“Dave pulled off nothing short of a miracle in keeping us from going under, but there was nothing he could do to stop the pounding that our old boat and the three of us were taking.
Each time we hit the bottom of one of those deep troughs, it was like being hit in the ribs with a sledgehammer…”
Our adventure took place in July 1985 – which, as it happens, was also the year my dad retired.
Following his retirement that spring, I decided to take him on a fishing trip to Branson’s Lodge, on Great Bear Lake in the Northwest Territories. This was a place that he had always dreamed of fishing, at least once in his life, so we passed around the hat at his retirement party, and managed to scrape up enough to send him on his way. Because this was his first, and likely his only trip, we did it up right, and booked him on every extra fly out the lodge had available, so he would get the full on Arctic experience.
This included flying him to the Kugaryuk River to fish for Arctic Char, a trip to White Eagle Falls for some white water Grayling fishing, and a visit to the lodge outpost camp. The outpost camp was renowned not only for the quality of the fishing within the bay where it was located, but also for its relative proximity to a number of legendary places known for producing huge trophy fish, such as MacIntosh Bay, the “Sand Flats”, Tripod Point and McGill Bay.
While the Char and the Grayling trips were big hits, the fun really began when, following the 100 mile flight north from the main lodge, we arrived at the outpost camp. Lined up along the rickety old camp dock were several brand new, gleaming silver boats, which had been designed and built at the main lodge. These babies were made for one purpose only – to take on the “Bear.” They had plenty of storage space, a wide beam, an ice breaking hook on the front end, a slide-in container for your shore lunch fish, plenty of room for your guide and all his stuff, padded seats and, the most unique feature of all – no plug, because they were said to be self bailing.
The next morning, right after breakfast, we decided to run out to the mouth of the bay, and if the water was right, the plan was to make the twenty-five mile trip across the Smith Arm to MacIntosh Bay. As luck would have it – or so we thought at the time – the water was like a sheet of glass, so we headed on over. The seventy five minute trip was about as good as it ever gets on a body of water that size, and the new boat handled like a dream.
So what happens to a self-bailing boat when you stop moving? Well, the answer is simple - it becomes a self-filling boat. We found this out the hard way when we leaned over to look at a fish my dad was landing, and damn near capsized. For a moment we couldn’t understand what happened, because, until then, the boat appeared to be remarkably stable. Looking down into the bilge area – the place where most boats have a plug – we saw that the entire bilge chamber just below the raised floor was filled with water. As the flooding was not likely to remain confined to the sub floor chamber, we kicked the motor into gear and drove around until we managed to drain most of the water.
So now what? We couldn’t stop and cast - trolling was out of the question, unless we trolled along at fifteen miles an hour, which may be just fine for sailfish, but there weren’t any of those in Macintosh Bay as far as I knew. To add to our predicament we were twenty-five miles from camp, and to top it all off, the wind was starting to pick up, so heading back was not advisable.
Rather than continue to circle the bay at about half throttle so we could stay afloat, and in the process, burn off the remainder of our fuel, we pulled into shore to contemplate our options. When we first entered the bay, I was sure I had seen a couple of old boats that had been pulled back up into the brush. I asked our guide Dave Bouck if he noticed them, and although he hadn’t, he did say that another lodge flew guests into MacIntosh from time to time, so there would have to be boats around somewhere.
By this time the wind had really picked up and, with four foot rollers in the bay, we would not be going anywhere too far a field, particularly in the newly christened “Silver Submarine.” Rather than just sit there, we launched the “sub” and hurried over to where I thought the other boats might be. Sure enough, we found them - two very old, and care worn sixteen-foot, aquamarine coloured Lund boats. We put the “sub” into dry dock and, when I flipped one of the Lund’s over, I was really happy to see that it had a plug.
“Hey Dave,” I said. “This one has a plug, let’s see if it will fit our boat, so at least we can fish.”
Dave, who was examining the other boat replied, “What sort of plug?”
“What do you mean what sort of plug – a round rubber one, what other kind is there?”
Dave smiled sadly and said, “It won’t fit, the self bailing hole is about 3” x 3” - and its square.”
Why was I not surprised?
Not wanting to spend the entire day on shore, and, because there was no prospect of making it back to camp with the wind blowing the way it was, we decided to transfer our gear and motor over to one of the Lund’s, and leave the Silver Submarine to its fate.
While the rollers were fairly big once we finally started fishing, after about five or six hours the water finally started to flatten out a bit. The question then was - do we make a run for camp, or pull into shore and wait to see if this calm spell was going to last? We had twenty-five miles of open water to navigate and were starting to run low on fuel, so, if we kept fishing, we might not have enough to get back. After a brief conference, the consensus was to make a run for camp.
We were not the most experienced Great Bear mariners back then, and little did we realise, the only reason things had calmed down somewhat, was that Ikanyo Island, which runs across the mouth of the bay, was acting as a windbreak. Oblivious to what lay beyond Ikanyo, off we went, driven by the prospect of a hot meal, a cold drink and a warm bed upon our return. It was a bit bumpy, but not too bad overall – that is until we rounded Ikanyo – which is where we ran straight into hell.
The first mile past the island was manageable, but when the wind, which had been howling down the entire fifty-mile length of the Smith arm for most of the day, hit us full on, we knew we were in trouble. Turning back was impossible, as we would have been swamped while trying to make the turn, in what were now six to eight foot waves.
Dave pulled off nothing short of a miracle in keeping us from going under, but there was nothing he could do to stop the pounding that our old boat and the three of us were taking. Each time we hit the bottom of one of those deep troughs, it was like being hit in the ribs with a sledgehammer. As the motor strained to climb those mountains of water and, as we hurled down the other side, landing with a bone jarring bang, I was reminded of a line in a popular song that described the experience of riding through huge waves as one that, “Turned the minutes into hours” – truer words have rarely been spoken.
After more than three hours of constant pounding, we finally made it back to the other side – but our adventure was not over yet. Looking around, we had no idea where we were, and to add to the fun we were literally down to the fumes in our gas tank. We stopped for a moment, which gave me a chance to dig out an old map that I had stashed in my boat bag.
After staring at if for a few minutes, I realised that because we had been unable to travel back in a straight line, we were about five miles east of the entrance to the bay where the outpost camp was located.
Without going into any more detail let’s just say that we made it back to the camp with little more than one ounce of fuel to spare. I don’t think my dad’s feet even hit the dock when we landed, and he disappeared into our tent without so much as word to Arnold, the camp manager, who had come down to greet us.
A bit later, when back in our tent after having warmed up by huddling next to the cook stove and enjoying a hot meal, I suggested that we call Dave over and break open our bottle of rye, so we could drink a toast, and properly thank him for bringing us home safely. My dad muttered something in reply, and I got what could be best described as a “rye, what rye” look from him? It was at this point that I spotted the empty bottle peeking out from under his pillow, but given the circumstances, I decided not to call it to his attention. The fact is, it was a good move on his part to get to it before I did.
The next morning I went down to the dock to see if that old Lund was still in one piece or, if after tying up, all the rivets had fallen out. It didn’t look any worse for wear despite the pounding it took, and it was at that point I decided to name it Larry. Not for any particular reason that I can remember, only we all know that it’s impossible to properly thank someone, or even some thing, if you don’t know their name.