Trip Report Dismal Gulch Revisited

Dismal Gulch Revisited, . . . the sequel

Copyright 2021 All rights reserved

By salmo g.

I thought of this title while sitting in camp on B.C.’s Dean River just over a week ago. Oh wait a second! It wasn’t Dismal Gulch two years ago; it was Desperation Gulch. Chalk it up to Old Timer’s Disease, but there wasn’t much that was desperate about our situation this year, or two years ago for that matter. Unless the river rose about two feet, then our situation would be both desperate and dismal by cutting off our campsite from high ground and safety. Like many things, it’s a calculated risk. So what was so dismal about this year’s camp, you ask? Read on.

Unlike the last trip, we met up at David’s house at the semi-respectable hour of 6:30 AM instead of 5:00 when it’s still night time by my standard. Not because we’re getting old and lazy, but due to logistics and timing. There were a lot more steps in getting the trip started than in the past. The U.S. – Canada border closure due to the Covid-19 crisis was responsible for those added steps. We entered the Dean River draw as we did last year, just in case the border opened up and made our fishing trip possible. Only this year the border did open, August 9, just 9 days before our departure on August 18. Only we had to obtain a negative result molecular Covid test within 72 hours of crossing the border. August 15 was a Sunday, so we scheduled tests on Monday, August 16. The negative test results were texted to us late Monday, so that was quick. Then we had to upload the test result to the ArriveCAN app, which Joe loaded onto my smart phone for me because I still don’t know how to use my cell phone for anything other than making phone calls (or text messaging).

When we reached the border we found that we were the only non-commercial vehicle in line, so that part was pretty quick, with the additional task of showing the Canadian border agent our negative Covid test results and vaccination cards along with our passports. However, the computer “randomly” selected us for an additional border crossing Covid test. Now we also had to download, or is it upload?, the Canadian Life Labs app, fill out lots of forms, self-swab nostrils and inside cheeks, put in a test tube, put that in a zip lock bag along with another form, etc. 40 minutes later we were allowed entry into Canada! See? Nothing to it; just a lot of steps to go through. At last we were bound for steelhead redemption!

Hope, B.C. was the perfect place for a coffee stop. Except not on this day. For reasons we’ll probably never know, the electrical power was out, and the whole town was temporarily closed until it came back on. Can’t make a latte without power, not to mention not being able to pay for it using tap-and-pay as so many things are nowadays.

From Hope we had to detour around the Fraser canyon. The province is on fire again this summer, with a wildfire in the canyon and a slide along the Thompson, closing that highway for a bit. And there were more fires up the Coq, with smoke so bad we didn’t stop in Merritt for lunch. We could finally breathe OK by Kamloops so made a lunch stop there. And there were more fires along Hwy 20 from Williams Lake to Bella Coola, but the road was open. Like here in the U.S., a lot of restaurants in Williams Lake and Bella Coola are still closed or have reduced hours because of the pandemic. The Korean restaurant was the only place we could get dinner in Bella Coola, so it was a full house.

We met our pilot, Richard, around noon the next day and loaded all our gear aboard the helicopter. The weather was cooperative, so we took the direct route in. Flying over those rugged coastal mountains that range from 6 to 7,000 feet elevation is breathtakingly beautiful. That flight never gets old.

Our campsite, at a place we call Alder, has changed again. Part of the mainstem river channel has changed, for the better this time, and all the side channels have moved around. The log jam that previously provided some wind protection was gone unfortunately. But we found a level area with some pea gravel and sand that made for good camping. However, because of fire danger a total burn ban is in place, so no camp fires are allowed this year. It’s a reasonable requirement, but who doesn’t like a campfire in the evenings? And a fire lets the bears know this spot is occupied.

We had a lot of water we could fish this year. Our home pool, Alder fished well from our side of the river, and we could also have crossed over to fish from the other side. Had we done so, there were two more pools downstream we could have accessed, but we never felt the need since we had enough on our side to keep us occupied. Between us and the long run we call Grizzly (named so because Joe saw one swim across the river there a few seasons ago) was a piece of water I dubbed “Middle Run” since it was between the two. And Middle Run was actually two smaller pieces of water, the lower of which wasn’t all that good, although I did catch a jack steelhead from it. I don’t think I’ve ever caught a jack summer run before, anywhere. I think that’s what would be termed a “half-pounder” in southern Oregon and northern California. So we have Upper Middle and Lower Middle, and just to add to the fun I caught a steelhead in the upper part of Upper Middle, so I was fishing upper Upper Middle. Joe and David were less amused by my pool naming convention.

Home pool, Alder.
Alder pool.jpg

Grizzly run.
Grizzly rr.jpg

We’re on what would be termed the high bank side of Grizzly. It fished well from top to bottom, wherever one could wade out far enough to get around various fallen small trees and logs. I found plenty of places to get my D loop hung up though. Above Grizzly is the “Wall” where the river makes close to a 90 degree bend, and it was fishable, depending on river height. Upstream from there was sort of a fast riffley run that seems too quick to hold fish in higher water but was markedly better when the river had dropped some. And another little slog took one to Horsefly, the uppermost run we could access. It’s another pretty long pool with some outstanding holding water. We never hooked a fish in it the entire week however. I still think it was worth fishing because I saw guide boats place clients there to fish, and I observed wading marks on the rocks upstream from where I saw guided clients fishing. When I consider that Grizzly was the only decent run we had two years ago, this should illustrate that we had a good “beat” of over a mile to mile-and-a-half of river to fish this year.

The Wall.
Wall 4.jpg

Saturday was our first day to fish. (Aliens are allowed to fish the Dean no more than 8 days per season, via the Dean River Draw, held in March each year.) And all three of us caught a steelhead that day. We thought perhaps run size abundance was better than the informal forecasts. Hah! I really knew better than that.

Basic 29" cookie cutter and why I don't bother taking or posting many fish pictures:
DSC02319 (2).jpg

Fishing into that Saturday afternoon, the wind came up. At some point, like when I have a nice single Spey arcing quartering downstream, and the wind gusts so strongly that your line lands 40’ upstream from where I was aiming, even I can figure out that nature is telling me to take a break. So I headed back to our campsite only to find that a residual part of Hurricane Ida had blown through. David found that he couldn’t fish under those conditions either and returned to camp shortly after I did. Joe was literally trying to hold the camp together as the wind was trying to blow it upstream into oblivion. My little mountain tent would have blown away completely had Joe not tied it off to the large tent he and David use. And that tent had its aluminum poles permanently bent to conform to the lean of the wind. The two REI Alcove awnings that we use to provide shade and rain protection were just short of completely destroyed. The steel poles remained intact, but the joints are made of molded plastic and were broken, bent, or push from round to ovalized or tear-drop shaped. Between the two awnings, we were able to salvage enough frame joints to make one awning to cover the table and eating area. It would have to suffice for the coming week.

Salvaging one Alcove out of the parts of two:
DSC02345.jpg

Uh, the wind stopped blowing, but this is now the tent poles permanent shape.
DSC02346.jpg

Although water conditions were wonderful, I didn’t catch anything for the next two days. I felt like there was a grey dismal cloud following my fishing efforts around. Tuesday took an upturn when I got a solid grab while fishing Alder. However it turned out to be a jack silver salmon. Wednesday I slogged up the very long diagonal riffle with Joe to fish Grizzly from river right. This run is really long, taking me about an hour and 25 minutes to fish. Just over half way down, the pool runs shallow and faster for 50 yards or so and doesn’t look like good holding water to me. And this happens to coincide exactly where the channel is slightly deeper and slower on river left, making that part the best of what Grizzly offers when fished from river left. I was fishing just upstream of that shallow area when I got a good strong pull. The fish didn’t run much or jump clear of the water, so I assumed it was a salmon. It took a while longer than I expected to land it. It was an ocean chrome silver buck, with its nose just beginning to hook, of about 11 or 12 pounds. Joe was fishing upstream of me and was taken aback somewhat because I commented that this fish would make such good camp meat. He thought I had just caught a steelhead and had gone all retro by suggesting that killing a wild summer steelhead would make such good eating. While that would be good too, we don’t kill wild steelhead, and of course the regulations prohibit doing so.

Coulda' been fine eating! But he was released.
DSC02322.jpg

When we returned to camp, David shared some disturbing news. We weren’t having any bear issues, so it had seemed reasonable enough to put some salami and cheese in a small dry bag and set it in the creek side channel near camp and place a heavy rock on it, thus keeping it cool. OK, it wasn’t a bear, but who would have thought that a couple ravens wouldn’t get curious about a red dry bag sitting in the creek? They pushed the rock off of it, pulled it on shore, and tore it apart and flew off with a block of salami and a couple blocks of cheese! And left a heck of a mess on the sand for me to clean up. Damn ravens! Live and learn I guess.

Thursday I fished Alder again and connected with a mint bright steelhead. Another cookie cutter 29” female. It was a pretty hot fish, worthy of the Dean designation, but I must note that it did not take me into the backing, as there were 2 or 3 wraps of fly line left on the reel when I began taking some line back in. Most Dean steelhead have been pretty consistent about running into the backing line, often two times. It’s a good thing this one didn’t as it was just above a rapid that I couldn’t have followed downstream. And maybe that’s why it didn’t take out more line, not wanting to leave the pool.

If the fish leaves this pool, I'm not following:
Lost 'em.jpg

I fished through Alder three times – after all, these are moving fish, and one never knows when another will enter – before heading back to camp for a break and some lunch. Joe had offered to share some of his salami and cheese with me since he had extra, and I no longer had any. Joe stored his in a bear canister that he buried in a sandy spot in the shade to keep it cool. So I retrieved some salami, cheese, and a bag of small tortillas. Since our campsite is less than 100’ away I screwed the lid on just enough to engage the threads. After all, there were no bears around camp, and I could easily chase one away with the whistle, air horn, and pepper spray if it wandered too close. Back at the table under the one remaining Alcove awning I had some lunch. Might as well have some wine with it since I brought 5 boxes, and we weren’t drinking it up fast enough. So imagine my surprise when I went to return the food items to Joe’s bear canister and I saw a raven flying away with a package of tortillas! Damn birds unscrewed the lid off the bear canister – it isn’t tight unless you screw it down to the tabs that keep it closed – and took two bags of tortillas, a block of cheese, and tore open a bag of oatmeal. Clearly I’m a slow learner when it comes to wildlife wariness. Add ravens to the list of species that are now on my shit list. Fortunately we had more than enough food to last the couple remaining days of our stay.

Friday was our last day to fish, and I was back to getting skunked. I just can’t seem to shake that dark cloud. Friday night was exciting in that the high winds returned. Not quite hurricane scale, but close. My tent rattled more or less constantly, and I slept hardly at all from 11:30 on. I was well acquainted with fatigue all of Saturday. It rained off and on, making it a real joy to strike camp and pack up wet gear. That’s just the way camping goes some times. Richard arrived right about noon as planned and set the helicopter down within a few feet of where we had stacked our gear, so loading couldn’t have been more convenient. I figured we would have to fly out the long route around Dean Channel due to the low clouds, but Richard said he had just come in with a new group through a place I hadn’t heard of – Jump Across Pass. The flight was a bit different as Richard threaded the aircraft around the cloud groups and layers, and had to back track once, but found his way up and over Jump Across Pass – the headwaters of Jump Across River, a river that I didn’t even know existed in this group of mountain ranges – back to Bella Coola and the airport. While in flight Richard asked us how we felt, I replied that if he felt good about our route then I felt good. I’ve flown with several pilots over the years, but there’s no one I’d rather fly with than Richard, particularly when the weather is slightly iffy.

With another trip under our belts, and having seen but one black bear on the Dean, imagine our surprise, delight even, when we stopped to fuel up the truck as we left town. Across the street in the side yard of a basic neighborhood home was a sow grizzly playing in the grass with her cub. I suppose it’s routine in this coastal community, but imagine anywhere else where you have to first check the yard before letting the dog go out or the kids go out to play or catch the school bus.

DSC02350 (2).jpg

We spent another night in William’s Lake and then hit the road for home early the next morning. The highway through the Fraser canyon was open now, so we saw close up where the slide and wildfire happened in the lower Thompson River canyon. The stands of larger Ponderosa pine trees still lived, as per the design for these trees. The younger, smaller pines, with their thinner bark and lesser height look to all be dead. It was a very somber sight.

Somber, however, doesn’t begin to describe Lytton, the small First Nations village we heard about a month ago. Wildfire literally leveled the town, with nothing but building foundations and the gridwork pattern of streets to indicate what once had been. The government hastily erected a very stout fence along the highway and around the town site to keep gawkers, and possibly looters, out. Not that there remains anything to loot. Lytton is gone. This affects me. I’ve eaten in the café and fished nearby waters. I feel a bit sick that it will never be the same.

The remainder of our trip was uneventful. The power was on in Hope, and we stopped for coffee and snacks. Soon we were at the U.S. border where there were all of two vehicles ahead of us in line at the border crossing. This is the story of our week at Dismal Gulch. I doubled my catch from two years ago by landing two steelhead. Both Joe and David fared better. I’ll only say that I’m ditching my god and beginning to pray to whatever God David worships. By the way, David doesn’t wade across the long riffle to fish Grizzly from river right. He just walks across on the water.
 

cabezon

Sculpin Enterprises
WFF Premium
Great report, @Salmo_g. Are there many guides (or other sport anglers) floating this section or do you largely have it to yourself most of the time?
Steve
 

Salmo_g

WFF Premium
There are 5 lodges on the river, 2 downstream of the canyon and 3 upstream. Only 2 (upstream) are operating this year, probably due to the recent re-opening of the border. One lodge accommodates 6 anglers, the other 8. Saw about half as many other anglers as usual. Guides seldom place client anglers where high bank casting is required or wading is difficult. So we can always find a place to fish by fishing where they won't.
 

Buzzy

Active Member
Thanks for the very entertaining report. A little adverse weather in steelhead camp I suppose is to be expected, that's what makes steelheaders real tough hombres (and hombrettes?). I haven't wet a steelhead line for five years now; thankful to read someone is still doing it and sharing their experience. Thanks, Steve!!

(Damn ravens)
 

cabezon

Sculpin Enterprises
WFF Premium
When we returned to camp, David shared some disturbing news. We weren’t having any bear issues, so it had seemed reasonable enough to put some salami and cheese in a small dry bag and set it in the creek side channel near camp and place a heavy rock on it, thus keeping it cool. OK, it wasn’t a bear, but who would have thought that a couple ravens wouldn’t get curious about a red dry bag sitting in the creek? They pushed the rock off of it, pulled it on shore, and tore it apart and flew off with a block of salami and a couple blocks of cheese! And left a heck of a mess on the sand for me to clean up. Damn ravens! Live and learn I guess.

I fished through Alder three times – after all, these are moving fish, and one never knows when another will enter – before heading back to camp for a break and some lunch. Joe had offered to share some of his salami and cheese with me since he had extra, and I no longer had any. Joe stored his in a bear canister that he buried in a sandy spot in the shade to keep it cool. So I retrieved some salami, cheese, and a bag of small tortillas. Since our campsite is less than 100’ away I screwed the lid on just enough to engage the threads. After all, there were no bears around camp, and I could easily chase one away with the whistle, air horn, and pepper spray if it wandered too close. Back at the table under the one remaining Alcove awning I had some lunch. Might as well have some wine with it since I brought 5 boxes, and we weren’t drinking it up fast enough. So imagine my surprise when I went to return the food items to Joe’s bear canister and I saw a raven flying away with a package of tortillas! Damn birds unscrewed the lid off the bear canister – it isn’t tight unless you screw it down to the tabs that keep it closed – and took two bags of tortillas, a block of cheese, and tore open a bag of oatmeal. Clearly I’m a slow learner when it comes to wildlife wariness. Add ravens to the list of species that are now on my shit list. Fortunately we had more than enough food to last the couple remaining days of our stay.
In the mythology of the PNW tribes, the raven is known as the "trickster" (see "Raven the Trickster" or "Raven Tales").
Steve
 

Greg Armstrong

WFF Premium
That was an enjoyable read. Thanks so much for taking us along on your adventure!

Sorry about the cheese and salami, but you’ve just gotta admire Ravens! They exhibit more character than any of our other native NW birds that I can think of.
 

Jack MeHoff

Active Member
sounds like the only thing missing was Killer Asian hornet attack , otherwise it was a normal fly in Steelhead fishing trip.
 

Creatch'r

Hesitant Member
Great write up Salmo, this is a trip I need to quit dreaming about and make it happen, thanks for sharing.
 

Matt B

...
WFF Premium
Let’s see, the ravens stole tortillas and cheese twice. I guess they must have a thing for quesadillas.
Thanks for sharing some stories!
 

Robert Engleheart

Robert
WFF Premium
Any fish on dry flies? With the Dean draw you are allowed to fish weekends but eight days maximum? Any cost in addition to non-resident and classified waters fees? What does the helicopter cost?
Know a guy has some property and cabins on the Bella Coola a few miles above town with a tributary creek on the property, says grizzlies are abundant in season.
 

Salmo_g

WFF Premium
Ravens and Crows are remarkably smart, and have amazing memories. I'm glad you didn't throw rocks at them. I'd be afraid of what they'd do to you.
Been thinking of taking a pellet gun, shooting one and hanging it upside down near camp. Apparently that works really well with crows and keeps them away.
 

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