Canada: Coast to Coast – The Haida Gwaii

“There’s something mystical about the Islands that draws me back.  Maybe it’s the history, maybe it’s the scenery.  I don’t know.  There’s just a sense of being part of the land here I don’t find anywhere else.” – John, 56, Vancouver

After two days in Fort St. John and a visit with extended family, the car is washed, the clothes are clean, and the cooler restocked.  It’s time to flip a coin.  I have two choices – head north up the Alaska Highway and the Dempster to Inuvik or southwest to Prince Rupert where I can catch the ferry to the Haida Gwaii.

The Haida Gwaii has been on my bucket list longer and is in the general direction of home.  It’s been 67 days on the road and home is sounding pretty good.  As it turns out, friends of mine from the Peace will be in Prince Rupert – where I have to get the ferry – the same time I am.  It’s been a few years since we’ve seen each other so it’s a fortuitous choice and we have an opportunity to catch up over dinner.

Queen Charlotte City

The Haida Gwaii (Islands of the People) is a series of 2 large and more than 400 small islands west of the central BC coast.  Formerly called the Queen Charlotte Islands, the Haida returned the name to the Crown on June 17, 2010, in a cultural ceremony that laid the foundation for a new nation-to-nation relationship.

The seven-hour ferry trip gets me to Skidegate by dinner time and I head up the highway that curls along the coast, encountering only a handful of other vehicles along the way.  I’m camping at the Misty Meadows Provincial Park just outside Tlell, midway between the villages of Queen Charlotte and Massett.  The tent is up again in a cozy forested site and it’s early still, so I make my way the few hundred yards through the trees to the gravelled beach scattered with silver logs brought in by the tides.  A bald eagle glides overhead and pipers scurry along the tide line, picking microscopic bugs, worms, and biofilm from the wet sand of the receding tide.

The sounds of civilization are absent here.  There is only one main road between Charlotte and Massett and less than 5000 residents, providing an environment of peaceful contemplation and connection to the nature that sustained the Haida culture for centuries.

Haida Heritage Centre

The Haida have a long history on the Islands, dating back approximately 13,000 years.  At the arrival of the first Europeans in 1774, the Haida were a culturally sophisticated society with a defined class system, skilled traders, and inspiring artisans.  The sea otter trade – the furs prized in China – led to abundance and wealth for both Haida and Europeans.  The trade also brought unforeseen consequences to the islands.  Without inherited immunity, tuberculosis and smallpox decimated the original population of approximately 7000 until less than 700 remained at the turn of the 19th century.  The ancient villages were abandoned and survivors moved to Skidegate and Massett.  Cultural practices were further lost through forced integration and residential schools.

Haida Heritage Centre

Opened in 2007, the Haida Heritage Centre is located in Skidegate on the site of an ancient village.  Designed to represent the long houses of a traditional village, each house of the Centre is adorned with a totem recognizing one of six southernmost villages in the Haida Gwaii.  Each house also has its own purpose, including a cafe, education centre, and museum.

Inside the museum gallery, historical artifacts and oral histories depict the history, culture and art of the Haida.  Totems line the walls, each telling a unique story of the clan and family that craved it.  Examples of hats, baskets, and blankets show the skill of the weavers who stripped and wove the spruce root and cedar bark, a practice that continues today.

Outside, a new totem pole is underway in the Carving Shed, the images sketched out on the red cedar log.  Beside it lies Bill Reid’s Skidegate Pole that had stood on the site until lowered for safety reasons.  The pole will be preserved and raised again in the Haida Gwaii Museum pole gallery to be enjoyed by future generations.

Beyond that are the canoes, hand carved from a single log and painted in traditional colours and images.  The Haida were seafarers, establishing trade throughout the southern islands and with coast First Nations on the mainland and as far south as Victoria.  Visitors can experience paddling one of these impressive works of art during the summer season.

Haida Canoe – Loo Plex

One day is not enough to discover all the Centre has to offer, including tours that give a deeper significance of the totems, the artwork and the culture.

If you can’t get to the Haida Gwaii but happen to be in Vancouver between March 16, 2018 and June 16, 2019, you can explore Haida Culture without the leaving the city.  The Vancouver Art Gallery will be hosting the Haida Now display of over 450 works including carvings, masks and jewelry.  You can also view Haida art at the Bill Reid Gallery.

Pesuta Shipwreck Trail

In 1928, the 264 foot log barge Pesuta ran aground during a storm in Hecate Straight after colliding with the tug that was towing it.  Rising out of the sand, the barge has been slowly succumbing to the sea for the last 90 years.  The trail to the wreck is the start of the 78 km East Beach Hike that travels north to the Cape Fife shelter and trail head at the tip of Naikoon Provincial Park.

Just up the road from my campsite, the 10 km return hike to the Pesuta wreck takes you through moss carpeted forests, low growing plants decimated by the introduction of deer that have few natural predators here, allowing the moss to flourish.  Mid-way, the trail leaves the forest and follows the Tlell river to the coast, the pathway accessible only during low tide.  It’s low when I head down but coming back, the tide has turned and is rising fast.  Midway up the river, the trail disappears and I have to slog through the water up to my knees in spots (should have worn my sandals!) before I reach the trailhead back into the forest.  That’s one of the challenges on the Island.  Wifi is limited to the more populated areas so checking tide tables can be difficult.  There is an alternate overland route but is less used and more difficult to follow.

Pesuta Wreck

Tow Hill and North Beach

With the sun out, I head north past Masset to the northeast tip of Nakoon Provincial Park.  The board-walked 2.2 km loop trail to Tow Hill is an easy, wheelchair accessible hike to the blowhole where the sea is pushed up through narrowing in the stone like the spray from a whale.  The tide is going out when I arrive so the blowhole is a bust but the beach is littered with stones and I spend some time searching for the semi-precious agate so common in the area.

The legend of Tow Hill is reminiscent of Cain and Abel, two brothers torn apart by competition and resentment.  Tow and Towustasin argued often with Tow feeling his brother received more than his share of fish.  He stormed off, casting piles of stones as he went, his stomping creating the Delkatla Slough.  He found a place to call home at Yakan Point and decided to stay, forever overlooking the sea beside the Hiellen River.

View of North Beach from The Blowhole

Across the river from Tow Hill, the sandy expanse of North Beach has two distinct draws – surfing and crabbing.  Gluttony has taken precedence over sport this day and I’ve decided to try my hand at crabbing.  I’d picked up a fishing licence, a net, and a large pot to hold the crabs (and to cook them should I be successful!), roll up my pants and wade into the outgoing surf.  The crab are easy to see in the low tide, but not as easy to catch – my first few attempts do nothing but push the crab further away!

There’s a trick to this and after a few more tries, I’ve mastered the scoop, hauling in my first adult male, large enough for eating.  The next comes easy and I stop at four, enough for a meal for myself that night.  Others are doing the same and we share tips and tricks and evaluate each other’s catch.

Kayaking Luna Island

One of the benefits of being back on the coast is getting out on the water.  The Visitor Centre lists scheduled tours by local operators, so that’s my first stop to choose my adventures based on what’s available and set my schedule for the days I’m there.  I notice there’s a boat trip to the springs on Hotspring Island, opened again this year after an earthquake in 2012 resulted in their sudden disappearance.  It’s also the same day as a tour to one of the Haida Heritage sites.  Choices, choices.

There isn’t a kayak trip that suits my schedule, so I touch base with Green Coast Kayaking in Queen Charlotte and arrange to rent some gear.  I’m paddling solo, taking the relatively sheltered route around Luna Island which should take four to six hours.  The tide’s going out and I’m facing a headwind as I reach the east coast of the Island, staying close to the rocky outcroppings as I search for sea life – purple seastars, anemones, hairy chitons, and what looks to me like a kelp crab.  Seals bob up in front of the bow, eyeing me curiously before disappearing again beneath the waves.

The water’s quiet that day with no other kayakers out and only one boat in the distance checking commercial pens.  Despite being close to the village, there is a sense of solitude that I’ve found nowhere else in my travels through Canada.  John’s words begin to resonate with me.

Seal Colony

On the west side of the Island, the channel that will bring me back to the mainland is only accessible during the high tide.  I’m early and unsure whether or not I’m in the right spot, the water in what appears to be a grassy cove only a few inches deep.  I lift the kayak onto the rocky shore and take a walk to higher ground to get the lay of the land while waiting for the tide to reveal my route.   At the edge of the outcrop, I turn and – not 200 yards from where I stand – a mother black bear and her cub are grazing the lush green shoreline.  I’m upwind and I see her raise her head and glance my way.  Crap!

Backing out of view, I get the kayak back into the water, not interested in another bear encounter while at the same time wishing I had my good camera with the telephoto lens.  If she decides to check me out, I’d rather be in the water.  Not that it would make much difference . . . it’s still less than a foot deep.

But the tide is coming in fast and my route appears before me.  The grassy carpet waves beneath the surface, ultimately disappearing from view as the sea rises beneath the kayak.  As I paddle towards the channel, I watch the mother and cub from the water, back to grazing, having decided I wasn’t worth their time.

By the time I reach the launch again, my body’s tired from fighting the wind and tide and, as I slide out of the hull, the kayak slips beneath me and I fall, landing butt-first on the ocean floor.  Apparently, only the kayak moves gracefully.

Skedans and Louise Island

The following day, I decide to let someone else do the work and join the Moresby Explorers’ tour to Louise Island.  We ferry from Skidegate to Alliford Bay where our guide takes us an hour down rough forestry roads to the Moresby Recreation Site where we’ll suit up in wet weather gear, despite the clear day.  The only access to Louise Island is by boat and we’ll be in at the mercy of the seas in our open zodiac.

Our first stop is a former logging site from the second world war.  Sitka spruce was used in aircraft like the Mosquito fighter-bomber and floating camps moved around the islands to where the work was done.  Much of the equipment was left behind when the demand dried up and the remains have taken on new life, literally; moss, ferns and even new cedar shoots sprout from the rusted remains.

Abandoned Equipment

Further south, we stop at the village of Skedans (K’uuna Llnagaay),  abandoned in the 1880’s due to the decimation of the population from disease.  The village is managed and protected by the Watchmen, a group of Haida volunteers who educate visitors on the history and cultural significance of the Haida Heritage Sites.  Our host takes us on a tour of the old village, the long houses gone but the home pits remaining, the totems weathered and damaged from the storms that blow in off Hecate Straight.  Many have fallen and are slowly returning to the earth (featured image).

Haida poles were raised to signify important events, each pole depicting the crest of the family for which it was carved.  The Haida believe that the totems, carved from red cedar grown from the earth, should return to the earth when their time comes, so little effort is made to preserve their integrity.  Our young guide explains the various kinds of poles (house poles, funeral poles) and the significance behind some.

Haida Poles at Skedans

The practice of carving poles faltered under integration policies, but was revived in the 1960’s when the craft was embraced by young artists, including Robert Davidson and, later, Bill Reid.  Modern totems can be viewed throughout the Island, including Masset, Old Masset, Skidegate and Queen Charlotte City.

We’re also told about the practice of the potlatch, a cultural ceremony celebrating significant events, such as a birth, death or marriage.  The potlatch reinforced a person’s social status through the redistribution of wealth and provision of gifts to the guests.  Potlatch’s were also sometimes used to restore dignity and reputation that had been lost.  Banned by the Canadian government in 1884, potlatch’s continued “underground” and have seen a resurgence since the ban was lifted in 1951.

Leaving the village site, we head west around the island, taking in the pristine wilderness and encountering colonies of seals and sea lions along the way.  I’m taken with the wildlife, having been disappointed with the few photographic opportunities – I’d expected more, which is probably unrealistic.  It’s more likely I’ve just been spoiled in my other travels with the abundance I’ve encountered.  That’s when luck smiles upon me.

Eagle Feeding

At the end of the narrow channel between Louise and Moresby Island, I catch sight of movement in some downed trees.  As we float with the current, the young eagle comes into focus, talons clutching a downed tree, wings splayed, and beak tearing into the remains of what appears to be a dogfish.  Its colours blend perfectly with the surrounding barnacle encrusted branches, roots, and rocks.  Too focussed on its meal, the eagle doesn’t even glance our way as we pass and I manage to get some decent shots before we start the engine again for our return to Moresby.

We return in time for me to catch the overnight ferry back to the mainland.   My time in the Haida Gwaii has come to a bittersweet end.  While I’m looking forward to getting home, I also wish I had more time to explore the area.  I didn’t get into the Gwaii Hanaas National Park Reserve or the ancient SGang Gwaay village site with its iconic totem poles.  I think that needs to be a separate trip and I think it needs to be by water.  If anyone’s taken a sailing and/or kayak trip in the Gwaii Hanaas and has some recommendations, I’d love to hear them.




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