The T‘Sou-ke Nation, a Coast Salish band, lived off the land and bountiful sea. Salmon, clams and the stickleback fish that gave the people their name were plentiful at the mouth of the Sooke River where the band continues to live.
Elida Peers, a well-known and respected local historian writes: “Ideally situated alongside a salmon river within a sheltered harbour, the T’sou-ke peoples were the envy of many first nations tribes in less favoured regions.” She continues: “Early in the 1900′s a series of commercial fish traps, with piles driven into the ocean floor and webbing designed to intercept the salmon, were to become the mainstay of Sooke’s economy. It was mid-century before the fleets of independent fish boats put an end to the “fish trap” industry.”
Today, in the Sooke region, the sea is still bountiful and a variety of First Nations, local guides and commercial fishermen make a good living by harvesting what Mother Nature provides.
Tourism is also a big draw to Sooke, mainly because of the water access. Its natural beauty, great fishing and wildlife viewing has been a scenic tourist destination which has existed for generations.
I was here to discover for myself the people who live in the area and make their living from the sea. They are a collection of interesting, hard-working characters who live in Sooke and are not driven by economic factors, but rather for a love of the ocean.
The first morning I awoke, the sun was shining brightly through my window at the Prestige Oceanfront Resort. Morning was beckoning me out of bed and as I rolled over to gaze out the window, looking at the sun rising over Sooke Harbour, I could tell my luck was running strong. The sun was shining brightly, and the weather calm, which meant the fishing trip I was about to go on was going to be much more pleasant than what the weatherman had earlier predicted.
I wandered down the dock (after getting a latte in the Resort’s lobby) sipping my morning wake up coffee, camera bag slung over my shoulder and wondering how we’d do today. Fishing is one of those things I’ve done many times over my lifetime and the one thing I’ve learned from all my trips, is to expect the unexpected and don’t be surprised if you come home ‘skunked’.
“Your odds are good,” Jacob Cramp, the Resort’s Manager said to me as I passed him in the lobby headed to the dock. “You’re going out with two of the best guides Sooke has to offer.”
One of the guides, I had heard about extensively - Al Kennedy. He was a local legend. With a lot of repeat customers (some coming from quite a distance in the U.S. just to fish with him), Al was well-known in the area and respected as one of the best fishing guides in the Sooke region.
Today, however, we weren’t actually headed out on Al’s boat - rather we’d be making the 6-hour tour with Tory Howe of Goin Coastal Fishing Charters. A fresh-faced kid, Tory seemed pretty young to be running his own operation but the more I spoke with him, the more I realized ‘this kid has been around.’
Rounding out the crew was the West Coast Grill’s Corporate Chef Adam Guther and his brother, Justin.
This was the question I put to both Al Kennedy and Tory Howe. “He’s got to know more than just where to drop his line,” Al told me. “He’s got to be able to converse with his guests and make them feel comfortable. There are many times when the weather is poor and the guide and his guests are jammed inside the cabin area in close quarters. You’ve got to be able to not only be able to read the guests (whether they want to talk or be silent) but also be able to talk about a wide variety of subjects - not just fishing.”
Tory agreed and added that fishing is a bit of everything. “Luck, being prepared and knowing your stuff are just a few of the things we think about every time we leave the dock,” Tory said.
Both Al and Tory agreed that you’ve got to love the job first and foremost. “On sunny days, with a lot of fish coming on to the deck, it’s easy to be out here. But pulling yourself out of bed at 4 in the morning and getting the boat ready on a dark, cold rainy day … that’s when you either are here for the love of it … or are crazy.” In my mind as I listened to their stories, I knew they were in it for the love of fishing and being out on the water. It’s not something you can fake. You either love what you’re doing - or you don’t and both these men, I knew, loved the ocean and the job they did. One aspect I never thought about, as we continued to talk, was the huge investment the guides make in their business. Besides the physical boat itself and all the gear required to run a fishing charter business, they have to contend with rising fuel and maintenance costs, all the while keeping their rates stable. It’s not an easy business to be in and I had a new found respect for the independent guides who work long hours, in all kinds of weather. “We love it.” “Simple as that,” they told me.
I was on this fishing trip with our two guides and two people who spend their life in the kitchen - Chef Adam and his brother Justin. As the West Coast Grill’s Corporate Chef, Adam spends a lot of his time working with seafood. Adept at filleting, scaling and cooking fish - this was a time when we’d see how good he was at bringing a fish in.
It’s a free for all on the water, with no one boat having the power to supplant, or control an area, but fishermen have their favourite spots and it seems a little dishonest to see other boats trailing the area, watching us haul in a large halibut and then throwing over their buoys, hoping to reap in their own harvest.
We did well. Chef Adam landed a 40-and some pound halibut. It took him quite a few minutes to haul the large fish in and by the time Tory netted the fish, Adam’s arms were throbbing from the strain of bringing the halibut on to the boat.
I love a good story and the tale about how Silver Streak Boats became to be is a nice story worth retelling.
Just a stones throw from the Prestige Oceanfront Resort, Silver Streak Boats started from the grass-roots in Sooke, with its early stages in founder and owner Andy Barry’s shop. Andy had been working in a Victoria shipyard working for someone else. But on the side he had the dream of building his own boats. With a clear vision of where he wanted to take his boat building business, Andy quickly began drafting (working on his own at night) and carving out foam prototypes which would one day become the pattern for one of the Canada’s premier all-aluminum boats.
For three years he toiled in a small double bay shop. As his aluminum boats grew in popularity, Andy realized he would need more space. (It was a realization not unlike the movie “Jaws” when the protagonist says: “We’re going to need a bigger boat.”) Andy took over an old gas station and over the years expanded it to include offices, added shops, a parts department and a crew of 30.
As I walked around the shop, I was impressed with the variety of ages. Young mixed with old and everyone seemed to be taking advice from each other. Even though some of Barry family work the shop floor, there were no egos here. They had a mission - to build the best aluminum boat they could using local crew. The company proudly hires both local Sooke and people from the surrounding area, which translates to job creation for many in this small community.
The smell of welding wafts through the open door as I enter the shop. Filled with hydraulic press brakes, shears, programmable equipment, benders, plasma cutters and pulse arc welding machines, men were bent over, twisted within small hulls and sweating, as they shaped flat sheets of aluminum into beautiful, simple and functional boats. You could see patterns hanging on the wooden walls. Using 3D modelling software allows for all boats and parts to be cut on site.
Silver Streak has built a variety of working and pleasure boats for businesses, government, fishermen, lodges … the list is enviable and varied. They know how to tailor to a diverse marketplace probably because most of the people working on the shop floor are fishermen, sportsmen, outdoors people who know what works in the rugged outdoors because they’ve all been there.
Thor Heggelund comes from a couple generations of fishermen in Sooke. His grandmother, Vera and her husband Louie first settled in Sooke overlooking the seaside from their home on Horne Road. They came in the early days of WWII, fishing for cod. At that time, Sooke’s population was counted in the hundreds, not thousands. To this day, Thor walks the wharf in the steps of his grandfather and father, both of whom he credits with where he is today. “If it weren’t for my father, I’d never be the fisherman I am today,” Thor told me. “He invested in some good boats and I’ll be forever grateful for the work he did before me.”
It’s that honest sentiment that defines the character of Thor. It’s his work ethic that solidifies the fact that this fisherman works hard to support his family, fellow crew and is one of the many invaluable silent workers who go about doing their job while building a business that reaches over to the shores of Asia.
On this day, Thor has invited me on board for an afternoon to observe (and photograph) him and two crew, Dave and Richy, as they head off into the waters just off Sooke Harbour to pull crab out of the cold waters of the Juan de Fuca Straight.
When most of us are still asleep, Thor and his crew step on to their crab boat before the sun rises at 4:30 am. His working day doesn’t end until after they’ve checked and cleared their traps.
Watching these working to haul up a trap, open it, sort the good from the ‘gotta throw it back’ crabs, reload the trap with bait and have it back in the water is not unlike a lightening speed tire change at the Indianapolis Speedway. This team of three work in tandem and don’t spend a lot of time with idle chatter - preferring to get the crab traps out, sorted and back in the water as quickly as possible. Most traps were in and off the boat within three minutes. This comes with a lot of practice, skill and a quick eye and hand.
Asian demand for crab keeps the prices healthy due to a tight supply and insatiable demand from the Far East. The appeal of BC crab is the reputation we have here in the province for our pristine waters and sustainability. This resonates with wealthy Asian customers who demand the best.
Most the Thor’s catch today will find itself in the next few days thousands of miles away in China. This crew is just one of many BC-based companies who sell to companies that exports directly to the other side of the planet.
As the afternoon worn on, my sea legs began to become a little unsteady and I found myself staring off at the horizon trying not to show the effects of looking through a small viewfinder as the small boat bobbed in the waves. This was a sunny, calm day - I can only imagine what it’s like to work a 12 to 14-hour day when rain is pouring down, the ship lists from side to side violently from the wind and the waves as the crew fight for every crab. Thor and his crew deserve days like this.
Every time I visit Sooke I find myself wandering down to the Sooke Rotary Pier located downtown. Even without a camera I just find it a peaceful spot to look over the harbour, watch the boats coming and going and I often find myself striking up a conversation with a diverse group of people throwing nets off the Pier into the water. From a young Asian couple with their small dog peeking out of a purse, to an ‘old guy,’ to a a mother and her two boys … I’ve watched them all stand on the bottom of the pier trying their hand at catching crabs. It’s a great way to enjoy the fresh air, ocean and sea life. With eagles soaring high and Harbour Seals trying to steal from the traps, the chance of getting a dungeness crab in this area is pretty good.
“You can’t just drag ‘em up, pop in the bucket and walk home,” one middle-aged man was telling me. “You can’t take female crabs and the males have to be at least six and a half inches in width across the shell,” he continues while showing me how to spot a male from a female. “There are two ways to identify your crab as being either male or female including claw color and apron shape. First, take a look at the crab’s claws. Male crabs will have bright blue claws like the first picture below. Female crabs, however, have red tips on their claws like in the second picture. It’s easy to remember this distinction because, like humans, the females wear “red nail polish”. “A second way to tell the difference between males and females is by the shape of their “apron”. If you look at a crab’s underside, there’s a flap with a distinct shape. This flap is referred to as the apron. Male blue crabs (Jimmies) have a long, pointy apron as seen in the first picture below. Mature females (Sooks) have a rounded apron.”
Which is how Mitch Moneo replied to my question of “what’s your name?” Mitch and I actually shared a bit of a history. Both of us worked for small town newspapers over the years. Mitch did his stint in the Prairies, eventually moving west. Now working in the BC Government Mitch told me he loved to come down to the pier on his days off. We talked some about how the state of newspapers had declined to the point of almost disappearing. In between our chats, Mitch would pull up his trap, check the size of the crabs inside and throw the trap back into the water. One story I discovered about how Mitch and his wife, Shannon, met was “kinda cute,” as my wife would say. The story goes that in Regina, Shannon lived in a four-storey, downtown apartment. Invariably, on her laundry day, the two washing machines would be full of men’s jeans, shirts and underwear. After several weeks of being hampered by the abandoned laundry, she moved the clothes to wash her own and put the mystery apparel in the dryer. When she needed the dryer, the ditched threads still hadn’t been retrieved. So she took them out and folded them. One year later at journalism school, she met fellow student Mitch. He lived two floors above her. Soon she learned it was his laundry she folded. She married him anyway.
The people I met in Sooke, during my trip to discover those who either make their living by the sea, or just love to go out and fish in the surrounding waters, all struck me as ‘down-to-earth’ types. They are honest, hard-working people who appreciate the beauty of the area and the bounty Sooke enjoys. Everyone I met, told me they believed that we need to keep what we have and embrace what Nature has given us.
Later that evening, with the sun going down over Sooke Harbour, I stood on the pier at the Prestige Oceanfront Resort and reflected on the people I met and the talks we had and realized that yes, life is good. As the sun dipped over the horizon, casting golden fingertips of light across the boats docked in front of me, I turned and walked back to the hotel eager to order the West Coast Tower. Seeing all those crab being pulled in had made me hungry.