Celebrating a buddy’s milestone birthday, Bill Macpherson reflects on family, friends and the meaning of time.

Envision endless sky and ocean. Imagine, feel within you the vast expanse of blue-grey shades as they blend and melt together on the distant horizon. Then relish the quiet; long slashes of deserted driftwood-strewn beach that stretch infinitely below the encompassing sky and sea. Serenity descends in slow cascades of bliss. Tranquility and contentment washes over as the magnificence of solitude is amplified by space and distance.

This is Haida Gwaii. To the north of this B.C. archipelago are the desolate fiords and islands of the Alaskan panhandle. Due west is only ocean, the mighty northern Pacific roiling 3,000 miles to Russia’s Kamchatka Peninsula. At the very top end of the archipelago is little Langara Island. It is a magical place that just happens to be the epicentre of the best salmon fishing in the world.

An understated spasm of excitement pulses through the passengers gathering in the south terminal of Vancouver’s airport. It’s hardly busy, early morning: 6:30 a.m. Anglers dribble in slowly in groups of twos and threes. Feigned nonchalance is evident as everyone waits. It’s apparent in the newspaper reading, the strolls outside in the misty light rain for a smoke, the coffees purchased and prepared, then consumed as casually as possible.

A charter jet waits on the tarmac. Excitement builds. By boarding time, it is palpable. Everyone is anxious and over-ready. Released finally, there is a disorderly strident march toward the waiting jet. Seated with my three mates, I take a deep breath as the plane roars skyward. Off to a place I read and dreamed of as a boy in a small town library. Now I am about to experience it in person.

This trip is all thanks to my friend. His generosity in celebrating a milestone birthday has made this happen. I’m incredibly grateful, too.

The flight is pleasant. We drink coffee laced with Baileys as we descend into Masset, then onto a fleet of helicopters. They lift off one at a time with a baker’s dozen anglers in each. It’s a short but spectacular ride to the lodge tucked into a southwest lee. The helicopter drops onto a floating landing pad – we’re here. It’s a very special place, and everyone knows it. Big grins all around as we disembark the helicopter. Returning regulars are greeted with hugs and a heartfelt “Welcome back!”

For many, it’s an annual pilgrimage. Langara Lodge is renowned for its attention to detail, its superb cuisine, comfortable accommodations, shared lounges (found arrayed throughout the two floating structures) and creature comforts. Soup and sandwiches as you fish, a steam room and sauna to soak weary bones once off the ocean.

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Most of all, it is about the fishing. The walls of the lodge are filled with photos and mounts of behemoth salmon. It is an angler’s paradise, and we’re jazzed to get out on the ocean.

Four rods – each reel a different colour – are baited with herring and dropped to varying depths. Like many guide-anglers, ours has his superstitions, and three is a lucky number to him. The flashing herring bits spiral down into clear cold water with 13, 23, 43 and 53 pulls of the various lines.

A man smiling as he holds a fish that he caught by the hook.
Author Bill Macpherson posing with his catch.

 

He knows his stuff. I’ve got a beautiful Coho – all glittering scales and flashes of silver dancing across the wave tops – in the boat within five minutes of playing out my line. I claim first fish honours, accept congratulations from all and have our traditional swig of brandy as reward.

It burns, clarifying and sharpening thoughts and emotions. I relish in the spectacular setting, my good fortune to be bobbing off Haida Gwaii enjoying the camaraderie of special friends. A flood of memory washes over me in the stillness, waves slapping the boat the only sound. I pull up my line and move to the bow.

Fishing gives you lots of time to think, to ponder. Two memories are foremost in my mind as the lazy rocking of the boat rolling through swells soothes and comforts. The quiet vastness of the surroundings – similar to growing up in a small northern frontier town – leads me to reflect.

Like me, my dad wasn’t much of a fisherman. Like me again, he enjoyed the social bonds of angling more than actually catching fish. He worked a high-pressure, stressful job and travelled the far north throughout my childhood, away for weeks at a time in the Arctic. So weekends when he was home tended to be relaxing with a good book and the pleasure of his family around him.

I picture him clearly on a rare weekend outing. We’re on Prosperous Lake 25 kilometres outside of our hometown, Yellowknife. The lake is a grey chop; the clouds scud low and menacingly. Rain is on its way. We’re trolling in a little aluminum 12-foot skiff on a big lake, our destination a rustic cabin on a small island in the middle of it. I’m 10 or 11, frightened but trying not to show it.

The Canada-USSR hockey series starts that night in Montreal, and I’m hoping we can listen to it on the tinny portable radio in the cabin that I know – despair surfacing in a flash – is our lifeline to the outside world. If we make it off the lake, that is. My dad senses my worry, smiles from the stern.

The author with his father, Norman Macpherson, in Yellowknife after a canoe trip on the Cameron River.
The author with his father, Norman Macpherson, in Yellowknife after a canoe trip on the Cameron River.

 

We putt-putt slowly across the grey lake, throwing back abundant pike as they hit every lure. He hooks a stunningly big lake trout just as the sun peers through the stacked grey cloud, illuminating him as he stands, rod bent and feet splayed, the motor idling. The moment is seared in my mind – his calm, his compassion as he releases the 25-pound trout because we’ve already got a six-pounder in the boat. Only take what you need, he tells me.

He died very suddenly about the age I am now, 35 years ago. I miss him fiercely.

A triumphant shout from the back of the boat jolts me from my reverie. A monstrous Chinook has been landed. I give thumbs up, looking at my friends holding it up for photos. Goatees are laced with grey. Bald spots glisten; crow’s feet shroud the eyes on wind-burnt faces. We’re older and thicker, wiser perhaps and more affluent. It makes me smile, instantly remembering a fishing jaunt taken while in university.

The four of us, 30-plus years ago. We’re youthful and exuberantly boisterous, carelessly crammed into a tin car topper on a lake in eastern Ontario. It’s sunny and hot, and the world lies at our feet. We are unstoppable, untroubled by anything. We drink beer as the sun slowly sinks into the lake, a fading half circle of fiery orange. We joke, bullshit, tell outrageous tales of conquests, sporting exploits, excessive imbibing.

I look at these guys and I know – in an instant – we will be lifelong friends. I feel crazy emotions bubbling inside me along with seven or eight beers. Strongest of all is genuine love: of them, of the moment, of our unquestioned invincibility.
You don’t know very much at 22, but I knew with certainty what I felt then would be forever.

The fishing mates

 

And here we are. Older, on a bigger boat, in a spectacular place hauling in fish. Nothing is really changed though. Moves across the nation and to other countries haven’t diminished our friendship and never will. Another fish is bending one of the back rods double. I wrestle the gaff from the bow rail, feel my dad’s presence all around and clamber back to my longtime friends, grinning like a fool with unspoken happiness and contentment.

Later, we enjoy a final glass of wine before bed. It’s 9 p.m. but the lodge is quiet already. We’re going to forgo getting up at dawn to fish – we’ve already caught our limits.

Glasses clink in unison with toasts: to our friend who made it happen, to the lodge and especially to the unforgettable experience of it all. This trip will stay in my memory forever, adding to those so vividly invoked by it – my friends and me so very long ago, my father ever-present.

A version of this story “Reeling in the Years” appeared in the July/August 2018, pg. 78.