Fly Fishing with Billionaires

National Post

Abstract (Summary)

Four years ago, Sammy Morita, the son of the founder of Sony, bought a traditional fishing lodge on a big, old barge, which every summer was towed out of the harbour at Prince Rupert to Barnard Bay, a couple of hundred kilometres south. Then Sammy proceeded to spend money, US$5-million to be more or less exact. And he turned the old fishing lodge into a staff lodge and built another, much more luxurious, up-to-date place, with 20-odd bedrooms and suites, an enormous great room with distressed leather furniture and wrought- iron chandeliers and a mile-high river-stone fireplace, and slate everywhere. Peeled logs act as banisters, rafters, ledges and furniture. And our days are as regimented as if we were 11-year- olds going to lake country without their parents for the very first time.

Day Two: I catch and release 20 fish and laugh with [Gerry] and his son, Matt, 34, who runs his own PI firm in the southeastern States, all day long. Our Aussie helicopter pilot tells incredibly bad dirty jokes. The guide, Ken -- if we (I) cannot -- will hook the fish, then hand us (me) the rod to reel it in. Matt and Gerry fish off their boat, Surveillance, in southern Florida, every second or third day, so they have no trouble. Matt especially is a demon. This, I decide, after my 15th pink, is serious fun.

Day Four: I go fly fishing again. I catch 40 fish, up to my butt in freezing river water. Fishing, especially fly fishing, is way culty. It is a cult, I decide, for billionaires. A radiologist from Las Vegas tells us at dinner he filled in for Dick Cheney steelhead fishing in Smithers last year and it was so incredibly arduous he will never go again. British Columbian sport fishing is among the best in the world. Matt and Gerry are exultant: They have never had such luck, except for when they opened up Midway. There are so many fish that, in four casts one time, I, a total novice, caught four fish. Everyone tells me it will never be like this again.

Full Text

 (1594  words)
(Copyright National Post 2003)

enickson@nationalpost.com

Imagine summer camp, but with four-star meals, friendly, attentive staff and spectacular scenery

Let's start with this: It's the most expensive four-day vacation I've ever been on -- $7,000 and counting, for four days. Premium wine, spa treatments, glacier picnics and helicopter fly fishing extra. Add fare to Vancouver for another thousand or so.

Yet it was as close to a traditional Canadian summer camp as possible, albeit one that includes four-star meals and lashings of wilderness luxury. Most of the guests are American. What kind of Americans? Well, it is the kind of place to which Kevin Costner would (and did) bring his 20-something fiancee, the one about whom he claims, "We are like wolves running. She's so much my equal that if I stumble, she's right on top of me."

Here, at King Pacific Lodge, there weren't (thankfully) too many visible wolves, but there was, as head guide, Johnny G., says, plenty of "short-order adventure. You ask for it, we'll find you a way to do it. Fast." It is, I assure you, a formula that works.

About 1,500 kilometres north of Vancouver, on the part of the coast tucked just under Alaska, sits Princess Royal Island, home of the white kermode, or spirit bear. Princess Royal is a massive island, cut through with rivers and pocked with lakes. A two- kilometre channel separates it from the mainland. This is Tsimshian Territory, home of the GitGa'at people, part of the Great Bear Rainforest, spectacularly beautiful, all inlets, hills and deep ocean, endless swaths of deep green forest, grizzlies, eagles, wolves and black bears. So many bears, in fact, that off the lodge barge, you are advised to take a careful look around every two minutes.

Four years ago, Sammy Morita, the son of the founder of Sony, bought a traditional fishing lodge on a big, old barge, which every summer was towed out of the harbour at Prince Rupert to Barnard Bay, a couple of hundred kilometres south. Then Sammy proceeded to spend money, US$5-million to be more or less exact. And he turned the old fishing lodge into a staff lodge and built another, much more luxurious, up-to-date place, with 20-odd bedrooms and suites, an enormous great room with distressed leather furniture and wrought- iron chandeliers and a mile-high river-stone fireplace, and slate everywhere. Peeled logs act as banisters, rafters, ledges and furniture. And our days are as regimented as if we were 11-year- olds going to lake country without their parents for the very first time.

Day Zero: We check into the Vancouver Airport Fairmont Hotel. This is the best airport hotel in the world, I think, because it a) does not stink of aviation fuel and b) is visually literate and c) does not patronize. It is famous in our family, since the time my 80- year-old mother arrived back from the Third World at midnight. The Fairmont night staff were so kind to her and the place, especially the vast, luxurious bathroom, was so comfortable that she thought she'd died and gone to Heaven.

Day One: We all meet at 5:45 a.m. at breakfast (just like camp). We are greeted, handed tickets, meal and airport tax vouchers, hovered over and solicited for our happiness and gladness, then ushered into a group through ticketing and security, and into the plane for Prince Rupert. This is an almost divine experience because, from the time you zip up your bag, you do not have to think for yourself. I like this a great deal.

I look around at the other guests. They are a confident lot, about 20 of them, ranging in age from four to 75, but mostly in their forties, one family, several couples, an older man and a younger one, who stand to the side and evaluate everyone through narrowed eyes. They do not smile once. Everyone else is grinning like a fool, including me.

We fly up to Prince Rupert, are ushered with many expressions of care for our comfort through the airport into a bus, driven the five minutes to the ocean. A flotilla of float planes collect us from the dock. We fly for an hour down the coast, one spectacular vista after another, rounding the last corner, into the lodge. On the dock, dressed in matching wilderness gear, stand 34 staff members waiting to greet us. Our bags vanish, Champagne is passed around and everyone flops down, already in various attitudes of complaisance.

Everyone is coupled up cozily, except the odd pair who haven't yet cracked a smile, but by 8 p.m., I have made friends with the older one. Gerry tells me within five minutes that he is a) Cajun and one-sixteenth black and b) sold his insurance company four years ago, for US$2.6-billion and c) put himself through business school playing saxophone in titty bars in New Orleans. I think I am in love. He asks me fly fishing in a helicopter the next day and we all go outside to the dock after dinner to practise casting with the guides. I'm not very good, but I don't take anyone's eye out.

Day Two: I catch and release 20 fish and laugh with Gerry and his son, Matt, 34, who runs his own PI firm in the southeastern States, all day long. Our Aussie helicopter pilot tells incredibly bad dirty jokes. The guide, Ken -- if we (I) cannot -- will hook the fish, then hand us (me) the rod to reel it in. Matt and Gerry fish off their boat, Surveillance, in southern Florida, every second or third day, so they have no trouble. Matt especially is a demon. This, I decide, after my 15th pink, is serious fun.

Day Three: I sulk. There are too many people around and too many activities, and I am overstimulated. I have to hide in my room for a day. I can't drink at every meal, and I can't have any more conversations. I ask for half rations, no wine, no sugar, to be brought to my room. The incredibly wealthy, I decide (not for the first time) are never alone, because they hire too many people to take care of them.

I don't care how much I'm missing, I have to be alone. This is why I never went to camp. The most upsetting thing is the jar of cookies that sits in a corner of the dining room, 24 hours a day, singing a siren song of Belgian chocolate. It is so unfair.

Day Four: I go fly fishing again. I catch 40 fish, up to my butt in freezing river water. Fishing, especially fly fishing, is way culty. It is a cult, I decide, for billionaires. A radiologist from Las Vegas tells us at dinner he filled in for Dick Cheney steelhead fishing in Smithers last year and it was so incredibly arduous he will never go again. British Columbian sport fishing is among the best in the world. Matt and Gerry are exultant: They have never had such luck, except for when they opened up Midway. There are so many fish that, in four casts one time, I, a total novice, caught four fish. Everyone tells me it will never be like this again.

At nights, we eat at long tables, communally, so except for the young families who keep to themselves, everyone gets to know each other well. Not everyone, by any means, is very wealthy. There is an electrician and his wife from the Midwest, here for their 10th wedding anniversary, and a thirtyish couple from D.C., he still in graduate school, on their honeymoon. There is some talk about houses, and I listen to a fascinating conversation about $10,000 watches and installing a light in a safe, so a 40-year-old buyout CEO can choose which watch to wear every morning. But mostly the talk is about the wilderness, and how stunning it is, and how much everyone is helplessly in love with the lodge, the island, the forest, the ocean and the fish, and fascinated by what they are learning about native culture, whales, bears and Canada.

On our last evening, we muse about the staff. There are 34 of them, most young Canadians, a few old wilderness hands, and some Indians. Each and every one of them is scrupulously fun, jokey, businesslike and dedicated. They live on the barge for five months, with few breaks. And twice a week, they receive another 30 people to acclimatize, entertain, soothe, caretake and, not so surreptitiously, teach. They are all passionate about conservation and obviously chosen for their cheerful extroversion. We hear a bit of gossip about romance in the staff lodge, but regrettably nothing too steamy. The food is uniformly delicious, urban four-star and innovative, despite being a thousand miles from a reasonable market. King Pacific, we decide, is a marvel of organization.

Kids run around shouting on the dock, as an 11-year-old brings back a 50-pound halibut. The conversation in the great room rises and falls in waves. Fishing boats arrive back at the end of the afternoon, one after another. Guests tromp in, dressed head to toe in wet wear, cheeks flushed, eyes clear and happy. Canadian summer - - merchandised, yes, but no less real and no less perfect.