Written by Andy Goodson
Photography by Andy Goodson, Mitch Doll, Sean Hootz and Teisha Huff
One of the deciding factors on where I choose to camp is the availability of fish. With a proclivity toward rivers (they're just more fun, quite frankly), I've taken much time in researching brook trout streams across Saskatchewan and Western Manitoba. Many are easily found by stocking reports and the odd loud-mouth on a public forum. But a few still fly under the radar. Some are stocked privately by volunteer organizations and some hold feral trout - naturalized populations from previous stocking efforts.
Sensitivity to additional fishing pressure is the first issue - pissing off the locals is a close second. These streams are often guarded as local treasures and, without fisheries support, naturalized populations take far longer to recover. Although I believe access to fishing should be available to all, I don't want to be responsible for turning a once pristine river into the Jersey Shore.
I may change my mind on the matter, but I've decided not to name the river in this particular trip. However, I'll admit that anyone with the patience to read and do their own research could find it themselves.
We'll see how it goes.
My friends and I freeze wide-eyed as balls of garter snakes fall from trees and tumble down the stony hillside at Fort Livingstone National Historic Site. We're here just in time for the annual snake orgy at the beginning of our pseudo-family spring vacation during May long weekend, 2015.
'Do they even care that we're here? They're kinda cute,' Adam says as he pets a snake's tiny head with his index finger.
I climb my way out of the writhing bush feeling a bit dizzy from the sensory overload - the sound of reptile scales rubbing together with the black and yellow ripples in my peripheral vision still lingering. After a post-orgy cigarette, our group hits the road once again to continue our way north.
I flip through the topographic maps I had printed a day before, reading over the plan of attack in my head, 'we'll fish the lakes for a bit, then make it to the river by sundown.' I'm always a bit unsure of myself when camping in new back country. I'm not exactly sure what to expect, but I hope it will be nice. The stream I had scoped out had evidently been stocked with brook trout at one point in time, albeit possibly ages ago. But you never know, some places will survive.
With nine people, this is the largest camping group we've had to date. Just a little extra pressure to make sure things go smoothly. One thing I'm noticing is that we sure take our sweet time. Making stops at Townsend Lake and Brockelbank Hill, we let the day slip by without noticing.
By the time we find our way to the stream, we have only a few hours of sunlight left and the temperature is dropping fast.
The first thing we notice is that this is one of the easiest streams we've had to walk. With long stretches of dried river bed, we are able to hike far enough to feel that sweet detachment from civilization.
As evening falls, the river transforms into a wind tunnel complicating our ability to set up camp and sleep in comfort. We put our bushcraft skills to work and immediately built a series of wind guards and a communal area on the sandy banks. We finish with time to spare - time I spend fishing with absolutely no bites.
Teisha and I choose to set up our tent on an elevated river bank where there is a gorgeous vista of the river bend in the distance. What a sight to wake up to!
Later that night, the temperature drops below zero and the wind sweeps off the river into our tent. I'm quite sure we're in the midst of the shittiest night's sleep of our entire lives. I end up lighting a single candle lantern to stay warm, but it produces no significant heat. The light seems to help.
I hear a bird chirping then finally fall asleep knowing the night is nearly over. I wish I could say this is the first time I've made the mistake of setting up camp near water.
The next morning, we groggily emerge from our tent and make a fire with haste. My bones finally begin to thaw as the sun peaks over the tree-line. After eating a good breakfast and some coffee, I feel like I can finally breathe in the scenery and start a little early-morning fishing... But still, no bites.
We have the full day to spend hiking upstream in search of brook trout. Although I'm skeptical about catching fish, I am still confident the hike will be an adventure for the topography alone. The contours on the map seem to scream 'canyon country.'
So far, the hills and banks we have tackled pale in comparison to some of the more dramatic rivers we've been to. That is, until we find one obstacle that's hard to ignore.
Nate and I attempt to shimmy our way down the four-storey cliff to avoid more bushwhacking. I lean on my right hand to stabilize while taking carefully-angled steps along the wall. Like standing on marbles, each step produces a small avalanche of gravel tumbling down the wall and over the edge I am too afraid to approach. My curiosity gets the best of me, and I look over the edge.
'Hey Nate?... Uhhhh, I think we might be one step away from death here.'
I look over to find him staring perplexed beneath a canopy of sod. '...Yeah, I know what you mean. This is... unsafe,' he says.
We turn back pretty quickly, and just a little bit stunned by our own recklessness. Looks like we'll be bushwhacking after all.
We fish every pool, but our casts are limp and dispirited. Some of us have stopped fishing all together, choosing to do some target practice or explore solo instead.
Midway through the afternoon, I cast a line into a pool and hit an aggressive snag. It takes me a few seconds to snap out of my sun-baked delirium and realize the wildly moving rod-tip is a sign that should be taken seriously. I check the drag and start reeling as my eyes catch a silvery flash within the tea-tinged pool.
Oh, sweet endorphins. I can't remember the last time I felt this way! Probably that time I was so overjoyed about getting a PlayStation for Christmas - I somersaulted and put a hole in the wall. I can't stop smiling. I feel like the universe has just coughed up a brook trout and given me a high-five.
We continue hiking up river-warped hillsides and through desert-like plains, enamoured with the unique terrain. The shoreline is scattered with shale so brittle, it crushes into flour. As the river tempts us to keep exploring, the sun dips behind the trees and a cold wind pushes forth. In a unanimous decision, we decide to turn back and settle in for the day.
The hills and cliffs we had seen are only a shade of what my map indicates further up stream, but that is a mission for another time.
We build a generous fire, protecting us from the cold that seems to stick to our clothes. The last-night ritual begins: eat everything in sight so you don't have to carry it back.
All day, Teisha had collected wild fiddleheads - the furled fronds of young ostrich ferns - which we sauté in butter and garlic. For dessert, we somehow manage to make a crisp with all of our dehydrated fruit. After a long day hiking, I can't express how much of a treat it is to eat well.
The night falls in tandem with the temperature, but it's not so bad after a big meal (and a few shots of whiskey). From standing in snake pits to staring over cliffs, the trip had been a complete success. We are very lucky to live in a place that allows us the freedom to visit regions the average tourist will never see. We have an incredible backyard to explore and there are always surprises around every corner. It is incredibly addictive. Catching a feral trout is just the cherry on top.
The next morning, none of us are in a hurry to leave as we sluggishly clean our campsite. The weather is warm, the skies are clear and I really don't want to go back to work. A short distance upwind, Sean tests out his bear mace, incapacitating the group for a short while. Teary-eyed, we leave shortly after.