Heart of Darkness: Liard Highway

“The brown current ran swiftly out of the heart of darkness, bearing us down towards the sea with twice the speed of our upward progress; . . . I saw the time approaching when I would be left alone of the party of ‘unsound method.’” – Heart of Darkness, Joseph Conrad

Those words from Joseph Conrad’s novel Heart of Darkness come to mind every time I cross this stream on the Liard Highway (read: narrow, muddy and or dusty rock, dirt, gravel path hacked through boreal forest) along the southern edge of the Northwest Territories. After talking with a Decho Dene tribal member one July about this stream, among many others, I learned that these waters are filled with “pike”—a local term for walleye—especially in late June. Back home in Montana I tied a number of bright yellow, heavily weighted Woolly Buggers to mimic the lead-head jigs I’d used in northwest Ontario’s Wabigoon River in the early 60s.

Back then the Wabigoon, now destroyed by mercury poisoning from a pulp plant operated by the Dryden Chemical Company—bastards—beginning in 1962, was full of walleye to eight pounds that would suck in the jigs often to be sucked in themselves by large northern pike. One greedy fellow ate a two-pound fish I was reeling in. The northern predator was eventually landed when my father pulled off his pants, knotted the legs and slid the northern’s head into them. The fish weighed 44 pounds (my father carried a scale to weigh the various crates we portaged on the three-week venture—he was a little nuts like the rest us and liked to chart the weight decrease as we consumed the various food and beverage items). The fish, as well as First Nation people living along the Wabigoon drainage, are now loaded with the pulp plant mercury—bastards—and are paying a horrific price for this industrial greed: neurological damage, birth defects, destruction of a commercial fishery, but, as is my wont, I digress.

Staggering vaguely back on track, the Buggers I concocted were size #4 and #6. On the next visit to the far north stream, to the best of my knowledge unnamed, I hacked my way upstream through thick undergrowth while being devoured by mosquitoes, moose flies (size #2), and black flies. Woodland bison chomped leafy vegetation in the dense forest on a slight rise, taking note of my struggles with slight head turns and sporadic grunts. Death by a marauding bison would have been a mercy killing. Standing thigh-deep in mucky stream bottom—now a stationary target for my buzzing companions—I cast the pattern along the banks and stripped it back slowly. Walleye or “pike” after walleye or “pike” hit the thing, and I soon had a nice group of 2-4-pound walleye or “pike” to fillet and fry up for dinner amidst the swarms of indigenous insects later that sunlit night, perhaps ‘round midnight.

Strange recollection, perhaps awkward incidence… So, that’s the drift of my Heart of Darkness episode….


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