A River That Time Forgot

A River That Time Forgot

A visit to the Pitt: Vancouver's lost river valley

  • By: Ehor Boyanowsky
  • and Alexei Boyanowsky
I am standing at the spot where the clear cobalt mouth of Blue Creek bleeds into the glacial flow of British Columbia's all-but-forgotten Pitt River. It's the summer of 2005 and the Pitt is turbid from the current heat wave, and although I spot a few tantalizing swirls here at the confluence, my bead-eye Black Bunny Leech drifts through several swings unmolested. I've already been hiking by myself for eight hours, and I continue to trundle upstream along a sandy shoreline that is a virtual barnyard of bear, deer, elk and even cougar tracks.Above me brood Loden green cliffs, shrouded in cloud. I am completely alone in total wilderness just 20 miles as the crow flies from Vancouver, a city of 2 million. Not bad for the 21st Century. But not great if I get skunked again on this, my second full day. Yesterday's float on a rubber raft with guide Felix Geiser proved fishless, which is part of the reason I'm on foot today. Angler's anxiety dogs my heels as I enter a small pool 200 yards above the creek. But at last, a dark, lavishly spotted, orange-finned vision of elegance thrashes at the end of my line. A few minutes later, I bend to release a fine three-pound specimen of a Dolly Varden, kissing cousin to the brook trout. Then, after five more casts, I get two more beautiful Dollies, one of them a four-pounder. Clearly, I am on a roll. Up at the next, much bigger pool, I get two more Dollies, even bigger. I start to cut through a braid in the river, but pause: 50 feet away there is a chute spilling into a cauldron-like pool that immediately breaks into a straight run. I circle back and peer into the white foam at the foot of the falls. There's something hiding in there, either a nice Dolly or maybe even a mighty sea-run bull trout-a nearly mythic creature protected in most parts of the US. I rollcast, watch the huge black rabbit-fur leech unfurl in the maelstrom and almost immediately see a great gray head rise from the white depths and engulf my fly. It's too big for even a bull; when I lift my rod and set the hook, a sea-bright chinook the size of a small seal motors downstream in a series of lunging leaps. Earlier, Pitt River Lodge owner Danny Gerak had warned me that, even though I was fishing for bull trout, I needed to be prepared for chinooks that were as aggressive as summer steelhead. But, having heard lodge owners' stories before, I had taken his advice with a grain of salt, and now I was sorry. I put increasing pressure on my line, which, alas, is peeling from a reel that has all the stopping power of a glass yoyo. My fingers are bleeding but I do not want to lose this fish, which I already know is bigger than either my 30-pound steelhead or my 35-pound Alaska king. When he's 150 yards out, I realize that if he reaches that distant log jam I may be left with no fly line, which means that I'll have six more hours on my own with nothing to pass the time but birdwatching. There's nothing to do but clamp down and break him off. Afterward, an eagle in a nearby tree, having witnessed the whole debacle, lets out what sounds distinctly like an avian heckle. But breaking off was the right decision, because on my first cast into the pool after re-rigging, another heavy fish slams my fly, then roars to the surface in a cascade of silver and blue. The fish takes me into my backing, then slows down, and finally I land a lovely sea-run bull trout of six or seven pounds. I take six more good-size fish in that pool-no more runaway freight trains, but for me it has been a magical afternoon. Walking downstream to my rendezvous with Danny Gerak, I meet the only other angler on the upper beat, a radio personality from Albuquerque and his guide. He tells me he landed a bull trout of eight pounds and lost a behemoth to a sweeper in the river. How, a scant few miles from the Big Smoke, in one of the fastest growing areas in North America, has the Pitt River retained its wilderness character, including a healthy population of huge sea-run bull trout, which are approaching extinction almost everywhere else? The answer is, only by the strangest of circumstances. My old cowboy friend-now a fisheries biologist-Chuck Chestnut, has lamented to me that as a teenager in the late 1950's and early 1960's, he and a buddy, Nate Tyrell, would boat up Pitt Lake to catch steelhead in a paradisiacal river that nonetheless bustled with commercial activity, killing four steelhead a day and discarding bull trout on the shore as a species that preyed on salmon and steelhead (others did the same with giant brown trout on the Cowichan, an attitude of the times). Chuck describes huge runs of giant sockeye, myriad cutthroats and rainbows and, of course, chinooks. At the time there were many people living on the Pitt, logging, prospecting and fishing from the town of Alvin. Then in mid-century, as happened all over the Northwest, the people suddenly left for the big cities, and Alvin was reclaimed by the rainforest. Today there are fewer people on the Pitt than there have been for more than half a century. Meanwhile, because of its relative inaccessibility-I saw an independent guide's sunken jet boat being lifted by helicopter from a treacherous stretch of water on my first day's float-recreational fishermen have all but overlooked the place. Currently, Pitt River Lodge offers the only formal fishing accommodations on the river; fortunately, they're excellent ones. However, it is possible to get to the river and fish it on your own. Following that first, eye-opening trip to the Pitt in 2005, I try to talk my regular Vancouver crew into going back there with me. But the crew is skeptical; even in BC one usually has to travel hundreds, if not thousands, of miles to find wilderness fishing. They don't believe my claims of having discovered a great river right on our doorstep. However, three other friends, Gary Mikesh, Jeff Theiler and George Slevin, are more willing to take a chance. In the summer of 2006, the four of us travel to Pitt River Lodge, where my son, Alexei, is now working as a guide. On our first evening in camp, we settle into our cabin, comfortably outfitted with a Franklin fireplace and a full kitchen, and we crack open the single malt. Gary barbecues steaks and George uncorks California wine from his sister-in-law's vineyard. We turn in late, with the guides, Alexei and Felix, hanging in for most of it. Nevertheless, Alexei is knocking on our door at 6 am-a distinct departure from the habits of his teenage years, when it was often difficult to get him up for school in the morning. Alexei will be rowing George and Jeff, while Gary and I reprise my trip above Blue Creek. Danny drops us off at the confluence of Blue Creek and the Pitt along with Adrian, a Scottish tourist. Gary and I hike up several pools before we finally find one that holds fish-at which point Gary puts on a show I would buy tickets to see. On the first cast he is into a powerful bull trout that takes him into his backing. After releasing it, he urges me to fish. But I decline, and in short order he lands four more strong, feisty bull trout of up to around 11 pounds, all the while ululating like a soldier let loose in a seraglio. Finally, he refuses to fish anymore, so I step in and immediately hook five more magnificent bull trout, the largest of which measures 28 inches. Then Adrian catches up to us, and we adjust his equipment-Gary gives him the killer fly, a green sculpin pattern. Within minutes he has a nice rainbow and a large bull trout as well a huge smile on his hitherto dour visage. Clearly, we have hit the mother lode. The next day is a historic one for Alexei and me. Although we have fished together since he was two, today, for the first time, Alexei will be in charge. I, the mere sport, can relax as best I can on this challenging river. I promise myself that I will keep my suggestions to a minimum. First pool of the day, and Gary's already into a nice 16- to 18-pound chinook. He can scarcely believe it. We are still high up on the river, and the fish's fading sheen betrays the fact that it's been in from the ocean for a while. Afterward, we move on downstream, picking up bull trout and rainbows along the way. Alexei is excited about our next stop, claiming it as his favorite holding water regardless of season. To his dismay, however, his co-guide, Felix, had sneaked in ahead of us, and Jeff and George are already into the prime hold of the run. As we float past in our raft, Jeff hands his rod to Felix for a test cast, and Felix promptly puts the fly right into the honey spot. "Watch this," Alexei says. "He'll get one with that cast." Halfway through the swing and, bam, Felix is into a monster that goes cartwheeling into the distance. His favorite run taken, Alexei moves us on to a slot where two channels join. We pull the raft onto the bank and Gary begins to fish. Halfway down the slot, the line on his 9-weight tightens and his reel starts up noisily. Immediately everyone crowds around offering "expert" suggestions and criticism. Gary tries to hold the fish in the run, but it soon becomes clear that we're going to have to get in the raft and chase it. As Gary runs down the bank and Alexei readies the raft, Felix and the other boys show up, adding to the crowd of groupies eagerly following Gary downstream. It is apparent that, not only is this the biggest fish we've seen on the trip, it's also the last, since we are already late for our pickup time. An hour later Gary finally has his backing on the reel and is slowly pulling the giant in. An underwater flash of silver reveals what looks like a small submarine moving towards shore. Alexei meets the fish halfway, and a couple of attempts later, grabs her tail and brings her in. We estimate the chrome chinook at better than 30 pounds-and it's Gary's first giant on the fly. We end the day with another toast of Crown Royal just as Danny and his wife, Lee MacGregor, show up to give us a lift. Cups in hand, we all smile at one another, because we know we are living every angler's dream: a lost, wild river valley filled with great wild fish. Seasons of the Pitt By mid July, everything in the Pitt River Valley universe comes into alignment. The sockeye are already clouding the main channel and its tributaries, the sea-run bull trout are hungry and aggressive, and the first giant chinook salmon are making their way into the river. These "spring" chinooks are notoriously aggressive, but if you're not hooking into them you're usually cleaning up on the many other species that call the river home. The resident trout are plentiful and grow large--a 20-inch cutthroat or a four-pound rainbow is not uncommon at any time of the year. Fall is the best time to fish for trout with dry flies--an orange Stimulator is my preference--but you can take trout year-round on an egg pattern or a flashy wet fly. Fall is also the time of the coho salmon run. They, too, are aggressive fish, and renowned as the biggest in BC, weighing up to 17 pounds. The Pitt River steelhead run is at its prime during March, when you can expect to hook into more than a couple of fish on a good day. Along with the species mentioned above, whitefish and cuttbows will often find their way onto the end of your line, and in the fall you'll probably catch some chum salmon along with those big cohos. Getting There The Pitt is right in Vancouver's backyard, but it differs from many other great Northwest rivers like those on the Olympic Peninsula or Vancouver Island in that there is no road to the remote upper river. One can drive to Grant Narrows Provincial Park on Pitt Lake from downtown Vancouver in half an hour, but after that you need a boat. Hiring a water taxi is expensive (around $250, one way), and a guide is three times that rate. Once at the north end of the lake, you need some way to get up and down the river. Rafting on your own is not advised, as the Pitt is can be an extremely treacherous river for the inexperienced. If you stay at Pitt River Lodge they provide boat and bus transportation to the lodge and, for no extra cost above that of staying in one of their cabins or in the main lodge building itself, they will drop you off and pick you up on the river each day. Guides and float trips cost extra. For more information contact Riverside Fly&Tackle: 604-944-2479, www.riversideflyandtackle.com; and REM Salmon Guiding: 604-462-8631. The Pitt River Lodge can be reached at 1.800.665.6206; www.pittriverlodge.com