I vividly remember that beautiful warm September day like it was yesterday. Those I had shared my day with, the run, the fly, and a steelhead that left such an indelible recollection some thirty years later. This fall after being denied access to British Columbia I have since longingly reflected on my time there. Of such recollections, landing that first steelhead for all who chase these incredible fish never wanders far from ones mind. It was that first fish that drew me back to the beginning, those early days, and the anguish that bled from other vivid reminders knowing that borders would be closed to a place I’ve come to call home.
I first wandered into the Frontier Farwest world in 1986. That summer thanks to Greg Smith I fortuitously met Collin Shadrach, the owner and founder of the lodge. He was a pioneer, arguably the father of the Bulkley Mouse, and a guy who had an uncanny nose for finding steelhead. After that chance encounter he invited me to the lodge to help put together the years fall steelhead program. It was a time I’ll never forget. I remember sitting on the tailgate of a truck one evening with Collin, Greg, and several guides after another day in Steelhead Paradise. I recall Collin telling me that these fish would change my life, and that I’d never be the same after this experience. I brushed him off at the time, but over thirty years later those words ring true.
Back then, there were a lot of fish around, and less traffic, especially sled traffic, which made it pretty easy to encounter a player under favorable river conditions. Consequently, I didn’t struggle in finding a fish or two that would inhale my dry flies, but I failed miserably at keeping them buttoned up. I soon came to find that LDR outcomes (long distance release) in steelhead country are referred to as farming. I’d gotten so adept at this that one evening during dinner at the lodge I was awarded a John Deer hat and anointed with the coveted title, “The Minister of Agriculture”. My propensity for farming fish didn’t exactly instill confidence in my hopes, but it certainly didn’t dissuade me either.
That fateful fish came from a run known as the Window, on the Quick to Telkwa beat. I fished while my boat mates wandered up the hill for a brief visit with a friend to grab a beer and a toke. Upon returning, they soon realized I was kneeling over a fish I’d just landed. I barely noticed them as they gathered, scrambling to unroll a tape to measure the sizable fish. Hunched over the steelhead I took in it’s every detail before letting it magically disappear back into the river.
That particular fish ate a tan Bulkley Mouse, sipping it as a trout takes a struggling dun, the fly disappearing within a bulging rise. I let the line come tight as residual rings undulated rhythmically across the placid waters. As the weight of the fish drew the line tight, it surged and broke to the center of the river effortlessly trailing the length of the fly line with it. At one point it vibrated so ominously that it resembled the sound of current moving through a power line. When the steelhead finally showed I noticed it’s significant girth, and the two scarlet bands highlighting its broad sides. A Buck. Reaching down to land it my hand fell far short of encircling the fishes tail, yet somehow I managed to hold on.
A closed Canadian border kept me and others from partaking in this year’s epic Frontier Farwest fall trip; a steelheading experience that has become so much a part of my and others lives. Back in March I thought the virus would run its course and I’d be able to make the annual trek north, and build on the many fond memories I have from my time there. Back then not going seemed an improbability. As fall approached the global impact of the virus became a reality. For me, selfishly, a devastating one.
Those early forays to BC we’re measured by fish caught, yet over time I’ve come to realize that those who I’ve shared my time with have endeared and expanded the significance of my travels there. It has become a pilgrimage similar to any such purposeful journey that has immeasurable meaning that evolves through time.
For myself and others who transitioned from those early years at Frontier Farwest to when Derek and Andrea purchased the lodge in 2008, that transition was met with some anxiety. I and a crew I hosted each year had become very comfortable with the existing program, the staff, and the community Collin and his wife Cary had created. What reservations we may have had quickly vanished. It was soon apparent that Derek and Andrea recognized there was a strong culture here, an extensive history and a unique steelhead program that they intended to build upon. Over a decade later, under their tutelage the Frontier Farwest program has evolved into a truly epic steelhead experience. One that rivals any in all of the game.
After a long tenure of fishing from a pair of double wide trailers and an old cozy butter creamery, respectively known as Seaton Camp and The Creamery, Derek and Andrea wasted little time in building a new lodge with accompanying private cozy guest cabins. With a clear view of Hudson Bay Mountain, a secluded rural setting, and easy access to the river this incredible facility significantly enhanced what Frontier Farwest offers. I reflect on this history, because it has played such a role in what has made Frontier Farwest such a remarkable destination. The totality of these pieces and it’s history makes your time here more than just a fishing trip.
Shortly after they moved into the new lodge, they acquired the Morice River Lodge; an iconic, rustic accommodation nestled among towering firs and cottonwoods. There grizzlies and wolves walk the same path you do. The incessant chatter of eagles, Golden and Bald, echoes throughout the heavily timbered corridor as you methodically work the clear waters of the Morice. When Derek informed us that this was also going to become a part of the Frontier Farwest epic experience, again I and others were reluctant to change. Although I miss the old river camps that were initially a part of the steelhead program, the iconic Morice River Lodge quickly became a favorite. The fact that it’s fish have a propensity to rise to a dry fly only added to its allure.
Just writing of this place invokes a mournful longing for what I miss. Starting with that first morning hotel pickup and the ensuing round of handshakes, smiles, and hugs that are warmly exchanged as we’re reunited after another year has come to pass. Walking into the lodge, being consumed by the incredible aromas that emanate from Brandi’s kitchen. Exchanging another round of hugs from Andrea, Leah and the lodge staff before sitting down to enjoy a feast set for kings and queens. At this point a nap would be in order, but that will have to wait. That first anxious stroll to the wader room where the guides prepare to take you out for the day. Morning bedside coffee wake up calls that come to soon, but not soon enough. The smell of rotting leaves. The sound of an old Hardy reel. Piling into frost laden vehicles fully caffeinated amplifying the hope of what each day brings . The chill and exhilaration that runs through your body walking into the water to swing a fly through that first run of the day. And if you’re fortunate somewhere along your journey you’ll have the opportunity to share in a fish or two. These past recollections continue to linger and make me yearn for the day I’ll return. At this juncture It’s a labored yearning knowing that the possibility is a ways off and under the circumstances still tenuous.
This is a storied destination, with a rich history, one that I have been fortunate to be a part of now for a long time. Those who I’ve shared it with I view as family and cherish time with them as I do my own. So when the pandemic hit, the border closed, and this years trip was cancelled it was more than a missed adventure to catch a steelhead. It was a rare lost opportunity to spend time in an amazing part of the world, swinging flies for an incredible fish with people I care for. The pandemic didn’t make me realize this. It took years to morph such meaningful connections and collective sentiments. I’m fortunate for that, but those cumulative years are what made it so difficult to accept a closed border and being denied something I and others care deeply for.