Every journey has a beginning, and this one did not have a very auspicious start. It stumbled because of today’s technology, but it was saved by human concern and effort.
We changed planes four times and made five stops on our way to McKenzie River Fly Fishing Lodge.
Each plane was smaller than the previous one. As we approached Sept-Iles, Quebec (pronounced “set EEL”), our third stop and second plane change, I noticed we were going to be late for our connecting flight to Wabush Airport, which serves Labrador City. I asked the flight attendant about this, and she assured me that the flight to Wabush would wait for us. When I saw the airfield (you could not call it an airport) I understood why. The buildings were no more than 80’x60’, I would guess.
Sure enough, our flight to Wabush was sitting there, engines running (propelers, of course, as were all of the flights after our arrival in Montreal), waiting for us and a few other passengers.
We took our carry-ons off one plane, right on to the next, and boarded. We had an almost full plane with about 12 passengers. The previous flight was about half-full with 17 people. They seated Tony and I right behind the pilots’ open-door cockpit. We were on our way for the last of today’s flights.
When we arrived at Wabush Airport, which had even smaller buildings, we found that our luggage did not make the trip. We rushed to the Air Canada counter (about 40’ away from the sole luggage carousel) just as Faith and Jackie, Air Canada employees, were locking up for the night. They were more than concerned and very accustomed to dealing with fishermen and well aware of what was at stake here.
They were reassuring and said that they would follow through from home that night with people that they knew. Sure enough, at 10: 30 that night, the phone rang in our hotel room. It was Faith. She found out that our luggage had never left Montreal, even though we had a four-hour layover there. She assured us that it would be in Wabush early the next afternoon. We were relieved but had other issues to face.
Immediately after our first discussion with Faith and Jackie at the airport, Pascale, the Native American (or “First Nations,” as they say in Canada) lady that runs the float plane/charter service brought us from the airport to the Two Seasons Hotel in Labrador City. They had no record of our reservation. Tony would have to put the hotel room on his credit card even though it was part of our package with the lodge. Pascale called the lodge to straighten things out. Luckily, the Two Seasons had plenty of available rooms. They assured us that it would be straightened out by the time we returned from dinner.
Then the Two Seasons employee gave us more bad news. Labrador City, if you can call it a city given it has just 9,000 inhabitants, has to shut down all power every quarter to refuel the generators that run the entire town. As it happens, we arrived at just that time. Power would go off at 4:00 AM and go on again at noon. So far, today, Tony’s birthday of all days, was not going as we had hoped. Thanks to the pending power outage, we had to do everything we needed to do that night, including: shower, eat, and make calls from the hotel phone (no cell phone service, of course). We ate at one of the three open restaurants, had a nice home-style meal of ribs, and called home, the owner of the lodge, and the booking agent to let them know about our difficulties.
The next morning, daybreak was before 4:00 AM, all was quiet. No restaurants were open. In fact, the only place that was open was Jubber’s, a convenience store that had its own generator.
Jubber’s was crowded when we entered. We grabbed some fruit bars, water, and a Snapple for breakfast. Tony had a head cold, and he was hoping to buy some NyQuil too, but they didn’t have anything like that. It was a nice morning, if not a little hot in fact, and we enjoyed our “breakfast” outside in a shady park next to the town clock, which was stuck at 4:00 AM due to the power outage.
At noon, Pascale brought us to her “airport” to weigh us, our luggage and gear (minus my and Tony’s lost bags, of course), along with some of the goods necessary to stock the camp for a week or more.
It was here that we met up with the other guys that were going to the lodge with us: Joe, his son Joe, and Walt. You will hear more about these great guys later. It was also here that we met Burt, the head guide. He would be flying with us to the lodge. He also got on the scale with his gear, some fly tying supplies, and some shelving for the guides’ cabin.
Pascale said that Air Canada would have our luggage to her plane by 2:00 PM. She’d delay our originally scheduled 8:00 AM flight until 2:00 to accommodate us. Until then, she let us borrow the McKenzie River van, a “well-used,” red monstrosity with flies stuck in the fabric above the driver’s seat. The younger Joe took the wheel, and Burt let us follow him to the 250,000-square foot Labrador Mall.
We had noticed that Pascale had trouble starting the van when she picked us up at the Two Seasons Inn. When we arrived at the mall, we debated whether to turn off the van or leave it running. Joe decided to tempt fate and turn it off.
This Wal-Mart was like no Wal-Mart you have ever seen! It was small, dark, and the prices were incredibly high even taking into account the exchange rate ($1 CAD = $0.70 USD that day), but it was what we needed and where we needed it. We also stopped at Canadian Tire, which is like a combination of Home Depot, Tire Warehouse, Dick’s Sporting Goods, and a farm store. Great place.
While eating “breakfast,” I had noticed that almost every pickup truck we saw had a bright orange flag sticking up 4 to 6 feet in the bed. I asked the young man at the register at Canadian Tire what the flags were all about, having speculated to Tony earlier that it was because of the snow banks being so high, and the employee confirmed my suspicion. He said a single storm of 50” of snow was common.
The five of us returned to the floatplane site to find that only my bag had arrived. Tony would have to borrow what he needed for the next two-plus days. The guides would lend him waders, tackle, and boots, and I had enough of whatever else he needed to get by along with some clothes from our new friends next door. The pilot said, “Hurry up. There’s a thunder storm brewing. We need to get off the ground now.”
The flight was reminiscent of our bush flights over Alaska 26 years earlier. There was water everywhere—and some patches of snow, despite it being June 26—and raindrops were starting to hit the windshield.
There were hundreds of lakes as far as you could see in any direction, and Tony had the best seat of all. He was in the copilot’s seat, out of necessity.
Finally, our destination was in sight. A speck of four small buildings on a carpet of evergreens surrounded by water.
The pilot pulled the Beaver to within inches of the dock. We were greeted by our hosts and guides and a dog named Zula, on a typical Labrador-like day—gray and drizzly.
We helped our new friend, the older Joe Jr. (who we usually called “Joe Sr.”), an 86 year-old Air Force veteran from Texas onto the dock, along with his son (also named Joe) from Florida, and their friend, 75 year-old Walt, also from Texas.
We had arrived.