I woke to a loon's lament in the chill of dawn and thought, "It must be true--it's too perfect to be fiction."
It was our first morning at Hatchet Lake Lodge in northern Saskatchewan. There was a thumping in the other room as one of the cabin crew loaded the woodstove.
A few minutes later, as the heat began to warm the cabin, someone knocked and said, "Coffee!" and I rubbed my bristly face and knocked back a shot of black coffee. You need to get well-fortified to catch huge northern pike all day.
It's tough work, but as the saying goes, someone has to do it--someone with a bunch of spare money and a thirst for fishing the way it was when the first settlers arrived in the Lower 48 and how it still is if you can afford to ride a plane hundreds of miles beyond the nearest taxicab.
Just off the plane a corporate type clamped a satellite phone to his ear and checked in with the unreal world. I wanted to take it away from him and throw it in the lake. No one too important not to be able to lose himself for five days in Canada's unspoiled wilderness.
The Alumacraft boats are as stout as a Saskatchewan lumberjack, but clipping the tops of the waves at 25 miles an hour is a jarring experience, the kind that makes orthopedic surgeons moan with anticipation.
Hatchet Lake Lodge is an engineering feat to rival the Seven Wonders of the World. The runway spans several 60 foot gullies, each of which had to be filled "one loader bucket at a time" to create a level surface. It was like bailing the ocean with a teacup.
It's 50 miles to the nearest roadhead, so all supplies come either by air or in the winter across rugged terrain and frozen lakes. One bulldozer clears the snow, while a second drags a ski-equipped flatbed trailer with thousands of pounds of fuel and other supplies.
There's a five thousand gallon fuel tank for outboard motors, plus another for avia tion fuel. Fleming, ever conscious of the fragile nature of his land, uses double- walled tanks, environmentally secure even if the outer wall is punctured.
It's a multi-million dollar enterprise. Do the math: Nearly 1,000 anglers a season pay a minimum of $2,395 to come to Hatchet (not counting their travel expense to Winni peg, the fly-out terminal). That's $2.4 million gross. Any fly out trips to other lakes from Hatchet are about $200/angler/day.
All drinks, souvenirs, fishing tackle, etc. are extra. Sounds like a gold mine? Consider the expense. It's not as if there is convenient delivery of supplies or nearby markets to pick up forgotten items.
If something is forgotten, it must be flown in and if something breaks either it's fixed on-site or very expensively replaced.
Consider the expenses, starting with salaries and benefits for 20-plus guides and about as many lodge employees, running oper ating costs such as food, insurance, permit fees, leasing of two float planes for the season, plus chartering the fly-in plane from Winnipeg, plus gas for the planes and most of a 5,000-gallon tank for the outboard motors.
Fleming replaces his outboard motors every year and there are about 60 of them, each running perhaps $1,500, a cool $90,000. Boats wear out every few years. So do ca bins. Two burned in a forest fire in 1998 that, fortunately burned away from the lodge to the lakeshore. Fleming sends a construction crew of Ojibwe Indians in April to do repair and expansion work, then arrives himself in May. The angler season runs from early June to mid-August, two and a half months.
Construction is of native materials--conifer logs for all the cabins, hand cut and peeled.
Landing an airplane except on the water is an impossibility without a runway carved out of the rugged terrain.
That's what Fleming did--he created a 6,000-foot packed sand runway, able to land mid-sized jet airplanes, one front end loader bucket at a time.
Twice a week an Athabaska Airlines turboprop jet from Winnipeg, leased for the season delivers about 40 new anglers and picks up the departees, tired and arm-weary from eight hours of fishing each day and countless struggles with bigger fish than most ever have seen before.
There are five species of game fish available and many anglers complete the so- called "Grand Slam" of at least one of each species. Northern pike are the glamour fish, most common and widespread.
The lodge record weight is 35 pounds and many in the 20-25 pound range are caught on every trip. You'd have to almost try NOT to catch fish to avoid hooking several pike in the 10 pound or more range.
Lake trout are the largest fish (the lodge record is well over 20 pounds), but spend much of the season in deep water.
The smallest, but in many ways the most exotic species is Arctic grayling, a fish of almost mythical stature because of its remote and limited range. They're easy to catch in the swift rapids of several area rivers, run about a pound and a half to two pounds, and are troutlike on a light fly rod.
Anglers catch them with saucy dry flies dancing on the swift riffles and no one can fail to marvel at the exotic huge dorsal fin and shimmering gray colors.
Whitefish are hard to catch, but fight well and weigh in, usually, about two pounds. Anglers who catch a walleye probably will have it for the shore lunch--walleyes are legendarily good chow, with flaky, firm, tasty filets.
Anglers are on a five-day rotation. They fly two and one half hours from Winnipeg early in the morning, arrive at the airstrip, load into boats for a 10-minute ride to the island where a hot breakfast waits. They barely have time to change into fishing clothes before they're off for six hours or more of fishing, either on Hatchet Lake or one of the 16 fly-out lakes.
Dinner is at 7 p.m. and anglers are welcome to fish on their own after that (the guides are off duty at 5 p.m.).
At about 6 a.m. someone visits each cabin to start the fire so it'll be warm when the anglers rise. A few minutes later, someone else delivers a hot pot of coffee. And at 6:50, a piper, clad in kilts, strolls through the cabin area with the breakfast call.
Anglers fish four more days and fly back to Winnipeg on the fifth day.
It's a well-honed system, but one that still retains the personal touch. Lodge employees mostly are young college students, working summer jobs (many return for several years) and are hired for their genuine friendliness and personality.
The guides all are Cree Indians, most with many years at Hatchet. Cornelius (Corny) Ratt, who calls himself "The Man of the North" is one who exudes a genial presence on the dock and releases small pike with the admonition, "Go back and get yo' momma!"
Depending on travel to Winnipeg, the overall cost of the trip could be close to $5,000. For information, visit the Hatchet Lake Web site: "http://www.hatchetlake.com".
WHAT DO YOU NEED TO TAKE?
1. For non-Canadians, a birth certificate and driver's license or, best, a passport.
2. Camera and plenty of film, at least 10 rolls of 36 exposure.
3. Sunglasses and sunscreen and, depending on time of trip, insect repellant.
4. Ultralight or fly fishing gear for grayling, heavier gear for the rest (although the traditional huge spoons and stiff rods aren't necessary and lighter tackle means more fun). I used a 10 foot, six inch Browning ultralight rod that will throw a lure a half-mile.
5. A minimum of a warm shirt, hooded sweatshirt and rain gear (jacket and pants). Better to have too much than not enough.
6. Books to read--there is no television nor radio, nor newspapers at Hatchet...and you'll welcome the respite. On the other hand, just sitting in front of the lodge, looking at the lake, is better than manufactured entertainment.
1. Airfare to Winnipeg, figure $100/night Canadian (about $60 American) for at least one night (before the trip and possibly one night after). A five day Hatchet trip is $2,395; nine day (too long, in my opinion) $3,595.
2. Fly-outs to lakes other than Hatchet are $190/person/day. It's worth at least one fly-out for the experience.
3. Drinks, including soft drinks, are extra, as are items bought at the store, so bring your own liquor (you can bring a fifth duty free into Canada) and all necessary lures.
4. Figure $50-$200 apiece for guide tips (depending on your bankroll and how much you think of the guide) and at least $50 for the lodge staff. Tips of course are not mandatory, but you'll feel better if you reward the outstanding service and great new friends at Hatchet.