Haida Gwaii

With our canoe and gear loaded into a large zodiac boat we were excited to start a two-week coastal adventure on an island in the Pacific called Haida Gwaii. We arranged for a shuttle of our canoe and gear to Rose Harbour at the southern end of the island. It is here we will begin our coastal adventure and paddle north. The morning sky was overcast as we both donned our rain gear as well as a heavy rain slicker the boat captain provided. The zodiac boat with its powerful twin outboard motors quickly maneuvered between the islands and inlets, with the hull bouncing up and down as it pounded the ocean swells. We both attempted to absorb the scenic shoreline along the coast during the four-hour journey as the mist and drizzle became more prevalent. It did not take long and the temperature and moisture chilled us both to the core! 

Haida Gwaii, an archipelago of 150 rocky islands off British Columbia’s west coast, is home to dramatic landscapes, abundant wildlife and some of the world’s richest heritage with more than 500 archaeological sites. Formally known as the Queen Charlotte Islands, Haida Gwaii is the ancestral territory of the Haida Nation, only accessible by boat or plane, it is known as Canada’s ‘Galapagos’. A perfect place to continue our paddling adventure and explore more of this great country.

Before venturing into this magical sub-tropical rainforest, a half-day of mandatory education, registration and orientation must be completed. The southern section of Moresby Island is the Gwaii Haanas National Park Reserve, Marine Conservation Reserve and includes many Haida Heritage sites. This area is protected by both the Federal Government and the Haida Nation – from the sea floor to the mountain top. The Haida Nation signed the Gwaii Haanas Agreement which established the archipelago management board, which means the Federal Government and the Haida Nation work together to ensure the proper management, use and operation of the area. Registration for our trip and entry includes an action plan approval of emergency self-survival and rescue actions. This session was to ensure we were adequately prepared to be self-sufficient, and skilled in emergency situations, including equipment failure. The area has significant tidal variation, strong currents and strong winds that develop with little warning. Since we are not paddling with a group, the authorities want to ensure that individuals paddling this rugged coast have the skills required to survive many days if help is required. We also learned very few canoes make this trek, the preferred mode of travel is the sea kayak, and the training staff was intrigued by our choice.

Shuttle by Zodiac to the southern tip of Gwaii Haanas. The vessel was capable of carrying twelve individuals, their gear and several kayaks or canoes strapped to the top, yet we were the only ones on board.

We eventually arrived at a large cobblestone beach; large because the tide was out exposing a large area of real estate. We gazed in wonder at the scene before us. The campsite was tucked nicely behind large pieces of driftwood beyond the high water mark. Behind the camp was a freshwater stream winding through the rainforest with thousand-year-old trees standing majestically in the background. We would spend the rest of the afternoon relaxing, sitting in our camp chairs and watching tiny Sitka Black-Tailed Deer leisurely stroll past. These creatures would approach and stare and move on as if we were entertainment for them. During the late afternoon seals would swim past, a large number of them, traveling if on a mission to reach a location where they could bellow and howl all night. Rest came easy for us that night. Perhaps it was the sea air that relaxed us along with the serene quiet of the forest that surrounded us. 

Venturing up the coast we encounter stunning rugged coastlines and scenery that appeared to change with every turn. Mountains and spectacular sunrises filled the vistas. In deeper waters, whales breached the surface creating large splashes with resounding thuds that reverberated over the surface of the water. When we stop each night, camp is carefully selected. Selection is above the high water mark, yet sheltered enough into the thick lush dense growth of ancient trees to shield us from potential stiff breezes coming off the ocean. We were warned not to wander too far into the old-growth forests during windy days for fear of huge moss-covered trees toppling over without warning. 

The mystic wonders of Gwaii Haanas sub-tropical rainforest.

At camp ravens were curious and, we think territorially as they hopped along behind us as we walked along the cobble beaches, observing what we were up to. After being windbound on a particular campsite for several days, a raven observed that Glenn did dishes after each meal. The raven kept a watchful eye on Glenn as he gathered the dishes after each meal and proceeded to the ocean to clean up. The raven walked behind him down to the long shoreline. The bird stayed with him the entire time as he bent over to wash the dishes. Glenn engaged in a one-way conversation with the raven while the bird tilted its head as if understanding what was being said and then followed him back to camp. Carol was ignored. 

When we paddled close to shore at low tide many rocks were exposed. This exposure led to the discovery of amazing colourful starfish and sea urchins. Huge seabeds of kelp provided hiding places for playful seals that constantly circled our canoe. The seals would stick their heads as far out of the water as to get a good close look at us and size up the situation before slowly and almost in a sneaky way slithering below the surface. Then reappear and slap the water directly behind us, to startling effect.

Twice the wind and resulting wave action kept us grounded for several days at a time so we took the opportunity to do some shoreline exploring. Other times we ventured with the canoe into long sheltered inlet bays and coves, whereupon chance Carol found ancient headstones marking old graves. We did not wish to disturb this sacred place but did make note of its location on our map and later reported to the authorities who gave us our orientation session. 

Kelp was plentiful in the area and once dried, a delicacy for Sitka Deer.
One of many beautiful designated campsites. 

The last campsite we stayed at was across a large bay from a Haida Heritage site called Gandla’kin (Hot Spring Islands) with three spring-fed natural hot tubs carved into volcanic rock. During our previous orientation session, we were educated on the etiquette of asking permission before approaching and landing at a Haida Heritage site using a two-way radio. The Haida sites are guarded by the Watchmen, elders of the Haida Nation, who ensure the land is respected and the visitation impact is minimal. They educate visitors regarding the animals and mammals of the area. How the Haida Nation reveres these creatures through stories, passed down from generation to generation. These creatures’ spiritual beings are held in high esteem by being carved into cultural totem pole figures.

Loading gear and preparing for a day of paddling. Yikes that water is cold!
Watching the tide go out during an early morning breakfast. 

With our two-week paddle in Gwaii Haanas now complete, our last week on Haida Gwaii was spent doing day hikes and exploring the beautiful island. We heard through the grapevine that there was to be a pole-raising ceremony at Old Masset. Haida master carver Christian White, the carver of the totem pole turned a western red cedar log, estimated to be somewhere between 800-1000 years old, into one of Haida Gwaii’s largest totem poles at 53 feet. The pole depicts the killer whale, the moon, raven, amoung others and is surmounted by three watchmen, and was raised as a tribute to the “living Haida”. This was indeed a special event! It turned out we were more than casual spectators. The event was a grand celebration with First Nations people meticulously dressed in colourful traditional clothes. 

After numerous hours of feasting, celebrating and observing the finishing touches being carefully applied to the creation, the pole was blessed. It was time to raise the pole. Volunteers were sought and requested to man the many ropes to lift the huge piece of art into place. Glenn quickly jumped at the opportunity, and along with tens of dozens of other abled bodies, pulled and tugged on the ropes as it was guided into its final resting place. Everyone worked in harmony as the crowd around the base of the pole broke into a festive song. This was a remarkable sight to behold.

Our three weeks on the islands were an adventure and a rewarding experience. Haida Gwaii is an astonishing place, rich in culture, and fascinating wildlife and a place unique as the inhabitants who live there. Truly the Galapagos of the north.

Pole raising at Old Masset.

Watch Global TV – Ceremonial Totem Pole Raising