“For the next twelve hours we busied ourselves doing Great Bear Lake castaway stuff.
We skipped stones until all of the flat ones for 3 miles in either direction were gone, burned every piece of driftwood within the same radius, got rained on, watched the huge, hungry trout thrash on the surface a few feet away, while they chased after the ciscoes, got rained on again, kept an eye open for the bear, watched the boat continue to drift further away - and waited…”
Once upon a time, I used to think that being marooned would be a really neat thing to experience. As a kid I was always intrigued by the adventures of the Swiss Family Robinson and Robinson Crusoe, who lived on those lush deserted islands, lying on the beach, eating coconuts, fighting off pirates and doing other fun castaway stuff. Even the more recent movie Castaway, had its moments, although I cannot imagine any circumstances under which I could see myself having a relationship with a soccer ball. Not yet anyway.
I no longer think being marooned is all that neat, having now been through it twice. Not on some beautiful tropical island with lush vegetation and warm ocean breezes – hardly – I was stuck on a rocky shoreline along with ten million mosquitoes, while being pelted with cold rain. There was no Ginger or Mary Ann for company, and my little band of castaways consisted of a junk man with a bowel problem, a hungry grizzly bear, a dentist and a hillbilly.
When you are out and about on big water, there are no shortages of ways to get into trouble. You can get caught in a bad storm, make a navigation error, have unexpected equipment failure, or just do something really stupid. My experiences came about as a result of the latter two.
The first episode occurred because we were just really stupid. In fact, if we had not made it back to the lodge, and perished on that desolate shore, I have no doubt in my mind that everyone involved would have been a strong candidate for a Darwin Award.
During one of our trips to Great Bear Lake, two members of our group ventured over to a place called Tripod Point, and hit the Lake Trout mother-load. In five hours of fishing they caught fourteen trout over twenty pounds, with two of them topping the fifty pound mark. Tripod Point got its name from a long since vanished wooden “tripod,” that was erected by a fisherman on the hill overlooking the point, to mark the spot where he had hooked, and lost, the biggest trout that either he, or his guide had ever seen. The area you fish is relatively small, and you will find out in a hurry if the big fish are in residence. It’s a hit and miss spot, and even though it’s a good two to three hour boat ride from the lodge, it’s always worth a shot, because it can really pay off. If you know, or even strongly suspect the fish are there – you don’t think about it – you go.
So we knew the fish were there, but the wind and waves prevented us from making a return visit the following day. On Friday, which was the last day of our trip, the wind disappeared, and the big lake was about as calm as it ever gets. We fished the shoreline just to the east of the lodge for an hour or so and, when it looked like the good weather was with us to stay; we decided to head over to Tripod. “Not so fast,” said my fishing partner, Dr. Bob. “It’s the last day, we have to pack, and what if it gets rough? I don’t want to be forced to navigate twenty miles of rough water to get back to the lodge,” and all manner of other good reasons – at least in his mind – that he could think of for not going.
So we sat around for a while and tried to convince him otherwise, but there was no changing his mind. I was prepared – but not particularly happy – to stay back and let the other boat go and catch all of those trophy fish, when my buddy Rodney the body shop guy, who was in the other boat said, “Come along with Dr. Art and me.”
I thought about it for perhaps one second, said adios to Dr. Bob, grabbed my gear, and jumped into the other boat. Once we got there, in just over one hour, we caught and released eight fish between twenty-two and thirty eight pounds - and it was showing no signs of slowing down any time soon. Just after releasing fish number eight, Rodney decided that it would be a good idea to stop and have shore lunch. While Dr. Art and I had just the opposite view, when Rodney wants to eat – you eat. Rodney is a mountain of a man from Tennessee, a gentle giant who is a great friend, but there are some things that you do not argue with him about – shore lunch being one of them. In case you were wondering, Rodney is the “hillbilly” I referred to earlier. Besides me, I heard there is only one other person who is still alive after referring to him in that way. When he reads this, I hope that Rodney remembers his great sense of humour, and otherwise kind and gentle manner the next time we meet.
We all agreed to make it a quick lunch, but little did we know that by the end of the day, we would qualify to be in the Guinness Book for the longest shore lunch on record. After pulling the boat up, we busied ourselves doing various “shore lunch” things like gathering wood, cleaning the fish etc., when all of a sudden Dr. Art said rather loudly– “oh, shit.”
I froze, thinking that a bear was on its way to help with our lunch preparations, but when I looked up, there was Dr. Art pointing at our boat, which was now floating thirty to forty yards offshore. What made the situation truly bizarre was that there was no wind of any kind, which, if there had been, would perhaps have explained in part, how this had happened.
Our guide Paul, was about to jump in and swim after it, but we managed to stop him. If he had jumped into that forty-five degree water and, for whatever reason did not make it to the boat in short order there would have been two things floating around out there, and one was more than enough.
After figuring out what happened – people jumping in and out of the boat – both motors up – boat not tied off etc. the question then became - now what do we do? Rodney, not being the excitable type, suggested we have lunch.
The three of us, not wanting to become floating objects ourselves, readily agreed. The boat was now about 200 yards offshore, and slowly drifting further away. After lunch we considered our options. Option 1 - sit there, do nothing and wait for someone to realise we were missing, and hopefully send the plane or another boat to pick us up. Option 2 – walk east for about fifteen miles to the old outpost camp, where we knew they had some boats and gas stored. Option 3 – strongly suggest to Paul that he take option 2. Option 4 – see option 1. Being a democratic lot, we opted for option 3 and, with Paul’s “consent,” off he went.
For the next twelve hours we busied ourselves doing Great Bear Lake castaway stuff. We skipped stones until all of the flat ones for 3 miles in either direction were gone, burned every piece of driftwood within the same radius, got rained on, watched the huge, hungry trout thrash on the surface a few feet away, while they chased after the ciscoes, got rained on again, kept an eye open for the bear, watched the boat continue to drift further away - and waited.
Regarding the bear, I know that you would like nothing better than to be told about a huge Grizzly that came charging down the hill behind us, and how, through an incredible act of bravery, we managed to fend off the beast and escape. Sorry to disappoint you, but the fact is, we never actually saw the bear, although we knew it was around – watching and waiting. Imagine the thrill of walking along the shoreline in search of wood, and when retracing your steps coming across a very large set of bear tracks, that you knew without a doubt, were not there fifteen minutes ago. It certainly put a spring in my step as I scuttled back to “camp,” and after reporting what I had just seen, we spent an equal amount of time looking behind us as, well as out across the water. Shortly after my return, Rodney wandered off and came back with a smooth, straight piece of wood, about six feet long that tapered off to a point on one end. He didn’t throw it on the fire, but just set it down beside him. As our stock of driftwood began to dwindle, I suggested we burn that particular piece of wood, but Rodney informed me that I was to keep my hands off of it, because it was going to be used as our bear pole. “Bear pole?” I said, “Do you expect to fend off a hungry, bad tempered Barren Ground Grizzly with that?”
“It ain’t for the bear, it’s for Dr. Art,” he replied.
“What the hell is he going to do with it?” I muttered.
“Nothing,” said Rodney. “If the bear comes, I’m going to stick the pointy end up Dr. Art’s ass, jam the big end into the rocks, and then hoist it up straight – we run and the bear enjoys its snack.” The man is a genius.
We had stopped for lunch around 11:30 am and it was now 11:30 pm, with no sign of either Paul or the cavalry. By this time the novelty of our enforced confinement had worn off, and we were hungry and tired from being on bear alert, all the stone skipping, wood gathering and boat watching - which by now was nothing more than a speck on the horizon.
Suddenly, a bright point of light appeared in the Southern sky that could mean only one thing – the plane! To make sure that the pilot could see us, (he would be looking directly into the sun, which doesn’t set at that time of year) we threw some green spruce branches – and the bear pole - onto the fire to produce smoke. We then poured some water on the hot rocks surrounding our little fire pit to generate steam. The plane, which we could now make out clearly, then dropped onto the water some distance away – no problem, we thought, he landed to take a look at our boat. A few moments later he was back in the air, and instead of continuing on towards us, he headed east. By this time between the green spruce branches and water, the damn fire had gone out, so we had lost our capacity to generate signalling smoke, and most of our bear pole. We watched rather helplessly as he continued east, and then dropped down again a couple of miles away – ah ha! He found Paul. About twenty minutes later he was back in the air and did he head back towards us? No way. He just continued along on his eastern course. At this point we were becoming really mystified by the pilots antics, and somewhat pissed off.
We continued to wait, and watch the sky until finally, about one hour later, we could see him heading our way again. Our mood improved briefly, until he turned back out over the lake and landed yet again in the general vicinity of out boat. Ok, he finally found Paul, and was dropping him off at the boat.
Up he goes again – and does he head back our way? – And I am not making any of this up – Nope; he heads off in a westerly direction. We were all standing there in something of a state of shock, watching him fly off, until he suddenly made a sharp turn back towards our location, and gave the wings a little shake, indicating that he had spotted us. The thought did cross my mind that he may have seen the bear and the “shake” was a warning, so I was wishing that we had not burned up the bear pole just yet.
Once he landed, we jumped into the plane and there was Paul in the back seat, wrapped up in a blanket. He did finally make it over to the outpost camp, but it took him the better part of ten hours, during which time he had to ford several rivers, and stopped to have a conversation with a Musk ox – you have to know Paul. One of the reasons for all the ups and downs and flying around, was that the pilot had spotted what turned out to be Paul’s red sweater on shore just east of our location. Paul apparently left it there after getting soaked crossing a river. Once he landed and checked that out, after taking off he noticed smoke coming from the old outpost camp further east, and headed over to investigate. That’s where he finally found Paul, who had built a fire to try and dry off. The rest is just details.
Throughout much of afternoon and evening, I continued to think about how much I was going to enjoy slowly finishing off my bottle of vintage cognac when we got out of this mess. I could almost taste it by the time we landed, and the moment my feet hit the dock, I made a beeline to my room - grabbed the bottle – and then stared at it in disbelief, because my half bottle had now been reduced to barely an ounce or two. This was unheard of – nobody takes another man’s booze without permission – did they think I was dead and decide to drink a memorial toast? What the hell had happened? I found my roommate, and former fishing partner Dr. Bob and asked if he knew what had become of it.
“Oh that” said Dr. Bob. “I gave it to the cook,”
“The cook,” I said through gritted teeth. “Why the hell did you give it to the cook?”
Dr. Bob just shrugged and replied, “She was looking for something to flambé the baked Alaska we were having for desert, and that stuff looked like it would burn.”
What a day.
This episode, which happened two years after our first adventure, is where the ten million mosquitoes and the junk man with the bowel problem come in. I am also pleased to report that this time around, we found ourselves marooned because our motor conked out, so no Darwin Award nomination this time either.
As in Episode 1, our adventure took place on Friday – the last day of our trip. I gave some serious thought to limiting my fishing to the end of the lodge dock on Fridays after this experience. Our little group of castaways consisted of our guide Paul, my fishing partner Kenny the junk man, and of course our friends, the mosquitoes.
The day started off normally enough. After breakfast we decided to head over to the Naiju or Karkegie River, for what we refer to as “bridge mix’ fishing – every cast produces a surprise. It's one of those amazing areas on Great Bear that has big Grayling, Lake Trout and Whitefish all within a half mile radius of the river mouth, and if you move into the river, you will find some good Pike fishing to top things off. There is also a fantastic shore lunch spot right at the mouth of the river, where you can cast from shore for your choice of Pike, Grayling, Whitefish and small Trout.
A large herd of Muskoxen live in the general vicinity of the river, and you stand a good chance of seeing some of them along with small groupings of Caribou and the occasional Grizzly. Located on the south shore of the Smith Arm, it is located about half way between Ford and Macintosh Bay’s. It is near this river where "Karkeye," or according to his great grandson George Baton Kargegie, a legendary Dene man who was said to have powerful medicine is buried.
According to George he was buried here so that he could watch people pass by.
We were having a great time throughout the morning, catching this and that on what was then a calm sunny day. Around one pm we decided to stop for a bite of lunch, and after pulling the boat up and tying the bowline around my waist - you can never be too careful - we settled in for a wonderful meal.
Fresh trout done in a light crispy coating, all the usual shore lunch fixings, including some homemade peanut butter - chocolate chip cookies donated by the lodge – a couple of ice cold beers to wash it all down, and to finish things off, a cup of the purest, sweetest water on Earth. As we sat there admiring the view, the wind started to come up in a noticeable way. Great Bear can be calm one moment, and within minutes of the wind picking up, you can be bouncing around in six-foot rollers. Because it was the last day, and we wanted to get back to the lodge a little earlier than usual to pack up our gear for the trip home, we decided to spend the last few hours fishing in the general vicinity of the lodge.
We stopped to fish the “airport” reef, which, as the crow flies is about five or six miles from the lodge. The wind continued to blow, and by the time we started to fish, we were contending with four to six foot rollers. No big deal, Paul knew how to position the boat, and we just bobbed along like a cork on the water. It was going on five pm, so we started to make preparations to head in, and no sooner had we pulled in our lines, the damn motor quit. Paul checked the gas – there was plenty in the tank – and about twenty pulls later, he popped off the cover and checked the spark plug wires. They were all snug, so we waited a few moments, just in case it was flooded, and he began pulling and pulling and pulling. It never came close to starting.
So there we were, in the middle of the arm with those big rollers pushing us further and further away from the lodge. We were facing the rather unattractive prospect of being driven across the lake to the far shore – a distance of some twenty miles - where the rollers would likely have turned into breakers. If that happened, and with no way to effectively control the boat, there was a good chance we would be swamped. You might last up to fifteen minutes in that icy water, if you were lucky.
But all was not lost! In the distance we spotted a single boat moving along the shoreline, so Paul immediately began rooting around in his boat bag, and to our relief, produced a flare kit. He loaded the first flare, and when he pressed the trigger, the just a “click,” and nothing more. Not to worry, we had two more. The second one was spectacular – it went three feet into the air and almost landed back in Paul’s lap. Ok, last chance. We all said a silent prayer, and this time the flare shot up at least one hundred feet into the air. What we had not noticed, was that the other boat had disappeared while we were screwing around with the first two flares.
So now what? We really had only one option – get on the paddles and dig in. Our best chance was to try and make the small strip of beach at the base of the cliffs where the lodge airstrip was located. The beach was over three miles away from the lodge, and about the same distance from where we were bobbing along - and getting further away every second. Not wanting to be pushed even further away, Paul and I grabbed the paddles and got to it. Kenny on the other hand, began to complain of cramps and a sore stomach, and curled up in the front of the boat and started moaning. At first I suspected him of faking it so that he wouldn’t have to paddle, but when he announced he had “to go,” and could not wait another minute, I knew just by the look on his face that he wasn’t kidding.
“Going,” in this instance, was going to be a logistical nightmare. Picture the scene. Here we are in an eighteen-foot aluminium boat, bouncing around in six-foot rollers. Kenny is in his bright orange Mustang Survival Suit – otherwise know as his “pumpkin suit” – which even Houdini would have a hard time escaping from. There was no way that he would be able to hang his butt over the side in those rollers – besides, if Paul and I had to look at that, it would have scarred us for life. Kenny began rummaging around in the front of the boat, and produced an empty “Smuckers” brand strawberry jam can, that was about the same size as an extra large can of coffee. “I will just have to use this,” he announced.
“I don’t think you will fit,” I said, while continuing to paddle.
Staring at the can for a few moments, Kenny looked up and replied “Well, I’m not doing it in my “pumpkin” suit, and the shore lunch box is full of stuff.”
Neither Paul nor I had the stomach to watch, so we just put our heads down and paddled. Suddenly, we were enveloped by a smell that could curl your hair and turn your teeth brown. We were literally gagging and started to laugh so hard we could not continue paddling. All we could see when we mustered enough courage to look up, was this large orange object moving up and down with the rhythm of the swells, and Kenny’s face with an ear-to-ear grin. Kenny carefully tied the can up in a white plastic bag, and tossed it over the side. Once we did get back to the lodge, Kenny proudly informed me that he didn’t spill a drop - so to speak. I was prepared to take his word for it; because there was no way that I was going to inspect his “pumpkin” suit, or the front of the boat to verify his claim.
Our little break had cost us damn near one hundred yards of hard won progress, so we dug in again, and after two hours of virtually non stop paddling, we finally made it to what would later be christened - Mosquito Beach. This miserable little patch of real estate was a mosquito factory – this is where they manufactured them. They were certainly happy to see us, and before long, we were engulfed from head to toe in thick black clouds of the little bastards. To top it off, the area where we landed was completely sheltered, and there was not a breath of wind to keep them at bay.
We immediately set about the task of building a fire - sound familiar - hoping the smoke would help keep some of the savage beasties away from us. Paul and I suggested to Kenny that if he had to “go” again, now would be a good time. We explained that if he could manage something similar to what he had produced while in the boat, there was a good chance it would kill just about every living thing within a five-mile radius. He informed us that the tank was dry, so we considered our other options. Rather than just continue waiting around, because the folks back at the lodge would not know where to even begin looking for us, Paul decided to take the three mile walk back to the lodge, and dispatch a rescue party. It would not be all that pleasant of a hike, but it seemed like our best chance if we were going to get out of there anytime soon.
So off he went while Kenny and I waited, and kept our smoky fire going. After three hours had passed, we noticed a tiny spec on the horizon.
Watching it carefully we decided that it had to be a boat, and drawing on my previous experience, I loaded up the fire with green spruce branches to produce even more smoke. Unlike the plane in Episode 1, which flew every which way, the boat continued to head straight for us.
Kenny, not being a very happy camper at this point, began yelling at the kid who was driving the boat, even before he pulled into shore. “Shut up,” I told him. “Do you want him to turn back?”
“I don’t give a shit,” he said. “Hey boat driver” he screamed. “Why the hell didn’t they send the plane? What kind of shitty boat is that? What happens if this motor conks out? I’m going to sue for $4.5 million! You tell them they have screwed with the wrong Jew!” and on and on. The poor kid was no doubt thinking that he would receive a warm hero’s welcome from a couple of thankful castaways, but instead, was now facing the prospect of having to use all of his salary and tip money to retain legal counsel.
Upon our relatively unnoticed return to the lodge, we thanked everyone for being so concerned about our whereabouts and safety. Paul told us when he appeared at the lodge on foot, without either his boat or his guests, everyone had already kicked back and was sitting around the traditional Friday night campfire having a grand old time. With friends like that…
Please remember that in the Arctic things can last for a very long time. For example, walk on the tundra and it will literally take one hundred years for your footprints to disappear. Should you find yourself fishing on Great Bear Lake some day, and happen to spot a white bag containing a Smuckers strawberry Jam can floating on the water, or washed up on shore – I would strongly suggest that you give it a very wide berth.