Just when I thought the little single-prop Beaver sea plane was going to crash into the rocky pine forest that lined the shores, I noticed the inlet. Then we were in amongst the trees, gliding down onto water like a dark mirror, carrying on along the passage to the hidden lodge. A weekend of salmon fishing and sea kayaking had begun.
Harrison’s Cove is a fishing lodge at the back of Barkley Sound, on the west coast of Vancouver Island, about 40 minutes south of Tofino. The weekend there was offered as an auction bid at Gold Medal Plates gala events across Canada last fall, to raise money for Canadian Olympic and Paralympic athletes. Hence the presence of Canada’s world and Olympic champion kayaker, Adam Vankouverden, who led us on our sea kayaking forays (yes, he was faster than me). We were also joined by chef Shaun Desaulniers of Belgo and now Wild Ginger restaurants in Calgary. It fell to him to cook for our group of 20 each night, very ably assisted by the ladies who normally man the kitchen at the lodge. The menu was decided as the boats came back each evening—some with halibut hauled up from the depths (like hooking into a door and pulling it up through the water), one with a small, elegant coho, everyone else with glorious spring (chinook) salmon ranging from 16 to 21 lbs. Tim Harrison and his team of guides were the real stars of the weekend, reading the sky and the tide and the barometric pressure and all the other details that make a salmon decide to turn left instead of right, and leading us to where they were. In the pouring rain or the blazing sunshine, it was a riveting experience. The many steep forested islands now black and brooding, now idyllic under the sun, the sky a moving exposition of ceaseless shades of grey. We saw a whale and a single orca and once a bald eagle swooped down on a bright yellow canary rockfish about two yards from the boat and carried it into the forest. Getting up at 4:30 a.m. every morning brought extraordinary rewards in terms of fore-dawn silence and serenity, mountains veiled in mist and other primeval, untouched-by-man visions.
Art also played a part. Desaulniers ended up giving a masterclass in 101 things to do with fresh salmon, from blackening it with cajun spices to searing it with garlic, chopped almonds, sliced lemon, white wine and butter to smoking or candying or making crab cakes. Red tide had started months early this year, rendering the beach oysters inedible, but that small disappointment was overcompensated for by sable and halibut dishes, mussels in Thai broth, crab and salmon cakes, seared albacore, thumb-sized fillets of ling cod in tempura batter, and more and more. The best thing we ate? Racks of pré-salé lamb from Salt Spring Island—impossibly tender and juicy, barely fringed with fragrant fat, filling your mouth with lambiness—paired with the lambs’ local wine, a delicious 2003 Merlot from Salt Spring Vineyards ($40 thank you very much) that must have been made by someone with more than a passing obsession with St-Emilion.
Barkley Sound and the Broken Islands are a national park of some kind, so the lodge isn’t built on land. The buildings float on a gently moving dock that rises and falls with the tide, watched over by an adorable golden retriever puppy called Barkley who wears a ridiculous canine life jacket. If you enjoy catching large, feisty fish or venturing miles into the Pacific or watching bears watch you as you glide silently past in your kayak, this could be the place for you. Everyone had such a good time that Vankouverden announced he would host the weekend again next year, so we’ve added it back into the list of auction lots for this autumn’s Gold Medal Plates 2007 events, along with cycling in Napa and Sonoma with triathlete Simon Whitfield (a trip that culminates at the French Laundry); cycling in Provence (with more great wine); a cruise to the Cayman Islands with the Barenaked Ladies; a whisky tasting tour of Scotland (must bid on that); all sorts of other treats to help raise a million bucks this year for our athletes. When they take their positions on the starting blocks in Beijing next year, we’ll know we did our bit to get them there.
So now I have enough salmon in my freezer to open a restaurant. I am very very lucky.