Ever since I was a little kid, my dad, brother, and I had wanted to go on a big fly-in fishing trip in Canada. The word ‘fly-in’ denotes that we would be going to a cabin whose only access was from flying a float plane and landing on the water in front of the cabin. We decided that Dad’s 60th birthday would be the perfect time to act on our desires.
Sometimes a man has to go an extremely long way to arrive at the middle of nowhere. My own trail started at 5:30am, driving to the Boston airport for a 7:00am flight to Detroit. Which was then followed by a planned 4 hour layover that turned into a 6 hour layover because of mechanical problems. At least for the last 3 hours, Dad and I could keep each other company. Finally, we were off on our way to Duluth, Minnesota. Taylor was patiently waiting for us there, taking advantage of the full breadth of entertainment options offered by the Duluth airport (he played one game of golf on the Golden Tee arcade game and that pretty much covered it). Next, we hit a grocery store to load up on all the food and supplies we would need for 5 days out in the woods. We decided to hold off on buying booze until we got to the duty free store at the border to save a few bucks.
By this point it was pushing 6pm and we still had a 350 mile drive to do, so we hit the road hard. First, about 160 miles along the shore of Lake Superior up to the Canadian border. At the border, we learned hard way that the duty free shop closes at 8pm Central. We decided to press on and buy our beer in Ontario. From the border it was 40 more miles to Thunder Bay, Ontario. Here, we learned the hard way that Thunder Bay is in the Eastern time zone and alcohol sale stop at 10pm in Ontario. Since we had lost an hour at the border and driven up to Thunder Bay, we’d missed that deadline too. Uh-oh.
From Thunder Bay, we turned left and then went a brutal 140 miles down the desolate road from Thunder Bay to Armstrong Station. And when I say desolate, I mean it. After about going 5 miles out of Thunder Bay, buildings become a very rare sight. In the entire 140 miles there is exactly one intersection with another paved road. And that road doesn’t really lead anywhere either. Add in the fact that it was after midnight most the time we were on this road and desolate takes on a whole new meaning. Let’s just say we didn’t have any problems with traffic.
At 1:30 in the morning we finally made it to the guest cabin at the outfitters place where we could crash for the night. Or what was left of it. A note from the owners helpfully informed us that our fly out time would be 6 am.
We filled out some paperwork, procured our missing beer at an exorbitant price, loaded up the plane, and we were off. The plane was a four-seat DeHavilland Beaver float plane (supposedly built in 1949-50). The three of us, the pilot, and our gear were the only things on board. We took off from the lake right next to the outfitters and 60 loud minutes later we touched down on Bellsmith Lake, our home for the next five nights.
We unloaded our gear, loaded up the gear of the people we were replacing at the cabin, got a few fishing tips from them, and a quick tour of the grounds from the pilot, and then they were off. We had finally made it. The cabin, dock, boats, and entire lake were ours and ours alone.
The next five days proceeded at a clockwork pace: sleep til we wanted to get up (surprisingly late most days), eat a leisurely breakfast, head out in the boat to fish, come back for lunch, head out in the boat to fish and drink beer, come back to eat dinner and drink beer, go to sleep (surprisingly early most days). The fishing was great. We caught something every single time we went out, and usually a lot of things. It was certainly more than the three of us were used to catching. I think we did especially well for ourselves, considering that none of us had ever caught either a walleye or a pike before.
During our first afternoon excursion, T hooked onto a fish that put up a bit of a fight. Excited and looking for a better fightin’ position, he took a step backwards. Unfortunately, our beer cooler (one of the two styrofoam coolers we’d brought all our food in) was located exactly one step behind him. In the battle of Taylor vs. the cheap cooler, T won by a mile. He managed to punch right through the top and then kick out through the side. Poor cooler never saw it coming. Since the nearest cooler repair shop was only accessible by plane, we had to do a little backwoods engineering to bring it back from the brink, using a little electrical tape, a garbage bag, some rope, and some jigsaw puzzle know-how. Thankfully it held til the end of the trip.
Wednesday morning saw some pretty nasty weather, so we stayed indoors a little longer than usual. To entertain ourselves, we set about making some new tackle to replace some of the things we’d lost over the past two days. We were short of two things in particular: steel leaders (both walleye and pike have some sharp teeth that can easily cut fishing line) and red lures. We found that the fish in our lake went nuts over anything red (or pink). To solve the steel leader problem, we set about braiding several strands of fishing line together to form a single braided leader that could take one or two of its strands being cut before it would break, at least in theory. In practice, we realized that teenage girls all know how to braid things much better than we do. The new leaders we ended up with looked like the results of arts and crafts hour at the summer camp for special kids. Thankfully, we didn’t lose hardly any more leaders, so we never had to break out the homemade specials.
To remedy our lack of red lures, we started scouring all of our possessions for anything red that could be torn apart and made into a lure. Taylor and Dad ended up ripping in half a red and white bobber and fixing a hook to the red half with a swivel in front. We named the resulting creation ‘Bob.’ Although Bob also had that ‘special’ look, I’ll be damned if T didn’t catch the biggest walleye of the trip using him. It turned out to be the only fish Bob caught, but we definitely considered him a success.
Overall, I made a rough estimate that we caught about 75 fish over the five days, with walleye outnumbering pike by about 2 to 1. T caught the biggest walleye (27”) and the biggest pike (30”). We caught fish on just about every kind of lure, but we did especially well with large spoons and deep-diving plugs that were red or pink. I kept ending up with the pink lures, but, hey, if they’re working who am I to question it. We kept a few fish and had a fish fry one night, but other than that we let everything go. (Walleye is some fine eatin’, by the way. Pike is good but not as good as walleye.) We explored and caught fish in just about every corner of the lake.
Our cabin was a simple, but functional, affair consisting of two rooms: a bedroom with two sets of bunk beds and living room/kitchen with a table, four plastic chairs, a wood stove, an oven, a fridge, and a sink. The place was rigged up with solar power for lights for after dark and running a water pump. The water was just pumped straight up from the lake so it wasn’t drinkable. An out building had a propane hot water heater, a propane powered freezer for ice storage, and a shower. The ‘facilities’ consisted of a lovely port-o-potty set over a hole in the ground. Sure, it wasn’t five star, but we weren’t exactly roughing it.
The first afternoon we were all quite tired from our travel ordeal, so we settled in for a little nap after lunch. While T and Dad made for the beds, I managed to fall asleep sitting straight upright in a cheap plastic chair. It made for entertaining viewing for them when I finally stood up later. I found that the first of my legs was behaving quite normally, whilst the second was completely asleep from toe to ass. When I transferred my weight to that second leg, it provided about as much support as a wet noodle on a hot day. Before my groggy brain could process what happened, I was flat on the ground surrounded by a chorus of laughter.
We only fired up the wood stove a couple of times. There was also a fire pit outside. We only used that a couple of times as well, because the mosquitoes started to come out around dusk. Unfortunately, this far north, dusk has a tendency of lasting several hours. We only used the solar-powered lights for a few minutes because it was generally still kind of light when we went to bed and well after sun-up when we got up.
Speaking of the weather, it can only really be summed up by one word: variable. We experienced everything from low 40’s and raining to high 70’s with the sun beating down. Every 5 minutes or so there would be a complete change in the conditions. Every time we tried to rely on the wind to push our boat in a particular direction, it would abruptly shift directions, generally pushing us exactly where we didn’t want to drift. Dressing in layers was a must. One peril of fly-in fishing we didn’t think of before the trip but now have a healthy appreciation for is that sometimes the weather is bad enough that the float plane can’t come get you. There's the possibility of having to wait for an entire extra day after you are supposed to be picked up. Luckily for us, this only happened to the people who were there before us, not us.
Being about as far out in the middle of nowhere as possible, T and I wanted to do some stargazing. For the first four nights it was pretty cloudy, so no luck. On our last night, we finally had a perfectly clear sky, so T and I waited up for it to get completely dark ... and waited and waited and waited. Finally, at 12:30 in the morning night had fully arrived. We went outside to check out the stars but found they were obscured by another source of light: the Northern Lights! It wasn’t a particularly dazzlingly display of the aurora but it was neat nonetheless. There was a very distinct greenish diffuse light in the northern part of the sky. We could see it moving and fading in and out around the sky. It was bright enough to obscure the Milky Way, so the stargazing was pretty bad due to some natural light pollution.
We saw lots of different animals throughout the trip. On our drive up to Armstrong, we saw a couple of moose and several foxes. While at the cabin, we saw ducks, loons, a beaver, an eagle, several sea gulls, and an exceedingly slow and unafraid rabbit who lived under the cabin. Back at the outfitters, we saw another eagle, followed by two black bears and two more moose on the lonely road back to civilization. Finally, we saw two more nearly tame foxes on a pit stop at Minnesota State Park.
While I consider myself a pretty decent travel photographer, my wildlife photography skills and equipment leave a lot to be desired. So here is your crappy wildlife photo collage of blurry and indistinct animals:
Overall we had a great time and one heck of a unique experience. It was worth all the travel and every penny (Canadian or otherwise). We came back with several life lessons worth sharing: Never procrastinate when it comes to procuring alcohol for a long lonely trip into the woods. Always bring a sufficient number of red and white lures. Just because your lure is pink doesn’t make you any less of a man. The weather in northern Canada will change every 5 minutes or so, and the fish will move with it. Be prepared. Point-and-shoot digital cameras take awful pictures of real wildlife. You can only eat so much fried fish in one sitting. And finally, to reiterate, never procrastinate when it comes to procuring alcohol for a long lonely trip into the woods.
Trip Route and Lake Map
Mattice Lake Outfitters
Bellsmith Lake Cabin
The Hatchet by Gary Paulson. Just because this book is about a float plane crashing in the middle of northern Canada and it was required reading in your 5th grade class doesn't mean you should read it. It's the story of a 13-year-old kid who survives a plane crash into a desolate lake in northern Canada (probably not Bellsmith Lake) and manages to keep on surviving for 54 days using only his wits, his moxie, and the title hatchet. It makes a great story for 11-year-old boys of all ages and genders.