Fishing on the Fly

 - February 5, 2008, 5:15 AM

Traditionally, helicopters have been used to rescue people who, for varied reasons, have become unwillingly isolated from their fellow man. Snatched from the jaws of danger, these victims of fate are hoisted aloft, thanks to a set of whirling rotorblades and a skillful pilot, and deposited into the waiting, grateful arms of their fellow humans. Rescued from the terrible isolation of the wilderness, returned to the safety of civilization.

Then there are those who yearn to reverse this flow, to use the special talents of the rotorcraft to get away from it all, a process of intentional isolation so neatly summarized in the spirit of the Chet Baker jazz classic, “Let’s Get Lost.” The result has been the advent of a new kind of tourist attraction–isolated yet luxurious backcountry lodges, accessible only via air, where the fish are plentiful, the evenings starry and tranquil and the paths far from beaten.

The rush to the wilderness does not come easy and it does not come cheap. Nearly everything has to be transported in from “civilization,” from the food, drink and bedding to, in at least one case, the very buildings of the lodge itself. But for an increasing portion of the affluent and upscale population, a week or two in the great “out there” is worth the stiff admission price.

A Movable Feast
Probably the most remarkable of these new eco-lodges is the amazing King Pacific, an ultra-modern 17-guestroom lodge with two addresses, the first during the winter months in the harbor of Prince Rupert, British Columbia, Canada, the other from May to October in a small ocean inlet 85 miles south of Prince Rupert to which the lodge is towed (yes, towed; it’s mounted atop a pair of oversize barges). The philosophy of the floating lodge is to keep the local environmental impact to a minimum. Power is generated on the spot. The septic system stores waste for later pumpout, off-site transport and disposal. The lodge is moored in sheltered Barnard Harbor on Princess Royal Island, 140 miles south of the Alaskan border at the mouth of the Douglas Channel, close to the Inside Passage through which the Alaskan cruise ships travel.

The King Pacific is operated by the Rosewood chain of hotels and lodges, a family of white-glove accommodations that include the Caneel Bay resort in the U.S. Virgin Islands, The Mansion at Turtle Creek in Dallas and the famed Hotel Carlyle in Manhattan.

Guests arrive on their own ticket at Prince Rupert International Airport and are transported from there to Barnard Harbor aboard a de Havilland Beaver floatplane. Accommodations are what you’d expect for an ultra-deluxe lodge in a pristine wilderness environment charging $2,300 per person for a three-day (Friday through Monday morning) stay in a single-bed room on up to $16,800 per person for a seven-day stay in the two-bedroom Princess Royal suite. Décor and room accoutrements are right out of Architectural Digest. Bathtubs are sunken, lighting recessed.

What’s the attraction? For most guests, the prospect of what is likely the best fly fishing in the Western hemisphere, angling made even better by creative use of the helicopter. The King Pacific sets up for the season at the head of an ocean inlet penetrating the temperate coastal rainforests with waters that are home to some of the world’s biggest runs of migratory wild salmon and steelhead trout.

The inlets and islands of the nearby Skeena River are home to the sort of piscine abundance that dumbfounded the early hunters and trappers exploring North America in pioneer days. King Pacific guests are now flown in mere minutes to remote streams that would have taken days to reach on foot. No roads need to be forced through virgin forest, and no polluting outboard motor boats churn their way up rocky rivers. “Until the advent of heli-fishing, many of these streams had never been fished at all,” said a lodge guide. “With the helicopter, we can drop them off for a good long morning and afternoon’s worth of fishing, picnic lunch and all, and have them back at the lodge for cocktail hour with a lifetime worth of stories.”

The King Pacific has an arrangement with the local Tsimshian Indian nation allowing them to heli-fish from the roughly 40 rivers within a one-hour flight radius of the lodge. Some of the Tsimshian Indians work as guides for lodge guests.

While guests can (and many do) keep some of their catch, nearly all of the fish taken are released. In the course of an average week last summer, a total of 284 fish were caught and 146 of them were returned. The largest was a 38-pound Chinook salmon, though 40- and 50-pounders are not unheard of. It’s that “take only photographs, leave only footprints” attitude that rules among the new generation of North American backcountry lodges, inspired as a seasonal variation of heli-skiing, long a solid moneymaker in remote mountainous areas of Alaska, Canada and New Zealand.

As to just who operates King Pacific’s seasonal air fleet, the lodge is tight-lipped, consistent with a multipage privacy statement included as part of its Web site (www.kingpacific.com). Such an obsession with discretion is welcomed by the brand of upscale traveler, many of them top executives, who can afford this combination of isolation and luxury.

North to Alaska
Most Alaskan roads end just a few miles outside of town and, as anyone who has ever flown “bush” in the great Alaskan wilderness can tell you, flying is the only way to go. Owner/operator Mark Miller likes to live out where even SUVs cannot go and has made his home at his Talaheim Lodge (www.talaheimlodge.com), midway on the Talachulitna River just 85 miles west of Anchorage (and some 60 miles from any road worthy of the name) in the foothills of the Alaska Range.

Talaheim (German for “home on the Tal”) consists of a roomy, rambling main lodge, with guest cabins constructed with local logs and timbers from the Talaheim sawmill. Accommodations are rustic but comfortable and modern with indoor bathrooms and electricity. The atmosphere is extremely personal, with room for only six guests at a time. Additionally, there is a sauna, hot tub, radio, telephone and floatplane, as well as helicopters and river boats.

The helicopters are Miller’s idea. A 10,000-hour bush pilot, he added a pair of Enstrom F-28s in 1988 and began pioneering, in a very hands-on way, the practice of heli-fishing. “I fly my guests anywhere from four to 20 miles from the lodge, depending on the kind of fishing they want to do,” he said. “I hire an extra pilot for that six-week high summer time when I am very busy, otherwise I fly everyone myself. We’ve also got a Cessna 180 on floats that I use for lodge support and transporting guests and supplies. Most of my clients are business people who can afford $3,000 to $5,000 for a fishing trip. As far as noise from the aircraft, well, there’s no one out here to complain.”

Operating with a backup aircraft is essential; even though the distances back to the lodge aren’t insurmountable, sometimes the terrain is. No one wants to rough it out in the muskeg overnight without the proper equipment.

“We hook and release everything except salmon; someone wants to take a frozen salmon home with them, no problem,” Miller reports. “And nearly everyone wants some of their catch served for dinner that night.”

The bad news this year, Miller sadly conceded, is that the combination of a shaky economy and war jitters has added up to a downturn in volume and reservations.

“The size of this summer’s waiting list is not too good,” Miller reported. “We operate from June through September and we still have about 50 percent of that season available. War and the economy are keeping people home. It might be rough this year,” Miller said, taking some hope from the time-honored concept of equity: “I own everything here at Talaheim, so unlike a lot of other lodges, I think I will survive.”
The amount of true wilderness on this planet is finite and steadily decreasing. The helicopter makes it possible to sell quick access to that soul-satisfying wilderness in a way that carries with it a low environmental impact.