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Back in January of 2018 I wrote a story titled “Hard Bunk,” about a canoeing and salmon fishing adventure on our wild and spectacular Great Northern Peninsula. I love the forests, mountains, rivers, lakes, and people of the Northern Peninsula.
It is a special part of Newfoundland that I have explored, canoed, hiked, and fished maybe more than even my homeland of Conception Bay North.
Besides being smitten by the great land itself, in its people I feel and sense a deep respect and love of their woods and waters, far beyond what is typical in Newfoundland. You don’t see litter on the roadside around Plum Point. Folks don’t throw out building supply scraps and worn out mattresses on woods roads. I feel like I’m in Norway.
Attendants at the gas station ask about the fishing. They can tell by the look of you that you’re an angler, I suppose, or maybe they have a sixth sense about these things. The geography and people are special.
So back to the “hard bunk” canoe expedition on Main Brook, that you may remember, but I’ll summarize succinctly.
Rod Hale, Frank Samson, Ben Coombs and myself were canoeing our way from Bartlett’s Hole to Mitchell Steady where we slept on boards with no foam. There’s a bit more to the hard bunk specifics but that will do for now. Anyone who knows this country is aware that this is an arduous journey at the best of times and brutal in low water. And the water was dead low.
This was nigh on 15 years ago and we were all young fellas, except for Ben, who was dipping into his 70s. But what Ben lacked in youth he made up for in raw visceral toughness. Not the kind you get from pumping up your biceps at the gym, no, a deeper rooted strength, both physical and mental, the benefit from a life outdoors in an unforgiving land.
Despite aches and bone weariness, we had a grand time that night. There were a few nips of rum and we grilled thick succulent pork chops from Ben’s general store on authentic birch coals outside the cabin.
The stars shined brightly and all was well in the world, except for Frank’s world, where gloom of low water and hard travel had dampened his voyageur spirit. Hidden beneath his leathered exterior, Ben’s sense of fun lit up with opportunity. He would have to cheer Frank up and entertain Rod and me. His eyes twinkled with delight. I could see it coming. “What’s wrong Frankie?” ‘Are ya cold?” “He wants to be home with his woman now,” says Ben with and impish grin. Frank had a new girlfriend.
Ben had an indescribable way of poking a bit of fun and lightening the load without any offence or mean spirit showing through. I suppose that’s because there was none.
That twinkle was always there in Ben’s eyes. And he was even better at poking a bit of fun at himself. “Paul, tie this bloody fly on for me.” “ I bust off another salmon and I’m as blind as a bat.”
Ben could catch salmon with the best of them, but his clinch knots had a habit of busting. We’d always have a laugh, and then he’d proceed to hook another fish and land it.
He was a master of swinging a wet fly though a riffle, the devil in the details, Ben fully understood. I watched and learned the art.
The day after the hard bunk night was spectacular, not the weather but the fishing and adventure. And we saw how tough Ben really was. The morning dawned cold, foggy and damp. We paddled away from the cabin early to spend the day fishing further downriver. Ben was in the bow of our canoe and I paddled in the stern. Ben spotted a huge bull moose out to its belly in Mitchell Steady.
Silently, in the still morning air, we paddled to within 30-ft of the huge beast. It raised its head from the water and stared directly at us, before turning and heading for the security of woods and solid ground. That was spectacular, first for both of us.
Then we paddled over to the run-out and caught and released a few salmon each. Ben’s knots were holding. Frank’s demeanor was just fine now but I believe I can recall Ben ribbing him about one thing or another. We ran a couple of rapids and set out to fish again. Ben fished by the canoe and the rest of us headed a tad downstream from the landing point. I fished for a while before looking back upriver to see what Ben was up to.
There he was, stark naked in the cold morning air, by the side of the river wringing out his clothes. He had walked out in the canoe to retrieve fly box and flipped the canoe. There’s nothing crankier than a canoe with the opposite end touching the land. Ben tumbled head and feet under but managed to get his footing and wade ashore.
Then he ran out in the water to grab his hat from the current. Anyway Ben was soaked and his extra clothes were back at the cabin.
I offered to paddle back to the cabin with him. No, he would have none of that, wasting several hours of fishing was not Ben’s style. He had a better plan. He wrung the clothes as best he could and the pulled on his rain suit to break the wind. That was the way he planned to fish out the day. And it was well before noon and very cool. I called out to the boys and we all jumped aboard the canoes and headed down to the Island Steady run-in.
That was the next good fishing spot. We’d light a fire to dry Ben’s clothes, catch a salmon for lunch and grill it on the fire. Ben was delighted. He stood around with just his rain suit on while steam hissed from is soaking wool sweater. The salmon tasted wicked.
We fished further with full bellies and caught a few more fish. Ben was in his glee loving every minute of it. He spoke of that day last week when I visited him in hospital.
Sadly, Ben Coombs passed away a few days ago, one day shy of 86 years.
He lived a full life on his own terms. He never wasted all his time making money to buy stuff. Ben had life-balance all figured out without yoga, business retreats, or any sort of self help reading. He loved his family first, then I think salmon and trout fishing, followed by gardening, berry picking and rabbit catching. He was a man one with nature. I’m confident he had no regrets. His family and friends all love him and his collection of memories would fill volumes.
That is truly priceless.
Ben was a conservationist before it was fashionable, before most folks knew the word’s meaning. He loved to catch trout but kept just enough for a meal. To Ben, fish and wild things were precious, and he cursed up and down those who abused their privilege to harvest, hunt and fish.
Ben was decades ahead of his time. Although impish and fun, Ben was deep in thoughts and kind in deeds. He was one in a billion. There are so many stories I could tell. I have never known a better man.
Speaking of swearing, and I cannot write samples of his tapestry here. He reserved real cussing for those violating the land or showing ill will to others. But Ben is the only person I ever met who could swear up a storm and then break into an infectious smile in seconds. Often this chain of events started with his own falling in the river or something similar. Rod has the best story on that front. Ben never took himself too seriously, another art form not common in our modern world.
We will miss him. We will tell stories of Ben around evening campfires for many years.
His humour brings a smile to my face every time I think back to our fishing trips together. There were many and I have so many stories I could tell. I will tell more as time goes on.
I texted Rod the other night to tell him Ben had passed away. Rod texted back after a few moments, “he was a good man.”
I knew what Rod meant. Nothing more needed saying. Ben’s sons Chris and Dan understand fully, as does Sheila, his only daughter. Ben was, indeed, a good man. I hope wherever he is there are salmon rivers.
Paul Smith, a native of Spaniard’s Bay, fishes and wanders the outdoors at every opportunity. He can be contacted at email@example.com or follow him on twitter at @flyfishtherock