To my surprise and secret delight, the portly French Canadian, his face almost hidden behind a green mask of mosquito netting, responds in full voice with a cheerful and sweetly French-accented, "Let's go home. He's not coming tonight." Although our quarry, a black bear, has eluded us, the hours have been well spent. The symphony of Quebec's deep forest — red squirrels darting below my feet, ravens soaring just over my head, the calls of unseen birds, and the sound of wind and rain rustling the trees — has left me with an aura of peaceful contentment. While Thibert's battered four-by-four weaves and bounces us along unnamed tracks leading back to camp, I marvel at the thickness of the forest and the determination of early explorers to the region. And I'm thankful that the day was too miserable for fishing.
After days of heat that I never knew existed in this land devoid of air conditioners, a deep low has settled in with low gray clouds and vastly cooler temperatures. Back at the camp, a fire in the woodstove is happily greeted with outstretched palms even though the calendar says mid-June. The cool dampness is a relief, although it severely restricts our main mission: fishing in the wilderness on the massive Canadian reservoir known as the Gouin.
My trip to the Gouin begins as the first Can-Am Fly-In, a joint Canadian-American event to promote cross-border flying (see " The Can-Am Fly-In: English Spoken Here," page 97), breaks up amid stifling heat and storms. The same oppressive heat wave that sent the elderly to shelters in New York City has stretched northward into Canada and 90 miles northeast of Montreal to the lakeside resort on Lac Taureau, where the fly-in was held.
Bob Tebbutt and Gilles Lapierre have planned a two-day trip to a fishing camp, Escapade, on the Gouin Reservoir immediately after the fly-in, and they're letting me tag along. The plan calls for us to hook up in Montreal early Monday morning so Tebbutt and Lapierre can return home, drop off their wives, and reload their aircraft with fishing gear. The storms to the south along the United States-Canada border on Sunday morning, however, change our plans. Tebbutt and Lapierre suggest we fly directly to the fishing camp on the Gouin and the wives will hitch rides home with other friends. He's already called ahead, and the camp has accommodations available.
With clearance and permission from Lapierre's wife, Claire, he and I board his 172 and depart to the northwest. As we climb above the trees, the forest stretches to the horizon in all directions. For the next hour of flying, the only evidence of man will be an occasional hut among the many lakes and a spider web of slowly disappearing dirt roads leading to the mind-numbing scars of the clear-cut loggers.
The world below slides past in a series of low, rounded hills and more lakes and ponds than I can even consider counting. Carved and smoothed by the repeated advances of glaciers and ancient ice sheets, the land represents some of the oldest and most tortured rock in North America. Aside from the logging scars, the evidence of man is so limited and fleeting that the words of a new friend come to mind: 30 minutes' flying time north of Montreal, a city of several million, "and there is nothing!"
Until the advent of GPS, Tebbutt navigated this vast region using mining maps and following rivers because aviation charts were almost worthless. In those days, says Tebbutt, if you missed a turn in a river you could quickly become lost. Magnetic variation in Quebec can be extreme and local magnetic anomalies intense. While flying, "I've watched a compass follow a hill," says Tebbutt. With the wooded expanse, finding a downed aircraft can be extremely difficult. According to a Transport Canada official, without a flight plan on file, finding a downed aircraft is like finding a particular seashell on the beach. Even if you survive the crash, your chances of surviving until rescue plummet.
As the Gouin Reservoir comes into view, its vastness is hidden in the haze. When its dam was finished in 1920, more than 20 large lakes and countless streams and ponds were connected by rising water. To explore the reservoir, a boater will cover 104 miles east to west and 92 miles north to south. With 600 square miles of open water and hundreds of islands, the shoreline is a maze 3,500 miles long.
While it's possible to lug everything you need and drive to the Gouin over hundreds of miles of sometimes-crude dirt roads, getting there will be a time-intensive adventure of its own. A far better idea is to fly to a camp like Escapade.
Escapade is especially attractive to pilots with its 3,300-foot-long gravel runway and a protected bay ideal for seaplanes. (While floatplanes are arriving and departing in Escapade's bay, wind-driven waves in the main part of the reservoir can make seaplane operations there impossible.) Full accommodations in the camp's main building mean pilots can arrive as we did, carrying little more than the clothes on our backs. Friendly to both wheeled and float airplanes, Escapade monitors communications on 122.75 MHz on a 24/7 basis and is happy to provide local weather conditions when asked. Fuel is a precious commodity in the region, and Escapade is one of two places on the Gouin for boat fuel, and the only place on the massive reservoir for avgas.
With more than 6,000 hours of flying through eastern Canada in the past 20 years, New Yorker Tebbutt probably knows the region better than many Canadians. From his home near the U.S. border, he has flown his amphibious Cessna 185 as far to the north as Havana, Cuba, is to the south. "There's no place like Quebec," says Tebbutt, adding that Quebec is bigger than Alaska. "My American friends don't have a clue." An avid hunter and fisherman, Tebbutt has flown into some of the most remote spots in North America. The Gouin is among his favorite destinations.
Tebbutt elects to make a wheel landing, and his 185 has already taxied up to Escapade's main building when Lapierre and I swing over the camp for a photo run. It is my first visit to the camp run by Michel Prince and his wife of 23 years, Monique Martin. Prince, who holds single- and multiengine ratings, gave up his Montreal-based electrical business for the camp. I learn it is his wife, an avid hunter, trapper, and fisherman, who pushed to purchase the camp five years ago.
It's hard to call Escapade a "camp" with a generator powering the lovely chalets facing beached floatplanes, hot showers, a bar, and some of the finest eating you can have anywhere. The chef (to call him anything less seems a crime), Louis Gagne, is literally an artist with food. With his background as a florist, Gagne prepares meals that are often as beautifully presented as they are delicious to eat. His dinners show a distinctive eye for color and texture and a flair for turning garnishes into art. At one point, over more than one bottle of wine, it's suggested that Gagne offer cooking classes to those widowed by their spouses' desire to pursue the northern pike and walleye that make the Gouin one of the best fishing destinations in Canada.
Monday is our first full day at Escapade, and we roar across the lake in an open boat in search of walleye with Prince acting as guide. For almost an hour we charge across the reservoir, crossing large bodies of water where waves smack the bottom of the boat in a fury. The heat that had been so oppressive at Lac Taureau has lost some of its teeth, and the breeze on my face often cools dramatically as we pass over cold, deep water. It's mind boggling that just more than a month ago the Gouin was still covered with a massive sheet of ice.
We enter a small bay and slow almost to a stop. Just when I'm certain we're about to drop anchor, Prince guides us into a tiny channel that disappears into the trees. Moments later, we emerge on the edge of another sprawling bay, and as Prince reopens the throttle, we begin another dash across the water.
After nuzzling into a series of coves and with the sun reaching its zenith, we find that the Gouin lives up to its fishing reputation. With a solitary loon cruising nearby, we soon have enough walleye to feed all of us. Finding a sandy, crescent-moon beach with a nice breeze to keep down the black flies, we beach the boat for a shore lunch.
As Lapierre cleans and fillets our fish, Prince pulls out the biggest frying pan I have ever seen and starts cutting potatoes and onions. Using driftwood, we quickly have a fire burning and fish sizzling on black metal. Adding a splash of seasoning as he cooks, Prince soon fills our plates with some of the most tender and delicious fish to ever melt in my mouth. Just a few feet from where we eat, a single set of wolf prints weaves through the beach grass to a scattered collection of white feathers that may have once belonged to an arctic tern.
After lunch, we explore a small lake discovered during a lunchtime walk along the shore. The channel leading to the lake cuts across a sandbar and is so shallow that Lapierre and Tebbutt hop into the water to push the boat over sunken logs and sand. We enter a picture-perfect scene complete with another solitary loon. With a wide, grassy shoreline, the bay is perfect for moose, and as the lures fly through the air, eyes scan the shore.
On our way back to camp late in the afternoon, we make a final stop to fish a rocky, but wide, grassy shore. When the sun goes behind a cloud, the tannin-colored water turns black...and the walleye go mad! In a few minutes, every rod tip on the boat has pointed at the water as the largest fish of the day come one right after the other. And as quickly as they have come, they are gone. The silence is filled when Lapierre, a diminutive man born to be a performer, launches into song. As he sings in his native French, there is unmistakable joy in his melodic voice. The ride home finds Lapierre lying in the bow, a grin stretching across his face, the sun glinting off his sunglasses. And his best day is yet to come.
We had scheduled to depart the next day, Tuesday morning, but storms to the south still make it impossible to leave, even though blue skies rule our days. On Wednesday, a low settles in and the brilliant skies collapse into hanging sheets of gray resting in the tops of trees. A grim-faced Tebbutt apologizes again and again. "I've never been weathered in anywhere for more than two days in all the years I've been flying up here!" Prince, whose heavily accented English is often accompanied with hand gestures when words fail him, nods his agreement. "Never more than two days." Tebbutt, looking like a kid caught with his hand in the cookie jar, adds, "We may not get out of here till Friday." Such a delay anywhere else probably would have been maddening. But the hospitality of Escapade combined with fine food, wine, excellent company, and the joy of the wilderness makes the delay one to savor and remember.
On Wednesday evening, after a day of rain-induced cabin fever, Lapierre, Tebbutt, and Prince slip off for a quick fishing trip during a break in the weather. When they return after sunset, in a downpour, a grinning Lapierre is lugging a big pike. At 43 inches and 18.7 pounds, it's the biggest fish of the trip.
The next day, while sitting in the tree with Thibert, I have time to study the clouds and I notice they're getting higher as the day wears on. On the drive back to camp, with the Jeep's heater on full blast, Thibert surprises me by pulling out a beer and insisting I join him for a drink. With one hand on the wheel and his girth shaking with each bump, he grins at me with an expression of amused surprise. "You make a good hunting partner!" As we round a bend, a golden ray of light breaks free and filters through the trees.
Tim Wright is a freelance writer, photographer, and pilot living in Richmond, Virginia.