Bowman Island, Lake Superior, Ontario Ca.
Superior Tunes: A return to Nipigon
It has been three years since I first visited Nipigon, Ontario. My friend Jerry Darkes had invited me to accompany him and a group of other anglers for a week of fishing at Gary Langs’ Bowman Island Lodge. He no more than mentioned Nipigon and I told him I was interested in going. This is a fabled place in the world of anglers for it was here that the world record brook trout was caught in 1913. The Nipigon River drainage is the epicenter of the range of a unique, exceptionally large strain of brook trout known as “coasters”. I had first heard about coasters from my dear friend Terry Harmon. I don’t believe there is anyone in Ohio who knows more about brook trout than Terry. Terry has enjoyed a remarkable career as an environmental educator at University School and developed a small fish hatchery on the school grounds. For years he has reared brook trout as a part of his educational program. His knowledge and enthusiasm are really remarkable and years ago he told me about these gigantic fish and their remarkable story. Being the educator that he is, his enthusiasm piqued my interest and I hoped that one day I might get the opportunity to visit their habitat.
It is easy to become captivated with brook trout. They are incredibly beautiful fish. Their fins are often tinted red, with cream accents and their dark olive bodies are covered with orange and blue dots on the sides, with broken, black lines on their backs. And all of these features are enhanced during the fall spawning season. Jerry took this picture of a fish Kim Benbow caught, that is about as pretty as they get!
They are widespread through Appalachia, up into eastern Canada and portions of the Great Lakes drainage and are really members of the char family. These fish were historically distributed, near shore, around Lake Superior, and many of the larger islands, including Isle Royal. They require pure, cold, well-oxygenated water. And in addition to silt-free, cold water, certain geologic features are important to successful brook trout reproduction.
They spawn in the fall of the year, on silt-free gravel stream beds. Using their fins, they make a shallow depression in the gravel. The displaced gravel creates a small mound downstream of the depression. The fish deposit their eggs on this gravel mound. As water flows over the depression, it goes into, and up through the mound of gravel. The eggs are bathed by this up-rising clear, cold, oxygenated water. If any one of these components is removed or compromised, they can’t reproduce.
In lakes, they are able to reproduce near shore with the right conditions. Sections of the Lake Superior shore have many beaches that consist of round granite cobble and gravel, not sand, but gravel. In certain situations, when streams or springs are flowing into the lake, they may seem to disappear, when actually, all, or some of the water will sink into these gravel beaches.
The water flows through the gravel creating up-welling springs further out in the lake. The coasters take advantage of this up-welling “current” and create redds on the submerged gravel bars in the lake. This phenomenon replicates the conditions of a stream built redd.
There is incredible diversity within the species with regard to coloration and size. In small mountain streams, they might average six or seven inches in length, weigh in under a half a pound, and may never lose their vertical “parr” marks. In some regions, however, they can get much larger. Labrador is known for big brook trout, but the Nipigon strain is historically known as the biggest of all, and a one-hundred-year-old world record confirms this. I took a picture of Jerry holding a cardboard replica of the huge trout. In some locations they are quite colorful year-round and in other areas, they may be silver or platinum color. But during the spawning season, they are remarkably brilliant.
At the turn of the last century, brook trout suffered widespread declines in population and distribution due primarily to shifts in land use. The clearing of the eastern hardwoods and the vast pine forest of the eastern and Great Lakes regions of North America significantly affected both water quality and water temperature. This was compounded by the misdirected efforts of early conservationist and angling enthusiasts who tried to off-set declining numbers with re-stocking or introducing “compatible” non-native species. Increased pollution and the wild spread use of pesticides also contributed to their decline. These factors contributed to the demise of brook trout strains that had evolved over hundreds of years in an isolated stream, in unique conditions. The Nipigon strain was not only affected by these influences as key components of their habitat was destroyed and the Nipigon River was dammed in several places to produce electricity, but these fish also suffered from excessive angling pressure as they were the largest strain of a popular game fish.
At the time the world record trout was caught, the population of coaster brook trout was already in decline. When word spread that the number of fish was decreasing, the fishing pressure amplified as wealthy fishing enthusiast came to try and catch one before they were all gone. Anglers were coming from across the globe to target these beautiful fish. Of course, this occurred before the creation and implementation of any comprehensive wildlife management strategies in North America and the continent had already seen tremendous decreases in native wildlife populations. Bison and many other large mammals had been eliminated from the majority of their home range. The passenger pigeon had been completely exterminated and a host of other birds including ivory-billed woodpecker were in serious decline. The future was rather bleak for the Nipigon strain of brook trout.
For nearly fifty years the coaster strain teetered on the verge of elimination ad they existed in tiny populations, in ideal conditions, around a few islands and near the shore of the big lake. Then, in the 1960s, the US Fish and Wildlife Service began working with their counterparts in Canada and developed an international management plan. As a result, the populations began to slowly grow and re-establish in historical habitat. This is one of the most uplifting conservation stories that have occurred in my lifetime, so yes, I was interested in going and I spent the last weekend in May 2016 on Bowman Island.
The island is “Crown Land”, which is similar to BLM land in the U.S. And like BLM lands, there are a few homesteads and a variety of leases within the Crown Lands. Gary Lang had bought a un-used gravel lease over thirty years ago but he had no intention of developing a gravel operation. Sick by stick, and trip by trip he built his lodge on the island. He is a remarkable individual that seems capable of doing nearly anything. He has a pilots license, the equivalent of a U.S. Coast Guard commercial skippers license, and I am sure a number of other certifications and endorsements. He designed and build the lodge with materials he brought out on his 70ft salvaged trawler or milled on the island with his band saw.
He installed the water and the electrical systems, and he also built a very cool little sauna, which hands down, beats a shower any day of the week. Oh yes, he does the cooking for his clients and has also been doing his own biological fish monitoring program. He catches, tags, measures, records, and releases brook trout all around his and the neighboring islands. He is a great guy and he has built a very special place. And the fishing is pretty magical too!
I think Jerry met Gary at a fishing trade show and his first trip to Bowman Island was in 2015. He has gone back every year and I decided I was going back this spring. We had a great time in 2016 and I expected I would have a marvelous time this year. I intended to add a few items to the agenda for this trip!
I normally take a guitar on trips like this and play a few tunes for everyone at the lodge one night. This year, I thought I could put together a performance or two on the trip. So I started looking into possible venues and any issues associated with performing in Canada. Jerry fixed me up with an evening after we came back from the island at another fishing lodge, but as it turned out, I had to get back for a performance here home, so I couldn’t do that. But after conferring with a few folks, I contacted the La Luna Cafe which is located about a quarter mile from the marina. Caitlin and John were happy to have me play the night before our group would leave for the island. I also began thinking about how quiet it was on the island and wondered if I could do a little “seat of the pants” recording. Silence is a premium commodity in today's world, at least for those of us who are trying to find it. I am always looking for quiet places and my buddy Bill Lestock has often talked about how microphones behave differently outside. So I thought it might be cool to take a day off of fishing to play and record a few tunes. So that was my plan!
It’s a nearly a 15-hour drive, and I was making it alone. I left my house at 10:00 AM and was at the Voyager Inn northeast of Sault Ste. Marie at 7:30. This is a cool and quaint family owned compound, with a gas station, restaurant, gift shop, general store and motel. My whole experience there made me feel like I was on the set of an episode to the 80’s tv series “Northern Exposure”. It is located on the north side of Trans-Can Highway and Lake Superior is on the other side. I would eat dinner, sleep and have breakfast there and then drive the remaining 4-5 hour leg of the trip over to Nipigon.
The Trans-Can is a two-lane highway, with the occasional passing lane. The speed limit is 90 kilometers an hour, which is like 55 MPH. It is a spectacular drive. All was going as planned until I hit stopped traffic on the edge of the little town of Wawa. After sitting in the car for 30 minutes or so, a local Wawa police officer drove by and told me there had been anaccident and the highway would be closed until mid-afternoon at the earliest. I happen to have the good fortune of being stopped right at the intersection to go to the Wawa Airport, which I turned onto. I drove past the airport and on into town and saw a sign advertising free WiFi at a Subway. I made it to the Subway, ordered lunch and began to consider my options. I was supposed to start at La Luna at 7:00. No worries, plenty of time I thought. I asked a local about the option of detouring around the wreck. He said that would be at least a 10-hour drive, on a very bad road, going up to a little town called Timmons. Someone else suggested a bush road, two track if I wanted to risk that! Since we didn’t buy the off-road package for the Honda Civic I thought I better pass on that. Evidently, a semi had struck a pedestrian at 1:30 AM and the Royal Canadian Police were re-recreating the accident scene and involved in a pretty serious investigation.
Long story short, I got back on the road at 2:30 PM and pulled up in front of the La Luna at 6:40. No one was there except Caitlin and her husband when I came in. It is a really cool brick building with a nice storefront, right next door to the Nipigon Historical Center. I sat down at a table and began tuning my guitar when Jerry came strolling in about ten till and came over to join me. I told him that it might just be me and him for the night when a local came in. Jimmy McCullough.
Jim is about 75 if I were to guess, and he came right up to the table and said he had heard there was supposed to be an out of towner playing music tonight, and assumed that was me. As there were just a few folks in the diner and I was the only one holding a guitar, I guess he was asking a rhetorical question. In a matter of moments, I found out that Jim was a musician, had played bass in a band with his son, been kicked out for someone younger, also played guitar and had a homemade CD, “As Is”. He also had several Youtube videos. I asked him if he wanted to play a few tunes and without hesitation, he was thumping my guitar.
He sang portions of three songs that he had written, and said he couldn’t remember all the lyrics. I told him I could relate. Jerry and I were enjoying being entertained as a few more folks started trickling in, including six of the guys who would be joining us on the island.
Jim gave me my guitar back and I sat at the table and played a tune or two for each of the locals who came in including a couple from the states who were driving to Alaska. I figured I would cover the other guys one night on the island. It was a hoot!
We were scheduled to meet Gary at the dock at 1:00 the next day. Jerry and I had booked a room at a hotel on the outskirts of town. We would have had a few hours to kill in the morning, and Jerry noticed a small historical museum right next to La Luna. He called a number on the door and a wonderful lady, named Betty agreed to meet us at the museum and give us a private tour. It was a great little museum, just choc-a-bloc full of stuff related to the history of the town. Trapping, logging, railroads, Vikings and, of course, brook trout. They had some wonderfully preserved trout skin mounts. I had never seen anything quite like these. They are made by taking the preserved skin of the fish and sewing it to a piece of birch bark. I think sphagnum moss is used to give the skin “dimension”. Regardless of what they are stuffed with, they are really cool.
At one time they had a skin mount of the record fish. Unfortunately, it was nearly destroyed in a fire a few years ago but the museum still had about 75 percent of the charred remains of the skin on display. Fortunately, they had a few photographs and some fairly specific measurements enabling the creation of a cardboard cut out of the fish. It was a cool little museum and after an hour and a half or so, we made our way over to wait for Gary and his boat at the marina. As we were waiting, Jim McCullough rolled up on a bicycle. He knew Gary’s boat came in from the island around 12 noon to drop off last weeks’ and pick up this week’s clients, and he was coming to see us off.
There were some historical interpretive signs around the marina and he began giving us a historical overview of the town and the marina. We mentioned that we had just toured the museum and I could tell he was immediately taken back. Evidently Jim, normally provided those tours and was a bit put out that Betty had not invited him. Small towns...
The lodge and the fishing were just as I remembered. As it turned out, I had a stellar day Wednesday on the lake. I caught more than my fair share of big, beautiful coasters, and decided Thursday I would stay on the island. Gary has a small fleet of 16-foot fishing boats for his clients to use, and after everyone got off and on their way, I took my guitar and a few odds and ends up the hill behind the lodge. Gary had built an open pole barn to store his boats in during the offseason and I thought this would work well as a windbreak. I found a couple of stacks of five-gallon buckets that I put to use as portable, functional tables. In addition to my guitar, I had my iPad, a Shure VM88 microphone and some Bose noise canceling headphones.
For the past five or six years, I have been using an app developed by Harmonic Dawgs called DAW. It is a sweet little program! It is simple and easy to use, and incredibly powerful for what it is. I have used it extensively to capture song ideas and to make basic recordings. I set up the IPad on the buckets, plugged in the headphones and mic, loaded up the program and started moving the buckets around to find a place that was in the wind shadow of the building and I started recording whatever tunes came to mind. I’d do a couple of versions and move on to the next one. As I was trying to get through one song, I kept screwing up at the same spot and was getting increasingly frustrated. When this starts to happen in a studio setting it is a compounding problem. You start feeling like you are wasting everyone’s time, time is money, and anxiety builds. All of this contributes to a mental barrier that effects your performance. As I was telling myself to calm down, I noticed a group of Blackburnian Warblers flitting about in the spruce trees. I thought what a pleasant distraction and I set back to work. It was simply great to dismiss a performance concern so easily. As the day warmed up the metal roof began to heat up and would occasionally “pop”. I fretted about this for a while and moved a little further outside of the building, and started to pick up more wind rumble and decided the occasional “pop” would be less of a distraction than the wind.
Every couple of hours I would take a break and go visit with Gary, have a cup of coffee and relax at the lodge a bit. All together I recorded several “takes” of 13 different songs. It was one of the most enjoyable recording sessions I have ever had. And this is how the idea for “Superior Tunes” came about. A simple product, just a collection of tunes recorded on an island with an Ipad.