Updated: Oct 24, 2022
"A spot opened up for the Bowman Island trip."
It's Thursday, February third around 10:30 AM when the text from my buddy, Joe, comes through. I'm in the Dominican with my wife and a couple friends, just returning from chasing Mahi-Mahi the day before, and already a few generously poured Tequila Sunrises deep. Bob Marley is encouraging me to "feel all right," and I do.
It takes a few seconds and all my concentration. "I'm in," I reply as lucidly as possible, desperate to avoid betraying my current, slightly fuzzed condition.
I don't know much about the outing other than it is slated for six days somewhere in Lake Superior near Nipigon, Ontario, and involves chasing overgrown native brook trout, known as Coasters, with a fly rod.
Right or wrong, I tend to judge a fishing destination by the level of effort required to get there. Passports, successively smaller planes, distant drives that involve sleeping in trucks, treacherous boat rides, rutted two tracks requiring chainsaws and winches, or backbreaking hikes with loaded packs, serious elevation gains, and double-digit miles always seem to portend something special.
By those measures, this trip isn't wildly exotic, but it's no slouch either, necessitating a 12-hour drive, travel across the longest suspension bridge in the Western Hemisphere, and a border crossing, all followed by a 30-mile, four-hour boat ride into the largest freshwater lake in the world – one that has claimed over 500 ships, including The Edmund Fitzgerald of Gordon Lightfoot fame.
The Nipigon area itself is steeped in history, deriving its name from a word heard by European explorers when interacting with the native peoples thought to mean “deep and clear water," which it has in abundance.
The first permanent fur trade post was established near Lake Helen on the left bank of the Nipigon River in1680 and was the center of fur trade until 1775. During that time the Nipigon District became one of the greatest sources of revenue for fur traders and produced some of the finest furs on the continent. The last fur trade post, located at what would soon be the Nipigon waterfront, was Red Rock House. It was built in 1859 by the Hudson’s Bay Company and burned down in 1891.
Even more importantly, Nipigon is the site of the world-record brook trout – 14 pounds, 8 ounces – caught in the river below Rabbit Falls in 1915 by a Dr. Cook from Port Arthur.
I pull out at 10 PM sharp with a couple hours of "slush time" built in. Plenty to make the dock pickup with the rest of the group by early afternoon the following day. I tune in an audio book, lock on the cruise control, and chase sweet-and-sour gummy bears with a lemon Rock Star. Aside from the occasional wildlife it’s a quiet, stress-free drive, and I hit the border crossing in the wee hours of the morning, right on schedule.
And that's where I run into my first snag.
I politely hand over my passport and vaccination card to the border agent. A few clicks on the keyboard.
"What is the purpose of your visit, sir?"
"Fishing off Bowman Island. My boat leaves the dock at 1 PM"
"This afternoon? Do you know where Bowman Island is?"
"Are you vaccinated?"
"Yes ma'am", I reply, showing the beginning stages of annoyance since she is clearly holding my vax card in her hand.
"You're about 21 hours early," comes the terse reply.
"Your last shot was May 16, which means you can't enter Canada for another 21 hours."
"I'm sorry, but you are going to have to return to the U.S."
"Ma'am, I will miss my boat. Is there someone else I can talk to?"
"I'm sorry, no."
"Ma'am, are you sure there isn't someone else I can speak with, or a test I can take?"
The sliding window shuts with a metallic clank, followed by a clipped phone conversation, the contents of which I am not privy to. Good, maybe I can actually talk to someone in charge and explain my situation.
The window slides back open. "Sir, please pull ahead and to the left under the canopy and wait."
Progress, I think, pulling ahead and parking with a tinge of smug satisfaction.
Moments later several well-built and equally well-armed men dressed in dark SWAT gear emerge from a serious-looking, windowless brick building and take up position around the 4-Runner. The tinge of satisfaction fades faster than daylight in December, and I roll down the window as commanded by the apparent leader of the balaclava-and-pants-tucked-into-the-boots welcome committee.
"Sir, you need to return to the U.S. immediately; please make your way around the concrete barriers and then proceed left to the border."
I rush off a deflated text. "Stuck at border. Not going to make the boat. Is there a plan B option?"
It's nearly 4 AM when I pull into the only hotel in Sault Sainte Marie that still has a few lights on. The automatic sliding doors bump roughly open, and I'm instantly assaulted by the stale scent of air-conditioned cigarette smoke. The bored manager looks up with a bored expression as a serious-looking newscaster drones on about something serious from the dingy TV in the dingy lobby.
"I need a room, please"
"$130. Check out is at 11."
You've got to be fucking kidding me. I swipe my card, mount the stairs, and crash – too exhausted for a fight.
Eight AM and I'm awakened by the vibration of my phone. Turns out there is a plan B, but it involves Gary, the owner of the lodge, coming back to the mainland in “the big boat" to get me, and it's going to cost about $400 in additional gas. Shit. I make the arrangements and we agree to meet at the docks the next morning.
Using the "level-of-effort-to-get-there" measure, this trip is growing more exotic, not to mention more expensive, by the minute.
Sixteen hours later and I'm back at the border.
"What is the purpose of your visit, sir?"
"Vacation," I smile, figuring to keep it simple and friendly.
"Are you vaccinated?"
"Enjoy your trip."
I’ve got another six hours to the docks, passing through Wawa, White River, and Marathon – familiar haunts for me – in the dark, as I make my way up the Trans-Canada Highway to the tippy top of Lake Superior.
I'm a little early so I pull off at a local diner in a heavy thunderstorm to grab a bite. The place is empty aside from two older gentlemen. I soggily slide into the red vinyl booth behind them.
"Fishing, eh?", the one facing me asks.
"Yes, sir. Chasing Coasters," I reply, not entirely sure what gave me away.
"Oh yeah, dose Coasters git real big round here, boy." His buddy nods in agreement. "Real big"
My waitress arrives with coffee and a pert smile.
"I'll take the bacon and egg special please."
"Sure. And how would you like da eggs, sweetie?"
"Over hard please."
"Oh, well done, eh? And how about your bread, would you like white or brown?"
"Brown," I reply, assuming that's Canada talk for wheat.
"Anything else, hun?"
"Could I get some strawberry jelly for the toast, please?"
"Oh sure, red jam for da toast, you betcha."
My heaping plate of breakfast arrives. Eggs well done, ham, brown toast with da red jam, fried potatoes, and a side of Ketchup. I chuckle at the pure Canadian-ness of it all, slice my "bacon", and add a few dollops of Ketchup to the eggs and potatoes. When in Rome they say.
It's still drizzling when I pull up to the docks where I'm met by an easy-going fellow sporting a worn green flannel, dancing eyes, and a wild shock of grey hair that peeks out here and there from under a camo ball cap emblazoned with the name of the local hardware store.
"I'm Gary. Let's getcha loaded up."
We stow the luggage and board the Annica Lee, Gary's 45-foot, blue and white trawler, to begin the next leg of the journey.
A cheery wood stove is burning as I settle in and shake off the wet chill. "There's hot water for coffee down below," he tells me. I duck, make my way under, and pour some Taster's Choice instant crystals into the Styrofoam cup, add hot water, and give it a quick stir while examining the worn nautical map on the wall.
"The boys had a good day yesterday," Gary tells me. "Some nice Coasters and a few Lakers too."
He catches my eye and shows me the route we'll be taking on the wall map. "Might get a little bumpy,” he warns "the wind is up, and we’ve got some weather pushing in."
With a four-hour boat ride ahead of us, I take the opportunity to glean as much inside intel from Gary as possible, considering “the boys” already have a full-day’s jump on me.
It turns out this jovial, unassuming, seventy-something boat captain could easily give the Dos Equis guy a solid run for the “most interesting man in the world” title. Landing somewhere between MacGyver and Indiana Jones, Gary’s business card should simply read, “been there, done that.”
Several copies of Scientific American laying around the boat, give evidence to the mind at work. An engineer by background, Gary was employed for many years at the paper mill in Red Rock. He’s also been a wild-land firefighter, an airplane pilot (and built his own plane), and ship captain (and built, or at least rebuilt the boat we are currently on). The lodge was constructed from lumber that Gary felled and milled himself from the property on which it stands. He’s an avid hunter and angler and still runs a trap line every winter, mostly just to stay busy and out of his wife’s hair.
Beyond that, he’s a wealth of knowledge about the local area, and all matters flora and fauna. Gary tells that in the late 1800s the Nipigon River and nearshore areas were considered the greatest trout fishery in North America, hosting many Americans, Canadians, and even European royalty who came to chase these famous brook trout. But, due to many factors including over harvesting, impeded stream spawning access due to railroad construction, and water level fluctuations from hydro dams that affected trout redds, the population sharply decreased to the point that in the late 1980s you would be lucky to catch two to three Coasters over the course of an entire weekend, and rarely one over 12 inches.
But the population is on the rebound, thanks in large part to the efforts of Rob Swainson who became the District Biologist for the area in 1988 and made it his mission to restore this important native fishery. And the fishing has gotten really, really, good, Gary assures me. Just last week he landed a 26-incher right off the dock, he explains, displaying visual evidence via his phone.
The wipers on the windshield slap back and forth, back and forth in the steady rain as we methodically crest and fall, crest and fall, over the growing rollers. “There’s a bunk down below if you want to get a little shuteye for the last hour or two,” Gary tells me, and I take him up on the offer.
I awake in a tangle sometime later, unsure of exactly how long I have been out. Rubbing my eyes, I clumsily make my way up the stairs. “You missed a good one,” Gary says, “that was a heck of a storm.” The CB radio squawks and a staticky voice crackles through. Gary picks up and answers: “Ya, that was messy, but we made it through ok.” Apparently, a neighbor from a nearby island was concerned about our passage. I’m not sure exactly what I slept through, but it must have been a doozy.
We round a bend, emerge from a passing fog bank, and eventually make out the lodge, perched on the northernmost spit of Bowman Island. There’s action on the dock and, when we finally tie up, I’m met by rest of the crew which includes Jerry, the trip’s host, his friend Bob, a father-and-son duo who have been coming the last few years, my buddy Joe who is on his first outing, and Bridgette, Gary’s trusty Irish Setter.
The entire operation is off grid, powered by solar panels with propane appliances, a wood stove, and running, but not potable, cold water. There are three bedrooms, a bathroom, a large common room that is open to the kitchen and dining area and offers panoramic views of the surrounding islands, plus a couple small cabins, and a sauna that doubles as the camp “shower.”
I quickly unpack and rig up so we can get to the business of throwing line. The fishing here is unguided, with two guys per 16-foot boat, each outfitted with a 40-horse rear-till outboard and depth finder with temperature gauge. The father-and-son team take one boat, Jerry and Bob are in the other, and I’m paired with Joe in the third. The water temp is about 43 degrees. Just a bit cooler than the magic 45–50-degree money zone Gary says we are looking for.
Joe motors to a nearby cove that produced earlier that morning before the storm rolled through. I take the front, attempting to gain my balance while zipping streamers into the shoreline while Joe runs the outboard, doing his best to keep me in position and out of the rocks while dueling the lake-blown wind and waves. About ten or fifteen casts in and I have my first follow. A quick pause and twitch. The line goes tight, and then starts peeling.
Whoa! The strike is more violent than anticipated, and the relatively small brookie, at least by Coaster standards, is working me over like a tomato can. He circles the boat, dives deep, and makes a run before I manage to get him on the reel and work him back close.
“Agwwessive, eh?”, Joe snickers with a mouthful of dry Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups, before grabbing the net. We finally land the fish, probably in the 15-inch range, and I briefly admire the coveted silvery torpedo before releasing him into the clear, frigid water and switching spots. I’m still shaky from the excitement and beginning to worry I might be a little under gunned with the seven-weight.
We manage a half-dozen more between us, all in the 15 to 20-inch category, before heading in for dinner, a hearty moose-spaghetti, and comparing notes with the rest of the crew. By the sounds of it, we all had similar outings and there were even a couple takers pushing past the 20-inch mark in the other boats. I wouldn’t call the fishing easy, especially managing the motor in the wind and waves and making long casts from a constantly shifting platform, but the trout certainly seem willing, when we can find them.
Full, feeling a little grubby from my travels, and more than a little wind burned, I decide to “take a sauna” as they say here. Stripping down in the changing room I slide open the interior door and struggle to catch my breath in the 160-degree wood-stove-heated blast furnace. The “sauna showering” method is relatively straightforward. A tank attached to the stove heats water and a spigot on the wall provides the cold version; you mix them in a large bucket to an appropriate temperature, grab a ladle, dump-and-lather, then dump-and-rinse.
The evening air feels even cooler now and I pause on the deck listening to the haunting call and reply of nearby loons before heading in, cracking a Labatt Blue, and depositing myself on the couch to watch hockey with Gary. Feeling very Canadian at this point, I cheer for Edmonton, despite the fact I can’t name a single player on their roster.
Over the next several days, Joe and I explore the areas X’d on various camp maps and eventually take to calling them by the shorthand of locals – The Falls, River Rock, Shoal Breaks, Canadian Camp, The Narrows.
The juicy spots are slowly becoming more noticeable to us now – like finding the first morel on a spring hunt – and we learn to pass less productive areas while attempting to dodge the never-ceasing “W word” as we’ve taken to calling it. We work our way around the thickly timbered islands, coves, and inlets looking for the tell-tale drop-offs and structure of the shoal edges, peninsulas, and boulder fields.
Unlike their cousins, Coasters seem to prefer sunny forecasts paired with bright, flashy flies, and collectively we land them in impressive numbers and impressive sizes – the best taping two foot – as the water hits the 45-degree mark, and the clouds push out of the system.
Between fish, we watch moose and bear, eagles and loons and the days run together with the fluidity of waves rippling over rock; each starting with breakfast together and each ending with wild-game dinners, sauna showers, and hockey on the television. Before I know it, the week has passed – like a good hunting dog, well before its time.
I linger a little longer on the deck the last night, smoke my pipe, and gaze into the Canadian sky, at stars that seem immeasurably brighter and more abundant than I remember at home, before wrapping up in my sleeping bag on the small wooden bunk for the final time.
We awake the next morning to gloomy, overcast skies, the smell of coffee perking, “bacon” in the fry pan, and eggs on the griddle. A quick breakfast before we pack up and head back.
I pour coffee, load my plate with ham and eggs, and grab some of the brown toast from the counter.
“Can someone please pass the Ketchup?”
“The Ketchup please. For my eggs.”
Six short days in Canada and I already find myself going native.