A Homestead for Steelhead: The Story of the Damdochax Lodge

IN 1977, KEN AND ALICE BELFORD were living on a farm outside Hazelton, British Columbia, with their three-year-old daughter, Hannah. Looking for a wholesale lifestyle change, they bought the rights to an undeveloped hunting territory in the far north of the province and began outfitting. What they didn't know then was that they'd also bought rights to one of the most unique and productive steelhead rivers in North America. Today, what started as a single log cabin on Damdochax Lake has turned into three riverside tent camps and one of the best steelhead destinations anywhere in the world. And while Ken has moved on, Alice and Hannah (who is now known as one of the top steelhead guides in North America) have created an operation where traditional homesteading values and devotion to the land complement dense runs of the wildest, toughest trout on the planet. These photos tell their story.Tim Romano
THE DAMDOCHAX IS A SMALL RIVER by British Columbia standards, only 12 miles long. It flows from Damdochax Lake to the confluence of the third largest river in BC, the Nass. Although small in size, its stature as one of the most important steelhead tributaries of the entire Nass system is well recognized. It is located in an incredibly remote area of BC, requiring first a 700 mile flight north from Vancouver to Smithers, then another 135 mile floatplane trip to reach the lake. The flight from Smithers traverses some of the most famous steelhead drainages in the world. As I soared past over the Babine, Skeena and Kispiox to visit the Belford family, bypassing these well-known stretches of steelhead water made me think I must be on the way to someplace special. Planes like this Otter (and the smaller DHC-2 Beaver, not shown) are the workhorses of the North. Like the older Beaver, an Otter can be fitted with floats or skis, depending on the season.Tim Romano
In 1977, the Belfords arrived at Damochax Lake in search of a different way of life. They initially bought their guide/outfitting certificate with the intent to homestead and run hunting trips for bear, moose and goats. But one day, almost coincidentally, they realized there were steelhead in the river that flowed through their land… lots of them. They built their home, now the lake lodge, by felling trees and then milling and moving the logs themselvesCourtesy of Damdochax Lodge
All of the work was done by hand--painstakingly and with great care--in the truest spirit of homesteaders. Every nook and cranny of the main camp and the three camps downstream ooze unique character. When you visit you can tell that this is a business that grew out of a home, and not vice versa.Courtesy of Damdochax Lodge
The Damdochax River Lodge now consists of the main lodge on the lake, plus a number of outlying camps downriver. The camps are rustic and comfortable. Wood stoves and kerosene lanterns remind you of the spirits of the great pioneers. The scent of balsam and spruce wood permeates the air. A series of trails connect the camps, but some clients choose to travel between them by boat, or even helicopter.Tim Romano
Hannah Belford is proof that the spirit of the outdoors is grown from the earliest ages; here she is, five years old, with her first steelhead. Hannah spent years with her parents in this remote wilderness developing a passion for adventure, fishing, and living off the land. Wintering over many seasons, she ate lots of moose and bear, and now mandates, emphatically, that there's no more killing of these gorgeous fish.Courtesy of Damdochax Lodge
Yup, Hannah still wears muck boots around camp. Part girly-girl, part hardcore wilderness guide, she is the perfect combination to run this ambitious operation. These boots sum up her personality to a "T."Tim Romano
Although very remote and rustic, the camps offer hot showers and a clean latrine. Sometimes, modern amenities are hardly missed. All you really need is fresh air, a nice view and a good read.Tim Romano
Damdochax Lake is dark and deep - an ideal sanctuary for spawning steelhead. Old growth forest covers the hillsides; 100-foot trees are the norm. When the Belfords settled here, even fish and wildlife authorities were unaware of the quality of steelhead fishing in this far-flung corner of British Columbia.Tim Romano
As homesteaders, Hannah and her mom, Alice, agree that they cannot imagine another way of life. Alice is full-time hostess and part-time guide. One day, we arrived back to camp a few hours early to catch her throwing a line in the home pool. She's been here for 30 years and still sneaks off once in a while to "feed the need."Tim Romano
Homesteading demands ingenuity. Over the last 30 years, Hannah and Alice have learned the tricks of successful remote living. Cottonwood Camp uses gravity and an ever-flowing stream of snowmelt to supply drinking water. Other camps have springs for drinking...and chilling beer.Tim Romano
Moving clients between the camps can be challenging at times. Each summer, almost 12 miles of trails must be cleared through the dense, temperate rainforest to make these trips possible. The work includes felling trees to make bridges and using chainsaws, axes, and weedwhackers to clear debris left after deep winter snows.Tim Romano
Spey casting is the most efficient way to fish steelhead at Damdochax. The two-handed method allows you to cover more water while preserving energy so you can stay out longer without tiring. While Hannah grew up single-handing she concedes that Spey casting might be the way to go. Here my good friend and guide Roy Tanami shows me proper technique.Tim Romano
Here's Hannah guiding an obviously happy client. This is an average fish on the Damdochax. It's not uncommon for an angler to land several of these a day. Even seasoned steelheaders know that these are unreal results...some lodges boast about clients catching several fish a week when it's really good. The pure, unspoiled nature of the remote stretch makes it arguably one of the best steelhead rivers in the world.Tim Romano
At Damdochax, visitors can expect to live among nature. Bears, wolves, and moose are abundant in the area. These fresh wolf tracks (nope, definitely not dog) are a common sight.Tim Romano
Not a fan of traveling alongside wolves, bears and moose? Stick to the river. Many clients choose to float downriver to the lower camps. In BC, it is illegal to fish from the boat, but it's still a peaceful, effective way to reach even more remote locations on the Damdochax.Tim Romano
As in Alaska and other remote regions of the planet, helicopters are an integral part of making the Damdochax lodge work. Moving people, food, and gear in a chopper is fast and efficient.Tim Romano
The lush rainforest environment makes the ground feel like a giant sponge, with moss and mushrooms everywhere. When I was at camp, it rained at least part of each day. The snowline was visible only a couple hundred feet above in the surrounding mountains. The constant rain makes for a healthy forest and vibrant ecosystem, but that can make life tough for humans and their gear.Tim Romano
The bottom line is that the Damdochax is special, which was immediately apparent to me when I caught this prized fish on my first day, in the first run. Granted it was my second cast, but still, any steelhead fisherman knows that this doesn't happen...not in the "real world."Tim Romano
Releasing my 20-pound buck.roy tanami
Meals at camp are served family-style, which creates a sense of community and companionship. There's a healthy amount of friendly competition among "campers" as we trash talk each other's catches...Tim Romano
Alice and Hannah have access rights to a twelve-mile stretch of the Damdochax River. No one else is allowed to operate a commercial trip here and accessing the remote stretch as a private citizen is nearly impossible. This means that the Belford's guests are virtually guaranteed to be the only humans around. Each bend in the river leads to another gorgeous stretch of water.Tim Romano
Hannah considers herself a full-time guide for the three busiest months of the season. During this time, she rarely throws a line in the water. Because I was there more as a friend than a typical client, she was able to relax and fish a little. She knows this water better than anyone, and watching her was quite entertaining. It only took her a couple of minutes to catch this fish.Tim Romano
Catching steelhead is difficult, and not for the easily frustrated. Like homesteading, it's a lifelong pursuit that requires patience and a lot of hard work, pain, and countless hours in freezing drizzle.Tim Romano
Leaving camp. While it looked like fall going in, it had been snowing all week. With winter approaching, another season on the Damdochax was soon to end. Just in time for dreams of next season to begin.Tim Romano