“Looking at my watch and noticing that it was only three am, it became apparent that it was highly unlikely that anyone was up and about at that hour, even though the sun never does set at that time of year.
The noise started to get louder, and I could hear what sounded like grunting and heavy breathing. So, unless someone was answering the call of nature, or who knows what else, we had company…”
Tradition has it, that several members of our angling fraternity would leave the comforts of the lodge during our annual sojourn to Great Bear Lake, and set up housekeeping, about 100 miles due north of the lodge, at place called McGill Bay. Over the years, their campsite became known as the “Harback Hilton”, which was named after Ed and Rodney Harback, the father and son team who first founded this fine establishment in 1983. It was arguably the only five star camp, and as far as we knew, the only “Hilton” north of the Arctic Circle.
While under normal circumstances we would not see the campers for the entire week, things were about to change, because of what I will call the “Hottah” factor. The lodge newsletter we received one spring, announced that they would be opening an outpost camp on Hottah Lake that coming summer. Hottah, which is a big lake located just south of Great Bear, can best be described as an angling paradise. I was fortunate to have test fished Hottah a couple years previously, so I had a good idea of what this virtually untouched fishery had to offer.
Huge pike, and lots of them, lake trout in the twenty to thirty pound range, with bigger ones a real possibility, and five to twelve pound “lakers” that were so plentiful, they would school by the hundreds in your prop wash, just to see what all the commotion was about. The mistake I made was telling the Hilton crowd how good it was.
Needless to say, as soon as I got the news, I was quick to book the other members of our group in for a three- day stay. The Hilton crowd, not wanting to miss out on any of the fun, suggested that we should do a mid week swap. They fly down to Hottah, and we would then spend the balance of the week at the Harback Hilton. Normally we would jump at the chance to fish McGill Bay, but it became clear, at least to me, that there was a method to their apparent madness. If they came to Hottah, it would mean taking down their entire camp only three or four days into the trip, and, if you knew what it took to put it up in the first place, you would understand their reluctance to tear it down early.
You would think, that having figured out their plan, we would have called them on it and declined their kind invitation. Well, I guess we were not all that smart, or as strong willed as we may have thought, because within moments of the offer being made, we accepted.
On change over day, we all met at the lodge with just enough time to swap a few stories before we were airborne and heading north to McGill, with chief pilot Hartley Marsh at the controls.
Before we move on, this is as good a time as any to introduce you to Hartley. In my opinion, when it comes to the various characters I have met along the way, he was one of the most interesting and colourful of the lot. Hartley was the quintessential “bush” pilot. He could fly just about any type of “bush” plane that you could name - although his favourite was the Beaver – had thousands of hours of flight time – cracked up a few times under nasty conditions and lived to tell about it, and – would tell you that all the romantic stuff about flying in the bush was pretty much all crap, because in reality, it was mostly hard work and at times very boring. Hartley was also just about the most miserable old bastard you would ever care to meet. That said, if you ever ran into a problem while flying in the far north, you did not want to have anyone other than Hartley at the controls.
One year, while we were being shuttled over to the lodge from the main air strip, once we climbed into Hartley’s Beaver, he informed us that, “The goddamn Canadian Aviation Authority, or whatever they call themselves, has been poking around and told us that we have to give our passengers a safety briefing before takeoff.” Knowing Hartley, it was obvious to most of us that we were unlikely to get such a briefing, but one brave soul in the back of the plane did venture to ask Hartley if he was going to comply. Turning around slowly, and pinning the guy with a look that was designed to, and succeeded in conveying as much disgust as possible, Hartley said.
“So you want a goddamn briefing do you? Well, let me tell you son, this goddamn airplane has four exit doors, and if you don’t know where they are, you’re an idiot. If the motor conks out and we start to go down, if you can find the room, put your goddamn head between your legs and kiss your ass good bye, and, while it won’t make any difference to you after you’re dead, the goddamn emergency locator beacon and first aide kit is somewhere in back. So, do you want to talk, or fly?”
It was against this backdrop that when Hartley finished tossing all of our gear and food onto the shore at McGill Bay, no one dared to ask why there was a fifty -pound box of pork chops mixed in with our stuff. We figured that it was actually bound for the north shore outpost camp, which was Hartley’s next stop, but because of the real risk that calling his attention to it would cause his normally bad mood to deteriorate even further, and not really being all that enamoured with the prospect of having to walk, rather than fly the 100 miles back to the lodge at the end of the week, no one said a word.
So now what do we do? We could just stash it and see if he’d notice and come back for the box. Try to raise the lodge on the radio and ask them how they wanted to handle it, or, what turned out to be our unanimous choice, eat the evidence, burn the box and bury the bones. Well, you do the math, six guys and fifty pounds of pork chops that would have to be consumed in a just less than three days. We had pork chops and eggs, pork chop sandwiches, pork chop Hors D’oeuvres, pork chop evening snacks, and the number one item on our menu, the Harback Hilton version of surf and turf – lake trout and pork chops. When Hartley picked us up at the end of the week, he didn’t mention them, and neither did we. Once back at the lodge, the chef came over and asked us if we had enjoyed the pork chops she included along with our “grub stake” as a special treat. She walked away with something of a puzzled look on her face, after getting nothing more than a collective groan in response. Several months went by before I could look a pig straight in the eye again.
While we were enjoying the “pork fest,” we had some unexpected company one evening in the form of ma Grizzly and a couple of her cubs. We had seen some bear sign around the campsite, but not being experienced “bear people”, we really had no idea if the sign was fresh or otherwise. We figured, that because the area where the Hilton was located is used by the Dene as a hunt camp, it would not be unusual to have a bear or two in the vicinity, especially during the spring and fall caribou hunts. With that in mind, we took our normal precautions regarding safe food storage, and afterwards didn’t give it another thought.
During our last night at the Hilton, after a hearty meal of – wait for it - pork chops prepared several very special and different ways, we decided to turn in right after dinner, because we wanted to get an early start the next day to ensure that the camp was torn down, and everything packed away by the time Hartley got there. If we were not ready to go when Hartley arrived, he was just as likely to leave us there as not.
While my tent mate Billy was sawing off a cord or two, I was having a bit of trouble getting to sleep. As I was lying there contemplating the mysteries of life, and the impact on my digestive system, after having consumed over eight pounds of pork chops, I could hear the banging and clanging of pots and pans coming from the area over by the cook tent. “No big deal” I thought, “Someone is up and getting an early start on the packing.”
Looking at my watch and noticing that it was only three am, it became apparent that it was highly unlikely that anyone was up and about at that hour, even though the sun never does set at that time of year. The noise started to get louder, and I could hear what sounded like grunting and heavy breathing. So, unless someone was answering the call of nature, or who knows what else, we had company. By now I was wide awake and Billy, who had shut down his sawmill operation, was looking at me with eyes as wide as saucers. “What the hell do you think is out there?” he said in a much louder voice than I would have preferred.
“For crying out loud, be quiet.” I hissed, “My guess is that the neighbourhood grizzly has dropped in for a midnight snack. So unless you want both of us added to the menu, keep it down.”
This was the first, and only time that I have ever seen a look of shear terror on a person’s face. Billy was as white as a ghost, sweat was beading up on his forehead, and he had a grip on my arm that was really starting to hurt. “Let’s just sit here quietly, and stay very still,” I whispered. “And with any luck, it will move off in a few minutes.” No sooner had I stopped talking, when a very large shadow appeared right outside of our tent, and to add to the excitement, our uninvited guests’ breathing was now as loud as a steam locomotive. We both sat perfectly still, but as I watched both the shadow and Billy, I had a feeling that he was either going to scream, make a run for it, or both. Leaning over, I grabbed him by the front of his shirt, pulled his head over right next to mine and, looking him straight in the eye, quietly said, “If you make one move, or even one sound, I will kill you before our friend out there does.”
So we sat and we waited. The rest of our party were obviously not aware that our furry friend had decided to pay us a visit, because you could clearly hear some damn impressive snoring coming from the other two tents. While it seemed like hours, it was not all that long before the bear moved off. Once we mustered up enough courage to venture outside of our tent, and not being complete idiots, we waited until some of the others were up and about. There was not only one very large set of tracks within inches of our tent, but two very distinct sets of smaller prints as well.
When we told the others about what had happened, we got a less than enthusiastic response, and the suggestion was made that too much pork had been known to cause nightmares, and in some cases, hallucinations. Even our attempt to show them the fresh tracks was greeted with both indifference and a great deal of scepticism.
If we ever find ourselves in similar circumstances again, I am going to pile all the bones right next to the tents where the snorers reside, which will likely take care of at least two things. There will not be any more snoring, and we will have one very full, and content bear.