The Labrador Effect

When your home is thousands of miles from home.

[by John Gierach]

I’d flown 2,500 miles across four time zones, leaving Crossroads Lake in Labrador in a 60-year-old de Havilland Beaver floatplane and arriving in Denver 36 hours later in a considerably newer A319 Airbus, all on three fitful hours of what you could charitably call sleep. On the drive home from the airport I was bone tired, punch drunk with culture shock, and beginning to wonder if I was getting too old for this, but the next morning, after 10 hours’ sleep and plenty of coffee, I began to think maybe not.

So I got together a pile of dirty clothes that smelled of sweat, fish, and bug dope and asked Susan if she had anything for the wash. She said yes, but she didn’t want her girly stuff in with that mess. At the end of every trip there’s a precise moment when the spell is broken, and that was it.

This had been my ninth fishing trip to Labrador and my sixth in a row to Three Rivers Lodge in the last 13 years. I understand what sustains a habitual trip—it’s a slippery emotion that falls somewhere between affection and self-interest—but it’s less clear what engenders one in the first place. It always starts with good fishing in the simplest terms, but then the more granular details that comprise familiarity—how to gather and brew Labrador tea, or that white-crowned sparrows throw their heads back when they sing like Robert Goulet—begin to accumulate into something like homesickness. Why this happens in one place and not another is anyone’s guess.

On the Elk River drainage in British Columbia, where I went repeatedly for almost 20 years, it had something to do with the native west slope cutthroats, the big bull trout that would now and then eat a 15-inch cutt right off your leader, and a skilled but maniacal guide known as “Speed Bump.” I’ve heard that this guy has since married and settled down, but at the time he conducted the kind of love life that would have killed a weaker man, or so he claimed.

That trip finally soured with the advent of crowds and reams of expensive new special permits that turned fishing a wild river system into something that resembled filling out your tax return.

On the Valentine Wildlife Refuge in Nebraska, it was the workmanlike largemouth bass, the 270 species of birds that migrated through every year, and the ramshackle fish camp that had been run by the Ballard family as a sidelight to their hog farm since the 1950s. Even after 10 years we were still newcomers compared to those who’d first fished the place as children and were now fishing with their children, and in some cases their grandchildren.

That one went south when the Oglala Aquifer that fed the lakes began to dry up from the effects of too many irrigation wells. The last time we fished Rice Lake it had shrunk to the size of a large puddle, and the flooded timber where the bass used to hide was now behind us on dry land. And then the state decided to cancel the Ballard’s lease, bulldoze the old cabins because they weren’t up to code, and replace them with a slick new campground and RV park. The fishery was dehydrating and the fish camp was being gentrified. It was time to move on.

Nothing lasts forever, and after a while you start waiting for the other shoe to drop. When you find a place that seems unspoiled, it’s easy to see yourself as the lone wolf running ahead of the pack into new territory, although in darker moments you suspect that you’re simply in the first wave of fun hogs that will eventually use the place up unless mining, logging, pollution, or climate change do the job first. The days when you could think of the natural world as immutable may well be coming to an end, and regular fishing trips are now like blue jeans: Just when they start to get nice and comfortable, the knees blow out. The only alternative to living with regret is to go looking for new water.