For as long as I remember I’ve wanted to go to the High Arctic. So did two of my brothers. The urge likely latent in the Murphy family DNA, I suppose. So Spring 2011 we began researching our journey. We were soon to discover that airplane flights (for three) into the farthest regions of the Arctic were difficult to come by. Cambridge Bay though – home of the Arctic Char – was available. My brothers, from Newfoundland, loved to fish. So for the practical reasons of transportation and the promise of angling bliss, our destination was sealed. Cambridge Bay via Yellowknife it would be.
Soon images of the remoteness of the High Arctic were replaced with visions of 20-pound char at the ends of my brothers’ fishing lines. Photos of these triumphs would be prominently displayed on office walls and desks. From my loft in downtown Toronto I found myself in new territory hiring an Inuit guide to take us fishing in Nunavut.Over the next few months my brothers,potential guides and I would confer extensively via e-mail and phone. The best tackle, lure(s), gear, clothing, etc. – nothing would be omitted in preparation for catching the big char.
So we shopped in sporting goods stores in Toronto and in St. John’s and in Newark. We also shopped and sought advice in Yellowknife and grabbed snippets of fish wisdom from overheard conversations at the local Co-op in Cambridge Bay. There would be so many big fish. How would we ship them back? I was to be the photographer who would capture that first moment when the char would dangle from my brothers’ fishing lines. In Cambridge Bay we met our guide,Dennis,and he and my brothers discussed strategy.
The morning air was crisp and fresh as we strutted down the hamlet’s main road, all decked out in our gear.
“Catch me a fish,” hollered someone. You just wait, I thought.
It had been decided it was better to catch char from the boat at the entrance to the bay where the two rivers converged. Once on Dennis’s boat we sped to the middle of the channel where the first river streamed in. Positions were ritualistically and carefully chosen. Then, the serious silence of men engaged in fishing.
Cast after cast but no bites. It was early. We moved closer to shore to fish from the shoreline. As the dearth continued I found my own diversion, photographing Arctic flowers peeping from rocks (something that I would do a great deal) only to be called back to snap Anthony landing a four-pounder. Then it was back to the boat and onto a small sandbar island. Nothing! We moved to the channel near the second river where a midsize lake trout was caught.
“Starvation Cove,” Dennis shouted. “Tomorrow we go to Starvation Cove.Always big char there.Two and a half hours by ATV.”
Why was it called Starvation Cove? It sounded so bleak, so empty and considering the morning’s meagre haul – possibly ominous. It reminded me of some of the place names in Newfoundland – Famish Gut, Bare need, or Seldom – Little Seldom. Ah! Maybe the cove was a local secret – so named in order to divert visiting anglers from its riches. In any event, Starvation Cove and its fruits or lack thereof dominated our conversation for the rest of the day.
At 8:30 the following morning, on three ATVs we resumed our quest.Our little caravan passed the Dew Line Facility, the airport and the fishing shacks that dotted the shore near town. Soon our only landmark would be the partly ice covered Northwest Passage itself. I recall musing that our presence might be a tiny contribution in the name of Canada’s Arctic sovereignty.
“How self-important of me,”I thought.The endless land was separated from the Passage by mile after mile of golden sand. The blue hues of the sky and water were separated by slob ice. A slither of land lay on the horizon. Small birds sat on mini-icebergs. Arctic terns with nearby nests showed their screeching displeasure at our presence.
We followed Dennis over crevasses,through water, and up and down sand hills. If Dennis decided that we couldn’t traverse an indentation, we followed along its embankment until he deemed it passable.The landscape and the beach gave way to small hills of shale rock set in perfectly formed layers. The drive became more challenging.
Near noon we reached Starvation Cove – a small sheltered inlet. Four or five other people were already there fishing.They must know. Dennis knew. The char would be here. But according to those already fishing the char weren’t biting.
“Maybe it’s too late in the day,” surmised my brothers spouting Newfoundland fishing wisdom.
“Maybe they’ve already fed,”mused one of the fishermen.
Maybe they’re the same fish from yesterday morning.They weren’t hungry either, I thought.
The men spread out around the cove – all angles now covered.Somewhere in that cove big char lurked hungry enough to be attracted by the red and yellow lure.An hour passed. No bites!Can this be happening?Would Starvation Cove be just that – Starvation Cove?
Another hour passed. Dennis shouted, “There is a river about twenty minutes away. Do you want to try?”
‘Yes, yes,”my brothers responded.
The sun was high, the flies getting worse. It was now mid afternoon. Our gear repacked off we went.The beach long since disappeared, Starvation Cove remained true to its name.
A series of peninsulas jutted out into the Passage. Over bogs, across eddies, and over seeming miles of rocks that had previously in the distance appeared as charcoal hills and upon close-up were row after row of shale rock.Up and down and diagonally across the rocks we went for what seemed like hours. At times it felt like we were riding at a 45-degree slant. I noted that we had no cell phones.What if the ATVs were to break down?What if we were injured? Dennis assured us that technology was unnecessary. His family back in Cambridge Bay knew where we were. I liked that.
The landscape was starkly beautiful. It grabbed me: had already grabbed me, in fact, from the window seat of our inbound First Air flight from Yellowknife.At times I didn’t know where I was.What country?What head space? The vastness! The space between thoughts! The space between everything! The sense of another world.
This was still Canada. Basil had flown twelve hours to get here and he was still in the same country!Maybe all Canadians should do something like this, I reflected. I had never experienced anything quite like it.
Oh, yes, I very much wanted my brothers to catch their 20-pounders. I wanted those prized photos to shine brightly on their desks in St. John’s and Newark. I kept thinking that they might be getting frustrated or even angry with me for having arranged the whole thing. But next break, I was relieved to learn that we were simultaneously all sharing the same sense of awe as Anthony mused, “My God! He’s taking us on the ride of our lives.”
Basil followed with, “If it’s all about the journey, then this is it. We need cameras strapped to our helmets to capture this. I feel like I’m in a David Suzuki documentary.”
Hours passed.Forget“twenty minutes”– the nickname we had by now given to Dennis.We all sensed that we would not be doing this if we had caught that char back in Cambridge Bay.
First we were looking for a fish. Now we were looking for a river. Up and down over across the forbidding yet beautiful landscape. Where was the river? One hill after another and it wasn’t there. Gorges would often lead us inland before offering up away across.Always, we would be led back to the Passage.The sun was on our right now. It was getting late and there was no fish, no river.We joked that we might get back to Cambridge Bay before dark. That gave us a few months I think.
Finally, there it was! The River!
We stood looking at it like ancient explorers who had finally come upon their long sought after valley or grail.We just stood in silence and looked. There was a sense of something bigger.The flies brought us back—to reality.
The river flowed from an inland lake. The rapids made it look like the perfect char river.And as if to assure us that our quest had not been in vain, a huge char sprang from the water. We could see his shining back glistening in the sun —taunting us as if to say,“Here I am.You have chased me all the way from Cambridge Bay over sand,bog, rocks and tundra.Wasn’t I worth the quest? Just look at me.”We had arrived at the river beyond the villages and the beaches and beyond “our salvation” Cove and the big guy seemed to tease us.
The poles, the gear, the netting came out again! Dennis went upstream. Basil and Anthony went into the river. Positions were changed. I continued to photograph the tiny flowers that carpeted the tundra.The colours of land, sea and sky were changing. More casts, no bites! The flies! The flies! They were making it difficult. Dennis muttered,“We have come all this way just to see a fish jump.”
Maybe there was truth in that.Perhaps the ride had been about nothing more than — seeing that fish jump—that elusive goal that creates the best of journeys.Serene,we called it a day at around 9 p.m.
Our little caravan of ATVs headed back to Cambridge Bay.A return trail took us inland.A herd of musk oxen grazed in the distance.The tundra dipped and changed and one small elevation became another and another. The colours changed as the midnight sun began its brief descent below the horizon.Then back towards the Passage for the final stretch along the beach. We were silent, reflective, even grateful.We hadn’t caught that big char but the journey had been both prize and surprise. We had been lured.
The fish shacks near Cambridge Bay came into view.I knew we were coming out of our little trip.I didn’t want it to end.I don’t think any of us did. Before returning to our accommodation we accepted an invitation to share a barbecue with Dennis’s family.This added a last breaking of bread moment to our day.
Dennis would later e-mail to tell us about a 20-pounder caught at the bridge soon after our visit.
That fish had gone complete circle and was back in Cambridge Bay.Why hadn’t he wanted us to catch him? Perhaps he had a bigger experience in mind (for us). Had the lured been doing the luring?