You in?

I’m in, I said.

I hadn’t spoken to my old friend since Robin Hollett and I had played for his wife’s funeral a year earlier. I knew he wasn’t close to upright after losing Lynn. Hearing his voice gave me hope.

Mike was at my door the next morning wearing the same kind of clothes he wore three decades earlier. They were a tighter fit.

I’m ready, I said as if only a day had elapsed since the last day we fished together a quarter of a century ago.

We climbed the road to the upper floors of the Zymoetz. The leaves on the hardwoods were fading and falling. The year was dying, We passed Nogold then drove to Treasure Creek, ten kilometres past the spot where we brought steelhead to the top 30 years earlier.

From there, we made our way under deep green moss under old trees toward the sweet spots we were sure would still be there after so many years.

Mike was now chasing me. Hearing heavy breathing, I stopped and turned. The front of his sweater was dark with sweat.

You want to stop?

Yeah.

We did. I looked at Mike, the man I chased through the bush when we were young and driven. He looked at me. I smiled. He smiled in a way that acknowledged that much had changed since then.

You good? I asked when his breathing seemed steady and confident.

He nodded.

It was easier from there. We dropped down a pair of terraces then ducked below slide alders to the river.

Mike sorted out his camera gear. I began fishing. By the time he was finished, I’d released the last of three steelhead.

I’m guessing you could catch them here all day, he said, in a way that gently but firmly reminded me of our mission.

We moved upstream. Mike positioned his camera high above the tail of the pool. I made drag free floats, dozens of them, over the places where fish should have been, but no fish rose.

It’s OK, said Mike. And, where years before, it wouldn’t have been, it was. It wasn’t to be, not on that day and, as it turned out, not ever.

After that, Mike’s health began to unravel like a cheap suit. Lynn’s absurd, tragic death wrecked him. Hearing he had been admitted, I rushed to the hospital to find him in the room where Pop had died. I reminded him that I knew Pop well and that I knew Lynn too and told him that based on what I knew, neither of them would approve of the way he was neglecting his health.

A year later his leg became infected then turned black. The doctors talked of amputation. After that came months in the hospital, spigots and stents and dialysis, then, last fall, there he was, taking pictures of the sunset from the pull-out at the top of Kalum Hill. I pulled over.

I’m through with dialysis, he told me. Gonna let nature take its course.

I was chasing steelhead and trout on the Skeena that fall. Instead of going straight home, I made a point of visiting Mike at Basaraba’s rental units, where, ironically, he’d begun his stay in Terrace 40 years earlier.

I’d give him a fishing report and we’d reminisce about the trips we’d made.

Then one day I stopped by and the door was locked. He’s gone to Terraceview said his hirsute neighbour. I thanked him and made my way there where I found Mike in a darkened room. There was a lady tending to him.

Who’s she? I asked, when she had gone.

The bread lady, he said.

Mike was in agony despite being jacked up on morphine. He was trying his best to conceal the pain, but couldn’t.

I noticed a copy of that week’s Terrace Standard on the table near his bed.

It was open to the first installment of ‘Travels With Mike’.

Did you read this? I asked.

No, he said.

It was dark. The curtains were drawn because Mike couldn’t tolerate the light.

Just a minute, I said before running out to get a flashlight from the nurses. I came back, sat down, then turned on the light.

This won’t be easy, I said, then I began: Pioneers like Herman Buschmann, George Kofoed, and Kolbjorn Eide were running the rocky riffles of the river in wooden boats powered by prop driven outboards two decades before him, but for me the mention of the Gitnadoix will always be associated with Mike Whelpley….

It was hard reading. When I was done I looked at Mike. You’re a good man, he said, his voice soft and rough around the edges because of the pain and morphine.

I’ll be back tomorrow with the next installment, I said, you rest.

I was back at 4 in the afternoon with the next chapter in my pocket. I opened the door to Mike’s room. There was nobody there and the bed had been stripped.