Now is the summer of our discontent made glorious Fall by this autumn sun. It’s October in Malibu. The sun is out, the Santa Anas are blowing, the tourists are gone, the sky is blue, it’s beautiful, and I feel like I should be shooting something. Going somewhere. Or hunting something.
Malibu is a hard place to leave, especially in the Fall, but there are places I feel I should be, doing other things than hanging out at Malibu Kitchen and hoping the swell comes up.
Every fall I kick myself, internally, because yet again, this is another Fall where I am not flying or driving up to northern British Columbia to fish the Skeena and its spawn: The Bulkley, Babine, and Kispiox. Say it loud and there’s music playing. Say it soft and it’s almost like praying. That’s the place to be in the Fall, or one of the places to be.
The Skeena and its tributaries are to steelhead fishermen what Montana is to trout. The Skeena flows wide and high for 354 miles and winds toward the equator, fed by six major tributaries. Think of Fall steelhead pouring upland like thick Los Angeles traffic, and then branching off.
My first exposure to the Kispiox was in Idaho, at the Pioneer Inn where there is a plaque dedicated to the world record steelhead. The website for the Pioneer Saloon describes it like this:
Steelhead are one of the most prized sport fish of the Northwest…. The largest fish grow to over thirty pounds—steelhead of this size are record class. A twenty pound fish is a real trophy and usually measures over 40 inches in length…. Clay Carter retired to Ketchum in the 1970’s to live the sporting life. Steelhead fishing led him to the Kispiox River, in the Skeena drainage of British Columbia, Canada. This drainage has produced all the record steelhead catches, and is the home of the last great race of this fish. On October 1st, 1985, Clay beached an enormous steelhead at lower Patch on the Kispiox. Careful measurements were made and many pictures taken, and it was determined that the buck steelhead weighed thirty-seven pounds. Carter released the fish and gave up any hope of having his catch qualify as an official record, but he gained no little fame for his classy gesture. Had he killed the steelhead for the world record it was, the record would not have been a popular one.
I have been through that area three times, all of them half-assed, either driving up to Alaska or coming back, at the end or start of the Cassiar Highway—which is another place to be in the Fall. The first time, I was coming back from Alaska, fleeing the September/October weather I had naively driven into, just because It Was There—checking out Alaska and driving into perils about as naively as that kid in the Sean Penn movie. My mom used to live in Sequim, Washington and the view from the cliffs across the Strait of Juan de Fuca up into the San Juan Islands made a fella wonder, “Hmmm, what’s up there?”
Well, in the fall of 2000 I decided to satisfy that jones, so I drove up Vancouver Island to Port Hardy, took the ferry to Prince Rupert, drove inland to Kitwanga, turned left at the North to Alaska sign, and headed up the Cassiar Highway. That was a good fall trip, listening to the Moody Blues and Led Zeppelin, dazzled by the Fall color, seeing black bear everywhere. The Cassiar had some gold rushes in the past, and there are signposts pointing out stretches of creek where guys would scoot aside six inches of gravel and find heaps of gold just lying there, glinting on the bedrock. But on my trip, the gold was all in the trees, and the money was in pine mushrooms, which emerge in the Fall and aren’t worth their weight in gold, but are still worth going after for fun and profit. SporeLab describes the pine mushroom this way:
Large, fleshy, robust mushroom with whitish cap and stalk. Some brownish on both and a prominent, cottony ring on stalk. It has a distinctive cinnamony/pine smell and appears first as a round unopened cap pushing through the moss.
Pine mushrooms have gone for as much as $100 a pound, and when you hear those kinds of prices for something that comes out of the ground, the Japanese are usually at the other end:
Matsutake has been revered by the Japanese for over 1000 years and until the 17th century, was consumed only by members of the imperial court. Nowadays, it is still more than just a seasonal delicacy. Pine mushrooms symbolize fertility, good fortune and happiness and are traditionally given as gifts, especially in the corporate world. Fresh matsutake in a good Japanese restaurant can cost over $250.
Hunting pine mushrooms is a benign way to satisfy that hunting jones but there are other ways to take care of the hunting thing on the Cassiar. Coming back from Alaska the first time, I was on the road leading off the Cassiar into Stewart when I saw a guy with a truck doing what I had just spent a couple of months doing all over BC, the Yukon, and Alaska: Standing on a bridge over some unnamed river, checking out the water, seeing if anything was moving.
This guy was in a small pickup truck and had a dog that ran across the road, directly in front a logging truck, which locked up its brakes and almost fulfilled one of the worst nightmares—death by logging truck. But the dog lived and the truck didn’t flip or jackknife and I ended up in a conversation with a guy named Brett, or Brent, who was a Fishing Fool from Montana and who knew where to be in the fall.
Brett said he would show me a couple of secrets of the Cassiar/Bulkley and I followed him down the Cassiar and to a turnoff and down a path to a place called Meziadin Junction—where the Meziadan River empties into the Nass and where there is a bend in the river where the current flows and creates an epic steelhead pool.
I stood there flogging the water cluelessly with a bunch of equipment that was all wrong, and blackened, dying, uncaring chum salmon (I think) slid over my boots. Brett did indeed know what he was doing and he was poetry in motion, testing that pool with a big spey rod, as swans floated by in a scene out of the Hobbit or something (I thought I was imagining those swans, but I just looked at a map of the Cassiar and there is a Swan Lake close by, so I guess I was seeing them).
The poetry became an opera when Brett (or Brent) hooked and landed a beautiful, eight pound hen, which fought with legendary northern BC grace and fire. The Fishing Fool landed the fish and let her go. That image of him casting perfectly into that swan pool is permanent wallpaper on the computer screen in my brain.
After Brett took off, I poked around the area, staying in the camp in Smithers on the Bulkley, driving up and around into the Kispiox. On that trip I fell in with the Happy Swedes, a group of four guys who had flown in from Sweden with a ton of equipment, most of it hand-made, including their reels. I have since learned that the Swedes are considered some of the best machinists in the world, and you could see it in their custom equipment.
If I remember right, I met the Swedes just after they had been reunited with their equipment by Lufthansa or whatever airline had flown them there from the Land of Ice and Snow. They were stoked, and they showed me around the Kispiox, and tried to show me how to catch steelhead.
And I actually did catch one, the first and only time I hooked a steelhead. I remember plowing down through bush in my waders, thinking I had been sitting and driving too long. I have counted every cast I have ever made for steelhead, and that includes the Smith, the Gualala, the San Lorenzo River, the Garcia, that small river that runs into Point Arena and lots of Alaskan rivers great and small whose names I failed to get (I call that slut fishing). It was on steelhead cast #1,490,620,801 that I actually hooked one of the wily suckers.
I couldn’t believe it. And then I blew it. After fighting the fish for a couple of minutes (and I was pretty sure it was a steelhead), I got cocky and tried to inch my way up the Kispiox to grab my funky camera. Before I landed the fish. Bad idea. The steelhead, and I’m pretty sure it was a steelhead, dedicated by strategic faux pas, submerged on the slack, grabbed the flyline in its slippery fins, and tied a perfect bowline around a tree stump.
Adding insult to injury I tried to moose the thing out of there and snapped one the Swedes expensive fly rods. No fish, no picture, $300 poorer.
Experience is what you get when you don’t get what you want, so it was quite an experience.
My second pass through the Skeena system was coming back from Alaska in 2001. I had spent several months driving to Anchorage, Alaska by way of Montana, Alberta, BC, the Yukon, and all the way up the Haul Road to Prudhoe Bay. The object of the exercise was to fly to Kamchatka for a surf trip for Surfer Magazine (my fly gear was in my board bag). But 9/11 put the kibosh on that, so I turned around and drove back, by way of the Cassiar, from Watson Lake down to Kitwanga. This time I camped in the public campground in Smithers, which was also a kind of zoo as the park regularly had fox and moose and other wildlife trundling through, as Smithers is kind of the last civilized outpost before northern BC goes feral, all the way up to the Yukon and beyond that—the Northwest Passage and the North Pole.
That time I was in shock from a long trip up to Alaska and having the first surf trip to Kamchatka cancelled because of something that happened in New York City. I think I slapped the water around the camp and made half-hearted passes at the Kispiox, but I was heading home. That time I took Highway 16 east, through Vanderhoof and Prince George and I remember just how spectacular that part of the world is in September/October, wild animals standing on the side of the road, waving as you pass by.
All those images of Smithers and the Kispiox and Meziadian Junction and the wonder of the Cassiar and the Skeena are on permanent loop in my head. They call to me, especially this time of year.
I remember Yvon Chouinard telling me that he would go to that area every fall and spend a month dirt-bagging it in his vehicle and I wonder if he still does it. I hope so, because I should be.
Montana is the other place I want to be right now. If I had the time and the money and the leisure I would jump in the van and head north by northeast, and find some new way to get to North Yellowstone or go the ways I have in the past: Straight across from Seattle, through Idaho, or up through Logan, Utah, Bear Lake, Paris, Montpelier, Jackson Hole, and all the way up to Livingston.
This time I would probably drive along the coast and try out my new standup paddleboard at a whole bunch of beaches and lakes along the way, then go across Highway 20, through Burns. I was at a funeral and an after party two days ago for a famous skateboarder from the 1960s named Danny Bearer, One of the people I met live in Burns and that reminded me how nice Highway 20 is, from Bend, Oregon across the central Oregon desert, to Payette, Idaho, and then up into the wilds of Montana.
I want to do that drive going the other way, and that is how I would do it, if I were going to Montana, but I’m not, yet. I have to finish a History of the Skateboard book by the end of this month, and I’m not going to do it.
I wonder if Montana in November is as naïve as Alaska in September/October? On that first trip to Alaska I learned just how truly nasty the weather in Alaska can be at the same time surfers are still trunking it in Malibu. I remember getting stuck in a blizzard in a place called Tok. I couldn’t sleep in the van and had to take refuge in a proper hotel room. I went to sleep to the sound of the storm and woke up to find Alaska had turned into the Ice Planet Toth.
But just as images of the Skeena complex haunt me, so do images of how beautiful the world is when fishing the Lamar, in north Yellowstone. It has been a few years since I was there, and I remember the last time I was there, the motorcycle rally in Sturgis was going on and a lot of the bikers were pouring through north Yellowstone. It was beautiful then and I had a blast catching piss and vinegar cutthroats on this one particular pool on the Lamar.
Sometimes I go on Google Earth to see if I can find that one particular pool, but it’s hard to tell from space. I want to get up close and personal again.
North Yellowstone rules. They should put Teddy Roosevelt on Mount Rushmore.
He’s already there? Good. Teddy rules.
Maybe if I get this skateboard book done by the end of October, I will head north by northeast and see how far I get. I just talked to a friend in Sun Valley who is already snowbirding south to Laguna because it’s cold and snowing up there already. They say this is an El Nino year and who knows how screwy the weather will get.
The weather is nice in Malibu right now. The weather is getting nippy but the ocean is still in the 60s. There is a small windswell rolling into First Point today and after I have a bash at Chapter Two of the skateboard book—which goes 1947 to 1959—I’ll go hunt down waves on the standup.
Cory Bluemling is a Malibu surfer who went night diving for bugs last Friday on the first day of the season and got one, although he speaks longingly of the one that got away: A solid three-footer that crawled out of the bag. I have gone night diving for lobster with tanks at Salt Creek many years ago and it’s fun, but scary. I have a lot of white shark stories in my head from interviewing a lot of attack victims, and I know all too well that September/October is prime time for shark attacks along the California coast.
It also doesn’t help that the last story I did was a Malibu guy who got jumped by Mr. White while standup paddling a mile out to sea from Corral Beach in July of 2007, and it also doesn’t help that a local guy named Dave Ogle was in a helicopter when he took video of Mr. White cruising just offshore from Pepperdine last July.
I am thinking about having a Lobster Beach Party next Friday, getting all the kids down to the beach at Matador or wherever and doing the guitars and marshmallows deal while those who are game go swimming around with lights to try and bag some bugs.
That’s a pretty decent way to satisfy the hunting jones, except it wouldn’t be much of a party if one of the hunters became the hunted. September/October is also when Mr. White satisfies its Hunting Jones.