Fishing and Skiing - All in a Day's Play
In the world of multi-sport star athletes, many people likely remember “Neon” Deion Sanders who is the only person to ever hit a home run in the major leagues and score a touchdown in the NFL in the same week. Or Canadian Amateur Sports Clara Hughes, who is the only Canadian to have ever won a gold medal in both the summer and winter Olympics for speed skating and road cycling. Maybe most famously of all was Bo Jackson another football/baseball/Bo Knows Everything star.
I certainly don’t claim to be a star athlete by any means, but thoughts of the fore-mentioned dual sport athletes came to mind as a sunny day last week brought about a unique made-in-the-Kootenays dual sport day.
Waking up to a sparkling sunrise over the Columbia range in the distance the morning brought about a stunning and brisk late-winter, blue sky. Taking advantage of only a limited number of bluebird fresh snow days this winter, I kicked off my day by leaving fresh tracks all over Red Mountain. Three hours spent yo-yoing between snow beard and goggle tan later, it was time to ditch my skis, refuel, and descend down to the valley bottom through several sub-climates to the banks of the Columbia River.
Catching up with fisherman extraordinaire and Trail native Gary Crombie at the boat launch in Gyro Park, my brain was struggling to adjust to the change from a powder-filled mountainside to beautiful, snow-free sandy river bank and equipment, just as my clothes had changed from snowsuit and skis to spring jacket and boat.
As the owner of Columbia River Power Rafting, Crombie is a model for how to turn your passion into your career. After growing up in Trail and spending various stints away in Vancouver just long enough to learn he never wanted to live in the big city again, he made his way back to Trail.
“In Trail there’s not much for work apart from working at the Smelter or making your own job, and I didn’t want to work in the smelter so I had to find something to do for work,” recalled Crombie.
One summer day while he was floating about in the Columbia with a good friend, the beauty and serenity of the river got him thinking. “You know, hardly anyone around here really gets out on the river-and it’s beautiful out here. I bet people would pay for this,” he thought.
From there Crombie went out, found a boat and started up a fish guiding business that morphed into the fishing/rafting company that is now Columbia Power Rafting. In the six years he’s been operating he’s taken 800 folks out, many of whom live within a few kilometres of the river but had never been on it.
That afternoon I sat in the bow of a twelve foot Zodiac, cruising up the mighty Columbia, cool wind biting at my nose through the rapids. I was guest 801.
Just as Crombie predicted, I had most of my pre-conceptions about the river smashed and rebuilt in our fours spent motoring up and then drifting and fishing down the river. Wihmahl-or Big River, as it was known to the Chinook speaking people-is the largest river in North America that flows into the Pacific Ocean, and it lies right here in our backyard as an awesome wonder of the aquatic world.
Countless times we’ve all driven near its banks coming to and from Rossland, taking it for granted as the perceived sewage pipe for the smelter. In the past decade, however, between major cleanup attempts by Teck and an ever-rising environmental consciousness about what we dump into the river, the mighty Wihmahl has made a partial recovery.
“It was real bad when I was younger,” recalled Crombie. “I’m catching more fish out here now, though, than I ever have.”
Laying back comfortably in the bow of the Zodiac as we cast our lines and let our bait drift, looking around at the surrounding sand cliffs and rocky bluffs along the banks of the river, far enough upstream that the drone of the smelter and rumble of the highway could no longer be heard, the setting felt like a pristine river environment, not an industrial waterway.
Getting a nibble and a bite on the first cast of the day set our hopes high. Maybe too high as the less active resident trout population (which get a bit harder to catch in winter) toyed with us all afternoon and sent us home fishless.
I think I heard a quote once that went something like ‘You can learn more about a person in an afternoon of fishing than a lifetime of working with them’. Shooting the breeze with Crombie while we drowned worms and fed the fish proved that saying to be right on. From what songs on his portable mp3 player best attract the fish (Billy Joel, The Eagles and some old time country) to hearing about the day when his fishing tour turned police mission as a would-be bridge diver nearly landed on his craft in Castlegar, I learned a lot about Crombie that day.
As we rounded the bend just above the smelter, floating back downstream through the rapids and into civilization, my brain adjusted to the shift from serene river wilderness to industrial urban environment as we floated back to the boat launch and packed up our gear.
While discovering yet another reason why the Kootenays are an outdoorsman’s paradise, the biggest lesson I picked up that day was a deeper appreciation for the magnificent body of water we have running so close by our little mountain town. While no it’s not the cleanest river in the world, it was far healthier and aesthetically pleasing than I had imagined while looking out the driver’s side window in passing; it’s a treasure that, according to Crombie, too few Rosslanders recognize.
As any true boater or fisherman will always tell you, the view is always better from the water. Having gained a whole new perspective on the river, I would have to agree. I’d recommend to all who have the opportunity, get out on the water and enjoy the great Wihmahl river: it’s a whole lot nicer than the polluted Columbia many of us imagine.