Dean River, British Columbia, August 8-15, 2015 Trip Summary: The inspiration for our Dean River trip came out of a conversation Diane and I had with April Vokey while fishing with her in New Zealand. I had always wanted to go fish the Dean, but was discouraged by having to enter a lottery to fish the river and by the thought of trying to transport all of our rafts and gear to Bella Coola, British Columbia. April told me that the frenzied interest in the Dean had somewhat subsided over the years and the prospects of getting drawn for prime dates was now a possibility. She offered to share her Watermaster rafts with us, which she would volunteer to transport over a sketchy dirt road through a high mountain pass into the town of Bella Coola. Inspired, I put in for the lottery, and as predicted by April, we were given prime dates with little to no fanfare. While April would be supplying the boats, oars and most of the boating equipment, Diane and I had four massive duffel bags holding life jackets, camping gear, food, fishing equipment and other critical essentials needed to make this trip a reality. At the airport, we were served with devastating news; two of our bags would be bumped as excess baggage, essentially putting the whole trip in doubt. After quickly doing some makeshift begging and praying, one of the baggage handlers came up to us right before we boarded the plane and told us they had managed to get all of our gear onto the plane. You can imagine our relief when we landed in Bella Coola and all of our bags came off the luggage cart approximately two hours before we were scheduled to take off with West Coast Helicopters into the Dean River watershed. At the Heli pad, the three of us started to frantically throw equipment and camping gear into dry sacks while April’s dog Colby calmly watched the madness. Sometimes in Hollywood movies there is an instant when everything runs in slow motion; the bullet fired from a gun slows to a crawl right before it hits its intended target and one of those moments was when April showed me one of the extra spare oars which had been slightly bent and wouldn’t come apart to fit conveniently into the helicopter basket, and asked me if I thought we needed it. April and I looked at each other for a split second frozen in time before deciding we would leave it in the truck. With that decision made, we all loaded onto the Helicopter with poor Colby, who was undoubtedly questioning the physics of levitation, and headed for the Dean River.

On the flight into the Dean, I had told the pilot that I wanted to get a lay of the land by flying up the river from the estuary to our put in near a run called “Giants.” The flight was absolutely spectacular as we cruised by glaciers and misty peaks, mysterious lakes and finally the brilliant turquoise Dean River channel. As the green and yellow estuary came in to view, we saw where the Dean collided with the sea. From there we buzzed the lodge April used to guide at and waved to her sister who came out to greet us as we did a low fly by. The Lower Dean is separated from the Upper Dean by a spectacular set of falls that rumble over jagged, haphazard rocks into a cataclysmic and a violent class V whitewater canyon that funnels the entire volume of the river towards its terminus with the distinctly separate section of the lower river. It’s amazing these Steelhead and Salmon have evolved to ascend such a massive obstacle and can make it into the upper reaches of the river to spawn. Beyond the prime holding run at the top of the falls called “Victoria,” the Dean River stretched off into the distance like a ribbon of aquamarine silk cupped on either side by smooth, glaciated valleys and chalky snowcapped peaks. Flying up the river ended up being a good decision because it gave us the opportunity to see where other groups were camping and a chance to scout some of the more ominous looking rapids from the air. It also offered a tantalizing glimpse of absolute Steelhead nirvana - pools and runs shaded by dense forest, dripping with moss and lichen that literally made us drool knowing we would get a chance to experience it all. Eventually we reached the upper limits of where we would start our Dean River float trip. As the thump of the rotors reverberated off the canyon walls we made a wide sweeping round-about turn before the pilot gently feathered our bird onto a shallow gravel bar adjacent to the river bank. We eagerly jumped out of the helicopter throwing all manner of gear into a hastily constructed pile and hunkered down as the helicopter lifted off leaving us to the solitude of the river. At that point, in an excited rush, Colby jumped up on Diane as if to say “were here” and decorated her sweatshirt with some wet muddy paw prints and I decided to baptize myself in the holy waters of the Dean River by promptly slipping on some mossy rocks and tumbling into the water.

There is always so much excitement at the beginning of a trip when you know you have days of adventure ahead. In the waning hours of the evening light, we located a comfortable campsite in the trees and proceeded to set up a camp we called Lupus One. April, being a BC resident, went down and made a few casts to “test” the waters as the light faded into shadows and before Diane and my first legal day of fishing could begin promptly hooked a nice fat Dean River hen around 14 pounds. This was a great start to the trip and a good omen of things to come. Overnight, it rained on us and the next morning, we woke up to find the river slightly colored. I was initially concerned wondering if a muddy head of water was lurking somewhere in the canyons above us, but that never materialized and the color remained a perfect Steelhead green throughout our trip. That morning, we got a visit from the local conservation officer on the river who checked our classified waters licenses and gave us a great tip on a pool upriver where he had seen dozens of Steelhead rolling. Armed with that information, we hiked upriver to a pool where Diane and April traded turns catching fish for a couple of hours and I documented their experience by taking photos and catching 1 or 2 myself.

The Upper Dean is characterized as a pool and drop river. Because the river is cutting through the steep coast range as it makes its way to the sea, the river has a lot of elevation drop in a very short distance. The river cascades downstream before pooling up and flattening out, and then repeats itself over and over again in the top part of the river. With the volume of water flowing downstream and the steepness of the drop in some places, I found some of the rapids to be concerning for our top heavy and overloaded Watermaster rafts. My wife and I are both accomplished white water rafters and we have experience running class V rapids. Our first date was a whitewater rafting trip which I guided on the South Fork American River, and together before kids, we cut our teeth on some of the scariest whitewater in Northern California – Chamberlain Falls on the North Fork American, Clavey Falls on the Tuolumne River, and I even have a picture of Diane crying as she goes down the class V rapid, Tunnel Chute on the Middle Fork American. The point is, for anyone who isn’t used to running whitewater, I would urge caution on the Upper Dean. On day one, Diane immediately stuck her oar in a rocky shallow run with a steep drop. Because the oars are pinned by a bolt to the oar lock assembly which is permanently mounted to the raft, her boat drifted forcefully downstream over the oar causing it to immediately snap off about half way up the oar shaft. What we ended up with was a broken oar with the lower blade dangling by one long, thin shaving of aluminum. I gave Diane a lecture on not getting sideways when rowing away from rocks and objects because when you ride up and down the haystack waves, you can’t “ship” the locked oar in the fixed position oar lock and it risks getting caught and pinned on the bottom. Oh well, water under the bridge right? . . . We had a spare. Yes, that lasted at least an hour until I didn’t heed my own advice and “snap,” that was the end of oar number two (in the first mile of river). Remember the slow motion bullet analogy from the movies describing how everything slows down right before the bullet hits its intended target. That was us and the point of impact was the realization, we had left the 2nd spare in the car now separated from us by miles of ominous mountains and glaciers. When I broke my oar, it snapped cleanly and the blade sank out of sight to become a permanent part of the Dean River. When it happened, I was in a precarious canyon and actually started nervously laughing as I rowed in circles down the rapid with half an oar on one side and the other spinning me in circles. I used my feet to deflect myself off rocks. The net result was eventually the rapid deposited me safely into the next pool where I gleefully, and in my own sick way, held the remains of the broken oar up for Diane and April to see. You should have seen their faces. We had no more oars, and it would be impossible to get down river without one. Where we had come to a stop on our journey was a steep canyon of jumbled rocks dropping off into depths unknown. There wasn’t even a good place to get out of the boat. The three of us bobbed against the rocks and brainstormed. The first logical choice we came up with was pulling out our satellite phone and calling West Coast Helicopters to see if they could break into April’s car, get the extra oar, and air drop it to us while coming in to pick up, or drop off another group of anglers. We tried that and found out the helicopter had no scheduled pickups or drop offs for at least a week. Then there was the theory that April could call her brother in law, Steve Morrow, get him to commandeer a jet sled above the falls, and Rambo an oar up to us from the lower lodge. It turned out after the call, there were no oars at the lodge, and some of the rapids between us and them weren’t really safe to run in a jet boat anyways. Finally I said, we are going to build our own and April and Diane looked at me like I was crazy. As luck would have it, we had the piece of blade from Diane’s oar break. I climbed out of my disabled raft onto a big rock and began to scour driftwood for a shaft. Within a minute I found a beautiful piece of driftwood almost the same diameter of the oar shaft and equally as long. For some uncanny reason, this piece of driftwood was light and stout, dried and smooth from being polished by months of high water on the river– someone above was watching out for us. For the next 30 minutes, I engineered the most fabulous wooden oar out of rope, wood and Diane’s blade, lashed it to the pin that is attached to the Watermaster using cam straps and we were back in business. I swear this oar was so balanced and light, I couldn’t even tell that the old oar was missing and had been replaced with the “Franken-oar.” Once again the look on April and Diane’s face was priceless as I did a couple of quick spins in the water to test the oar lock integrity and maneuverability and said I was ready to go.

The next few days were highlighted by entertaining conversations around the campfire surrounded by LED Christmas lights I had brought to bring a little cheer at night and fine backpacking cuisine served straight out of a pouch. The days were spent fishing gorgeous pools, catching shiny, newly minted steelhead, and a few veteran old ones, and drifting lazily down the river. At one point in a long fly run that allowed the three of us to spread out, I hooked a giant that perplexed and stunned me at the same time. Noticing something was out of the ordinary, April and Diane came up to see what I had on the end of my line, and for a moment, we thought I had the Dean River Steelhead record right before our eyes. Being that it was so late in the season, none of us expected to see a mammoth dusky silver colored King Salmon attached to the fly. I know this fish was a monster maybe between 35 and 40 pounds or possibly even more because April having guided on the river was shocked by its enormity and referred to it as a “whale” that she couldn’t even tail due to the size of the wrist. We landed that monster, snapped a few quick photos and set it off to hopefully spread those special genetics back to the river of its birth.  With no more spare oars, we were very careful to portage any questionable looking rapids, and eventually the river emerged from the fishy, forested canyons onto a broad flood plain characterized by long gravel runs and gentle riffles. The oar held up great and would last undeniably until the end of the trip.

In the lower river above the falls, there are several lodges and guide boats that fish each day. As they see you floating down in rafts, they appear to tactically move their client’s around to reserve the best runs before we can reach them. Once we float by, with no way to get back up, the guides can pick up their anglers and re-spread them out saving the runs we had passed for later in the day. Fortunately, they go in during the evenings and we were able to camp on a couple of choice runs which in the morning gave us prime water. One guide in particular started a small camp fire as they saw us in the distance. As we got closer to the spot, April and I looked at each other and realized they were holding the pool for morning and didn’t want us to camp there. We floated by and pulled over below the run realizing the darkness of night was in our favor. Eventually the game of “cat and mouse” ended and the boat, which never did fish the run while we waited, loaded up their anglers under the threat of darkness and passed by us waving good night. As soon as they went by, we dragged our rafts back upriver and secured the very spot where they had tried to wait us out. The next morning we woke up extra early and were standing in the river casting as the boat tried to buzz right to the run we had commandeered on both sides. We ended up catching a half dozen Steelhead or more out of the run, fishing it until the early afternoon. They knew we had gotten them with their own trick. Eventually we made it down to the power boat boundary where we laid up for a day or two catching fish without the constant presence of the guide boats buzzing about and fishing at our leisure. At one point, April set up a hammock in a tree to read a book, and both she and Diane cooled off by dipping their heads in the river. One thing that was very unique for Diane and I was the hot summer weather. Usually we are accustomed to fishing in freezing conditions bundled up in polar fleece. We had definitely over packed the winter steelhead gear for this trip and next time we will bring our tarpon fishing clothes instead. Towards the last day, we floated down to the famous Totem Fly Club water where we caught a bunch of steelhead and I landed another blush king salmon on a fly. We finished the day at the run we had seen from the helicopter called “Victoria,” which is the giant holding pool above the canyon with the falls. I assume it was named “Victoria” after the queen of England and it certainly was the queen of the river in terms of epic holding water. We hooked and landed several fish from this run which I would honestly characterize as one of the greatest pieces of classic Steelhead water I have seen in British Columbia. Everything is right about it and I can just imagine all those Steelhead and Salmon fighting up that canyon of class V whitewater before settling in for a short vacation stay to get a little bit of rest and relaxation before moving on upriver to spawn. They should call the run the “Four Seasons” or the “Ritz Carlton” or in laymen’s terms “The hotel,” because that is what it was – an epic fish hotel. Around 2:00 in the afternoon, we heard the whirl of the helicopter as it appeared on the horizon and landed on the bar to pick us up. We loaded in all of our stuff and our special oar which would serve as a memento of the trip. Once again Colby looked at us with pleading eyes wondering if he really had to get on that helicopter again. Hours later, we were back in Bella Coola at the hotel enjoying a nice sushi dinner and reliving a great experience floating, fishing and camping on the Upper Dean River. Final tally for this trip – a whole bunch of Steelhead, 3 king salmon including the Mammoth, 1 Silver Salmon and a couple of Bionic Pinks we have to give a “shout out” to because they are also amazingly tough enough to also make it up the falls.

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