Haida Gwaii, the Islands of the People, is the historic home of the Haida nation. Also known as the Queen Charlotte Islands, the Islands on the Edge or even the Galapagos of the North, this group of misty isles situated in the Pacific Northwest exudes an otherworldly enchantment.
It takes determination to reach Haida Gwaii. It is located approximately 240 kilometres north of Vancouver, British Columbia. Of course, one can fly there. But we chose the slow route. We travelled by car and on the BC ferry system. It was a leisurely journey. The captain and his crew on the Northern Expedition did most of the work. We simply relaxed and enjoyed the scenery and on-board ambience.
There was barely a hint of light in the sky when the ferry departed Port Hardy. The foghorn sounded. There were strong swells. We clasped the handrails while moving about. Soon the ship headed into calmer waters. As we proceeded up the Inside Passage to Prince Rupert, timely brief commentaries identified points of interest. We passed Bella Bella, a fishing and logging community and home to many predominantly indigenous people; abandoned Swanson Bay, once the site of BC’s first sulphite pulp mill; and tiny Butedale where a canning and fish reduction plant operated until the 1960s. En route several lighthouses established around the early 1900s marked potential hazards. Each lighthouse has its own distinct revolving signal which acts as a warning to seafarers. From time to time, the captain slowed the vessel. Many passengers then crowded to one side. Sometimes we saw porpoises frolicking; other times humpback whales breeching or fish jumping. Around dinner time, we travelled through the deep and narrow Grenville Channel. On either side, heavily forested slopes rose steeply from the water. Fifteen hours after our departure, we docked at Prince Rupert. Here we overnighted.
Early the next morning, we boarded another ferry, the Northern Adventure, and traversed the unpredictable waters of Hecate Strait. We were blessed with a calm crossing and landed ahead of schedule at Skidegate on Graham Island.
We’d finally made it to Haida Gwaii. We drove off the ferry and headed north on Graham Island. Our first stop was at Balance Rock, a symbol of Haida spirituality. This huge boulder was left behind during the Ice Age. At the ocean’s edge it perches precariously on a small rock. It seems unbelievable that for centuries this glacial erratic has defied the elements. On my husband’s instructions, I picked my across the rocky beach carefully avoiding the tide pools for the obligatory photograph. We halted again at St. Mary’s Spring. Here a small wooden carving guards a spring which trickles out of the rocks. A legend exists that all who drink the water will return to Haida Gwaii. Nearby is a sign warning one not to drink the water. I decided to obey the advisory. We continued on towards the small settlement of Tlell or Land of Plenty in the native Haida dialect. This would be our home for several nights. First homesteaded in 1919, today a herd of Polled (hornless) Hereford cattle are reared on this land.
The next morning we awoke to a torrential downpour. This was fully expected. After all, we were in the Great Bear Rainforest. The day’s highlight was a trip to the Haida village of Skedans on Louise Island, the third largest in the archipelago. The excursion organized by Moresby Explorers runs rain or shine. We joined our guide, Bryan, and 10 fellow travelers at Alliford Bay on Moresby Island. This would be a truly authentic experience of Haida Gwaii at its very wettest. At the launch site, we were outfitted in Helly Hansen full-length khaki waterproof raincoats, gumboots and red life jackets. Unfortunately, the rain gear came in “one size fits all”. Being vertically challenged, my waterproofs practically trailed on the ground as I waddled along in my oversize wellies. In this most unbecoming outfit, I would doubtless remain dry whatever wet conditions we encountered. Soon we were settled in an ultra-seaworthy Hurricane zodiac and, with Bryan at the helm, off we zoomed into the cloud and rain. The sky was dark grey. The water was metallic steel grey. White spume gushed from the boat’s wake. Heavily forested mountains reached from the water’s edge right up to the clouds. To avoid the worst of the driving rain, Bryan suggested that we sit astride our seats and face backwards. This was a brilliant idea. The secret was to brace oneself against the unseen bumps in the water as he propelled the craft through sizeable waves. It was rather like riding a horse blindfold.
After about an hour we arrived at Skedans. Disembarking from the zodiac was not an elegant process. Much like a beached whale, each of us dropped down into the water over the prow of the boat. We then followed a trail marked by clamshells. Clamshells, we later learned, are of major significance in Haida mythology. The pathway brought us to a small cabin. All summer long it is occupied by two Haida Watchmen. Their duty is to ensure that no further damage or vandalism occurs.
No one has lived on Louise Island since the 1880s. Skedans sits on a rocky promontory at the head of Cumshewa Inlet. A few rays of sunshine pierced the clouds as we commenced our walking tour. In its heyday there were 27 homes here. The totem pole which stood outside each house told a story about its inhabitants. Our guide explained the significance of the crests and sub-crests on the Haida poles. These included the homeowner’s clan (either Eagle or Raven), the inherited family crest, rights to certain salmon streams, stands of cedar and other claims to nature’s bounty. Most lean at precarious angles, are slowly rotting, and will eventually return to the earth.
To this day, great care is taken in selecting the perfect red cedar tree to become totem pole. The parameters include the tree’s height, the degree of twist on the trunk and a healthy core. Once the pole is chosen, one side is fashioned by a master carver, the other by an apprentice. Later, the master carver ensures that both sides are identical. In olden times, a traditional hat often topped the pole. The number of bands on the hat reflected the potlatches or gift-giving feasts held by the host, each successive one being more extravagant than the previous festivity. It must have been a costly process. Five or six seemed to be the maximum at Skedans. What wonderful celebrations they must have been!
Bryan also pointed out several mortuary totems, each capped by a frontal board denoting the deceased’s ancestry. These totems support a cedar burial box containing the remains of an important individual. Mortuary totems are left to rot as only then will the spirit of the person be freed.
It was an exciting and informative day. Now we were much more aware of the history of the Haida people, their native culture, legends and traditions.
One evening we enjoyed an authentic Haida feast at Keenawaii’s Kitchen. The meal was prepared and served by the grandchildren of Roberta Olsen in her waterfront home in Skidegate. Guests arrived in small groups until 18 of us were gathered around a long lace-covered table in her living room. Aboriginal hats, button blankets, jewelry and canoe paddles as well as paintings and masks by local artists decorated the walls. Before the meal, Roberta offered a short prayer of thanks in her native tongue. All the ingredients are locally sourced. We experienced a variety of flavours. There was smoked fish, herring roe, kelp, venison and salmon served in three different ways. Here in Roberta’s home we first heard about the Haida nation’s philosophy of respect and responsibility, about knowing one’s place in the web of life and how the fate of the Haida culture runs parallel with the fate of the ocean, the sky and the forest people. It was an occasion to remember.
During our stay, we hiked a few of the local trails. At times gentle raindrops accompanied us on these short expeditions. Often the sun peeked through at the appropriate moment. A five kilometre walk brought us to the Pesuta shipwreck.
First we made our way through a forest of tall cedar, hemlock and Sitka spruce. The trail was soft and forgiving to the feet. The ground was carpeted with thick green moss. Long strands of lichen hung from many branches. Several clumps of bright yellow fungus clung to the trees. One felt a sense of calm and serenity. After a while we descended to the bank of the Tlell river and proceeded beside the estuary to the open sea. Luckily we soon spied the remains of the Pesuta. It wasn’t as close as it looked. An incoming tide caused us to pick up our pace. It must have been quite the wild storm in 1928 that forced such a large wooden barge so far off course. Today all that remains is some rusting ironwork and the barge’s upturned bow.
It’s just a short ascent to the Tow Hill viewpoint situated north of Masset on Graham Island. The trail is well marked. For the most part it follows a stepped wooden boardwalk. We paused after climbing several sets of stairs. Trees towered above us. There were low-lying bushes of huckleberry and salal. Ferns and moss covered the forest floor. In no time at all, we reached the viewing platform at the summit. Directly below us was a vertical rock face. Our gaze travelled along the rocky shoreline to distant North Beach. On a clear day, it’s even possible to see the Alaskan Panhandle. It was a stunning yet peaceful vista. Our return route took us past the Blow Hole at the base of the hill. Only at high tide and in stormy weather does the surge channel offer excitement to its viewers. Today, the water was as calm as could be.
Near Port Clements is the stump of the Golden Spruce, the tall 300-year old Sitka Spruce tree that once displayed golden needles. About 15 years ago, this tree was maliciously felled by a disillusioned logger. A wide trail wound through old growth forest. Wooden plaques along the way explained the Haida belief of giving back to nature. From the banks of the Yakoun River, today all one can glimpse is the sawn-off stump. Back at a small park in Port Clements, a seedling propagated from the Golden Spruce struggles to grow and display this unusual genetic trait.
Of course, a visit to Haida Gwaii would not be complete without dropping into the Heritage Cultural Centre in Skidegate. The Centre represents the past and the future. In 2001 before the building was erected, half a dozen tall totem poles, representing six of Haida Gwaii’s southernmost villages, were sculpted by the latest generation of carvers. They were then raised in the time honoured manner. This involved digging a deep hole, then using ropes and human manpower to hoist each totem into a vertical position while other helpers placed supporting stones around the base.
A recent Haida high-school graduate was our guide at the Centre’s Weaving Tour. She explained that weaving, once an important part of everyday life, is an art still being passed on through the generations. Hats, boxes, blankets and robes are woven in a variety of patterns from the bark of yellow and red cedars and the root of the Sitka spruce.
Displays in the Centre tell of the long history of the Haida people, the devastation to the population caused by the smallpox epidemic around the 1800s, the challenge to logging permits in 1995 and the landmark decision in 2004 to limit logging and eventually the creation of Gwaii Haanas National Park Reserve to protect many of the smaller islands in the south.
Outside the Centre a ceremonial dugout canoe was tied up above the waterline. Rick Mercer’s TV crew was filming nearby. After a little gentle persuasion, enough “volunteers” were corralled to man the canoe, including eight or ten people of Haida heritage. Captain Gold, one of the original Haida Watchmen, sat in pride of place at the stern. It took considerable manpower and brute strength to manoeuvre the canoe into the water. Luckily this crew was not off to fight a war! To the beat of a drum and with the paddlers mostly in unison, they circled two nearby offshore islands. Cameras were whirring. On the return trip, the rhythmic pounding of paddles on the deck created a noise surely loud enough to deter the bravest of marauders. Haawa (thank you) for this unique experience.
Sadly, all too soon it was time to depart the ancestral lands of the Haida First Nation. We had truly enjoyed exploring this remote and unspoiled corner of British Columbia. As the overnight ferry set off for Prince Rupert, the clouds cleared momentarily and the sun lit up the evening sky. It seemed a fitting farewell to this place of unrivalled natural beauty.