F&S Classics: Quest for the Mother Lode
A true story of grueling canoe portages, harrowing lake crossings, festering wounds—and ultimate discovery
Editor’s Note – We have some exciting news: F&S editor-at-large T. Edward Nickens has a new book out! The Last Wild Road: Adventures and Essays from a Sporting Life is a collection of his best and most beloved adventures, essays, and columns from Field & Stream. You can purchase the book online, or wherever books are sold. To celebrate, all week we’ll be sharing some of our favorite classic tales from Nickens. Today’s entry, “Quest for the Mother Lode,” was first published in the April 2004 issue.
This doesn’t feel like fishing. For the hundredth time in the last two hours, I lunge against a makeshift harness, jury-rigged from climbing rope and knotted around my chest. The canoe screeches through black spruce trees and lichen-covered boulders. I take three steps on firm ground and then stumble into a gaping pit camouflaged with bearberry and alpine azalea. Once again, I’m face down in the Labrador taiga, run over by my own boat.
“Aren’t we supposed to be looking for trout?” wheezes my buddy Scott Wood. He’s a few steps ahead, tied into a similar noose and similarly wrung out from portaging our canoe through the boreal woods. I’m too whipped to reply, but it’s as clear as the welts on my face that we have no choice but to pull the boats and push on. Sucking in blackflies, scratched and bleeding, we drag ourselves to our feet so we can drag the boat a few yards more.
It doesn’t feel like fishing, but that’s exactly what we’re doing. And it’s all because of a wild-eyed rumor that has drawn us to the far side of the middle of nowhere: that the mother of all brook trout waters may lie somewhere below this hellish, rocky portage. Or not.
For the last few months we have thought only of Labrador. We pored over charts of the nearly trackless Canadian province. We probed books and magazines and the Internet for meager details about its little-known rivers. We packaged and shipped off a mountain of camping gear and food and fly rods. And then, over the last four days, our foursome of paddlers—Wood, myself, and our pals David Falkowski and Bill Mulvey—endured a mind-numbing travel itinerary from the settled confines of North Carolina to the vast emptiness of the Labrador interior.
First we logged 1,300 miles via commercial airline to Sept-Iles, Quebec, on the shores of the St. Lawrence River. There we crowded onto a railroad passenger car slam full of caribou hunters and Innu natives for a 12-hour, dawn-to-dusk ride to an abandoned mining camp on the Labrador line. This was Schefferville, where the sole recreational opportunity seems to be watching stray dogs chase windblown trash. On day three a rusty school-bus-turned-taxi loaded down with bloody caribou antlers delivered us to a floatplane hub outside the village, from which we finally took to the skies for a 135-mile flight to a skinny lake so far up the Kanairiktok River that it wasn’t really a river yet. And that’s where the real travel began: From lake to pond to lake to river, by canoe and hiking boots and waders. In the last two days alone we’d hiked 10 miles on this single portage (we dubbed it the Rocky Tangle), humping gear and canoes around a dried-up lake outlet.
All because we didn’t want to drop a few grand on guides and a sturdy roof; we wanted to make our own fires and cook our own grub and find our own way. And catch fish that had never seen a boat, a fly, a hook, or a man. Give us time and a good map, we thought, and likely as not we can figure out the rest of it.
Clutched between Ungava Bay and the North Atlantic Sea, Labrador offers perhaps the largest chunk of terra incognita remaining in North America: A half million square miles of taiga, spruce, and tamarack woods, and soaring stone ridges that taper into iceberg-laden seas. Three-quarters of the province is entirely roadless.
But the region is crazy with fish stories, especially tales of gargantuan brook trout. Some of the earliest emerged in the 1950s when a young fishing guide named Lee Wulff landed perhaps the best consulting job ever conceived: finding fishing spots for American soldiers just shipped to bases on Labrador’s southeastern coast. With a float-equipped Piper Super Cub, Wulff leapfrogged about Labrador’s uncountable ponds, lakes, and river systems. He found brookies stacked up like multicolored cordwood and put out the word: Labrador boasted “the greatest brook trout fishing in North America.” When Wulff guided Curt Gowdy into the Minipi River basin to film a segment of The American Sportsman, trout anglers in the Lower 48 almost swallowed their teeth at the sight of kype-jawed brookies the size of an overnight bag.
Understandably, a handful of fly-in guided fishing camps opened up in the Labrador interior, and they now cater to anglers who fork over serious cash for a shot at 5-pound trout by the bucketful. In some Labrador streams it takes a 7-pounder to turn heads. Then, in 1997, a feverish brookie angler named Nick Karas published a 371-page magnum opus, Brook Trout. Packed with more breathless reports of the paradisiacal rivers of Labrador, the tome sent new waves of fishermen northward.
Early last summer I’d caught scent of a more recent Labrador fish tale. It was little more than a rumor, really. It came from Harvey Calden, an outfitter who runs remote caribou hunting outposts along the Quebec-Labrador border and a venerated brook trout lodge on Labrador’s Little Minipi River. Calden knows the wilds of Labrador’s interior waters as well as anyone.
I was looking for a remote stretch of possibly unexplored rivers and lakes that had the makings of a brook trout nirvana. My gang of four had whitewater, open-water, and navigation skills. We had more time than money, and we were willing to take our chances on a hunch or a tall tale. Did he know of water that had likely never been fished, never been paddled? And could I talk him into flying us there?
Calden was as quiet as mist falling on moss. “You’re not gonna believe this,” he finally said.
Just the year before, Calden had put six caribou hunters on the ground near Morris Lake, a nondescript body of water in the far upper headwaters of Labrador’s Kanairiktok River. Waiting on the caribou, the hunters chunked plugs into a typical lake outlet. “Standing on the bank, not even half trying, those guys pulled in 5- to 9-pound brookies,” Calden said. “At least, that’s what they told me. But no one’s been back. Far as I know, there’s never even been a boat in that water.”
Pay to Play
Three months after that tantalizing conversation, I wake to the sound of a tent door zipper. Wood is ready to roar at 5:15 a.m., the Rocky Tangle’s torture seemingly forgotten. But I feel like 40 miles of bad road. I pull the sleeping bag over my head and curl my body around knobs of rock and tussocks of blueberries.
In just five minutes, though, I’m climbing into cold waders. As the sun winks through spruce trees, we pick our way across a ledge drop at the bottom of the Rocky Tangle. Fog rises from a slot of water maybe 20 feet by 40 feet. It’s the swiftest, deepest run we’ve seen in three days. My hands are shaking, but I’m not sure if it’s from the cold or from nervous anticipation. Months of planning and logistical troubles have led us here. If this river holds scads of big fish, this is exactly the kind of place they’ll be—stacked up in pools as they nose upstream during prespawn runs. It doesn’t take long.
Falkowski drops a fly into the water first, rips it crosscurrent, and hangs on as his rod bends double, like a diviner’s stick pointing the way to the mother lode. “Three pounds, maybe. Not bad,” he hollers as the fish comes to hand. “Of course, it’s the largest brook trout I’ve ever seen in my life!”
In less than 60 seconds, each of us is into a brookie. Suddenly, miles into our route, we’re juiced by the hope that there might be just enough fish to justify the difficulty of getting here. After a few more fish we forge onward.
That night we collapse on the rocky shore of an unnamed lake and watch northern lights arc overhead like a lava lamp stretched from horizon to horizon. Mars is up, and Mulvey swears he hears wolves howling. Wood and Falkowski stick their heads out the tent door to catch the sound, but I crawl to my sleeping bag to count the blue-haloed dots on the shimmering flanks of the brook trout that swim through my dreams.
Two days later we’re barely 10 miles downstream. Calden described Labrador as “more remote than most of Alaska,” and its famously raw terrain has no respect for our planned itinerary. For our first few days we paddled through a flat plain, the scenery an unbroken curtain of spruce and tamarack, blueberries, and Labrador tea. Now the horizon is mounded with high, rocky barrens. We cross lakes in beastly winds, whitecaps slopping over the sides of the canoes, then grind out in bony streambeds where the water dribbles through hundreds of yards of boulder and cobble. We are pulling the boats as much as paddling, but there isn’t much point to fretting over what might be around the next bend. Nobody knows, and whatever it is, we’ll have to make it through as best we can.
One morning we’re out of the tents as a rising sun sends plumes of steam boiling off the ice-slicked canoes. Holding plates of grits and bacon, we huddle over topo maps. By now they are dog-eared, ink-smeared, and smell like fish, but they are no longer lifeless representations of an otherworldly landscape. Paddle stroke by paddle stroke, the maps have come alive. Now we know what an inch of open water on the topos looks like in a headwind, and how the contour lines converge to form bulwarks of mossy rock crowding our route.
Figuring out the lake crossings takes the most head scratching. Orienting the maps to the compass, we cipher out the far shoreline of this morning’s puzzler. Somewhere along a distant smudge of green our route pours through a 20-yard-wide outlet and into a narrow gorge. Miss it by just a few compass degrees and we could plunge blindly into any number of lookalike box-canyon coves.
We take a reading and push off. Forty-five minutes later we make landfall on a rocky shoreline. A solid wall of woods blocks our passage, with no outfall in sight. We pull out the maps and compass, wondering where we’ve gone wrong.
“We’re on a river, and there are still eighty-six wrong ways to turn,” says Mulvey. Every lake looks like a Rorschach inkblot. We split up to sortie in opposite directions. Five minutes later Mulvey and Falkowski whistle and wave paddles, semaphoring a find. A small, unmarked island has risen from the lake bottom during low water. Behind it lies a tiny outfall that carries the flow of the entire watershed. We could have lost half a day searching for such a small spigot. Our luck, so far, is holding.
By noon, low clouds spit cold rain as we drop out of the last set of headwater rapids. Rocky bluffs now pinch the waterway into a true, flowing river, its serpentine route snaking into the distance. The tough business of route finding is behind us, but that’s only part of the time crunch. The other is that the fishing is only getting better.
We can hardly believe what we’re seeing. And catching. Each time the waterway necks down, deep slots and ledge pools serve up bigger and bigger fish. We lean on the paddles to get the slow water over with in a hurry, then scramble to the rapids like kids on recess.
Late one afternoon we drag the boats out of the water above a gorgeous spot. The Kanairiktok spills from one of its uncountable pondlike impoundments over slick wet ledges, hits a hard bank of rock, and makes a deep turn. The bend is as black as Satan’s heart: We know a honey hole when we see one.
“Looks kinda mousy,” Wood says, digging through a fly box with a grin on his face. Early in the trip we’d each forked over $6.50 in Canadian change for a large souris vison—a 5-inch-long mink-fur mouse from an old man hawking hand-tied flies on the Sept-Iles waterfront. Wood ties one to a short leader and sends it sailing across the pool. He strips the line twice, and suddenly a large, dark shadow rises from the pool bottom and pounds the mouse with an audible slurp. Now we beat the water with Canadian mink. “Boys, we got us an old-fashioned lemming hatch!” Falkowski shouts, as the water boils with slashes of bronze and orange.
Standing literally shoulder to shoulder, we pull in fish after fish from 4 to 7 pounds. Three times we fight triple hookups. Once all four lines go live, slashing the water and threatening a macramé of high-dollar nylon. Anywhere else and we’d be cursing our neighbor, but here the absurdity of the fishing is linked to the absurdity of the fish—their size, their numbers, the ferocity with which they smack absolutely anything. The females are hammered from verdigris and brass, swollen with roe. And the gaudy, prespawn males have the appearance of a brook trout with its tail stuck in an electric socket. Many are slashed with scars from close calls with pike. “There’s nothing but the North Pole between us and Russia and we’re standing in each other’s waders!” I call out to the guys.
“Don’t knock it,” Wood hoots, setting a hook. “It’s pier fishing, Kanairiktok River–style.”
For the next few days we shift into overdrive, scarfing down lunch on the run. We portage and drag and paddle through squalling rain. And we lash the waters with 8-weights and collapse into sleeping bags after ten o’clock dinners. We catch fish with 60-foot casts and just 6 feet from the canoe. Hooked trout run between our legs. Twice I catch a bragging size brookie by walking from pool to pool, dragging my fly behind me.
They hit the traditional northern speckle fare—Mickey Finns and Woolly Buggers, Stimulators, and Sofa Pillows. But that’s not all. One of my most effective flies is a chartreuse Surf Candy I tied for saltwater false albacore. We catch them on bass bugs, bream poppers, and silverside streamers.
One night around the campfire, our conversation turns to Labrador’s esteemed lodges. We’ve all seen the brochures, plastered with pictures of grinning anglers holding up sag-bellied brookies. Folks take out second mortgages to ply famous lodge waters, but could the holes possibly hold this many fish? Could the country compare to the Kanairiktok’s unshaven, unshod grandeur?
“Lodge fishing might be just as good,” Falkowski muses as we loll about in the moss, 10 feet from the water. “And you’d definitely have more time to fish. None of this humping through the Rocky Tangle.” We all nod. So far we’ve crammed quality fishing into days otherwise filled with portages, paddling, fire building, fish cleaning, aurora watching, Scotch sipping, and frightfully meager snooze time.
The trout sizzles in the foil. We smell spruce smoke and seared fish and chipotle sauce. The northern lights rain green fire overhead. Falkowski delivers a benediction: “I wouldn’t do it any other way.”
A Hard Goodbye
Two days before our scheduled pickup I raise Calden on a satellite phone to pin down a rendezvous point. Wood, Falkowski, and Mulvey mill around, nervously watching spruce trees bend and listening to one side of the conversation. “We’re on the river, Harvey. You there?” The guys all glance my way. “Forty-five to 60?”
Our hearts hit the ground. The forecast for pickup day is for winds in the 50-miles-per-hour range and a cloud ceiling slightly higher than the treetops. It’s up to us, Calden says, but we know the drill. Missing the floatplane by a single day means missing the once-a-week train, which means begging space on a $4,500 charter flight to Montreal or a long layover in beautiful downtown Schefferville.
We load the boats in stunned silence. We’ll be homeward bound come morning, a day earlier than planned.
In our last 24 hours on the water we fish with renewed passion. Each paddle stroke and cast feels like another grain of sand slipping through the hourglass. We take a single break to climb a high ridge of barren rock to gorge on bearberries and gaze over the huge country from which we’d taken but a tiny, tentative bite. And then, too soon and all too unceremoniously, Calden snatches us out of Ethyl Lake in a rising gale.
As we spiral above the river, straining for altitude in a heavily laden de Havilland Beaver, I press my face to the cockpit glass. I can see the big ledge drop we dubbed the Bay of Pigs, where every fish that came to hand seemed bigger than the one before. There’s the white-capped lake that nearly sank us, the tributary we’d hoped to explore, and the Rocky Tangle’s boulder-studded channel. Now the Kanairiktok’s silvery ribbon of river and lake grows smaller and smaller, then disappears at last into Labrador’s vernal infinity like a skein of geese vanishing in the sky.
I’m not into head counts on fish, but this trip was different; we knew it would matter. The pace of the action conspired against an exact figure, but best as we can tell, here are the figures: Fishing but a meager portion of each day, we landed 240 brook trout. At least 200 were 3 pounds or better, and 150 topped 4 pounds. We caught a dozen 5- and 6-pound fish and two brutes over 7. Average them out at 4 pounds each, and that’s 960 pounds of fish. A thousand pounds of trout.
For weeks those fish would swim in my dreams: huge humpbacked spawning brookies hooked for the first time in their lives. But they are only a part of what will one day, and soon, draw me back to unknown Labrador.
The other part is taped to a wall in a shed behind Calden’s floatplane dock, where we dried our gear and picked at scabs while waiting for the train. It’s 7 feet by 4 feet, I’d guess, and on it I could see where the Kanairiktok River spills into the North Atlantic. From there I traced the thin line with my finger, first dipping southwest to Smegamook Lake, then paralleling the Desolation River toward the watershed divide between Labrador and Quebec, where its tiny headwater ponds were marked with minuscule pinpricks of blue.
The tip of my finger covered our entire weeklong route. Which leaves a lifetime of Labrador yet to explore.