Halibut fishing and whales singing in Bolin Bay

Steep mountains

Quoddy’s Run in Sheep Passage

28 July 2012

Where Sheep Passage bends north between Pooley Island and the mainland, steep mountains run down to the sea.  We were aiming for Bolin Bay for the night, a narrow slit between mainland peaks, named, like many of the smaller inlets in the area, after a young soldier from BC who had died during World War II. These English names (First Nations’ place names rarely make it to our maps) were still all about commemorating wars of territorial expansion, colonial conquest and repartition: at least, however, they weren’t about settling English naval battles or nineteenth-century “great men” onto a landscape they had known nothing about. Had Bolin ever been to Bolin Bay? It seemed not, but at least he was a British Columbian.

By late afternoon, Bolin Bay was already dark, shadowed by steep mountains with sheer rocky faces.  The dark cliffs towered above a stony fringe of beach; behind the beach a mountain lake fed a river and a small lagoon surrounded by grassy flats.  Waterfalls and the sound of running water were everywhere; snow was still piled in the hanging valleys overhead.  Now and then the clouds pulled back far enough to reveal broad snowfields, then a line of granite peaks against the sky.

near Bolin Bay

Clouds hide peaks near Bolin Bay

The cleft where we anchored was dark, deep and vast.  We found a shallow spot of 75 feet to set the hook, and that seemed very close to shore, though the enormous scale of the place contributed to that impression.  We imagined we would see grizzlies and wolves here along the grassy flats—indeed, when we were anchoring, three small metal boats roared in and everyone aboard them jumped up and began staring at the shore.  Were these grizzly watching boats?  We could not see what these people were looking at, nor really where they were from. No one lives anywhere nearby save the few workers at the massive Ocean Harvest feedlot operations that seem to be creeping up Sheep Passage.  One man started howling like a wolf; everyone on the three little boats stared at a spot on the shore a bit more, then they climbed back inside their boats and roared away.


Loon in Bolin Bay

Loons and Bonaparte’s and Mew gulls were all around; fish were jumping, but not salmon. We saw eagles and ravens but not bears, not wolves.  It was peaceful, beautiful.  Karin scanned the beach with binoculars, Elisabeth settled some things down below, and Marike began to fish. Again. Although, in truth, she was about to give up fishing altogether.  It seemed obvious fishing was not one of her great talents; she hadn’t had a bite since Viner Sound. Still jigging could be relaxing, especially while waiting for the rest of the crew to get themselves organized. It gave a body something to do.

Bolin Bay

Rocky beach, Bolin Bay

But after ten minutes, nothing had even nibbled at the line. This was hopeless, Marike thought.  No sense carting all this gear around on the stern. We should get rid of it the next time we were at dock.  Feeling a bit defeated, she started to reel in the line. This was it, this would be the end.  Suddenly the line snagged.  Darn, she thought, she was caught on the rocky bottom.

gull preening

Bonaparte’s gulls, Bolin Bay

But then the rocky bottom started to pull back hard, really hard!  Really really hard!  Harder than anything Marike had ever had on the other end of fishing rod.  She shouted out to Karin and Elisabeth, I’ve got something big! I’ve caught something. They came rushing over. Indeed she had; the rod was bent double, the line running out.

Maybe it is a salmon, Marike thought.  Maybe she should pay out the line, play it or the fish will break the line and get away.  Suddenly it seemed as if the line were going to run under the boat.  Don’t let it do that! Karin yelled. Stop that fish before it wraps the line around the rudder or the propeller!”

Bonaparte's gulls 2

Gull flies away

With all of her force, Marike began to reel in like crazy.  Whatever was on the other end fought and thrashed and finally broke the surface. It was still for a moment and then began thrashing again.  A halibut!!

Halibut 1

Halibut in a net

Marike hauled up on the fish and Karin leaned over the lifelines and, and after a false try or two, succeeded in scooping the fish into the net. Now there were two of us holding the thrashing fish up out of the water against the hull, Marike with her line and Karin with the net. Stories of halibut breaking everything around as they fought for their lives ran through our heads. Elisabeth got the shot hammer and Marike took aim.

halibut 2

Netted halibut

But where is the brain of the halibut?  Because the fish is flat, with one eye that has migrated over so that both eyes are closely set and near the top of the head, it is hard to figure out where a halibut’s brain is. Not between its eyes. Marike clubbed the fish on the head hard a few times. It put up a good fight, but  soon it was clear that the halibut was dead. We had to cut the line to disengage our pole—that halibut had swallowed our hook, that’s why it hadn’t managed to get away.

Squeamish as usual about washing the decks in fish blood, we decided to fillet the beast on shore.  While Elisabeth held the net, Karin and Marike lowered the dinghy and gathered knife, sharpening stones and oil, and a bucket for the fillets.  Then Elisabeth photographed, while Karin and Marike rowed to shore, dragging the heavy beast in the net in the water.  They found a place with large flat rocks, dragged the dinghy up the beach and the fish to the rocks; then, while Karin carved, Marike brought over a bucket of water for washing up.

carrying halibut ashore

Marike rows while Karin drags the halibut in the net

A few last death throes after the first cut—halibut are formidable creatures—and the filleting went easily.  Karin’s chief worry, it being early evening, was that a grizzly would amble out of the woods and run us off of our fish.  So Marike kept watch, while Karin separated flesh from bones, feeling her way through an anatomy that, until this moment, she’d only seen in pictures.  She removed two large filets, then cut each into numerous substantial chunks.  Our fish had been at least 25 or 30 pounds—luckily for us, it was small as halibut go. A larger fish might have snapped our pole.  Our tiny freezer compartment would be full.

Eagle halibut carcass

Eagle watches over halibut carcass

Once the fish was filleted, we dragged the carcass to the top of a rock visible from the boat; we wanted to be able to watch the creatures that would come to pick at it. Ravens and eagles surely, but, we hoped, perhaps, a bear.

Nothing is so delicious as freshly caught halibut fillet grilled on the barbecue and seasoned with salt, pepper, garlic and a little butter  at the end.  Yes, we had mocked the fishing frenzy, the raging fever that caught so many of the people we’d encountered from Gibson’s Landing to northern BC, but in truth, we were very thrilled by our big catch.  That night we sent a sailmail to our fishing teacher, Rick, asking if we might graduate now. You’re on your own! he told us. You always were! That’s not true of course. Without Rick, we’d never have gotten started. Nor persisted.

bbq halibut

Grilled halibut steaks

Later we realized that we had been anchored in the perfect spot to catch a halibut–at the edge of a ledge that drops off very steeply.  The timing was perfect too, we were at the point of a changing tide.  Halibut like to lurk on such ledges at the tide changes, in order to catch smaller fish that are being washed in or out by the current.  We admit it; we will try again to catch a halibut although we will have to club it to death, not just because we are hungry, but because fresh halibut is exquisitely delicious.

Lagoon Bolin Bay

Rowing in the lagoon, Bolin Bay

After supper the tide was high enough that we were able to row along the shore, into the lagoon and back up into the river until it got so shallow we could continue no further.  Night was falling.

The rain came in the night, a soft patter on the deck. Then the fog slipped in too, drifting and hanging about the shoulders of the mountains like a cape.

Night, Bolin Bay

Nightfall, mandatory mosquito net

The whales came in the night too. At least, that’s what we’re calling this phenomenon, this visitation of strange movements and sounds. There was a gurgling at the through holes, a gentle rocking and slapping, and then the singing began—high pure notes like the music produced by rubbing crystal goblets filled with water.  Then on the other side of the boat a deeper sound, then another in more middling tones. Three voices in call and response, long clear notes, other-worldly and utterly beautiful.

We tried to stay awake to listen but were lulled to sleep. Karin dreamed we’d seen the creatures who were singing. In her dream, they were oddly jointed enormous dinosaur fishes in lovely shades of rust and aquamarine. But when we reported on them, no one believed us; they just went about their daily lives, filling their gas tanks and worrying about which footnotes go where.

We awoke again and heard the music, the slap and gurgle at the hull, a soft bouncing as if something had come up beneath the boat and rubbed against it, then a slow lyrical dance in just a few long notes, echoing and resounding through the hull.

We wondered what sorts of beings were making these sounds and if we could sing back to them, and what they would say if we did.

Once morning came, we stayed in bed for a time just to listen to the eagles sing, almost musically, a high rushing flutter with just a tinge of rust. Pure happiness.

Bolin Bay snow field

Mountains, rigging, mist


Karin wrote a poem about the whales in Bolin Bay–if that’s what they were, and her peculiar dream. You can find that poem here, along with links to whale songs and crystal goblet music: http://visiblepoetry.blogspot.ca/2013/04/the-whales-came-again-last-night.html

About Karin Cope

Karin Cope lives on the Eastern Shore of Nova Scotia. She is a poet, sailor, photographer, scholar, rural activist, blogger and an Associate Professor at NSCAD University. Her publications include Passionate Collaborations: Learning to Live with Gertrude Stein, a poetry collection entitled What we're doing to stay afloat, and, since 2009, a photo/poetry blog entitled Visible Poetry: Aesthetic Acts in Progress. Over the course of the last decade, with her partner and collaborator Marike Finlay, Cope has sailed to and conducted fieldwork in a number of remote or marginal coastal communities in British Columbia and Mexico. Their joint writings range from activist journalism and travel and policy documents, to an illustrated popular material history of the Lunenburg Foundry entitled Casting a Legend, as well as their ongoing west coast travel blog, West By East.
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2 Responses to Halibut fishing and whales singing in Bolin Bay

  1. David Miller / Diana Guinn says:

    It was great seeing you guys again. Hopefully in May we will be able to connect again out in the water. If not, have a great summer. You know where to find us. We’re never that far from Canoe Cove. David and Diana / Intuition

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