When a dear friend called to say there could be a couple of last-minute fishing spots open at the world-class Cree River Lodge, it wasn’t a question of yes or no. It was a question of how fast I could get my affairs in order to make it happen.
In my gut, I knew this was something I could not pass up. After calling in several favors and twisting the (rubber) arm of my faithful outdoor companion, Cousin Ben, we were ready. We found ourselves staring out the window of a twin-prop floatplane as she dipped her wing toward the vast expanse of the northern boreal forest.
We eventually descended toward a small, quaint settle- ment. It’s here you’re greeted warmly by Patrick Babcock and the crew. Affectionately referred to as “Patty,” this warm-hearted outdoor guru has been welcoming visitors to Cree River Lodge for the last 15 years.
Roughly 120 kilometers from the Northwest Territories border, the Cree River meanders from its origins in Cree Lake through shield, muskeg, and dunes for some 117 kilometers. There, it stops for a quick reprieve in Wapata Lake, where Cree River Lodge is nestled. Stoney Rapids is the closest settlement with an airport. From there you can either take a short plane ride straight to the dock or drive to a laydown, where a boat will meet you and take you upriver to the lodge.
Land, air, and water all offer the same view of thick black forest with dark water sucking at its edges. The scene is broken only by the occasional patch of sand or lichen-kissed rock. The vast spruce stands surrounding Cree River Lodge have seeped inky tannins into the wa- ter for hundreds of years, creating the intimidatingly dark brew that eventually ends its journey in the aptly named “Black Lake.”
MEETING OUR GUIDE
It was just the end of August, but the northern air was already thick with the sappy scent of fall. The sound of footsteps barked out from the boardwalk as we all began to explore the main lodge and surrounding cabins. Each threshold crossed here offers an illustration of the di- chotomy that is Cree River Lodge—both rugged extremes and welcoming comforts. There’s the earthy smell of coffee wafting from a room filled with huge fish repli- cas; a cozy fireplace surrounded by world-class guides.
Then, we see a pair of camo waders marching down the boardwalk, worn by someone who’d become our shep- herd through the dense wilderness. Curtis would be our guide. Exhilarated at this newfound kinship, we set off to gear up for our first day on the water.
Around the lodge, you may run into Patty. Although he’s unable to take full days away from the demands of the lodge, he sometimes finds a few hours to stop and enjoy his labor of love. That’s cruising the shallows for Walleye with his wife, Lori, and their faithful companion, Whiskey. Like so many good ol’ dogs of yore, Whiskey is an unlikely hero. She’s not a pointy-eared, sly-eyed bush dog as you might suspect, but is invincible in all of her Lhasa Apso glory nonetheless.
KEEPING IT COOL
Our first day on the water started with a no-pres- sure troll for Walleye near the mouth of the river. When fishing with guides of this caliber, there’s always the pressure to “keep it cool” when catching. As Curtis rigged our tackle, I started to wrack my brain for Walleye knowl- edge. How does the bite feel again? Do they head shake or not? What sorts of fish things should I say to sound legit?
The first strike is all it took to shatter my confidence.
This is not what I remember a Walleye feeling like; I know nothing. Then the inevitable questions start…“Big one? How does it feel?” Folks, in this situation, the biggest mistake one can make is to risk humiliation by crowing, “It’s big,” only to haul in a less-than-giant fish. I decided to play it safe and mutter a “maybe.” My re- sponse was barely audible over the rushing in my ears preceding the breaching of a big fish. She felt big, and that size was getting more apparent with each rotation of the reel. As it turns out, my first fish at Cree River turned out to be a gorgeous Northern Pike, all of 36 inches in length.
After coming down from the high of a big gator, more Walleye started coming, and that started the familiar slow pull before a hook set replaced a portion of my confidence. To my delight, the first fish I pulled out of the water was the perfect size for eating. It was not too big, not too small, and fat and sassy.
Understand that for a relatively inexperienced angler from southern Alberta, watching Walleye of that caliber getting thrown back strikes a certain chord of dismay. After the second of the same size, I started to genuinely worry. Then it became three, then four…there’s supposed to be shore lunch isn’t there? Five, six, seven. Where will lunch come from? Eight, nine, and ten started to soothe my frayed nerves. There wouldn’t be any shortage of chubby gold-bellied morsels for lunch!
Right around the time I began to lose count, this real- ization sank in this is just the way things are on Wapata Lake—sleek black backs sliding into the tannin-stained water, one after another. I dare say, this is a place where you can truly become sick of pulling in 20-inch Walleye. But fear not; it’s as easy as moving on to trophy-sized Pike and Arctic Grayling.
NEXT UP: GRAYLING
And move on to Grayling we most certainly did! It’s a fish I’ve had no previous experience with, so I had no clue about the action in store. I met that reality at a sec- tion river just past the Walleye hole where I’d hooked my monster Pike hours before.
Eager to try my luck on the flyrod, I was informed that the Grayling here are relatively easy to nail on the fly. A glimmer of hope at landing a new species began burning in my chest like an ember. Could I be skilled enough to pull this off? Curtis expertly throttled the boat to a stand- still against the current and began to rig up a simple pur- ple dry fly. All around us, famished Grayling were rising out of the water in small but valiant explosions, only to be swallowed up by the swift, dark water.
A HIT WITH A WHAM!
We took in the scene excitedly, happy to have seen even a few of these exotic, sail-finned beauties. With nerdy excitement, I began to strip line and watch the tiny fly trail behind the boat. We began to chat about the fish here and the ideal habitat for Grayling versus other fish, and what lures they might enjoy, when WHAM!!!
A hit like a freight train was followed by the hiss of line being dragged into the fast water. I let out a whoop and began drawing in my first Grayling. This thing must be HUGE, I thought. It was peeling line from between my fingers with ease and retreating into the depths. The closer this iridescent salmonid got to the boat, the more compelled to impress she seemed, flipping into the air with graceful, glittering acrobatics.
Pound for pound, the Arctic Grayling at Cree River Lodge are the hardest fighting fish I have experienced thus far. The 13-inch Grayling that graced our net mo- ments later fought with as much fervor as any trophy Bass.
As we paused to commemorate our stunning purple prize with a few pictures, Curtis reminded us of the very delicate nature of this fish and tenderly released her back into the river. This is an endearing trait shared by all the guides at Cree River Lodge. They genuinely care about the well-being of the resource that provides them with the lifestyle they love.
Many more firsts followed: My first Pike on the fly; my personal best Walleye; Ben’s personal best Pike. During the last of many delectable meals at the lodge over the clink of cutlery and warm mumble of fishing stories, I felt the bittersweet pang of leaving a place with so much left unexplored.
This is a place where leviathans are shyly unfurling in the depths just out of view. This is a place where one might think twice before risking peace of mind for a care- free dip. You don’t come here to swim, sunbathe, or catch up on celebrity gossip dockside. You come to fish.
Indeed, Wapata Lake offers a magical mix of feelings.
Rugged capability and warmth from the inhabitants. Isolation and fellowship from the community. Trepidation from the landscape. Excitement and intimidation about goliath-sized fish. This thick, murky water holds a world for monsters. You’ll get to enjoy the honor of laying your hands on one if you are lucky enough to be led through the experience by the folks at Cree River Lodge.