It’s about a 5 hour drive across British Columbia from Kelowna to Squamish if you take a little time to stop for fuel, a stretch, or quick check to see if your brakes are stuck on. We would be driving west over the Coquihalla Pass on Highway 97C, north to Merritt, then following the 5 south to Hope and onto Vancouver. This, all before the shining gem of winding bitumen, The Sea to Sky Highway, perched on the cliff tops above Howe Sound between Vancouver and Squamish…in pure darkness. We were in Doug’s, now trusty, 1992 Toyota pickup. I say ‘now trusty’ because of $5000 recently spent to make it roadworthy. And we wouldn’t be weighed down by the rear bumper that had corroded away...a real fuel saver. Toyota introduced the pickup truck to the North American market as such an afterthought that they called it ‘The Toyota Pickup’. Times were tough in the marketing department, but no one can dispute the fact that there’s a pure, joyous feeling when you’re chugging along in this classic. It would later become the venerable Toyota Tacoma but for now it would do us just fine in getting to the coast.
I had booked a once in a lifetime day trip on the Squamish River with a local fly fishing guide. Doug was visiting for a wilderness first aid course and, before leaving Canada, this would be my last chance to fish a big river. I began fly fishing about a year prior and, over the course of the 2018 season, bagged myself one fish. I’d never been so bad as something I loved so much. A multitude of excuses would flood to me when somebody asked why had I caught just one fish. These ranged from ‘Oh I just don’t fish where the fish are’, which seemed a reasonable explanation, to ‘My rod is the cheapest money can buy’, which wasn’t far from the truth but I settled on ‘Well, I’m shit at it...but I have a bloody good time’. Doug and I started, what we fondly call ‘scoopin’, and always made a great time of it, whether we were catching trees on our back cast or weeds on our front cast. Our go to song on the way to a river or lake was ‘Riverboat Fantasy’ by David Wilcox. I don’t know much about the fella but Mr Wilcox knew how to tell a story.
The terrain between the Okanagan and Vancouver is nothing short of spectacular (quick break here to look at flights back to Canada). With snow still on the ground, I cannot describe the overwhelming sense of gratitude I had whilst listening to that head gasket chewing V6 meandering its way through the high plateaus and mountains on our way to Hope, famous, I’m sure amongst other things, for its appearance as Hope, Washington in the 1982 movie ‘First Blood’. Once darkness fell around Vancouver, we began the one hour drive north on to the Sea to Sky highway. Speed was of little concern, as the lighting was provided by seemingly AAA battery powered headlights and we watched cautiously for animals. We even saw people walking on the shoulder, who as far as we could tell, were content on their situation. I got dropped off in Squamish and Doug continued on to Whistler to rendezvous with his friends.
Squamish, a town that has relied upon logging, mining, and agriculture in the past, is now regarded as one of the major homes of adventure in Canada, and only 63 km north of Vancouver.. According to the District of Squamish website, there are ample opportunities for camping, fishing, climbing, kayaking, stand up paddle boarding, biking, kiteboarding, and ‘eagle and bird watching’ (I always assumed an eagle was a bird). It’s nestled alongside the ocean by way of a fjord, a part of Howe Sound, and also on the Squamish River, whilst being surrounded by jaw dropping mountain peaks and rock faces. And if you’re require winter sports, Whistler Ski Resort is a 45 minute drive north. I first visited Squamish on a rainy spring day in 2018 with my girlfriend, on one of our many road trips across the province. It was now a rainy spring night in 2019 and I was being dropped off with my pack at a cheap, yet pleasant, downtown hostel.
Following hand written instructions taped on doors, I stumbled through corridors and into the room booked for the next two nights. It contained four single beds, a round table in the centre, two Germans, and a Lithuanian. Later, whilst trying to doze off, I pondered if all Lithuanians sleep with such volume, and if so, it’s a wonder how neighbouring countries haven’t soundproofed the border. I was up at 4:30am, partly due to an early drive to the river and partly due to the fact that my night had been a series of short naps. He was up before me to seemingly assemble every piece of equipment from raw materials in the bedroom. I think at one point I heard him piecing together his ski boots and drilling on his bindings with a diesel powered generator and corded drill before machine-sewing together his backpack. One can't help but admire his resourcefulness. I’m sure my arrival the night before didn’t exactly go unnoticed, so I won’t say any more on the matter. We actually chatted over breakfast and I discovered he was much softer speaking than he was sleeping and a truly fascinating guy who was moving throughout North America in search of its best backcountry skiing.
The guide pulled up outside at 6am sharp. I estimated he was in his late 30’s, with the excitement and youthfulness of a teenager. This was the perfect guide to bombard with questions. In my experience, both in the UK and Australia, those who fly fish are of an older demographic. This is merely an observation not a judgement. In Canada however, you see young children, teenagers, and young professionals alongside retirees casting out their flies in the hope of getting a bite. It really is a wonderful culture that has developed and an absolute pleasure to partake in.
We drove from Squamish, north along Highway 99, and headed west along Squamish Valley Road until we were far enough up river that it was unlikely we’d be disturbed by other anglers. The suspension in the guide’s 4Runner was tested to the limit as we bounced over water filled potholes Greg Louganis could have used for practice. We pulled over at a spot the guide had chosen earlier in the week, I peeled myself from the ceiling, and we got our gear on in the drizzling rain.
Before the fishing begins, I feel it should be noted that I found an aspect of the day a little unsettling. It felt somewhat, as if I'd hired a butler for the day. This is no slur against guides as it is clearly an aspect that is expected by most who have the disposable cash to embark on such a trip. I suppose there are those anglers who want their gear carried for them and will pay for the privilege of making the experience as easy as possible. My goal was to fish somewhere I previously hadn’t with somebody who not only had ample knowledge but was willing to share it. The guide was a gentleman and ticked both boxes dutifully.
Landing a fish has never been the goal of fly fishing for me weirdly enough. I went a year with one fluke catch and had a fabulous time doing it so ‘the photo’ that invariably accompanies a catch is of little interest to me. The drive, the hike, the setup, fly tying, the surroundings, the chat with friends, the education, the chase, and the release are what bring a huge smile to my face. The catch is extremely exciting, especially on a dry fly, but it merely slots into the day of fishing that I enjoy so much. So to have someone regularly offering to remove as much effort from the day as possible was unfamiliar and, to a degree, took away from the adventure.
It was a short hike through a meadow in which, being a foreigner from the UK, I expected to see a bear pop out at every corner. We didn’t see any wildlife except for a dead bald eagle. I wish I could write that bears and moose were popping their heads up downriver to ponder what on earth we were doing, but alas, the bald eagle was all we came across. On the hike in I was ingesting knowledge about the river system, spey casting, the overall health of salmon in the west coast rivers, and much much more. The river system has be relearned most years due to such high volumes of water bombarding their way down the Elaho and Squamish waterways to be combined into the Squamish River. The Elaho is much larger than the Upper Squamish, so it’s any wonder why, following their confluence, the name Elaho is not used over the Squamish. I was also duly informed that the Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) has no clue as to how many of each salmon species (Chinook, Sockeye, Coho, Pink, Chum) are in the waterways in the region. There are much more intelligent and educated people than I, that would be able to comment further, so I say no more. Anyway, I’ve never interacted with the DFO beyond purchasing a fishing license and required Steelhead stamp, so all I can say is that they make that process a breeze.
Once setting up at the river with the evergreen-covered mountains towering above and mist rising all around, I was run through casting technique with a 9-weight spey setup and bright green fly known to steelhead fisherman as ‘an intruder’. Having fishing entirely with a 5-weight up to this point, it took some getting used to but the instruction was impeccable. It didn’t take long to get the fly shooting out across the ice cold river in order for it to swing through the run before retrieving and taking a couple of steps downstream for another cast. It was the first time I’d actually covered water efficiently and after scaring off every fish in what the guide liked to call the ‘B’ water, he thought it was time we moved down the run to the ‘A’ water, where there was a much higher probability of a Steelhead holding off a shallow point, beyond which a back-eddy swirled.
Having moved slowly after each cast, swing, and retrieve I was approaching the end of the run. The guide needed to relieve himself so headed up river to some inviting bushes. It must have been at the moment his waders were at their lowest point that I felt something at the end of the fly line. I was strictly told, if you’re going for bull trout, which we would pursue later in the day, you actively try to set the hook. For Steelhead, you ‘don’t dare move’, I was told. They will attack the fly. So when I felt something strike I fought every fibre in my body to stay completely still. Something struck again and I was frozen on the spot. The brief second between strikes feels like an eternity but on the third, I had something on the end of the line like I had never felt before. Not knowing how the fish would react, or in fact what on earth to do with this beast, I shouted upstream to the guide, who sprinted as fast as he could along the rocky bank with his waders around his knees whilst bellowing instructions that were knocked to the ground by the wind and rain.
By the time he got back, bladder half empty, he grabbed the net and instructed me through the process of landing this beast. Every movement I was told the fish would make, it would make a mere 2 seconds later. I was in awe of not only the power of the fish but also the seemingly telepathic nature of what the guide was saying. The fish was tiring as I slowly worked it in to within a few metres, when I was told ‘he won’t like the shallows so get your hand off the reel’. And before I knew it, my numbing fingers were cracked by the handle as the fish took off 80 yards downriver. We worked the process again with the same results and he took off back the spot in which he’d gotten into this dilemma. Having worn it out considerably by the next visit to the shallows and was unable to run with such velocity, I tightened the drag and worked it to within reach. It had resigned itself to its fate as the guide scooped this colourful Steelhead into the net just off the rocky bank.
Once in the net, I took a firm grasp just in front of the caudal fin with my right hand and balanced the body in my left. It was made clear that I must keep it partially submerged and only remove from the water for the absolute minimum time needed. A few photos were snapped and as much as I professed earlier about how the photo is somewhat meaningless to me, I proudly have this photo printed in our house back in Australia to remind me of this amazing experience and my appreciation for such a wonderful fish and those who understand them. A bright pink band ran down its side and as soon as possible, to minimise the stress, we turned it upriver to allow the rushing water into the gills and it took off. It never ceases to amaze me the lack of respect that is on display when people hoist a fish out of the water into the blaring sun or throw it onto the boat or bank with little to no regard. I understand the whole process involves an angler getting a thrill from the chase and ultimate catch of an animal attached to a hook but once it is in, I feel it’s important to treat it with as much respect as it deserves.
Following a quiet and jovial moment, both for myself and I’m sure the guide’s business (how could someone leave a bad review after this experience), we fished the lower part of the run again before two fellow anglers appeared at its head with hopes of repeating our experience. We headed back to the truck and drove further up the valley with smiles on our faces to a spot where the river consisted of four main channels sharing the huge load of meltwater. It was time to go for bull trout.
The wind and rain hadn’t ceased all day, and once we were ready with my 5-weight setup, sink tip and nymph, it only got worse. I was given tutorials on the single and double haul in order to get the fly zipping through the wind but my entirely numb hands could do very little by this point. The same procedure of swinging the fly through a run bore no positive results and although I continued to ask questions and learn for the rest of our time together, I could not fish for lack of use of my fingers. We called it quits after having visited three of the four channels with no bites. I cannot say this was disheartening, as I was still on a high from the catch that morning. We crossed back over on the guide’s inflatable pontoon boat, back to the truck, and headed back to Squamish, dodging Greg Louganis in his speedos as we went.
There was an unbearably awkward moment when, having arrived back at the hostel, I couldn’t find my wallet. As a Brit, tipping is an option but in North America you’re scum if you don’t open your wallet to show appreciation for a service. I asked, quite frankly, ‘how much do people tip for a guided day?’ and he responded with ‘Around $100’. The experience had been everything I hoped for so there was little I could be in disagreement about. The guide was great and we made conversation as I searched everywhere for the wallet, including back inside the hostel. I found it, eventually, and opened it up to find $60. He was understanding and realised I was not his usual clientele when I explained that was all I had. The awkwardness was soon over and I dove into the hostel for some food and a hot shower.
I spent the evening in the hostel, exhausted and exhilarated still from the day and fell asleep just after the Lithuanian returned to dismantle, what sounded like, a nuclear power plant in the bedroom. It was a restful night after that and the following morning, prior to being picked up by Doug for the long drive home, was full of food and study. I have the fondest of memories of Squamish.
My bags were thrown into the back of Doug’s truck and we headed north along Highway 99, past Whistler, and all the way to its termination at Highway 97, 260 km to the northeast. Doug and I spoke recently about that drive. It was, undoubtedly, the best I’ve ever been on. The combination of the truck, a great friend, the snow capped mountains, winding roads, hidden campsites, rivers, and lack of other vehicles is a memory I won’t soon forget. If you ever have the opportunity to drive the 99, in either direction, I implore you to do it. It’ll take a heck of a lot longer to get where you’re going, but what’s the rush? That is all to say on that drive, as I believe it is one in which any description will do little justice to the memories it’ll give you.
Night began to fall as we met Highway 97 and drove south to Spence’s Bridge. David Wilcox was pumping out of the speakers as the Thompson River flowed along down below us. We stopped in Spence’s Bridge to stretch and refuel. Phone signal was poor, and with work the next morning, there was nothing more to do than chug alongside the Nicola River to Merritt and back to Kelowna in the dead of night.
We arrived back in Kelowna at around midnight, unloaded the truck of all our gear and stumbled to our apartment. I was, as always, very excited to see my girlfriend and tell her all about the trip. The next morning, I awoke at 4:45 to have my coffee and watch the sunrise, knowing full well that I had just experienced one of the best weekends of my life. Thank you British Columbia for that most wonderful gift.