My Life as a Dog

Lie down with arctic char and get up with hip dysplasia.
by James R. Babb
From the November/December 2008 issue.

After the usual uneventful flight from Montreal, we left Kuujjuaq, Nunavik, in a low-flying Air Inuit Twin Otter containing an assortment of middle-aged humanity serenely observing the scenery and three young bird dogs frantic to hang their heads out the windows and inhale it.

After the plane whomped onto the gravel landing strip at Diana Lake Lodge some 40 miles northwest of town, we humans wandered around with our hands in our pockets while the dogs hit the tundra on a dead run, and by the time we had reasserted individual ownership of our annoyingly identical green duffels the dogs had sniffed, licked, tasted, and peed on every inch of ground as far as the eye could see. Drifting downwind came the sound of tinkling bells and the unmistakable whutter of wings. If you replace Buck with pointers and Brittanys and the beckoning wolf pack with ptarmigan, it was just like The Call of the Wild.

The wild called me north to fish, of course.

To misappropriate a phrase from Henry David Thoreau, “I’m confined to this theme by the narrowness of my experience.” But when my friend Danny Legere said he was bringing his shotgun, I didn’t fully appreciate what this might mean.

I should have. Our driver’s licenses say I’m senior by a year, but a decade or so ago we strapped kickboats and waders and gear to our backs and climbed a Maine mountain where a glaciological miscalculation left behind a very nice brook trout pond, and when we arrived at the top he was younger than me by at least seven years. At the time I hadn’t understood what this meant, either.

But enlightenment comes to he who waits, or something like that, and it was while trudging across the tundra, rod in hand and pack on back, returning from a stretch of river that lodge owner, bush pilot, and raconteur Joe Stefanski called “Seven Mile Falls”—by which he meant it was seven miles long, and a seven-mile walk there and back—that I began to wonder if that seven-year difference in apparent age might owe less to genes or conditioning than to a domesticated form of lycanthropy.

Because on the way back, after fishing downstream through a brilliant series of stair-step falls and swirling pools and picture-perfect pocket-water, from which the members of our motley party caught psychedelic-bright brook trout measured in pounds, and fiercely fanged lake trout measured in feet, and a few arctic char anxious to show us the inadequacies of our fly reels’ backing, I heard a clucking and shucking and saw movement in the tufted, berry-laden tundra, and feeling my nostrils twitching in an unexpected way, I swiveled my head around to see a pair of ptarmigan bumbling into view almost beneath my feet. As they lit out for the Yerritory down a musk-ox trail, I howled upwind at Danny, but by the time he unlimbered the double-barrel .410 stuffed into his daypack they were long gone. Even after catching all those splendid fish, I felt as though I’d failed at something or other.

A few days of impressive fishing later, a southerly storm firehosed the cabins all night, and the next morning, anticipating a lift in the river and a push of char up from Ungava Bay, Joe fired up his Cessna and flew Danny and me some 30 miles downriver to a spot where Diana Lake narrows and drops through a series of quick S-bends and long lovely stretches of riffles and pools.

At Joe’s behest we’d packed sleeping bags and food for several days, in case the weather worsened and he couldn’t come and collect us—frankly, given the screaming northwesterlies, fierce chop, and horizontal rain squalls I’m surprised he could successfully deposit us anywhere other than as scattered debris. But flying a floatplane in the Arctic is unforgivably Darwinian: either you quickly get very good at it or you don’t. Joe’s been at it for many years.

Our shelter was an old trapper’s cabin set in a compact green meadow aflame with carmine cranberries and Creamsicle-orange cloudberries, and our entrance was a hole ripped through the cabin’s wall by a bear that left evidence of being disappointed in its quest for dietary fiber. But humble as were our surroundings we were grateful to be surrounded, because the big high-pressure system busily shoving out the big low-pressure system spun off 40-knot gusts and intermittent rain squalls all day.

We crossed the river at the lake’s lip to get the wind and the willows at our backs, but the casting remained difficult and the fishing episodic—slow here, fast there, slow again: one small stale char from this run, three gaudy brook trout from those pockets, two wolfish lake trout from that pool.

Even without the constant wind, the going was tough. The river was high, cloudy, and rising. The rocks were slippery with algae and the depositions of hundreds of thousands of Canada geese. Off the river, there were none of those convenient caribou trails that serve as tundra highways all across the north; only an occasional thin line of musk-ox tracks shouldered through the willows. It was along one of these, bypassing a slow and un-fly-fishably deep river oxbow, that my nostrils twitched again. I went on point, Danny came up with his .410, and the ptarmigan blasted off in all directions, with Danny leaping after them like Peter Pan in chest waders. He got a double on that flush, and although I’d merely indicated their presence and done some elementary retrieving, I felt pride in having played my part. And more than a little disappointed I hadn’t got a biscuit.

Finally the river resumed being a lake at only the second spot we’d seen where sane people might consider a crossing, and so we felt our way back to the east bank and were eyeing the long upwind walk to the cabin. By walk I mean two miles of leaping from big slippery rock to big slippery rock, there being, for obscure hydro-geological reasons, precious few small rocks to pad the gaps on this side of the river.

We sat down to lighten our packs by eating all our food and drinking all our coffee, and while snarfling lake-trout sandwiches Danny thought he saw a fish porpoise just off the current tongue. So he cast, stripped once, and then we listened to his reel complain of its treatment for the next 10 minutes: a beautiful silver char fresh from the sea. And then it was my turn to catch its twin, and then Danny’s turn, and then my turn again, and then Danny’s, until we’d each caught four or five dashing, swirling, bulldogging char in the 8- to 12-pound range.

Under orders to bring back char for the ever-hungry camp table, we killed three and slipped them head-down into my daypack, and then we set off for the cabin.

The gusty headwind and my daypack’s cargo of three char, one flopping over my head like the crested headdress of a Hawaiian king and the other two flapping in aerodynamically unhelpful arcs like penguin wings, made it difficult to calculate the necessary liftoff velocity to propel me onto but not over the next rock. A miss here would have resulted in, at worst, a broken leg, and at best in what I believe ballerinas call a flying episiotomy.

It was the toughest wading either of us had ever seen, but the past hour had also been one of the best afternoons of fishing we’d ever seen, adversity balancing the success and so making it sublime—because of, not despite, its imperfections.

Thus ran my weighty thoughts when I should have been calculating coefficients of friction and plotting wind vectors and angles of attack. Because when I leapt to the next rock I overpowered my takeoff. It was sheer instinct that allowed me to hydroplane off the target rock and onto its neighbor—like a memory bred in the bone, or perhaps from watching Bart Simpson vault pedestrians with his skateboard.

To gild the day, I flushed another flock of ptarmigans on the way back, and Danny got another double, and

I made it back to the cabin with 30 pounds of char in my pack and no more physical damage to my knees and hips than a month of rest, ice, elevation, and cortisone could cure.

And then Joe came after us in the Cessna right on time, and we flew back to the lodge through a golden sky, along the way orbiting a dozen musk ox formed into a defensive circle around their calves, with the herd bull off to one side radiating defiance and my nose twitching in answer.

It was a long flight against a sharp headwind, and only my careful Southern upbringing prevented me from doing something very naughty on Danny’s leg.

I had been such a very good dog all day, you see, but I still hadn’t got a biscuit. n

James R. Babb fishes, hunts, and buries the occasional bone in midcoast Maine.
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