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Open Water

Behind the Lodge

ABOVE On the tiny St. Brandon’s Atoll, located 300 miles off the Mauritius mainland in the Indian Ocean, a local mechanic fixes, cleans and rigs boat engines. When you’re in a location as remote as this, MacGyver skills are essential. Photo: Bryan Gregson

You’ve seen them. They’ve tempted you. Pretty pictures of posh accommodations, well-appointed great rooms and comfortable sleeping quarters. Homey images from remote lodges that have all the amenities. Alaska. The Islands. Tierra Del Farfaraway. Distant outposts with fully stocked bars, plush sofas and table linens with higher modulus than your best fly rod.

But those shots are just window dressing. Eye-pleasing plays to your weakness. They’re flattering fluff, little more. What’s really important is what the proprietors don’t want you to see. What really matters is found out back. Out behind the lodge. It isn’t pretty, so they hope you ignore it. But it’s what’s real.

When you come right down to it, once the floatplane hits the shore it’s all about infrastructure and competence. They’re what keep you alive and comfortable out there in the wilderness. No matter how swank the quarters, when Ma Nature plays the music, you dance and she leads. For that reason, my first move (after checking out the water, of course) is to slip behind the main buildings to see the machinery that makes a remote outpost work. To see the guts.

I want to see the workshop. Know that when the deal goes sideways, they’ve got the tools to straighten it out. That, after it’s all hit the fan, there’s a guy that has the capability and willingness to grab a handy blowtorch and fabricate shit. And I don’t want to rely on MacGyver hacks. No clothespin, gum wrapper and old outboard propeller concoctions, though if it came down to it, he could do it. I want to see that ingenuity, but with a full set of power tools. There’s no substitute for a good chain saw.

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ABOVE At the Damdochax River Lodge in northern British Columbia, the “to-do eventually list” is never finished. Running a steelhead lodge miles from civilization takes round-the-clock work and constant vigilance because even the little things have a way of turning into disastrous things. Photo: Tim Romano

I want to listen to the generator. Hear it purr. Tap on its fuel tank and hear a full, dull thud, not a hollow, ringing ping. See the kitchen. Know it’s sturdy and open with plenty of counter space. See the plumbing.

I want to see storehouses bursting with every conceivable need. Everything. No exceptions. Bottles and boxes and bags of the basics. Cans containing months of three squares, if it came to that. Shelves sagging under the weight of it all.

I want to go deeper into the place. Sift through the layers like an archeological dig. Walk the backwoods, or the next bay, and find three generations of neatly stacked hulls. Read the sporting genealogy in aged aluminum, sheets of steel and threadbare fiberglass. I want to untangle the past from old fishing nets.

I want to cross the line between rustic and rusted, to rummage through the history of the place. Poke my head into the sheds that are melting back into the undergrowth, roofs falling in on objects unrecognizable but impervious to time. Cast iron that will be there for centuries. Explore the progression of power in piles of oxidizing oil drums and propane tanks. Examine discarded freezers and furniture and washing machines. Sit on old tractors and abandoned ATVs. Uncoil the tow chains and frozen pulleys and ratcheted come-alongs that have pulled the place from its past to its present, inch by inch, year by year. To get to know better where I am by knowing where it’s been.

Yet in all of the refuse, all that’s been left behind, I want to find order. A progression. An ethos. A clear indication there exists a respect for that which has passed. I want to see a mentality that honors those things that were integral to life before the age of satellite communications and global positioning. Things not thrown in a heap, but left in their places, just as they were when they were in use, or organized neatly, as if one day they might be called upon, needed, once again.

And in these places I try to look sideways in hopes of catching a glimpse of the ghosts that remain. Tattered wisps of strong young men and women, now old or gone on to that furthest of outposts, who lived here when here was all there was. When there was no help on the end of a sat phone. No weekly plane with provisions. No one to rely on but each other. Hardy souls.

So you can take your pretty pictures of elegance and comfort. Play to the masses. I’ll take my camera out back and document the substance. I’ll X-ray the bones. I’ll capture what carries the load and what’s carried it for decades in these far-flung places.

The host may not like it for it won’t sell more reservations, but these things speak more to me than made beds and fluffy towels. They are the heart and the backbone and the history of an outpost. I’ll stick with those things that, when lightning does its capricious tap dance or metal fatigue takes its inevitable toll or the zombie apocalypse finally arrives, I’d want one hell of a lot more than any thousand-thread-count sheets.

You probably would too.

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