Brookies and ouananiche. Black spruce and alders. Northerns and lake trout. Black flies and mosquitoes. Labrador is simple elements in endless foreground: as long as you keep your eyes open, the country will ram them full of a wildness that needs no introduction, explanation or qualification. I’d dreamt about this country for roughly a decade, listened in at the edges of conversations of anglers who’d been there, tried to stitch the disparate pieces of info I’d gleaned into something that might one day serve me well–if I’d ever be lucky enough to visit. And then one July day I found myself peering down from the window of an Otter at glinting lakes and sinuous rivulets on my way to Riverkeep Lodge on the Atikonak River.
Labrador possesses a total area of 292,218 square kilometers of land mass, 23,145 of which are fresh water, and it’s population density of 0.1 human beings per square kilometer ranks among the lowest in the world. It’s density of fish is higher by countless orders of magnitude. If Labrador remains under human dominion, it’s only because the resident char haven’t staged an uprising yet.
The Labrador that existed for Steve and Cathy Murray before they bought Riverkeep Lodge was an unknown wilderness that lay far beyond the end of the proverbial road. When they saw an ad for the lodge in a newspaper in their home state of Maine, they were determined to check it out. Their first fishing trip to the Atikonak River sealed the deal. “The five species of fish made it an easy decision,” Steve told me over steaks one night after fishing. “There was something special about that. Not only brook trout but landlocked Atlantic Salmon, pike, lake trout and whitefish. All totally wild, all living together the same way they’d lived for thousands of years.”
In the enormous rivers of Labrador, the bug-eaters swim laps–but not the kind you did at high school swim practice. Quite the opposite, in fact: the laps the Atikonak brook trout and landlockeds swim in search of insects are leisurely and refined, with just enough sense of purpose to avoid accusations of true laziness. The French have a word for such socially sanctioned aimlessness: flaneuring. And flaneuring, if you’re a fish, is not a bad way to dine. By the third day I’d decided that if I ever was granted a chance to be reincarnated as a fish–and at this point in my life I’d say the odds are pretty high–I just might opt for an Atikonak existence. Compared to these looping Labradorians, the brown trout I’d previously held in highest esteem lived a treadmill life, swimming hard to hold place. If you’re going to spend all day fanning your tail, you may as well see a bit of the world.
“It’s a completely weather-driven fishery,” Murray explained to me at the beginning of the trip. “More so than anywhere else I’ve been, the fish respond to daily and weekly weather patterns.” Lucky for the angler, in the wide, flat bowl of inner Labrador you can always see the weather coming and going, know why it had to happen the way it did and when it would happen again. If you have a trip planned to the province’s interior, realize that the weather app on your phone is for amusement purposes only. The reality of the situation is this: there’s a 50/50 chance of rainbows and wildfires. Every summer day.
It didn’t matter that I was there in the middle of July. Many afternoons were characterized by cold-clawed hands—and the coffee that brought them back to life for the evening caddis.
One afternoon fishing for ounananiche and brookies slowed down and we decided to devote the afternoon to pike. We anchored the boat at the mouth of a small creek and got out to wade, catching fish after fish that were staging to intercept brook trout moving in and out of the tributary. Perhaps because the stakes were so high—I suspect brook trout appeal to the pike’s palate just as much as they do mine—they were the bravest pike I’d ever encountered. Or at least the most territorial. At one point I found myself stalking slowly up a sand beach when I noticed a particularly large fish following me at a distance of about 30 feet. When I stopped, it stopped. When I took a few steps, it started wagging it’s tail again to slink forward. Experimentally, I tickled the surface with my fingers until my stalker got within rod’s length, then I lowered my fly on its nose. When the pike destroyed it I couldn’t help but think: this is the way it would have crushed me if I were just a little smaller.
Labrador was, for me, the best chance I’d ever had to see the Northern Lights. They were out overnight in great sparkling green sheets—or so I gleaned from the time-lapse-photography done every night by our guide. It was the only time I saw them. At night, after fishing hard for fifteen hours, I slept. If you stayed up to see the lights you’d have to catchup a midday nap when you should be tangling with a huge northern, or pulling a pig out of the laker hole, maybe jumping a ten-pound salmon—or God forbid—missing out on your shot at the brook trout you’d been thinking for 5, 10, 15 years.
By the middle of the trip I’d stopped thinking of the Atikonak as a river. Nor did I think of it as a lake. It had features of both, of course, but also many mysteries that I’d never seen before in any geology. And so I simply thought of it as a body of water—a hallowed one.
The backcountry demands precise documentation and regular innovation. Lacking a tumbler in the cabin, I made my own.
For every Labrador action there is a ferociously opposite reaction. This caddis-slurping ouananiche quickly unlanded itself right before the shutter opened.
The bugs of Labrador lay bare the evolutionary purpose for ear and nose hair. If you’re coming this way, prepare yourself by trimming neither for some time. The blackflies and mosquitoes are awesome in that original, standing-before-God sense of the word usually reserved for hurricanes and wildfires. The first thing we did after returning to the cabin each night was burn the incense of pyrethrum powder and watch the mosquitoes drop silently through the air like flakes of black snow. By the end of the week, pyrethrum smelled like home.
There’s a word, anemoia, that some use to describe nostalgia for a time you’ve never experienced, and I indulged it every evening while watching the whitefish porpoise alongside the brook trout and ouananiche, just as they had when Napolean waged his wars, when Caesar bled out on the floor, when the big California redwoods were pushing up their first green sprouts: same river, same fish, same flies, same spruce.