Sunday, November 7, 2010

The Cowboy Way - Published BC Outdoors, Nov/Dec2010

The Cowboy Way
Riding on the Trail of the Original Bucket Brigade

Story and photos by
Trevor Shpeley

“I wonder if that guy sees me?” was my nervous thought as I watched the grill of the huge Ford get larger and my chances of collecting old age pension get smaller. It didn't really seem reasonable that he hadn't seen me given that my 250 pound self was perched fairly high off the ground on the seat of my 400 pound motorcycle which had all my camping and fishing gear piled on top of it like some sort of hillbilly moving van. There was that and the fact that while the bike was wearing a subdued and tasteful green, I was wearing a bright yellow jacket that could probably be seen from space.

That wouldn't be the last time on this trip to trace the footsteps of the original Kamloops fish planters that I would have a sudden yearning for the comfort, payload and ability to soak up the impact of a large domestic automobile that the 4x4 sitting at home in my driveway offered.

My mission hastily conceived on a cold winter’s night over Christmas ale and a copy of Steve Raymond's iconic book, “Kamloops, an Anglers Study of the Kamloops Trout” was to try and experience the lakes of the Southern Interior Plataea in a way that was at least similar to the way the early pioneers might have. In other words, I wanted to be out in the open, exposed to the weather with my bed roll and fishing rod tied to the saddle behind me in a tidy yet manly way while I rode with my face in the wind, making my way from one lake to the next stopping only to fish, drink strong coffee and sleep under the stars while coyotes howled and the fire crackled merrily.

That was the theory anyway. The reality is, I don't own a horse. In fact, I have an unspoken agreement with the equine community that I will make no effort whatsoever to climb onto one of their backs and they in turn will refrain from biting, kicking or otherwise maiming me in any way. I do however own a motorcycle, in fact I own a bunch of them and one in particular, my 30 year old BMW seemed like the perfect steed for the task. It's reliable, it can carry a lot of gear and most importantly, it doesn't bite.

In Mr Raymond's book, he tells the story of how in 1812, the year that Fort Kamloops was built, the Kamloops trout as we know them today were limited to a small number of local lakes. They are all waters that are now or were at one time connected to the ocean and had been colonized by migrating Steelhead traveling inland from the Pacific Ocean and spawning offspring that were much less enthusiastic about the long swim back to the coast than their parents had been.

The fishing was fantastic for these huge silver trout and in time, the colonists started to wonder what would happen if they were to plant these hard fighting, fast growing fish in the hundreds of mostly barren lakes that dot the Southern Interior Plateau. They did this, both officially and unofficially on horseback with buckets full of fish kept alive on the long journeys by frequent water changes and tender loving care. After they had placed a bunch of fry or a handful of mature fish in a lake they would go back to their farms to wait and see what happened.

What happened was pandemonium. The fish fed wildly on the huge supply of food in the fertile lakes and grew to unheard of sizes in unheard of numbers. Incredible fishing stories from those times are still spoken of in hushed tones around campfires today. A commercial fishery flourished briefly and suddenly, people were coming to the interior of BC for recreation and not just cows, trains or shiny rocks. Resorts sprang up, guiding became a good way to make a living and the fame of the Kamloops trout spread.

For thirty years the industry boomed and then over time, settled into the quieter, yet still world famous fishery we know today.

And that brings us back to the here and now. Now being the summer of 2010 and here being the left hand turn lane at the intersection of HWY 5 and Paul Lake rd. The big Ford is getting closer and I'm watching the eyes of the gentleman at the wheel for some sign that he sees me and understands that he doesn't really need to cut the corner and turn yours-truly into an unsightly road stain. That recognition finally comes and with a mighty squeal of unhappy brakes I am granted reprieve and allowed to continue my trek down the pathways of my long passed benefactors.

The route I chose included lakes that would have been within a few days travel for the early Kamloops fisherman and would also have played a significant role in the early spread of Kamloops trout across the plateau. I decided to start in town, ride out to Paul and Pinantan lakes, double back and head up the hill to Knouff, go back down into town, ride north to Kamloops Lake, and then cross over the hills to Lac le Jeune.

Paul Lake was one of the first lakes stocked by the government in their efforts to extend the range of the Kamloops trout. In 1908 they planted 5000 fry from the Shuswap into the lake and within a short time the now mature adults were spawning in the tributary streams and a vigorous fishery was born. A road was built in 1924 to accommodate people tired of bushwhacking into their new favourite lake and as I guide the bike through the ravines and tangled Birch groves I have no difficulty picturing this same trip taken in a wagon full of happy campers.

Things have changed a bit in the hundred years since the days of that first planting. People still fish Paul and Pinantan lakes and big fish still swim in those waters but the areas recreational qualities such as the large Provincial campground, beach and picnic area and the cottages that surround the lakes have taken over from the hard core fisherman. Today Paul and Pinantan lakes have become favourite vacation spots for Kamloops residents as perhaps they were even a century ago.

As charming as this area is it wasn't really what I was looking for in terms of fishing and camping in a rustic “old-timey” way so I didn't even get off the bike, instead I turned around and headed up the road to Knouff Lake.

In 1917 it took Len Phillips and his son five days to carry a bucket full of trout from Paul Lake up to Knouff Lake. It didn't take me quite that long, in fact it probably took the Philips longer to hitch up their horses and convince them that carrying heavy buckets of water up a hill for the better part of a week was a good idea than it took me to ride the short distance up HWY 5 to the turnoff for Knouff.

The Philips released nine mature trout into Knouff Lake that were then left to do their thing for three years and when a party of locals finally made their way back up to the lake to see if any of the trout had survived they were astounded by the numbers and size of the fish they found. Many fish over 15 pounds were caught that first day and within a few years, Knouff Lake became famous for perhaps the best lake dry fly fishing in the world.

I've fished Knouff many times so I knew better than to believe I was going to find fish the size of Harbour Seals slashing at giant Sedges on the day I arrived at the recreation site down the road from the tidy modern resort at the tip of the lake. My faithful BMW was perfectly happy cruising up the dirt road from the valley below but I was glad it hadn't rained and turned the dirt into the slick mud the area is so well known for.

I put up my old tent, the one optimistically rated for “two men,” which might actually be true provided one of the men was 22 inches tall and weighed eight pounds. It's not exactly sleeping under the stars but I could see the stars through the hole a Chipmunk up at the Cathedral Lakes had chewed on its way to my stash of sesame snaps. A total fire ban meant there would be no crackling blaze to lull me to sleep but that's OK, I was still getting plenty of heat from the burn on my leg where it had touched the BMW's hot exhaust pipe while I untied my tidy yet manly bedroll. Apparently my bike bites after all.

I looked out at the lake and then I looked back at the float tube tied to the back of the Beemer. Then I looked at the tiny bicycle pump I had brought to inflate the floattube and decided that it just wouldn't be right for me to harass the descendents of the Philips first fish so instead I squeezed a goodly portion of myself into the tent which had seemed so roomy just 20 short years ago and settled in to sleep under a sky I was sure hadn't changed at all since the first man lay down beside this lake and marvelled at the sight of it.

The next morning, still undecided as to whether or not cavorting teenagers were roughly equivalent to howling coyotes, I loaded up the bike and rode down into sleepy Kamloops for a Bagel and a Double Double. Thus fortified in the traditional cowboy way, I roared up the hill out of town and turned North along the huge lake that started it all.

You don't even have squint to imagine Kamloops Lake as it looked two hundred years ago. The ancestry of the grass and sage you see today could probably be traced plant by plant back through time immemorial. Stare at the windswept water and lonely hills long enough and you begin to understand what a brief blip in time we men occupy and how quickly we will be erased after we are gone. I find it hard to imagine a more suitable location for the birth of a legendary fish and I am mystified by the endless lines of motor-homes and transport trucks that stream by without even seeming to see it.

The road through the hills past Tunkwa, Leighton and Logan lakes is a delight on the bike. I glance longingly at Tunkwa through the trees with its grasslands reserve, feral horses and epic Bomber hatch and regretfully continue south to Lac Le Jeune. My newly discovered aversion to performing the twenty or thirty thousand strokes it would take for my small emergency pump to make my floattube seaworthy have made me shift the focus of this trip away from fishing and into pure sightseeing. If I hurry I can still get home with enough time off to grab my truck and get back out here for some fishing that doesn't involve more exercise than playing ping pong with a troop of caffeinated spider monkeys.

I've been to Lac Le Jeune before so I knew what to expect. The large provincial campground has been ravaged by the Mountain Pine Beetle but it is still a nice quiet place for family camping thanks to the vigilance of the Parks staff. The lake is ringed in cottages and private resorts and bucket sized swirls in the water attest to the fact that LLJ still fishes well.

It's been a long time since Lac Le Jeune was known as Fish Lake and supported a commercial fishery where a good fisherman could pull in $500 a month trolling for Kamloops Trout. There are accounts of incredible catches and nobody ever had too much trouble catching their 50 fish per day limit. Well I'm here to tell you those days are long gone and I for one am thankful. It's hard to picture Lac Le Jeune as it was back in those heady days but its pretty nice now and what would I do with 50 fish anyway?

On the ride back to Vernon I found myself reminiscing about my all too short trip through old Kamloops and I wondered if those early pioneers had any idea or real appreciation of what an amazing gift they had received in those first few years after they had sprinkled Trout across the Interior like Jonny Appleseed on a cider binge. Then I think back to the pictures of the smiling men and women with their long greenheart rods and planks covered with fish and I think, “Oh yeah, they knew alright”

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