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.