Eagles, salmon, and cans of beer

26 August: Bella Bella

An eagle skimming the surface of the water just before catching a fish.

An eagle skimming the surface of the water just before catching a fish.

Six in the morning. There’s nothing like an early morning with birds singing, sun shining, and a clear head. Well, this was not one of those: I woke suddenly to my watch’s annoying little bleep with a sore head and rasping throat. I dressed in my cold clothes in a dew dampened tent and then listened carefully for any signs of dangerous wildlife before I exited the tent… there was only a gentle and periodic growl from the tent of one of the crew’s tents. Satisfied that there were not any bears munching on anything fleshy I stumbled out of my tent and made my way to the kitchen area to make a coffee. I had to assemble the stove and find a pan, cup, coffee, sugar, and milk powder – not easy when my head was thumping and just wanted to guide my body back to that warm sleeping-bag. With water on the boil I went over to the fire to get it going. Usually with large pieces of wood you can find that it is still smouldering away and can be easily started. I moved the larger pieces of wood and moved away the ash and found a glowing red spot that hissed when I blew in the right place. I found a large ember that looked dry and placed it against the glowing spot and blew. The red reassuringly spread to the second piece and grew quickly. In seconds there was a small flame and I added some more embers and some small pieces of dry wood. In about five minutes the fire was alive and warmed my spirit.

Fire is a wonderful thing: it teaches much about people. Fire likes company but also likes space. If you put two burning pieces of wood too close together the fire becomes subdued and there is no warmth; if you separate the wood a little or angle the pieces so they all have space around them then the resulting heat spreads and warmth is given in abundance. Space allows oxygen into the heart so that the fire can burn.

Also, like humans, it is not the flames that give the greatest warmth but the steady glowing embers: flames flitter and move around setting fire to things but embers have a warm presence that radiates heat all around. When I make a fire to warm people I build a reflector behind the fire. A reflector can be a large rock or one or more large pieces of wood. The point is to have something that can hold the heat produced by the fire and radiate it out towards the people sitting or lying by the fire – whether they are sipping tea or snoring away.

This morning the fire invigorated me and warmed my damp start to the day. One hour later I was warm as toast and Erv and Ray were late. The salmon were jumping randomly in the water behind me so I decided to take my camera and go closer with the hope of using my psychic powers to predict where the next one would jump and snap it in mid-jump. Twenty or more shots later I managed to capture one as it skimmed over the water. I learned that the salmon would sometimes perform a series of jumps in a straight line and after the first jump I could quickly bring the camera up to where I hoped it was going to jump next.

Satisfied I had one or two photos that might be okay I sat and just watched. I enjoy watching more than snapping because I can experience the sight better without the idea of capturing the moment obscuring my vision. The jumping fish seemed so enthusiastic and playful – like children learning to skip or throw a ball.

One of the salmon jumping in the harbour by the ferry terminal. Belle Bella.

One of the salmon jumping in the harbour by the ferry terminal. Belle Bella.

The sound of a whining engine broke my trance and a small, fast boat turned round the headland and came over. Erv piloted the boat expertly to a full stop just at the pier where I was standing; both he and Ray were wearing broad smiles as they motioned me to climb aboard. It was now 7.30. Erv made his apologies, ‘It was Ray’s fault’, and we headed away. One or two of the crew members had arose and were appreciating the roaring fire and we exchanged waves as I disappeared from view.

Erv was a wood-cutter in the local saw mill and Ray was a motor mechanic and tour guide – both had spent a lot of time on the water and had moved here from more ‘civilised’ areas and stayed here for that kind of lifestyle: fishing, enjoying the sun and scenery, and loving their new families and jobs.

The water was magnificent and untouched by wind or wake. Again the kaleidoscopic effect of the shore was mesmerising and the scenery was doubly impressive.

We headed first over to the Ocean Tribe’s island to get Ray’s crab traps then out of Queen Charlotte sound and North into another inlet. Erv and Ray talked about how they were going to find me a large salmon to land and about how I’d feel when I reeled it in by my own efforts. But first we had to set the crab traps. We entered a very sheltered narrow inlet that would have been paradise to paddle around in a kayak or small canoe – you would need a small craft to get into the smaller water ‘allys’ that branched off this inlet – and a great place to camp. There were two traps: one circular and the other like a large box shape. Inside the trap Ray set a small net pouch with left-over fish scraps to lure the crabs inside. The traps each had coverings of netting and a conical opening – the trap works because crabs are not intelligent enough to find their way back to the entrance while stuffing their mouths with delicious salmon (somewhat like me trying to find my way back to the tent last night).

The Ocean Tribe gangway in Bella Bella.

The Ocean Tribe gangway in Bella Bella.

Traps set we went on through the inlet at full speed. At one point a narrow piece of water was pointed out to me, ‘there’s a large rock to the left just by the entrance and another a bit further on to the right. Many boats have hit the rocks there and got into trouble.’ Ray continued at full speed through this chicane deftly turning left then right to avoid the invisible obstacles. I’m not sure where we went in the ubiquitous waterways but it was obvious that Erv and Ray both new exactly where we were and were expert boatmen. I could have easily got lost – everywhere looked more or less the same. All of it was stunning, but it was the same, to me: trees, water, fish, eagles. Nice and simple actually – nothing to pervert the mind: no adverts, signs, roads, traffic, TV…

Erv and Ray debated about the best place to start and we stopped the boat in a bend in an inlet that was at the base of a steep slope. I was given the boat to steer while Erv and Ray set up the kit: two rods with reels had the main lines with lures and barbless (barbs not allowed if you are not native) hooks , two other lines had huge lead weights with clips attached to main lines. The weights kept the hooks at a predetermined depth until a fish took the bait and the clip detached from the weighted line and the rod took control of the fish. When a fish did bite, the rod would snap suddenly straight – you had to grab the rod quickly and take up the tension so that the fish didn’t escape.

The line with the weight had a counter which showed the length of line that you had run out, hence the depth of the weight and hook. The boat was equipped with a fish finder. Fish feed at different depths and the fish-finder would give you an indication of what depth fish were at the moment you passed overhead.

Fish finder: an instrument that uses sound echoes in water to detect fish. The fish finder sends beeps of sound down into the water and listens for the echo. It can calculate from the delay (from beep to echo) how far the sea bed is. It can also calculate from the echoes how deep fish are and roughly how many there are. It will show this on a screen: you will see the sea bed and marks on the screen that are fish or shoals of fish. A fish finder uses sonar like the ships in the second World War used when they were looking for submarines.

Not long after our second slow pass we had a bite – the rod twitched but didn’t snap off the clip. Ray pulled the rod out of its cradle and reeled the fish in as it fought. We all knew it was a small fish (I’d been told that it was by the experts) but I was surprised to see that it was by my standards huge – it was about a foot long and was a kind of cod. Ray let it free and I was told to get my camera out because there’d be a bald eagle down in a few minutes to pick up the fish as it tried to recover near to the surface of the water. As predicted, I heard a short screech and a few seconds later the eagle swooped and cleanly picked the fish out of the water and headed for a nearby branch to eat its breakfast.

The Bald Eagle taking its free breakfast

The Bald Eagle taking its free breakfast

A number of hours passed and lots of fish passed, but none were biting. It got to lunchtime when three men, only slightly disappointed, returned to the area where the crabs were, hopefully, having their lunch inside the traps. Erv told me that occasionally they would pull up the traps to find that someone else had taken the crabs (you could tell because the empty plates and used cutlery were at the ‘table’ but the diners were not). However, once he got a surprise when he pulled up a trap to find that the crabs had gone but in their place was a pack of beer! ‘A trade he could live with’, he said and smiled to me.

Both Erv and Ray had stories to tell – and I heard a few.

Once, they said, they were in the boat when they saw a deer swimming from one island to another. It was being escorted by a pack of six or so wolves. When they got near to shore, two of the wolves swam ahead and waited, forming a ‘welcoming’ party for the deer. The deer arrived and the shore-based wolves herded it until the others arrived. They all disappeared into the forest and what followed was very noisy and full of activity – but only for a moment or two.

Another time a friend of theirs had caught a Grizzly Bear doing some island hopping – he orbited around the bear without getting close enough for the bear to do anything. During this time the bear was getting more and more angry and was letting out great growls of frustration. Imagine a large fillet of smoked salmon just outside your reach but not quite being able to grab it because you have your pants around your ankles and boxing gloves over your hands: you have an idea of how it might have felt to be that bear.

Checking the crab traps.

Checking the crab traps.

This time, there was no beer in the traps, only about twenty crabs in each. Erv and Ray pulled the traps up and the first was straddled by a huge orange sun star – it had one, er, foot in the door of the trap and was well on its way to swallowing the bait but we had returned in time to evict it back to the bottom of the sea and claim the crabs already feasting. The other traps had two types of crab inside. Erv pointed out one of them with huge claws, ‘it’s a crab-eating crab so we don’t like it’. Once one of these crabs gets into a trap it starts to eat the other species of crab so it’s best to relocate it or ‘re-educate’ it and throw it back. We stored the crabs that were large enough make a good meal and tossed the smaller ones back to feed on its former predator. We set the traps with fresh bait and dropped them in different spots. Then we headed to Shearwater to refuel both man and boat.

Shearwater was the antithesis to the First Nation villages we had seen, and, indeed, to Bella Bella just across the water. The harbour was filled with multi-million dollar yachts and the shore had predatory male humans dressed in ironed white shorts, striped tee shirts and wearing Ray Bans. There was a smart up-market bar/restaurant with mod cons such as large-screen television, gambling games, and snooker tables, and there was a large supermarket filled with all the usual stuff. Strange to think that two such different communities could coexist so close together – perhaps the members of one don’t really want to spend too much time in the other’s environment.

My mind did a bit of adjusting and I settled onto the cosmopolitan walkway as if I belonged. We walked into the bar, ordered three Shearwater burgers and fries, and a beer each. I relaxed into the mindless state of watching the propaganda on the big screen while sipping beer and waiting for the food to arrive. I woke up when I saw that pile of meat and chips – I’d never seen such a large burger before, and it tasted wonderful. It was by far the best burger I’d ever eaten and alone would have satisfied lesser appetites. As it was, spending the morning hunting for something to eat made my appetite bear like and, unlike that poor bear, this food was within reach, and cooked to perfection.

We all walked out of the restaurant and sat for a while in the shade of the veranda to smoke and finish our beers. It felt only a little unreal as we chatted with these good looking youngsters with their immaculate hairstyles, ironed clothes, and clean skin. Not at all as if we were in a wilderness area, but I guess that was part of the intention: a home from home for the rich yachties, colour TVs and fries included as part of the illusion.

The staff here seemed to be young students on their way to somewhere else and willing to work for peanuts. I wonder if places like this exist due to the abundance of money from the unwilling rich and the abundance of cheap labour from the adventurous young – seems like a good combination.

Back on the water again, we tried a different spot to fish and tried, and tried. Eventually after hours of nothing but good company and good conversation – and a few cold beers – we gave up and decided to try for some bottom fish. Erv and Ray knew a good spot for Halibut. It was a rock plateaux about 200 feet deep that has the kind of slope that Halibut prefer. The fishing technique was different with bottom fish: drop a hook with a weight and hook and just let it drift a foot or two above the sea bed. This relies on a good depth sounder (the fish finder did this) and a good skipper to steer the boat gently keeping this depth below the hull. His job is also to tell the fishermen when the depth changes so that they can adjust their lines accordingly. You could bounce the weight so that it just touched the sea bed then lift it a couple of feet to let the smell of the bait (salmon fins) to reach the halibut’s nose. Within seconds Ray had caught something, and after what seemed ages of reeling in we saw a red, spiny fish come up. Coming up from that depth of water caused the fish to decompress and cause damage that was irreversible. So each fish we brought up was dying when it reached the surface. This first real fish was a Red Snapper – edible and good, but not a halibut. The next fish came shortly after, again to Ray – another Snapper. Then it was my turn, I got one and fought a little as I was bringing it up, then it gave up the fight due to the decompression. It was a long reel in from 200 feet and my arms were burning when it finally got to the surface. A decent sized fish that would feed perhaps three people. It was addictive and despite burning forearms I lowered the line back down again. I never caught another one – nearly did a couple of times – and that was my only catch of the day. Ray caught five other snappers but not one halibut took the hook.

Tired but thoroughly satisfied with a great day we headed back to the campsite, lots of fish and crabs aboard. It was now 6 pm and we’d been gone for eleven hours without contact. We arrived back to a crowd of the crew and hosts on the floating docks. They seemed relieved to see us alive. My heart melted to see that I was so cared for (or was it the fish they were so glad to see?).

We all made our way to the campsite and the fire – and a big pot of water for the crabs. The evening preceded and the crew and hosts resumed their seats around the fire. I noticed Erv and Ray holding back in the background so I went over and joined them, feeling a special camaraderie after a day’s hunting.

Erv had to take the boat back to it’s overnight berth at the other end of Bella Bella and Ray had to go home so I asked to go with them to help get their kit from boat to truck. The ride over was atmospheric as the sun had set a while ago and the light was dimming. There was a quiet over the water and many fishing boats were heading home. At the berth we lugged the kit over three or four other boats to get to the gangway and then up to the carpark to Erv’s truck. Erv had been persuaded to take his guitar back to the campsite to play a song or two, on the way Ray got some beers and we headed back to the crew and hosts at the ferry terminal.

Erv and Ray used to team up and play rock gigs together and I found his non-native songs refreshing and touching in the remaining dusk light. He lost his way a couple of times but regained it when a lamp was placed so he could actually see the strings.  He finally gave in after a brave attempt and the Indian chanting began.

Some of the women chanted The Warriors’s Song and one or two other traditional chants. The evening progressed and Erv and Ray made to leave – I could tell that they felt a little like outsiders in this gathering and I understand their feelings very well. I said farewell and returned hugs from both Erv and Ray – I’d come to see them as brothers even in the short time I’d known them. I intend to return to Bella Bella some day and go to see them – it might even be a good place to make a home one day and we did talk about attractive possibilities (which I will not share in case others beat me to it).

The activity died down as usual and I stayed up later than everyone else to enjoy the solitude; although now I would not mind sharing that solitude with some peaceful people. There were thunder clouds to the South and the whole southern sky lit up being witness to what must have been quite a ferocious storm.

During the night it rained heavily and my tent leaked. I slept, not to uncomfortably, with water dripping onto my knees and an increasingly wet pillow.

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