Who's Gawkin' Who? – Show Boating on the World's Most Scenic Drive

Show me a more scenic all-day drive than Pincher Creek, Alberta to Jasper National Park via the Cowboy Trail and the Icefields Parkway, and I’ll eat my hat.

I probably wouldn’t make that bet if I wore a Stetson, but to demonstrate my confidence that no other 600 km route can hold a candle in terms of eye-popping, supernatural splendour, I am willing to wager a few bites of the trout-themed ball cap I wore the last time I made the journey. 

That was last summer and boy was I turning heads (some, even, with Stetsons atop). 

Now I know how people who drive restored classic cars must feel. In this case, however, what was drawing folks’ attention was not the car I was driving, but what was lashed on top of it. No one really glanced twice at my 2003 hatchback, with its spidered windshield and Cheerio-covered carseat inside. On the other hand, I was practically getting wolf whistles for the rooftop cargo: a 14 foot, cream coloured, kevlar Chironomid fly fishing canoe, built by Joe Cunningham of Pincher Creek, Alberta. 

Don’t get it twisted, not everyone was gawking. Anyone can identify a souped-up Vette. However, it takes a certain eye to recognize a unique fishing vessel. Those second takes were coming from folks who could spot fine craftsmanship. They were coming from lake lovers—people who’ve spent plenty of time with a paddle. They were coming from adventurers. They were coming from men and women who could relate to hauling a toy which was worth more than the vehicle hauling it. They were coming from fly fisherman.

There are a lot of fly fisherman on the Alberta Rockies’ eastern slopes, and so there should be. It’s arguably among the best places in the world to wet a line. There are thousands of angling opportunities in myriad rivers, creeks and lakes. And so, it made sense that I ran into a few of the folks who take advantage of the resource. Anglers who asked about the Chironomid—at a gas station near Black Diamond, at a campground outside of Bragg Creek and at a road-side pullout next to Waterfowl Lake —inquired about the boat’s outrigger channels; the thing has three holes on each gunwale. Once I explained that when set up, the Chironomid is fitted with an oar frame and pontoons, these folks could quickly see its utility. They imagined that having a fast, light, one person canoe which is rowed, rather than paddled, and which is stable in wind and chop, would be pretty slick. 

“How do you like it?” they’d ask. 

I had to be honest—I told them I couldn’t say. I told them I just got it from Pincher and I was bringing it home to Jasper. I told them I was pretty darned excited to get it into the water.

But that was last summer. Now, after a season of fishing from it, I can say. And what I can say is this: The Chironomid is a hell of a fishing tool. 

First of all, it’s a hell of a boat. It’s an incredibly comfortable, efficient way to travel on the lake. At 40 pounds, it’s as light as anything. It tracks incredibly well. It feels as safe and stable as a raft. And importantly, you can spend all day in it without ruining your body. Heck, I sculled around massive Maligne Lake for nearly 10 hours one day last fall, trying to see how many of my favourite zones I could fish before I needed to make camp. 

Maligne is a test piece for any vessel, and any fisherman. It’s huge, cold and prone to wind. Its whitecaps have sank big, sturdy boats. Every day from May to September it gets churned up by 50-passenger tour boats going up to 20 knots. And it can be stingy. The areas containing good numbers of fish are often miles apart and there are eons-old rockslides jutting up from the lake bottom ready to wreck your rig if you get too shallow too quickly.

How did the Chironomid perform? Let’s just say that guy in the souped-up Vette on that straight stretch near Chain Lakes would have been impressed. 

Unlike every other canoe I’ve taken on Maligne, because of its incredibly stable pontoons, my new boat handled the lake’s infamous wind chop like butter. It rode the giant waves kicked up by the godforsaken tour boats like an absolute dream. Unlike the classic Maligne rig, a 24-foot flatback canoe powered by an electric motor and several deep cycle batteries, the Chironomid took me mere minutes to launch. There was no backing up a trailer and spending precious time waiting in line for some greenhorn to get out of the way. I just grabbed my boat from my roof rack, set it down near the dock and clicked all the pieces into place. Ten minutes later, I was stripping line out.

Shortly thereafter, I was putting my wooly bugger over top of rock structure and in between weed beds more precisely than I ever had before. I soon learned that rowing an ultralight canoe from a central position makes it much more nimble than propelling a ponderous freighter from its stern. I certainly didn’t miss lugging batteries to the boat ramp, heaving them over the gunwale and praying that I didn’t have any wiring issues that would ruin my day. Instead, I knew as long as I remembered my rigging kit, I’d be able to make a mile. And the Chironomid can move. I loved the workout I got from rowing. Like cycling, it’s friction-free yet highly invigorating. Moving along stillwater with the Chironomid can be a terrific aerobic workout, a meditative float, or anything in between.

And yes I caught some nice fish. The first one was from a ledge in about 20 feet of water where I had stealthily slipped the bow and stern anchors in a spot I knew was fishy. After about 20 minutes of watching my indicator while intermittently standing up to cast and adjusting the anchor lines so to keep my back to the wind, I got a strike. Later, I got another while on the oars, drifting a fast-sinking line into a slot between two huge rocks, a maneuver I’d never try while trolling via electric motor for fear of bottoming out the prop or wrapping the line around structure. Because the Chironomid has minimal draft and because it’s so easy to reverse in the event of a snag, I was immediately more confident to slide into tight, shallow areas where I knew trout were likely to be. Likewise, landing the fish was made so much easier on account of the boat’s stability.

Unfortunately, soon after that maiden voyage to Maligne, the snow started to fly. The fishing season on Jasper National Park lakes came to an end and the Chironomid got slung up beneath my front deck, where, if the current forecast is accurate (today is April 20), it will likely remain for a few more weeks. 

But fishing season is around the corner. I can’t wait. This year, I am more amped than usual in the lead up.

During this transition time, I’ll often find myself lost in thought, wondering what day the ice will come off of Maligne. I know that when it does, the sunlight will start to penetrate the water surface and the lake weeds will start to reach up. Next, the freshwater shrimp, leeches and dragonfly naiads will start to feed on those plants. Finally, the trout, famished from a long winter and starting to move from their mud holes under the ice, will be primed to unlock their biological instincts.

And I’ll be there, in my Chironomid, a boat which was named by its builder for the very fly I plan to be dangling from a long leader come opening day.

Show me a more scenic spot to fish in a more perfect boat and I’ll eat my hat.  

Bob Covey is the publisher and editor of The Jasper Local, an alternative newspaper in Jasper, AB http://thejasperlocal.com