I hate covid. Not only can it make you sick or worse, but it is keeping me away from my beloved Kasba Lake Lodge. This time of year for more years than I can count, I have spent the summers on the big lake between Northwest Territories and Nunavut.
This is the land of big water, rivers, wilderness, fishing, wild animals, good food and surprising adventures.
Like bear encounters.
My youngest daughter and I were fishing the Kazan river off Kasba lake. We had stopped along a stony point jutting out into the river for a lunch break.
It was a beautiful crisp morning with some of the best fishing ever on the lake. We were tying into huge lake trout, lengthy northern pike and high-flying acrobatic Arctic grayling. In fact, we had each scored a triple – that is, one or more trophy-sized fish of each of the three species.
My back hurt as it does regularly when I am tussling with heavy fish. It was time for a break. Earlier we had entered the mouth of the Kazan river and braved the rapids. We were both white-knuckled for the twenty minutes or so it took to pick our way through this water. It is even scarier now that I think about it… being alone with a guide in a boat on a feisty river and totally dependent on his skill, the boat and our life vests.
Once we passed through the rapids, the water remained heavy but the surface calmed down some. The water was swift where we pulled into shore for lunch. I breathed a sigh of relief as the guide said that he would prepare something spectacular for lunch. I remember the proposed menu clearly. It was to be Hawaiian-style lake trout smothered in fresh pineapple, a little brown sugar and some secret spice recipe that only our guide knew. Then some kind of fresh berry pie that the chef in camp had made for us much earlier that morning.
My daughter gathered willow wood for the fire. The guide cleaned the fish. And I prepared the potatoes for frying. As the guide readied lunch to be cooked over the fire, my daughter and I set off to walk up the Kazan river to fish for Arctic grayling from shore in the fast water.
We had no cares. Here we were fishing at the top of the world. Our expert guide had cleaned a lunch-sized lake trout, seasoned it with his Hawaiian recipe, started a skillet of potatoes, prepared an onion bomb to be cooked in the hot coals, washed our plates in the sparkling river water and began to cook our lunch over the open fire.
It was early in the season just a week after the fourth of July. The ice had gone off the lake as expected the week before, and the blueberry bushes that lined both sides of the river were covered in fruit. These wild blueberry bushes stretched for hundreds of yards away from the shore on either side of the river. The bushes ranged from 4 foot to 8 foot high. They were growing together in a thicket, making it impossible for us to see into or through them.
We all knew that bears migrate to the blueberries in season and eat the blueberries in large paw swaths. But since the fruit was not yet ripe, my daughter and I decided it was safe to leave the guide and walk up the river to continue catching the Arctic grayling which had really been on that morning due to the ice cold water. I should have known better.
We walked a hundred yards or so from the boat and our guide as we pulled one Arctic grayling after another. The temperature was brisk. But the sun was bright. Not a cloud in the sky. The air was fresh and clean. We were having the time of our lives.
The fact is that Arctic grayling on the Kazan river are some of the largest of their species in the world. These fish grow to 5 pounds or so and look a lot like smallmouth bass, except the colors of Arctic grayling have an iridescent glow to them. Arctic grayling have a large dorsal fin on their backs that looks like that of a sailfish.
When you catch an Arctic grayling it goes acrobatic, jumping out of the water, shaking its head, and going nuts. When fighting in the water, Arctic grayling put their dorsal fin perpendicular to the taunt fishing line. That gives the fish the purchase of a much larger and heavier fish.
And to make it even more interesting Arctic grayling have very small mouths. This means that one must fish with only the tiniest of flies or spinners to attract the fish. These small lures can only be used with very thin fishing line. And it is that thin line that makes catching these ferocious fighters extremely difficult.
As we were totally engrossed in catching fish, I smelled it. At first it was faint, and then it came on strong. My daughter was a bit downstream from me and either could not smell it or did not recognize the odor. It smelled distinctly like garbage.
The odor of garbage in the middle of God’s country where everything is fresh and clean can only mean one thing. Bear breath.
I reeled in my fly like a crazy man and began walking down the river toward my daughter. As calmly as possible I told her to reel in her spinner and to walk with me toward the boat. Of course, she wanted to finish fishing, wanted to know why I wanted to stop when we were both catching fish, and… well, you know. I said “bear.”
That made an immediate difference. We had been told by the guide that if we were to meet up with a bear to calmly move away and, if necessary, to jump into the freezing swift water of the river and let it carry us downstream toward the boat where our guide could get us out before suffering severe hypothermia
It seemed like an eternity with my walking between what I could clearly define as the smell of garbage and my daughter. When we got close enough to the guide, and as calmly as I could muster, I said “bear” again. That is when the guide looked up, dropped everything and moved immediately to the boat. He started the engine, and within seconds after we got to the boat and stepped in, the guide pulled away from the shore.
We sat in the middle of the river, under power, and waited for the bear to finish our lunch.
When the bear finished eating and rummaging and finally left the area, we went back to the shore, gathered our fishing equipment, cleaned up our cooking gear, and sped off to the main lake for afternoon fishing.
Although this could have been a grizzly or brown bear, it turned out to be a black bear, which can be less on the offensive. Had we run or threatened the bear, we might not have been so lucky.
That evening dinner tasted doubly good.