#641 Big Bay fishing stories
The Codfish Dream: Chronicles of a West Coast Fishing Guide
by David Giblin
Victoria: Heritage House, 2018
$19.95 / 9781772032420
Reviewed by Kenneth Campbell
In The Codfish Dream: Chronicles of a West Coast Fishing Guide, David Giblin compresses fifteen years of experience as a sports fishing guide into one remarkable summer, resulting in an engaging close-up look at a slice of life on the BC Coast.
The chronicles take place in 1983 at a resort on Stuart Island, one of the Discovery Islands that break up the Inside Passage between the Strait of Georgia and Johnstone Strait. They begin when Dave, the narrator, is in Campbell River ready to fly by seaplane to the resort the next day. The night before, he dreams of being transformed into a cod fish which is caught on a hook embedded in a hamburger.
Later, in a chapter called “Strange Karma for the French Petty Nobility,” a character named Vop dreams he is a member of the French petite bourgeoisie facing the guillotine, but as the blade is about to fall, he changes into a school of herring (not just one, but the whole school) that is being pursued by cod. One herring, being ignominiously dumped into a holding tank at a fishing resort, exclaims, “Being eaten by a Cod Fish is bad enough, but this is intolerable!” (p. 123) Dave’s dream ends as the herring are about to chopped up for bait.
Despite these and a few other references to cod, David Giblin’s humorous work of creative non-fiction is mostly about salmon and the people who are caught up in the thrill of catching them. At first it seems the subtitle should read “Stupid Things Rich Americans Do.” Many of the fish tales indeed recount the sometimes-odd behaviour of the mostly male, mostly American, always wealthy resort guests who leave their high-powered businesses to encounter quite different power relationships on the fishing grounds.
But as the summer develops we discover there is more to these chronicles than just a series of fishing stories. We get to know some of the guides and dockworkers, with legendary names like Wet Lenny and Troutbreath, and how their lives interact with the visitors. The individual anecdotes coalesce into plot lines that are variously funny, thrilling, and suspenseful.
Part of what makes The Codfish Dream unique is its episodic structure. The narrative is divided into 48 short chapters — like snippets of dreams perhaps — some only a page and a half long, each with an evocative title. Some stories, rather than starting and ending in a single chapter, are interwoven with others. A story, which you think has concluded, surprises you by returning a chapter or two later.
Another strength of the book is its sense of place. We come to know Dave’s universe, the particular spaces around the fishing resort based at Big Bay on Stuart Island, and the reefs, rapids, and back eddies of the nearby waters where the fish hang out. Stuart Island lies at the eastern end of Cordero Channel, blocking the entrance to Bute Inlet. In front of Big Bay is a sweep of water enclosed on all sides by three sets of wicked rapids: Yuculta Rapids to the south, Dent Rapids to the west, and to the north, Arran Rapids. It requires a great deal of local knowledge to navigate these waters and keep the tourists safe and happy.
Arran Rapids becomes a character in Dave’s chronicles, as do the various fishing spots with local names such as First Hole, Far Side, Log Dump, and The Wall. Each has its own characteristic tidal action, currents, and whirlpools that the guides need to understand to ensure their guests have the best opportunity to catch the big one. We get to know the nature of the various fishing spots through the adventures that Giblin skillfully describes.
But The Codfish Dream is more than encounters with salmon on the fishing grounds. What takes the book beyond a sports fishing journal are Dave’s observations on the worldviews of the characters. In one instance, when a group of slightly inebriated fishers are ready to turn on one of their number, Dave comes to his rescue. “Survival of the fittest wasn’t part of my worldview. My experiences as a fisherman had led me to believe the universe wasn’t quite so predictable (p. 83).
Many of his observations are about the American visitors. They all seem to wear check shirts, heavy boots, and carry knives in leather pouches on their belts, which they never use. And they all burst with nationalistic pride when they see an eagle sitting in a tree. “Guys like this tended to forget such small matters as international borders and national sovereignty,” Dave comments (p. 39).
Central to many of the chronicles are various power relationships. The most basic power struggle is between the people and the fish, with the fish winning more often than not. Much of the humour comes from the role reversals experienced by the visitors. As an FBI agent who happens on the scene observes, “The most powerful men on the planet and they were sucking up to these guides — these kids — so they’d take them fishing…. All the things he’d once taken for granted — power, position, rank — had no meaning here” (p. 168).
Giblin also pokes fun at government officials and bureaucracy, like the Fisheries officer trying to check fishing licences from a small inflatable dingy, but unable to navigate the whirlpools, and the RCMP who also were issued with a new boat. Only theirs was a highly fuel-efficient computerized vessel. In order to use up the excess of fuel that some junior assistant had ordered, so as not to jeopardize getting enough in the future, they were doomed to run day and night up and down the coast.
The Codfish Dream is a lively read with many layers. Those who fish will no doubt identify with the chronicles of the fish and those who pursue them, and with the humour that Giblin brings to them. But these aren’t inside jokes; people who don’t fish will feel just as caught up in the lives and experiences of the characters who return each summer to Big Bay and the Discovery Islands waters.
Kenneth Campbell is a Victoria-based researcher and writer focussing on historical and educational projects. He is the author of North Coast Odyssey: The Inside Passage from Port Hardy to Prince Rupert (Sono Nis Press, 1993). He is also the keeper of the online database Wooden Boats of BC.
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