You could call my wife and me Midwestern folk, a vague description that calls to mind winter parkas, hot dishes and Minnesota accents heard in the movie Fargo, don’t ya’ know? All of which would seem to be the polar opposite of the image that surfaces when you think Laguna Beach. Yet this past February, during a historically cold Minnesota winter of polar vortexes, my wife and I fled the land of 10,000 frozen lakes to bask in the sunshine of San Diego and its neighbor to north: Laguna Beach.
While we may not have fit in, per se, with the Real Orange County crowd of MTV fame, we quickly fell in love with the seaside city. Some of that, of course, had to do with the weather––70 and sunny year-round with the ocean calling your name is pretty darn nice––but most of it was due to the people we met and the gem of a hotel we stayed at: Surf & Sand Resort.
The 167 room resort was recently renovated in 2012 to the tune of $30 million, and sports a fantastic pool, an award-winning spa and too-cool-for-school indoor and outdoor restaurants with fantastic fire pits and chic decorations.
But the best part, without a doubt, is the magnificent view.
“Many SoCal resorts have ocean views, but we are one of the very few that are literally right on the sand,” said Joanna Bear, Resort Manager. “Our joke is that ‘our biggest asset is our loudest asset.’ With a location right on the sand, guests expect to hear crashing waves, and we deliver that. But we also place earplugs in guestrooms for any sleeping issues guests may have.”
Indeed, my wife and I were blown away by the fact that our fifth-floor balcony room was literally right on the ocean. We couldn’t get over the fact that we had to raise our voices to hear each other over the roaring waves when we were sitting just feet apart from each other on our private balcony. I absolutely loved that! It is strangely relaxing and energizing at the same time.
The sheer magnitude of the ocean made me feel insignificant, reminding me I am a small part of a big universe, yet the impeccable service and exclusive views we enjoyed made this Midwestern couple with our Minnesota modesty suddenly feel very important in Laguna Beach. I can definitely see why guests flock to Surf & Sand Resort from all over the world, including countries such as Saudi Arabia, South Korea and Brazil.
“We have many guests returning year after year with generations of their families or to celebrate special moments––like their on-site weddings or their honeymoon location,” Bear said. “One couple in particular spent their honeymoon with us in 1969 and have stayed in a suite every year since then to celebrate. We always try to send them a special bottle of champagne or other sweet token of our appreciation. We most recently had a photograph of their first Surf & Sand trip framed––a surprise waiting for them in their suite upon their arrival.”
We actually saw a bridge and groom taking photos during our stay at Surf & Sand. Some 80 to 100 couples each year get married at the resort, which boasts 180 degree views of the Pacific for spectacular panoramic wedding photos. With 280 staff members in total, the resort has experienced personnel on-hand for weddings, and can handle receptions from 50 to 180 guests.
People ranging from your Average Joe to the rich and famous have gotten married at Surf & Sand, though the resort respectfully declines to name names. “Surf & Sand offers a classic experience—timeless and genuine,” Bear said. “The property is understatedly elegant and chic, yet approachable.”
Another perk to Surf & Sand Resort is that it’s less than 10 minutes away from Dana Point. My wife and I met a good friend of ours at Dana Point to go on a whale watching tour with Capt. Dave’s Dolphin & Whale Watching Safari during one of our days at the hotel. Capt. Dave is one of North America’s most renowned whale experts, and has published books and documentaries; he’s also appeared on ABC, NBC and CBS television.
Our 3-hour tour was phenomenal; in fact, it was the best whale watching I’ve ever experienced. Not only did we see over half a dozen migrating gray whales at close range, we also saw hundreds of dolphins and got to both see and hear them “face-to-face” in Capt. Dave’s cutting edge boat, the Manute’a, with its exclusive Eye-to-Eye Underwater Viewing Pods.
During our long weekend at Surf & Sand Resort (before then heading down to San Diego for a fabulous week of sailing, fishing, sight-seeing, feeding giraffes and rhinos at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park and, of course, more beaches), we saw kids, couples and grandparents. “Our clientele includes multiple families that have made this resort their second home for generations,” Bear said.
As a couple from the frozen tundra of Minnesota, we could certainly see why people would fall in love with the real Laguna Beach. And it doesn’t take long. We arrived to the hotel at dusk our first evening, went up to our room’s private balcony and before even unpacking one bag, enjoyed this spectacular sunset.
Surf & Sand Resort is one of the only hotels in Laguna Beach that is literally on the sand with direct beach access. All we had to do was take the elevator to the ground level, step outside, and we were on the beach. I loved swimming in the ocean there. My wife took these photos of me from our balcony.
Directly from Surf & Sand Resort’s beach, there is fantastic hiking along the shore in either direction. Each morning we woke early and hiked along the powerful Pacific Ocean. Below are a few photos and videos we took along the way.
The picture prompts unanswered questions. Who was that woman? Was it a special trip––a farewell outing or a last hoorah? Was it the daughter’s first time to the ocean? The mother’s last? Did they live nearby, or did they come from far away to play on the beach?
“Look at that,” I said to my wife as we sat in front of the Hotel Del Coronado. “That mom and her kid are perfectly framed by the sunset.”
There are few sounds sweeter in life than the giddy laughter of a child. The splashing waves, cool against the evening air, tickled this girl to no end. Perhaps because it was Valentine’s week, or perhaps because my wife and I are expecting our first child, but for whatever reason the scene of the mother dancing with her daughter in the ocean captivated us.
I snapped the photo, and Jodie made a suggestion. “You should almost, maybe, see if they want us to email them the picture.”
The idea sounded silly, at first––after all, we were complete strangers. But then I thought, maybe if Jodie came with me so they saw I was married, and normal, we could introduce ourselves and explain how we happened to take the photo. Get her email address and send her the photo when I got back home. We hemmed and hawed, then decided we would try it. It could be a great keepsake for the mom, we reasoned; how often do you have a picture-perfect postcard capturing a magic moment of you and your child silhouetted against the sunset?
Before we approached the mother we watched the rest of the sunset and snapped a few photos of ourselves, one with the ocean as our backdrop and one with the hotel’s signature panorama in the background. Satisfied with our photos, we then turned our attention back to the mother, only to find she had disappeared.
We looked around, confused and disappointed. It seemed we had only turned our back for a moment to snap a few pictures, but I guess we took too long. My ego in wanting the perfectly centered and staged photo of us, for some future picture frame, wasted the opportunity to give the mother a memento of this candid, joyful moment she had experienced with her daughter.
I regret not speaking with the mother. Kindness shared between strangers is one of travelling’s unexpected joys. I had my chance, and I blew it. But it is my only regret from the Land of Oz.
As we discovered, it turns out picture-perfect moments are not all that uncommon at The Hotel Del Coronado. The National Historic Landmark, with its distinctive red roofs contrasting the azure waters of the Pacific Ocean, has stood as an icon since 1888.
For more than 125 years, the Del has drawn people from all over the world, including every American president since Lyndon Johnson. It’s easy to see why. It is the largest oceanfront resort on the Pacific Ocean, and it sits on 26 acres of what has often been named the No. 1 beach in America: Coronado Beach.
The attraction is greater than beautiful buildings and breathtaking beaches, however; the Del, with its aged, wooden character and its smiling, devoted staff, exudes an authentic charm you can’t create or capture. Simply put, it’s one of a kind.
After reading about the hotel in the New York Times best-seller, “1,000 Places to See Before You Die,” my wife and I thought we’d add the hotel to our list of “1 Place to See Before You Have Kids.” And so, four months into our first pregnancy, we decided to pack our bags and leave behind a record-breaking cold Minnesota winter in favor of the sparkling beaches of Coronado Island. The Grand Lady by the Sea, as the Hotel Del Coronado is affectionately referred to, did not disappoint us.
In fact, the hotel exceeded our lofty expectations––a challenge made greater by the fact that I spent the two weeks preceding the trip reading my wife the hotel’s staggering list of awards, showing her videos of the Del over and over again, and even watching Marilyn’s Monroe hit film “Some Like It Hot,” which was primarily filmed at the Del.
OK, so I was excited. But can you blame me? The hotel was designed specifically to be “the talk of the western world,” and its fame has steadily grown as the hotel has aged gracefully and, in many ways, remained unchanged.
Of course, there have been some evolutions at the hotel, such as Del Beach, which launched this May. The luxurious waterfront set-up features plush daybeds and half-moon cabanas, as well as a plethora of recreational activities geared toward adults and kids.
The new program––including a lively beach playground for kids and boogie board, surfboard, stand-up paddle and kayak rentals––is the first West Coast operation to be managed by Boucher Brothers, a Miami-based hospitality management company charged with setting up and managing the beach daily from sunrise to sunset.
Under the Del umbrella, the Beach Village has its own contemporary design and offers elevated service and amenities including secluded pools with a private cabana, sunset cocktails at the exclusive Windsor Cottage Club and the option of a private dinner prepared by a master chef in the comfort of your own cottage or villa suite.
A constant at the Del is its sense of romance. Over the years, The Grand Lady by the Sea has often been voted as the No. 1 place in America for a destination wedding. Hard to argue with that. I mean, can you imagine a more picturesque place for a wedding in the continental U.S.?
As for the food served at a wedding reception at the Hotel Del Coronado, I’m sure it’s amazing. Jodie and I had dinner at the Del’s signature restaurant, 1500 OCEAN, and had difficulty deciding what we loved the most: the food, the beachfront setting or the service.
Our waiter worked previously as a tour guide on one of San Diego’s popular trolleys and delighted us all night long with stories and folklore about Hotel Del Coronado’s rich history––which, I suppose, is a glamorous way of saying the guy genuinely enjoyed entertaining us and wanted to make sure we were having a great visit. His pride in the area and in his work was clear as he took so much care in giving us detailed tips and advice on what we should do during our stay.
One of his recommendations was biking, which we loved. There is a scenic, six-mile boardwalk around the curved isthmus of Coronado, and renting from the Del’s onsite bike shop, PeDels, is the way to go. It’s also a beautiful, relaxing way to burn off a few calories from the delicious desserts found not only at 1500 OCEAN but also at the Del’s various on-site restaurants and ice cream cafés.
Fishing on and around Coronado Island is also very good. I spent a half day fishing out in front of the island and caught dozens of spotted bass, as well as a beautiful leopard shark. I love to fish so for me it was perfect, but there also other ways to enjoy time on the water during a stay at the Del, such as sailing, kayaking or paddle boarding.
There is a ton to see and do all around Coronado, but we made a point to take it slow and soak up the history and ambience of the hotel. The hotel does an excellent job of keeping that history alive. One cool fact is that author L. Frank Baum stayed at the Hotel Del Coronado many times, going all the way back to 1904. In fact, he wrote part of his Wizard of Oz series during his stays the Del and, in a 1905 San Diego Union article, attributed his outburst of creativity to the hotel’s colorful atmosphere.
Specifically, the hotel and its grand, spiraling rooftops and colorful views were Baum’s inspiration for the Emerald City he dreamed up for The Wizard Oz. It’s true there’s no place like home, but there’s also no place like the Hotel Del Coronado.
“Those who do not find Coronado a paradise have doubtless brought with them the same conditions that would render heaven unpleasant to them, did they chance to gain admission,” Baum wrote in 1904. The prolific writer also penned a poem about the hotel which answers any remaining questions one may have about the iconic Hotel Del Coronado.
Let Coronado wear her crown
As Empress of the Sea;
Nor need she fear her earthly peer
Will e’er discovered be.
We revel ‘neath her tropic palms
And scent her brilliant flowers;
And fondly greet the song-birds sweet
That warble in her bowers.
And every day her loveliness
Shines pure, without a flaw;
New charms entrance our every glance
And fill our souls with awe!
The website for the Hotel Del Coronado is www.hoteldel.com. For more information, call 1.800.468.3533.
For information on other activities on Coronado Island, visit www.sandiego.org/Coronado.
My arm is throbbing, but I can’t quit reeling. A few minutes ago my guide Jason Assonitis and I landed a double––a pair of king salmon each topping the 10-pound mark––and now I’m battling another king that may be twice that size. Mercifully, the fish quits running at the boat and instead turns 90 degrees to the right and dives deep, giving me a temporary reprieve from winding as it peels out line.
“That’s a nice fish,” Assonitis says knowingly. He’s seen more than his fair share in his 30-odd years, the majority of which have been spent guiding. The past 9 years guiding have been the most meaningful, for it was almost a decade ago that he and friend Jeff Copeland decided they had spent enough time fishing for others and would start their own operation called Bon Chovy Fishing Charters. The gamble has paid off as their reputation as one of the elite fishing charters in British Columbia has grown––a fact exemplified by the 20-pound salmon I finally manage to coax into the net.
We’re an hour boat ride from Vancouver, fishing around the famed Gulf Islands, and we’re being richly rewarded for making the run across choppy water through the Strait of Georgia. The bite is on, and we’re catching both quantity and quality. Because of the fast action we're only running two lines, one for each of us. Good thing! If we had more lines out my arm would really be dead.
In fact, I’ve fished salmon in Ireland, Alaska and on the Great Lakes, and I’ve never had action this good. And the scenery is right up there, too. I first read about the Gulf Islands in the New York Times best-seller “1,000 Places to See Before You Die.” The archipelago, a string of about 100 partially submerged mountain peaks between Vancouver Island and mainland British Columbia, is shockingly unpopular.
Sure, it’s a destination people know about (Salt Spring is the largest and most popular Gulf Island, with a population of 10,000 strung across 82 miles of craggy coastline), but the islands are significantly less popular than Washington’s San Juans, while their beauty can be argued with any rival. Of the 100 or so islands, some 25 have small villages or tiny, traditional towns that use the ocean as their life source. The rest of the islands are uninhabited. As Shultz wrote in her book, “Take a kayak for a spin here and you’re more likely to bump into a seal or Dall’s porpoise than another tourist.”
On our day, which began at 7:00am on Granville Island, barely a 20-minute drive from Vancouver International Airport, we saw seals, seagulls and bald eagles. But the main thing we bumped into was king salmon, or Chinook as they’re called in Vancouver. We had our best success running Gibbs Delta Guide Series Flashers (STS, Bon Chovy, Lemon Lime) and hootchies on short leaders in 120 to 160 feet of water. We ran the Yamashita Spacklebacks and Yamashita UV double skirts, and the salmon devoured them.
As fantastic as the salmon fishing was, it may get even better throughout the summer. The Vancouver area holds resident king salmon year-round, and is where the Fraser River––one of the world’s premier salmon rivers––enters the Pacific Ocean.
“They’re predicting the largest sockeye run in history on the Fraser River this year,” Assonitis said, quoting an article that forecasts 40 to 70 million salmon will run through the Fraser in August. “The record had been set in 2010 with the largest run the river had seen in 100 years, but this summer it will more than double that record.”
Assonitis has witnessed incredible fishing in a myriad of locations. He fished commercially for years, and guided over on the West Coast of Vancouver Island for three years as well as the Queen Charlotte Island for four years before settling back in his native Vancouver.
Assonitis has also guided the band Green Day, who since invited him to one of their concerts, as well as numerous professional athletes and other celebrities. What’s refreshing, though, is that the youngster who has so quickly climbed to the top of the guiding pyramid remains humble. He gently offers me pointers on how to play the fish, asks me questions about fishing I do back home, and admits to being a bit tired from celebrating his parents’ wedding anniversary the night before (his parents have a place on Vancouver Island, but most of his family is in Vancouver).
But if you think the young guys in town look to save a few bucks with gear compared to the old-timers who already have their life’s savings built up, think again. With four premium charter boats, Bon Chovy Fishing Charters boasts some of the fastest boats in Vancouver. They regularly run a 23-foot Grady White Gulfstream, a 28-foot Grady White Sailfish, a 30-foot Grady White Marlin and a 35-foot Blackfin. They can handle corporate groups up to 50 people.
Bon Chovy Fishing Charters also has a guide devoted to sturgeon fishing on the Fraser River, where giant white sturgeon are measured in yards, not feet and inches.
The youngsters take pride in being fully insured, meeting Trasport Canada’s safety requirements and being equipped with the latest navigation, tackle and fish fishing equipment. In fact, Assonitis is even a Transport Canada certified 60-ton Master Mariner.
“When we first started, the trend was for everyone to have these big heavy boats,” Assonitis explains. “We were on the front edge of buying lighter boats designed for speed and fuel efficiency. Because our fleet is so fast it expands that window of water that we can reach, and it really opens us up to be able to access the best fishing.”
I can attest to that. Our hour run at top speeds of 45 miles per hour expanded our range and gave me the chance to tap into the best salmon fishing of my life. For a change of pace, and to target a new species I’ve often eaten but never before caught, we switched gears and fished for ling cod for an hour or two in the afternoon. We jigged off reefs and enjoyed fast action for the tasty, toothy creatures.
We also stopped at a crab pot that Assonitis set out, and I got to pull in a trap full of Dungeness crab. Turns out Assonitis takes clients there and offers them the fresh crab to take home as a special bonus for a day on the water.
In our case, we had easily over $200 worth of fresh crab. Consequently, I decided to quit my day job and move to Alaska to get a job on a crabbing ship in “Dangerous Catch.” Unfortunately––or, perhaps, fortunately––my wife vetoed the decision when I got back home, but at least now I can say I’ve done it.
To me, it’s those types of unique experiences added to the spectacular fishing that makes a day on the water with Bon Chovy Fishing Charters such a special experience. No wonder they’re Vancouver’s No. 1 rated fishing guide service on TripAdvisor, with nothing but 5-star reviews.
What’s interesting about their reviews is that they range from serious anglers to first-time fisherman. Here’s a 5-star review from a Washington, D.C. family who fished with Bon Chovy Fishing Charters for a half day before an Alaskan cruise. “We had 6 individuals, kids to grandparents and everyone had a ball. Our highlight was a 22lb King or Chinook Salmon. Jeff, our captain, was great and the boat was perfect for our family. We had never salmon fished and it was fun for everyone. We came home with plenty of salmon, which Bon Chovy cleaned and filleted for us, and took it with us to a local salmon packager. We picked up a week later, after our cruise on the way to airport, and it was perfectly packaged and currently enjoying at home. Thank you BonChovy for a great morning and unforgettable experience!”
Mr. Swanson, of Irvine, California, wrote a review about his day fishing with Bon Chovy Fishing Charters cleverly titled “Best Day of Fishing Ever.” He finished his review with this comment, which I think is very fitting: “On a scale of one to five, these guys are a 10.”
I stayed at The Fairmont Vancouver Airport Hotel for my day fishing with Bon Chovy Fishing Charters. It’s an elite hotel right at the airport, only 20 minutes from Bon Chovy’s dock. Click here for a link to The Fairmont.
For helpful info on other Vancouver activities, visit Destination BC at www.hellobc.com.
Bon Chovy Fishing Charters has an office on Granville Island, right next to the marina where they dock their boats. During our day on the water, we saw this boat towing a supply of lumber. Logging remains a major industry in British Columbia and it was cool to see this old tradition carried out.
At the very end of the day, right before we had to reel in and make the run back to the dock, I had one last strike. I set the hook on another solid king salmon, and the fight was on.
What a way to end the day!
Editor’s Note: The author visited Nimmo Bay Wilderness Resort, a second-generation family-run lodge in northern British Columbia. This article is the second of a four-part series on Nimmo Bay. Click here to read Part 1.
Nimmo Bay Wilderness Resort: Day 2
Wednesday, May 21, 2:38pm
Our helicopter mirrors the waterfall, descending down 300 feet parallel to the raging waters. At the base of the falls, we hover above the turbulent pool of blue and white. We are above the clouds, in a separate world of 10,000-year-old glaciers and pristine streams that salmon fill and grizzly bears hunt. In this other-world we have hiked and climbed and fished, but at the moment we simply hover. I feel weightless.
Days before boarding the aircraft, we had seemingly already explored as far into the Great Bear Rainforest as one can push––taking a small plane from Vancouver to the northern tip of Vancouver Island, then crawling into a float plane for a 20-minute flight over fjords and bays until landing on a floating dock at Nimmo Bay Wilderness Resort, which clings to the base of Mount Stephens.
After a sun-filled Day 1 of ocean kayaking, paddle boarding, bear-watching and hiking through old-growth forests, Day 2 finds us embarking on Nimmo Bay’s signature experience: a dreamlike day of heli-fishing and heli-hiking in the high mountains.
We start the day, of course, with food. Breakfast begins with sinful chocolate croissants, offset by fresh fruit, yogurt, granola and fruit smoothies. Upon devouring Round 1, we are rewarded with Round 2 of breakfast: thick pieces of french toast loaded with fruit. After our surrender to the food gods, lodge owners Fraser and Becky Murray come to greet us with their 5-month-old daughter Fauna in tow.
“We have all dedicated so much of our lives to Nimmo Bay that it is hard to separate life from work,” Fraser said. “I would say the only thing that was ever bigger then Nimmo Bay in our lives was our family, and this is true to this day.”
Fraser has grown up at Nimmo Bay since he was just a bit older than Fauna is now. I am both envious and puzzled by Fraser’s upbringing; I can’t imagine what it was like to grow up in a float house attached to a mountain in this rugged and beautiful setting. Where would you go to school? And how would you get there? How would you make friends? What about the winters, and the wildlife? In fact, when Fraser was 4 a grizzly bear turned his family’s floating dock into her den.
And then there’s the overwhelming beauty of it all. And the incredible, intimate encounters with Mother Nature you must be graced with when you spend your entire life in this setting. For Fraser’s part, he seems no worse for the wear. In fact, the 35-year-old, second-generation owner of the luxury lodge possesses a unique combination of kindness, charm, appreciation of his surroundings and a surprising connection not only to the natural wonders of his backyard but also to the people who travel from all over the world to be a part of it for a week. Fraser was even given an honorary name by the local First Nations tribe, which is exceptionally rare and speaks volumes about the charismatic, modest young man.
“We’ve met so many amazing people,” he said. “We have some people who have been coming for so long, we just kind of quit charging them. We’ve just become friends. We travel and go and stay with them at their houses, and they come and see us here.”
For my stay at Nimmo Bay, I was surrounded by fellow first-timers: Jeneen Sutherland, from the Vancouver area, and husband-and-wife Jo Connah and Peter Scorfield from London. Believe it or not, I am not forgetting anyone or leaving a guest off the list because he annoyed me with poor jokes and bad body odor. Incredibly, there were only four of us guests at the resort our entire time there. And get this: there were TWO chefs! A pastry chef and an executive chef, both of whom justify the strong praise Nimmo Bay received in “1,000 Places to See Before You Die,” when best-selling author Patricia Shultz said the food––which she called the best in British Columbia––is arguably the highlight of any day at Nimmo Bay.
The resort, of course, can accommodate a few more than four guests––it features nine cabins built on stilts above the water––but it is intentionally small. “I don’t want to get any bigger,” said Fraser, who has expanded the resort’s focus from purely fishing to offer a wider variety of eco-tourism activities such as whale-watching, beachcombing and glacier trekking. “We like being small. We like spending time with the people who come here and being able to share these experiences with them.”
I feel the resort’s intimate size is a tremendous advantage and allows each guest to receive individualized attention (i.e. when I sat by the campfire at night a staff member rushed over with a blanket and tucked me in; when I finished my glass of wine under the stars another employee immediately topped me off), and my fellow guests certainly agreed.
"Nimmo Bay is a resort with a soul," said Jeneen Sutherland, who made herself at home during her first trip to the resort by taking advantage of morning yoga classes, hikes with the staff and stand-up paddle boarding (including a paddle when she saw a bear). "When you meet Fraser and (his father) Craig, you kind of want to pat them on the back and say a big 'thank-you' for creating this incredible place. It is an experience that leaves you feeling totally rejuvenated."
“We feel very fortunate to be one of just a few people here,” added Peter Scorfield, who has experienced wilderness safaris in the far reaches of Africa yet was nonetheless amazed by the beauty and serenity of Nimmo Bay. “It’s like we have the place to ourselves."
To Fly is Human ... To Hover Divine
Fraser and Becky chatted with us after breakfast, then told us the plan for our big adventure in the helicopter. This was the day I had been anticipating for months––the signature Nimmo Bay Wilderness Resort adventure unlike any other. You could say that heli-fishing put Nimmo Bay on the map, and that Nimmo Bay put heli-fishing in the dictionary. The concept is this: You board a helicopter and fly high above the clouds, into the mountains to fish untouched streams that otherwise can’t be reached. The Murray family has access to over 50,000 acres of breathtaking beauty, including 10,000-year-old glaciers, 5,000-foot waterfalls and 50 rivers and streams.
Numerous celebrities ranging from George Bush to David Kelley to William Shatner have visited Nimmo Bay and fallen in love with the resort’s famous heli-fishing and heli-hiking, and now I was about to do the same.
First, Fraser brought us to the dry room, where we were equipped with complementary boots, rain gear and waders.
From there we headed to the helipad, met our pilot, Tim, and boarded the helicopter. Peter and Jo were my companions for the day, for which I was most grateful. The couple was kind, enthusiastic and witty. Besides, who doesn’t love that British wit?
The heli-hiking was spectacular, as was the flight itself. I'm complimenting my photos with stock photos from the resort, since intermittent rain made it difficult to photograph some of the spots. Trust me, though, when I say that neither my photos nor the stock photos do the mountains justice.
My new friend and travel partner for the day, Peter, summed it up well. "It's an amazing feeling flying in this helicopter, knowing that we can go anywhere." Indeed, the maneuverability of a helicopter gives you unrivaled freedom in the mountains. Tim dropped us down on several spots to hike throughout the day. One of my favorite stops was at an estuary where hiked along a river and the ocean.
Today is the last Father’s Day ever before I become a dad. As I prepare for the upcoming birth of my first child, I call to mind a man who is both father and fisherman––a man who took me on a fishing adventure last fall on legendary Lake Gitchi Gumee.
Dave Williams and his bride Cathi visited Grand Marais some 40 years ago during a winter that wasn’t much better than this year’s. “It was below zero with the wind blowing snow everywhere, and I said to Cathi, ‘Do you want to move here?’” Williams recalls.
Apparently Cathi said yes. The pair of teachers quit their jobs and headed to the far north woods near Lake Superior to start a small guiding and outfitting operation in 1972 that, over the past four decades, has become a staple in Grand Marais. Bear Track Outfitters have given Dave a chance to fill his life with both his passions: his family and the outdoors.
The Williams family worked hard to turn their dream into a reality––building cabins, guiding fishermen, outfitting kayakers and campers––and then worked even harder to keep that reality afloat amid recessions, down-turns in fishing’s popularity and, tragically, a fire to their camp years ago.
“To make a living up here, you gotta work hard when the sun shines,” said Williams. You also have to be resourceful. Dave and Cathi re-built cabins after the fire, and expanded their offerings to include canoe lessons, birding outings, scenic dinner cruises and skiing. They were the first outfitter in the area to use Kevlar canoes. Many a cross-country ski team has rented out their remote cabins to hold camp for practices, and more than one Olympic skier has stayed at Bear Track’s year-round cabins on North Shore Mountain Ski Trail at Bally Creek Camp.
What I discovered is that Williams treats everyone like an Olympian. “I really like taking Veterans out fishing,” he said. “I took one guy out who was close to 90, who used to be in the Navy during World War II, and he just had a ball being on the water. And it was great listening to his stories.”
Military vets get a discount on guided trips with Williams. Then again, so do children 13 and under. Kids under 5 are free. You get the sense Williams isn’t in this business to get rich.
His grandfather had a little place near Cascade River that Williams used to visit every summer as a boy. Eventually, he fell in love. “It sort of grows on you, this area,” he said.
Lucky for Williams, his wife fell in love with the region, and so did their children. In fact, that’s why Williams’ boat is named “Fishin’ Chics.” Daughters Brooke, Lindsay and Stephanie are certified captains, and have guided for the family business at various times over the years.
“It was great to see the kids want to be involved with what we do,” said Cathi. “Our daughters have taken a lot of young girls out fishing over the years, and I think that’s a wonderful example for girls to see.”
The Williams sisters no longer guide, so Dave was our captain on the calm September morning my mom and I went fishing. He did have some help, though.
“Capt. Jack is my first mate,” Williams said of canine companion. “He’s a real schmoozer. People want to take him home by the end of the trip.”
We pulled spoons behind dipsy divers in 80 to 120 feet of water and took advantage of the hot bite.
I’d always wanted to catch a salmon on the big lake, and we didn’t have to wait more than 30 minutes for that to happen. A perk to “working” in the fishing industry is that you get the scoop on guides––which guides are good, and which guides are great. Williams definitely falls into the latter group.
We quickly caught all the salmon we wanted to eat (Williams cleaned and packaged the fish for us back at the marina), and I also caught a bonus fish: a beautiful lake trout that gave a heck of a fight and tasted great on the grill.
“September is a great time for lakers,” Dave explained. “And fall is a beautiful time to be up here.”
Of course, anytime of the year is a wonderful time to embrace Superior and all that she offers. The Williams family takes pride in helping others enjoy the outdoors year-round, and the couple has seen their fair share of seasons change.
“Today is our 42nd wedding anniversary,” Cathi told me when I called her the other day. She was waiting for Dave to get dressed to head to dinner at their favorite restaurant: The Angry Trout. “It’s hard to believe it’s been that many years.”
The website for Bear Track Outfitters is www.bear-track.com. To contact Dave or Cathi, call 1-800-795-8068 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
With a sunrise over Superior like this, I would have been happy had we not caught a single fish. As for Capt. Jack, well, I guess being on the water day-in and day-out takes its toll on him. After helping us haul in all those salmon, Jack needed a bit of a cat nap ... though I'm sure he calls it something else.
Bear Tracking Outfitting is directly on Hwy 61 in Grand Marais. The year-round cabins are back up in the hills.
Cathi runs the gift shop, does bookings and helps get groups checked in for guided and outfitted trips. Cathi and Dave certainly provided my mother and me with a memorable outing.