You won't find the name on maps of the Canadian Arctic, but you can trace the course of the Ski-Mo River as it meanders through the rolling tundra on the west coast of Victoria Island in the Northwest Territories, gathering volume from trickling feeder streams until it finally roars down a mile-long chute and gushes into Albert Edward Bay, an ice-choked arm of the Arctic Ocean. For 10 months of the year the tundra is tortured by howling winds, drifting snow and temperatures down to 55° below, and the river's standing rapids and swirling backwater pockets are locked in solid ice. But in mid-July, when the ice finally begins to boom, cracking apart and drifting out to sea, and the tiny arctic flowers and the mosses, the lichens and the thick mists rolling off the river give the land a stark, almost dreamlike look, something is happening in the Ski-Mo. Sleek, racy arctic char, their bellies taut after nine months of hibernation in the dark waters, begin to move downriver and out to sea to feed. For the next 50 days or so, until mid-September, when the drifting sea ice moves back into the river, flying sportsmen can go to the "friendly Arctic" and enjoy some of the most exclusive fishing in the world.
One of the endearing qualities of the arctic char is that few of your friends have ever heard of the fish, let alone caught one or tasted its sweet, delicate flesh. They may have heard of the landlocked species of char, a glacial relic confined to lakes, but it is of minor importance. The more highly prized arctic char is anadromous. It runs to the sea at ice-out and returns again sometime in August. In an age when Americans fly all the way to Patagonia or New Zealand to catch trout, the arctic char is still virtually undiscovered It was only five years ago that this game fish really became known to the outside. Last summer fewer than 1,000 anglers flew to the Canadian Arctic to catch char, and most of them concentrated on proven stretches of fast water in reputation rivers. But from Labrador north and west throughout the remote arctic archipelago as far as Alaska thousands of other rivers teem with char.
The arctic char (Salvelinus alpinus) belongs to the same family of fishes as the lake trout, the Dolly Varden trout and the eastern brook trout, which is roughly equivalent to classifying the leopard and house tabby as cats. There is a world of difference for the fisherman who has caught all four. S. alpinus is really two fishes in one. There is the sea-run char, the bright silver-blue fish with faint pink spots that runs to the salt at ice-out to gorge on small baitfish, snails and clams and then, with the same unerring homing instinct of the Atlantic salmon, returns to the same river in mid-August, fat, saucy and covered with sea lice. Although it has minute scales, the silver char is a dead ringer for the salmon—indeed, it has been passed off as such in fish markets. The other char are the "red fish," which remain all summer in fresh water, pairing off to spawn in the loose gravel bottom in fall.
Although the char is less of an acrobat than the salmon or the steelhead, it will frequently jump, particularly when fresh in from the ocean. The icy river water (rarely above 36° F) that numbs the wading angler's feet seems to keep the char charged with energy, and its initial run, even upriver in the face of tumbling rapids, is powerful and exciting. The big red spawning males, with hooked lower jaws, are inclined to be a bit more sluggish, especially late in the season, when they have other things in mind, and their flesh is not as firm and sweet as that of the silver char. But the red fish are formidable enough on light tackle, and their trophy proportions and dazzling colors more than make up for any other deficiency.
Ichthyologists still have a lot to learn about the char. "The trouble is that, like every other living thing in the Arctic, the char's growth rate is exceedingly slow," says Gerald Hunter, a biologist with Canada's Fisheries Research Board and the leading expert on char. "The young fish are hatched in early April. By mid-July, when the rivers are ice-free and plankton feed is available, the free-swimming fry are about an inch long and vulnerable to the cannibalistic adult fish. Six years later, when the surviving young char migrate to the salt for the first time, they are, on the average, only six to eight inches long. Char generally do not become sexually mature until they have reached 18 inches long and are anywhere from 10 to 15 years old, after which spawning occurs every second or third year." Thus, at the most critical time in their lives, spawning char are readily available to anglers and to the Eskimos, who net or spear them (it takes roughly 5,000 pounds of char to sustain an Eskimo family and its dogs for one winter), and it does not take much time to fish out a river. But government fishery men are working hard to distribute the fishing pressure throughout the Arctic.
The best time to fish for char is the four-week period from mid-August into September, when the silver sea-run fish are back in the river, mingling with the spawners. Even this late in the brief arctic summer the sun shines nearly 20 hours a day, and at midnight, when a fresh run of char comes into the river on a making tide, the water is bathed in gentle twilight.
For the sportsman concerned with things like ice cubes, sheets instead of a sleeping bag and a drill sergeant to wake him at 7 a.m. sharp and marshal him through the rest of the day, a package deal with a fishing lodge is the answer. But for a group of itinerant anglers who have 10 days or two weeks to spare and do not have to fish against the clock to get their money's worth, there is a better way to go about it—charter a floatplane and a pilot, load it with camping gear and head north, hopping from river to river, popping in at remote Eskimo camps, eating and sleeping when they feel like it. The flight plan will be flexible, because of fog, wind, rain and sea ice, but they will discover, as four of us did last August on a 12-day, 3,089-mile flying adventure through the Arctic, that even if they never catch a char—and they will catch them—the sights along the way are enough to justify the journey.
Yellowknife, a lively frontier town at the end of the pavement in the Northwest Territories, is a good place from which to take off on a flying safari. The DC-6 arrives from Edmonton in the afternoon, usually in time to get the obligatory sightseeing (the gold mine and the Museum of the North, where a visitor receives a certificate proving that he is a BLOOD BROTHER OF RAYMOND THE RAVEN) out of the way and still get to the Hudson's Bay store before closing time to stock up on provisions for the trip north.
Our party consisted of Frank Golden, an artist from Connecticut who would rather fish than paint; Jack Hitchcock, the fishery specialist for the government's Northern Affairs and Natural Resources department, a calm, self-sufficient arctic-hand who was interested in locating new char rivers and, not so incidentally, in fishing 24 hours a day; and our pilot, the redoubtable Myron Olson, better known in the North as Dipstick. The name perfectly suited this long, rangy daredevil. At 30, Dipstick has flown some 5,000 hours (roughly 500,000 miles) in seven years in the Arctic, and he can spot a gasoline drum from 2,000 feet in a dense fog. Like all arctic pilots, he depends not only upon maps, astrocompass, ADF and radio operators at settlement villages and isolated DEW Line sites, but also upon his knowledge of gas caches that are strategically located along the main air routes. Passengers pay a surcharge for any gas cache used, as well as a daily minimum rate for the plane, which increases with latitude and remoteness. It was comforting to know that our four-place de Havilland Beaver was equipped with long-range wing tanks, giving us a total capacity of 139 gallons. For quicker takeoffs, it also had oversize floats that Dipstick had scrounged from somewhere.
We crossed the tree line one hour's flying time north of Yellowknife. Below, the tundra stretched from horizon to horizon, broken up by a smorgasbord of nameless lakes and meandering streams and glacial debris. The deep gouges in the Precambrian bedrock looked as though a giant rake had been dragged over the land. Dipstick informed us that this part of the world gets less rain per year than the Sahara. "Great place for hay fever sufferers," he said. As I made a note of that, Dipstick offered another tidbit. "Bush plane went down here two years ago," he said. "Pilot, plane and two American geologists disappeared without a trace. But not to worry, Olson is here." For the next 11 days, we were to hear that line every time we encountered fog, treacherous sea ice or shallow, boulder-strewn lakes.
Just south of the Tree River, the plane suddenly nosed down and quickly leveled off again. Air pocket? Gas cache? "Nope," Dipstick said with a grin. "We just bumped over the Arctic Circle at Hood River." It was 5 p.m. when we landed near the mouth of the Tree and set up camp in the fishery officer's shack.
The standing rapids of the Tree seemed better suited to white-water canoeing than to fishing. Yet since 1962, when Warren Plummer built an outpost camp on the river and began flying anglers up from his lodge on Great Bear Lake, 250 miles to the southwest, the Tree has consistently produced the biggest char in the Arctic. The world record, a 27-pound four-ounce male, was taken there in September 1963.
"The char's productive capacity does seem out of proportion in the Tree," says Gerald Hunter. "We haven't pinned it down, but obviously all the factors—feed, water temperature, the gravel in which the female scoops out her shallow spawning redd—seem to be working at maximum there." Not surprisingly, the Tree has a long history of being overfished. At first it was the Eskimos. Then, when the Tree became popular with sports fishermen, the government convinced the Eskimos to net their winter food supply elsewhere. But in the next two years the rush of flying anglers nearly fished out all the char in the Tree. Three years ago the government finally put in a two-fish-per-angler limit on the Tree and a total season sports catch of 500 fish.
We spent only one day at Tree River. The fast water called for heavy tackle, which we disliked, and, too, we longed for a river all our own. We took off again—still heading north. Flying over ice-blue Coronation Gulf, we dropped down onto a nameless lake on Victoria Island, snubbed the Beaver to boulders in a stiff breeze, and set out across the tundra to fish the tidal river draining the lake. The Eskimos call the Arctic Nunassiaq, "the good land," and for the fisherman it is indeed full of promises. There are days when the wind sings gently and the stillness of the tundra crashes in one's ears. More often the wind washes the tundra, chapping face and lips, collapsing fly line during the back cast, violently shaking the most securely tied tent. But the wind is forgotten when one wades in an icy tidal river unscarred by man, with a rainbow arching across the misty horizon. All sense of time is lost in the long daylight. Forever is here with the strike of a 10-pound red char and the throbbing of the rod as the fish races through the shallow rapids, its scarlet body flashing in the 9 p.m. sun.
We left this good fishing to move on to what we hoped would be even better fishing at Albert Bay, where the Ski-Mo River comes in. It is only a 30-minute flight, but we were getting farther away from civilization and it seemed much longer.
The Eskimo cairn at the Ski-Mo was a good sign. The Eskimos cache fish and meat for winter in the permafrost and cover them with rocks to keep out scavenging wolves and foxes. Below the cairn there was a natural fish trap—a stretch of rapids perhaps 50 feet wide. The Ski-Mo was all, and more, that we had hoped for. Wading out to a gravel bar above the rapids, we caught char and lake trout for four hours straight by casting upstream and letting the spoons bump along the bottom and sparkle in the current. Using small lures with single barbless hooks, we found that the fish fought longer, jumped more often and could be easily released. We switched to fly rods and, despite the wind, managed to take several fish on Silver Darter streamers and others on bright English sea-trout patterns. Undoubtedly, stone- and caddis-fly nymphs, which char feed on in fresh water, would also have worked, but we were far too impatient for such purism.
The biggest char weighed just under 14 pounds. We stopped fishing at 8 p.m., when someone finally looked at his watch. As we walked back to the plane, a wolf howled somewhere—or was it the wind? No matter. We were too exhausted and hungry to ponder it further. That night, revived by whiskey and icy lake water, Jack poached two firm silver char on the Coleman stove and served them with a cream sauce. The pinkish flesh was subtler than salmon and more delicate than trout. Jack reminded us that the likes of Queen Elizabeth, President Charles de Gaulle and the Shah of Iran have all praised the char dinners served at the home of Canada's late Governor General Georges Vanier. But none of them has feasted on char in the most satisfying way—squatting on the tundra at midnight, watching Eskimo children whipping imaginary dogs on as their sled (two rusty gas drums) sails across the snow in pursuit of a great white bear.
As it turned out, the Ski-Mo char were the last we caught on the trip. At every other river we visited farther north, the Eskimos explained that we were a week too early for the first runs of silver char and the big red fish were congregated in lakes that were still frozen over. But the journey offered other rewards. Over Victoria Strait we saw our first great mass of drifting pack ice, floating white marble riddled with pale turquoise pools that glistened in the sun. Ring seals sunning on the ice slipped away through chimney holes the instant the plane's shadow passed over. At one point, flying through a thick fog, the compass started spinning crazily. Dipstick explained that we were only 350 miles south of the magnetic North Pole. "We're sort of flying blind now," he said, emphasizing the word blind. "But not to worry, Olson is here."
Heading back to Spence Bay from Somerset Island, our most northerly penetration, a driving rainstorm and an Eskimo tent camp changed our flight plan. Dipstick put the Beaver down gingerly just inside the ice on Thom Bay and taxied up to the bank, where 40 grinning Eskimos and P√®re J. Leverge, a Catholic missionary from Brittany, greeted us. Visiting hour began as soon as we put the tent up. Mustachioed hunters, shy mothers nursing newborns under their parkas and wide-eyed, runny-nosed children squeezed into the tent and squatted on the ground. An attractive girl named Rachael, who had been "out" to school and spoke English, began to play snatches of tunes on a miniature accordion—Home on the Heather, Danny Boy and a staccato burst of Yankee Doodle, to everyone's great amusement. Soon the Eskimos filed out of the tent and Rachael explained that they wanted to dance. And so, at 11:30 p.m., we all shuffled around the windswept tundra in an Eskimo square dance. It was a toss-up which was more ludicrous—two leering, pigeon-toed Eskimo hunters thrown together as partners, or Dipstick grabbing a woman around the waist and feeling a baby's bottom through her parka.
These nomadic Eskimos are, like the awesome, surrealistic land around them, still unbound by precise laws or progress. They remain wanderers, as restless as the sea ice, moving abruptly from place to place, always with one gnawing goal—to fill their bellies and thus to survive in one of the world's cruelest regions.
Yet the Eskimos, many of them ridden with tuberculosis and all of them hungry, are a happy lot. As we were packing, a group of them came to the tent carrying sealskins rough-tanned with urine. We had several boxes of pilot biscuits, two five-pound tins of tea and some candy and cigarettes. After considerable haggling, the Eskimos offered four sealskins. Three of them were soft and shiny but the fourth one—on the bottom of the pile—was stained and torn. Dipstick, looking stern, said: "No good for white man." The Eskimos dissolved in laughter. Another good skin was quickly produced. The Eskimos were still giggling as we took off.
The rest of the trip back to Yellow-knife was uneventful. We did run into fog and gale winds as we approached Cambridge Bay. Visibility was zero and there was a 625-foot radio tower somewhere below. But old Not to Worry casually headed out to sea, gradually losing altitude, until he could see the water before making the final approach.
Sadly, sportsmen planning a char fishing expedition in the future will not be able to fly with Dipstick, for he has left the Arctic to conquer new worlds with Air Canada. But don't put him completely out of mind. You may be flying across Canada one day when the plane hits an air pocket and sickeningly dips. As you settle back uneasily in the seat, you will hear Dipstick. His voice will come booming through the intercom: "Just a bit of turbulence, folks, but not to worry. Olson is here."