In the land of the midnight salmonid

White whales. Caribou roadblocks. And other strange things seen on Ungawa Bay

THERE WERE no trees. From Monlreal, we had flown north and farther north until the land ran out of forest. Lakes began to freckle the gray glacial scrape below. Some were stained orange by bleeding iron deposits; others were a deep, incongruous tropical aquamarine. At Kuujjuaq, the last settlement with an airport and the site of a famous American air base during World War II, we switched from the 737 to a Twin Otter charter, and the endless shallow lakes gave way to dark coves, the finger inlets of Ungava Bay and a vast black arctic sea.

Inside the small, vibrating plane, secured under a cargo net, was our pile of gear–rod, cases and lure boxes, pallets of strawberry jam and paper towels, wrapped roast beef and crates of potatoes and carrots, and tall cans of insect repellent. Beside my head was a graffiti scrawl: “Lonely Huey and Easy Eva say Hello to everyone who was at the suicide prevention meeting in Kuujjuaq.”

My trip promised to be more cheerful. We would spend the next four days and three nights (they blend together up here) motoring around in big 26-foot, blue-and-green freighter canoes and casting all kinds of flies and lures for arctic char and river-running lake trout out of the Payne River Fishing Camp, on Ungava Bay, 1000 miles north of Montreal and 115 miles northwest of Kuujjuaq. It would be some of the best fishing in my life, and this did not count the surprise harpooning of a beluga whale by native anglers.

Toward the end of our hour-long flight, we had to circle the landing field while the caribou cleared before the noise of the engines, and then we bump-landed in the middle of a long, patchy herd of the jumping animals. We stepped out into July in the sub-Arctic–55 degrees and sunny at 3:00 P.M.–and a place the Inuit call Nunavik (“The Land”), a bit of treeless turf the size of France that stretches up around the 61st parallel from the Labrador Sea on the east to Hudson Bay on the west.

Clouds of mosquitoes met us like hula dancers, and the outfitters tossed us cans of deet. We sprayed our hats, our hands, our pants, and then trudged across the tundra to camp. My cabin mates included two very large and cordial sporting-goods manufacturers from California who dressed each day in full camo and never stopped fishing except to sleep (and I bet their dreams were fishy even then). The other was a British sporting writer who had gone to art school at Oxford and complained that the Camo Twins, as I came to call them, rocked the cabin with their snores, which was true, though after two days of travel, snores were lullabies to me.

At 3:00 A.M. we started fishing with the tide, which rose and fell 25 feet each day. We were Cinderellas with lures and flies. When the tide was up, we went out and stayed out, rushing in as the sea ebbed with such force that this finger of Ungava Bay became a dry graveyard of boulders. If we couldn’t stop fishing by the witching hour, the boats had to be beached, and we would walk a mile back to camp under the neon escalator of the Northern Lights.

That first day’s fishing was relentless. Our guide, Jonasie Kudluk, took us by an island where, he told us, an Inuit family had once abandoned a baby and the sea had risen up and capsized the boat, drowning everyone in revenge. There we caught four- to 15-pound arctic char–a char is the most northern-living salmonid, resembling a pastel brookie with bobcat jaws–on nearly every cast. Shakers, rod-benders, reel-screaming line-breakers. There have been a couple of days in my besmirched career when I’ve gone fishing and not caught a thing. This was not one of them.

ON DAY 2 THE tide was an hour late, and we slept in–until 4:00 A.M. By the time I staggered down to the boats, the Camo Twins were already in theirs, smiling and casting plastic bass lures from the stem.

The confusing concept of large, rich, technically adept rednecks was new to the Brit, but the Twins possessed every piece of gear known to the outdoor world: $2500 binoculars, bazooka-sized rod cases, GPS devices, Hi-8 video cameras with traveling tripods. They own a caribou camp. They live to go bowhunting. At 6 feet 4, with stomachs like workbenches, they towered over the rest of us. These guys are black bears, mountain men from a previous century–not pastel modern pussy `necks. But I realized what galled the young Brit most–and he’s not a bad fellow, either, just adjusting to North American ways–was that the backwoods Camo Twins were outfishing him and his Izaak Walton progenitors. It was catch, count, and release in a big way.

“How many’d you guys catch yesterday day?” I asked.

“I caught 128 char,” drawled Cliff, the red-headed Camo Twin. “Kreg, he only caught 95.”

“Let’s get going,” said the Brit, curtly.

A word about the Brit, whose first name was Charles. The boy was expecting his second child. That is, his wife was due in 14 days, which gave him just about enough time to catch the char of a lifetime, some river-running lake trout, too, and then hightail it back to London for the birth. I was impressed. Most American anglers would probably have stayed home and watched it on cable TV.

A word about these arctic char as well. They are hard-fighting fish, anadromous, meaning they travel from fresh to salt water and back, like salmon or steelhead. However, they are more closely related to brook trout or our own bull or Dolly Varden trout, which are both considered char by biologists, while rainbows and browns belong to a different genus, something about teeth running round three sides of their vomers. These particular char would be hanging in Payne Bay for most of the brief Arctic summer, gorging on shrimp, sculpin and small fish until they swam upriver to spawn.

But we didn’t get to fishing for them right off on this second day–caribou kept getting in the way. We buzzed the arm of the bay and started up the Payne River, a muscular stream about the size of the middle Missouri. It was still dark, or, rather, not yet full light. This high on the earth’s curve, the darkest it got was like a full moon, with a nice yellow shine. Kudluk slowed the boat (and he kept it full throttle most of the time; the guides liked to race one another) and I turned to face upstream when he cut the boat carefully in front of and behind the caribou. There was a line of them in front of us, dozens swarming in the water, hundreds on both banks, thousands stretching off in either direction.

It was like watching antlered lemmings. If we could have risen straight off that black riffle and looked around, we would have seen upward of 700,000 caribou, one of three big herds in Canada. Steve Ashton, the French-Canadian who ran the fishing and hunting camps for the Inuit council, told me the population would soon crash. Caribou herds run on a 60-year cycle, he said, and this herd could not feed itself much longer.

Kudluk had nothing to say about the caribou, which was pretty typical for him. He was 52, thin, had seven children, three grandkids. His eyes were pitch black. He was missing several teeth in the front row. You’d ask him, “Hey, this looks like a pretty good place to fish, the way the current runs around the rock there, do you think the bigger fish like it?”

“No.”

Or maybe, “Yes.”

Not, “Yes, I caught a lot offish there last year. The way it works is …”

With the Inuit, it was either yes or no. Not that they couldn’t coffee-jabber with the best of us, or that they had a problem with English. They all spoke English, French and their own language, too. If it didn’t need saying, the Inuit didn’t waste time saying it.

Language didn’t define them the way it does us, and they still had a strong sense of humor. Kreg, one of the Camo Twins, told me that one time they stopped their boat, and he cast his little Fish-It-First three times without a bap.

“Al, no char,” he kidded their guide.

Al pointed to the bluff above the river where they had just watched some 3000 caribou hoppity-leg over a ridge.

“No caribou,” said Al.

Kreg thought about that for a couple of seconds, long enough for some gnats to assemble around his head.

“No mosquito,” added Al.

I liked these people. They were different from us.

JUST AFTER lunch one day, I was standing on a long ridge of narrow rocks known as The Spine, lobbing a big Caribbean streamer called a Salt Water Candy with an 8-weight flyrod, when three beluga whales swam in. Half of us were on shore, the others just landing. Two of the whales were as white as the fingers on a ghost, the third a grayer shade of pale, shorter and younger; a juvenile. They swam in trident formation, just under the surface, chasing the same char we were after.

“Get down! The ricochet!” shouted Sherman Hines, the photographer, but I was already down, squinched against the slippery rocks, and Hines was, too. Nobody wanted to be caught in the crossfire.

Until then, I hadn’t even realized the guides had guns–an ancient .303 and a battered .22 with a goofy banana clip. Kudluk, Noah Ningiruvik, Johnny Annahajak and the others began running along the rocks, calling out orders in the old language, very excited and organized. They were suddenly a native hunting party, no longer a set of tribal fishing guides.

There was a lot of noise. The British sporting writer was cursing because his new Sage rod had been broken against the rocks in the Inuit rush for position. Also, the men in the boats were banging tire irons and anchor chains to keep the beluga from diving. The outboard motors revved and roared. The freighter canoes turned tight circles over the whales. Rifles popped off. It was hard for the guides to shoot through the water, but the beluga could be hit when they breached. Quillaluraq, the Inuit word for “beluga,” means “the one who comes to the surface to breathe,” and the whales sounded every five or six seconds. When they surfaced they were shot and the holes left trails of blood in the dark water. Then I could see only one of the whales. Someone had a harpoon and a red plastic ball-float twice the size of a basketball, and the harpoon went in, as if into jelly, and suddenly there was an enormous fanning cloud of blood and a large, loud whooshing sound like a geyser as the beluga blew and thrashed up sharp waves. Now that the whale was tethered, more shots were fired. A second yellow line was looped around the flukes. It was over in five minutes.

The Inuit were almost jump-about happy. The whale was 14 feet long, about 900 pounds. It looked like a big dolphin with an elephant’s head. In Russian, beluga means “white,” and this beluga was as white as fresh cream on top of frozen snow. It glistened. The Inuit had the whale dressed out in 20 minutes, all the while cutting off bite-size chunks, chewing them and offering them around. I had some, though a Canadian said if you ate too much it would give you the runs, or even liver flukes. It didn’t taste like much to me–tough caviar or chewy rubber.

The village south of camp was allotted 10 of the whales a year. This was only the first one, and it was already July. As we chugged in, Kudluk signaled to the kids in front of the tent camp opposite our permanent plywood fishing camp, and the kids started doing jumping jacks and waving their shirts.

Over a toast of Maker’s Mark, I asked guide Johnny Annahajak what he would do with his share. He said the first piece would be given to the village midwife, the woman who had birthed the hunter who had drawn first blood–first blood counting for more than the actual death blow. After the midwife, the hunter’s father would be offered meat, then his mother and the rest of his immediate family.

WHEN WE stopped at a winter hunting cabin for powdered coffee, there too were countless caribou. The Camo Twins set up a video camera in the bushes by a trail and left the tape running. It reminded me of the old Andy Warhol stunt where he installed a camera in front of the Chrysler Building in New York and filmed the sunrise and the sunset, 24 hours straight. The Twins explained that the video, shown continuously on monitors above the registers in their retail outlets, would show folks just how many caribou there really were.

After the guides had sipped multiple coffees and Kreg had gathered up the Hi-8, I asked Cliff, the other Camo Twin, how they were doing, fishing. The Camo Twins, starting earlier, had fished their way upriver ahead of the rest of us.

“I’ve caught one char. Kreg’s caught one char. I’ve caught 50 brookies. Kreg’s caught 39. I’ve caught 10 lakers. Kreg’s caught 29. How’d you guys do?”

“I lost count after three,” I said.

“Let’s get going!” said Charles, the Brit. It took two more hours to get to the destination. Our boat stopped off at a likely point of rocks, and I cast out a silver Krocodile spoon with red slashes on its little metal back, the lure that had most slayed them for me in the bay. It was too easy. I transferred to the 8-weight Loomis flyrod and the Salt Water Candy. What a pounding. In a fast river, lake trout can pull fast enough to make a reel clack louder than you can shout.

“Further,” said Kudluk, after no more than a few minutes.

I assumed he meant the fishing would only get better farther upriver. We put fly to cork and ripped upstream to a wide jaspergreen tributary that tumbled through sawtoothed boulders into the main Payne, water so pellucid you could see the bottom 12 feet down, but the fishing was only so-so by our now crybaby standards. Kudluk had pulled us away from the better spot just so that we could rendezvous with the others for lunch.

On a tiny island composed of granite boulders, we dined upon fillets of brook trout, lake trout and char. These three trout were cut into chunks and pan-stirred in butter with onions and green pepper. The meat of the char was a bloody pink; the lake trout, a deep lemony yellow; the brook trout, a paler pink, almost white.

Charles said he had come to fish, not to eat. He sparked a rebellion, and maybe he was right. We all motored back to the point of rocks where our reels had sung the loudest. I switched to a 5-weight flyrod, which is about as big as anyone would use on a freshwater river in the States, and tied on a Hornberg streamer.

I stood out on a gravel bar in the middle of the roaring river and thought about the last couple of days. The caribou had mesmerized me. The dramatic killing of the beluga had stung me with an ineffable sadness that I decided, finally, was stupid. But when those stream-running lake trout slapped my flyrod to the surface of the river–or else it would have broken–and the tip was two feet underwater, I decided I had landed in an angler’s Valhalla.

A couple of days later, back in Montreal, I walked the Inuit cultural center and ran the palms of my hands over exquisite soapstone carvings of ice bears and walrus women, some of the statues fashioned by carvers so far north of Payne River that the light lasted fewer than 60 days a year.

I purchased a book called The Inuit Imagination. I read how white beluga whales came to be: “She dung to the edge of the boat with a death grip. The cruel father then took a knife and cut off the first joints of her fingers. Falling into the sea they were transformed into whales, the nails turning into whalebone.”

And: “The blind young man lived with his mother who was cruel to him and, when he returned home and she saw that he could see, this wicked mother was so frightened she jumped in the sea. Eskimos believe she turned into a white whale and is there still–they really believe it.”

In Tumivut: The Cultural Magazine of the Nunavik Inuit, I read a third version: “The men struggled to keep their heads above the water. As they struggled, their heads twisted around, their noses went behind their heads, and they turned into whales. Their legs got stuck together, their feet turned outwards and they lost their forearms. My grandmother told me the story so seriously that I thought she was telling me a fact, that time.”

It’s one thing to go fishing, another to enter a culture on a freighter canoe.

NORTHERN FLIGHTS

Despite its distance from relative civilization (1000 miles due north of Montreal), Payne River Fishing Camp has a small main lodge that is equipped with all the amenities-indoor toilets, showers, a dining room and a lounge area. Guests stay in oil-heated adjacent cabins (they’re rudimentary but clean and fun). I found the food to be hearty and quite good, particularly the daily char hors d’oeuvres. Contact Arctic Adventures at 800/465-9474 from the United States or 800/363-7610 in Canada. Fax: 514/457-4626. Address: Dept. SA, 19950 Clark Graham, Bale d’Urfe, Quebec, Canada H9X 3R8.

Bring a good raincoat, fishing gloves and plenty of insect repellent (or your arms will constantly dance like windshield wipers). Recommended lures are three-inch Dardevles, Mepps spinners (No. 2 and No. 3) and three-inch Nebco Pixies, but I found that silver-and-orange Crocodiles and Fish-It-Firsts did better. The most effective flies I used were the Salt Water Candy, big sculpin and capelin imitations, daces and old Mickey Finns, and up the Payne River, the Hornberg in a No. 2 or No. 4. I was using Teeny sink-tip flylines, with G. Loomis rods and reels, which are stiff with the right amount of play, not whippy.

Steve Chapple, an SA contributing editor who lives in Montana, recently finished a boole on Africa called Last Days on the Zambezi.

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