LANGARA ISLAND, British Columbia — The clouds and mist rendered the ocean’s surface indistinguishable from the air above. Below, a school of dark, inch-long needlefish was driven upward by predators, a crossover between worlds that looked like inky rain emerging from the sea.
We were a group of seven fathers, sons, and friends from Atkinson, N.H., who came to the Haida Gwaii, a nearly uninhabited archipelago off British Columbia’s west coast, to try some of the best sportfishing in the world. We were here to celebrate a friend. Our hometown hero, Marine Major Jeremy Graczyk, 33, died a year ago in an off-duty parachuting accident that sent his family into the lonely hell of losing their only son.
When it happened their relatives, friends, and community closed around them, trying to help with food and drink, space and companionship — all of which we hoped would be with us in abundance in Canada.
Last fall, Jeremy’s father, Jim, began planning our trip to the Haida Gwaii (formerly known as the Queen Charlotte Islands, it is the main territory of the Haida, an indigenous nation) to re-create one he and his son had taken in 1999 to celebrate Jeremy’s graduation from the US Naval Academy.
“A friend of ours lost a daughter in a car accident when she was 15 and all he could do was sit in a dark room in a recliner,” Jim said. In Canada we wanted to celebrate the life of his son, who had adopted his state’s “Live Free or Die” motto as his own. “Jeremy would come back and kick my ass if we didn’t learn to live,” Jim said.
Fishing on New Hampshire’s Lake Winnipesaukee was sacred ground for Jeremy and Jim, as it was for my father and me. Jeremy and I were what his mother, Darlene, called “the sons of the lake,” and the sight of Jim fishing there by himself was heart-rending.
Dad and I wanted to take this trip to fill Jim’s boat again, though we knew we never could. What was really happening was that Jim and Jeremy were bringing our entire group closer together.
The trip started months in advance with gentle and not-so-gentle ribbing, and e-mail exchanges about respective capacities for booze consumption, a long-lost bottle of whiskey, fish sizes, and fishing prowess. We flew to Vancouver where we picked up a prop plane to Masset in the Haida Gwaii and from there a helicopter took us 15 minutes farther north to Langara Island. The isolated North Island Lodge seemed custom-made for cultivating this good atmosphere.
On the morning of our first full day out, Dad lifted the pillow off my head at 5:30 a.m. “Wake up, Joe, we’re going to slay ’em today,” he said, referring to a slightly slow afternoon of fishing on our arrival the day before.
My eyes stayed closed, but I was intrigued enough to ask what had changed. “I changed my underwear,” he replied.
We ate a quick breakfast, bundled into our foul-weather gear, and headed out to Cohoe Bay with our guide, D.J. Shinduke. We drifted in our three-man metal boat with the mountains of the Alaskan Panhandle in the distance, as whales blew plumes of mist into the sky and bald eagles circled overhead.
Most of the salmon — the prime draw here — come past Langara on their way to spawn, feasting on masses of herring, needlefish, and other baitfish that congregate here.
“Somebody’s thumpin,’” said D.J., pointing at the erratic bob of my rod tip. I stood, took the pole from its holster, and set the hook. A moment later, everything went slack.
“Reel!” shouted D.J. The fish, if it were there, was running straight at us. I brought in huge lengths of line as fast as possible, finally catching up with the fish and leaning against it.
The chinook shot to the surface and I gasped when it breached. Iridescent pinks and blues blazed above its silver body, but all I could see was that it dwarfed anything I had ever caught on Winnipesaukee.
“Ah, that’s just a teenager,” said D.J., measuring what would turn out to be a 16-pound fish against the 30-pounders members of our group would pull in over the course of the week.
No matter. In 35 years of great fishing, this salmon shot toward the top of my list of favorite catches with that jump, a feeling surpassed only when Dad hooked into an even larger fish.
Later, we talked about why we had come, and while Dad is often reserved in the deeper matters of the heart, when we talked about Jeremy, he was clear and open.
“There’s never going to be an end to his family’s sorrow, but I never want to be in a situation where we don’t talk about Jeremy,” he said. “Thing is, I think he [Jim] and Darlene help their friends more than their friends help them.”
He paused, stared away, and returned with a face that was both tearful and happy. “This was a chance to be with you and do stuff we like to do,” he said. “But Jim’s got a good laugh and I wanted to hear that again.”
Though we were in groups of two and three while we fished during the day, we would gather at the lodge for dinner, followed by cribbage and whiskey. The lodge, essentially a floating hotel just off a protected bay on Langara’s southern coast, had the effect of concentrating our time together. I used to wince when Dad sang Waylon Jennings’s “Lukenbach, Texas,” but there we were, singing along. Our geographic isolation brought us together to talk, laugh, and remember.
A few days later, I was in a boat with Jim and a guide. We talked about life and the lake, fishing and enjoying a sunny morning on the water, including Jeremy in the conversation because these were the things he and Jim liked to share. “Seeing good friends with their fathers and sons is painful but it’s also wonderful,” Jim said. “I wanted to see other people enjoy what I knew was here in a place where I can feel him.”
It had been a rough road — a year of firsts in finding what Jim referred to as a “new normal.” “What a person sees on the outside doesn’t necessarily reflect what’s going on inside,” he said. “On the day he died, I vowed not to let it destroy our marriage or our family. There are times when I feel guilty enjoying myself, but would he want that?”
Right around this point in the conversation, our rods bent over within moments of each other as we tapped into three fish at once, and Jim set the hook on what would be a 26-pound lunker.
We floated along as pods of whales showed off their tails and sometimes we got lucky and felt another tug on the line. This was life in full, the way Jeremy liked to live it.
I have a photo of Jim at a dinner not long before Jeremy died, where Jim has a look of true contentedness in his eyes. Every now and then, as we floated through the Haida Gwaii, I would catch a glimpse of Jim that reminded me of that photo and hear the laugh that my father had missed.