Isn’t it funny how one moment can truly make a huge change in your life? For me it was a phone call at work. A young guy building an outfitting company up coast wanted to buy a boat to transport his clients in and out of the bush. That was how I met Angus Morrison of Wild Coast Outfitters.
In the boat business, it’s normal to build strong relationships with clients. Angus was no exception. Months after our first phone call, we are sea trialing his brand new Kingfisher and I inquire about his outfitting business. He mentions that he uses his float plane to transport his clients up to the Kitimat area where he is based, and my ears perk up. As an avid fly fisher and backcountry en
thusiast, I always dreamt of getting on a small float plane and flying out to some small lake in the mountains. Realistically, my budget doesn’t really allow these kinds of expenditures! Angus insists that we could work out a deal to get me and my fellow River Rat friend Ryan onto the plane for an overnighter to a location of our choice. In exchange, I offer to film a promo video for the float plane side of his business.
Ok full disclosure. I’m not a good researcher. I love fishing, love the outdoors, love the adventure…but I’d be lost without Ryan. The word ‘obsession’ would be an understatement when describing his love for exploring the backcountry. When I delivered the float plane news he combed his own mental (pun intended) checklist of fly-in water systems. He had the target lake in under a minute.
So we’ve got our target, we’ve got a date, we’ve got a plan. We’d be overnighting, and would get a full day and a half of fishing in. I had recently purchased a DJI Phantom 3 drone to film some River Rats clips, and I was still getting comfortable with not only the flight, but shot framing, shot composition, and all the little nuances of the drone camera. I had promised Angus that I’d be using the drone to get some shots of his plane on the lake. The week before the trip, In an attempt to hone my skills I headed out on a fishing excursion with Ry and proceeded to crash the drone into a mountainside outside of Hope, forcing me to buy another brand new drone for this trip. But that’s a story for another time…
The day comes. We meet Angus at Pitt Meadows Airport and get our first look at the plane. It’s a beautiful Polish made PZL Wilga 2000 that distinctly stands apart from the rows of Cessnas that line the runway. We start loading our gear into the rear chamber and fourth seat when our attention is drawn to the issue of weight. Angus seems concerned about taking off from the small lake in one shot, so now is the time to shave weight if we can. Ryan and I packed light: just waders, belly boats, and flippers. Well, also full water bladders, plenty of food, and 6 beer. Okay 8 beer. Spot of Ryan’s precious whiskey. And camera gear. Okay, so Angus might be right. We ultimately decide to leave one bellyboat (and accompanying paraphernalia). We also had the choice of emptying our water bladders of leaving the beer. Needless to say, we emptied the water bladders (that’s what our water filters are for!).
At last, we launch the plane into the Fraser River and take off. We clear the city and head into the mountains above Pitt and Stave Lake. It’s easy to forget how rugged some stretches of the BC coastal mountains can be. Flying along the steep ranges of these upper watersheds, you realize that if the plane went down, that would be it. There would be no walking out. Even the trees struggle to get a foothold in the steeper valleys. We’re both glued to our windows in awe. As we spot our target lake, time slows down. The 5 minute approach consists of the 300 slowest seconds of my life.
While Angus banks the plane to get a good look at his landing, Ryan and I are scanning the lake looking for rises when Angus interjects: “I can’t land here.”
What?? We exchange glances. “Well, I can land, but I won’t be able to take off safely, see those swirls in the centre of the lake?” A weather system was moving in, creating a strong tailwind that would make take-off less than safe.
“Swirls in the centre of the lake?” I was thinking, ‘No I don’t see the freaking swirls, what do you mean we can’t land here?!?‘ Calmly, Angus explains that the tailwind would make his take off difficult, and that given the steep mountain terrain his take-off route is only safely possible in one direction. He asks if there’s another lake nearby that we’d want to try. Ryan, despite his encyclopedic knowledge of fishing spots, was blank. Two weeks of research and anticipation to the target destination. He hadn’t touched the whiskey yet, and he was clearly in shock. Angus reads the situation and says, “I know a place.”
We circle to gain altitude. The feeling of disappointment slips away quickly as we turn our attention back to the stunning beauty of the backcountry. We fly directly over our original target and head west. I thought the terrain was rugged before. Now we are in a narrow canyon following a creek system that even Ryan couldn’t identify. The plane clears the canyon and we appear over what is unmistakably Pitt Lake. Turning south turns Ryan’s brain back on. “Widgeon?” he asks. A nod from Angus confirms our new destination.
We approach Widgeon Lake following Widgeon Creek. The lake outflow is a spectacular sight to behold from the air. A pond attached to the lake rests precariously on the edge of the precipice almost daring mother nature to collapse the mountain side and flood Widgeon Slough. We fly across the lake and Angus comes on the intercom to say what we hoped to hear 30 minutes earlier, “This looks good guys”.
As we fly over the lake due west, it appears we are flying directly into the eastern mountain face. The mountains to the north begin to appear dangerously close and that’s when Ryan and I (who have never been in a float plane before) begin question the sanity of our pilot, who scans the lake confidently…all the while keeping the plane aimed directly at the mountain. As I’m preparing to beg for my life, he now begins to turn, but not away from the rock wall north of us, but toward it! What?!?
Apparently sensing our concern, he tells us there is a bowl on this corner that he will use to swing around, then straighten out and begin his descent to the lake. Clearly it wasn’t his first rodeo. Next comes my favourite small plane moment. True to his word Angus flies us along the contour of the bowl on the north-west corner of the lake and makes a sharp bank to the left (or port? I’m a boat guy). Suddenly I’m staring at the clouds out my window. Descending, Angus cuts back on the throttle, giving the feeling that the engine was stalling. Ryan, without a clear view from the back seat: “Are you kidding me?”
Moments later Angus gently touches down on the surface of Widgeon Lake. We’re here. He taxis us to a small beach next to a fishy looking creek. After we unload, Angus hands me an InReach satellite communicator and gives me a quick demo on how to use it, then shoves the plane off the beach, starts the engine and takes off, leaving Ryan and I marooned.
Here’s the tale of two mindsets: I scan the beach looking for a spot for the tent, Ryan scans the shore line looking for rises and sets up his rod. He indicates that I need to sort out my priorities. As I set up, Ry heads out along the shore searching for the inflow that we spotted from the plane. Our change of destination put us down on the lake at about 7 PM, so we only had a couple hours of daylight. I use the time to make myself a hot meal and enjoy a beer while setting up camera gear. Ryan spots an eagle stalking the creek for spawning trout as he threw dry flies off the beach. A few takes but no fish. We knew the next day we would have to put in some work as we’d only have the day and weren’t even sure what time Angus wanted to come pick us up.
As the early riser, I was up ahead of Ryan and climbed out of the tent anticipating a beautiful sunny day on the lake. What I saw was much different. Thick fog covered the lake, blocking a spectacular view of the mountains across the lake north of us. It occurred to me that there was no way Angus could touch down in the conditions, should the fog linger. Out of our control, so I set out to get some footage. I got the GoPro set up for a timelapse shot of the fog, then pulled out the InReach communicator that Angus left me and reported the current conditions. He responded a short time later and sounded quite confident that it would lift by the time he was heading out.
It was time to explore. We enjoy hiking as much as fishing, and really couldn’t decide where to begin. We began casting from shore, with ample casting room. Nothing. Ryan set up the belly boat and began trolling in front of the creek mouths. Nothing. He began trolling the far north shore, and at this point I could hardly see him. You expect hungry fish in these locations, and after a couple of hours, I had given up on the fishing and turned my attention to the cameras when I hear, “Fish on!”
The first fish was a beautiful 14 inch rainbow trout. I could see him release the fish in the distance, and the follow up holler was pure joy. The day warmed up, and the bite began to turn on. Ryan kicked back over towards our home base and began landing more fish, most under 12 inches.
After landing 8 or so, Ryan got out of the water and we set our sights on exploring. For the rest of the day, the pictures do the talking. We began hiking the small creeks that ran into the lake (of which there were several). Crystal clear water, and if we were stealthy, we could see trout under cutbanks and branches near the lake. We saw some spawning redds and decided not to fish here. An eagle was spotted stalking trout in the streams and there was bear scat everywhere. There were small meadows along the creeks here and there full of wildflowers. The gradient of the creeks became steep after a short time, sometimes diving underneath the ground only to reemerge. One creek lead us to a picturesque waterfall cascading down an impassable rock face. We tossed a dry fly around in the pool below the falls but to no avail, and the terrain prevented us from exploring further.
The scenery couldn’t be more beautiful, though every time I looked back down to the lake below us, the fog seemed just as thick, and I grew worried that we weren’t heading back that day. We headed back to the beach and as I waited,
and I thought I might challenge myself to attempt a fire without the help of a match or lighter. I’d watched Survivorman and figured it can’t be that hard…wrong. After an hour of bug bites (and cooling temperatures) I caved and just as the lighter came out just as I hear the unmistakable yelp of Rybo hooking into a trout off the beach, which meant I could finally get a fishing shot using the drone. It was a beautiful shot, and exactly what we wanted for the Angus promo.
All day the fog persisted, and it wasn’t until the early evening that we finally saw a break in the sky. The unmistakable sound of a helicopter could be heard across the lake as two tour groups did a flyby of our beach. I promptly raised a beverage and received a cheers back from an excited passenger. Angus arrived shortly thereafter. We had enough daylight left to film some float plane footage as he landed and approached. As we packed up, found one more beer, and it couldn’t have been better.
The problem with checking something off your bucket list is that it will inevitably force you to add a new activity to said list. In this case, having experienced such an amazing trip just increased my desire to fly into more and more lakes - not to mention the unnamed lake that we originally targeted. Scratch one off the bucket list but add a few more… hell, where’s the fun if you actually complete the list right?
Thanks for reading
-The River Rats