Haida Gwaii ("Islands of the People"), or the Queen Charlotte Islands, is an archipelago in northern British Columbia, Canada. They consist of two main islands: Graham Island to the north and Moresby Island in the south, along with approximately 150 smaller islands. The archipelago is separated from the British Columbia mainland to the east by Hecate Strait. Vancouver Island lies to the south, across Queen Charlotte Sound, while Alaska is to the north, across Dixon Entrance. Some of the islands are protected as Gwaii Haanas National Park Reserve and Haida Heritage Site. Anthony Island and the town of SGang Gwaay were made a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2006.
On April 29, 2010, the British Columbia government adopted the Haida Gwaii Reconciliation Act, which has officially renamed the islands Haida Gwaii, as part of a reconciliation protocol between the province and the Haida people. The Haida first nation community makes up 45% of the population of the islands.
Gwaii Haanas National Park Reserve and Haida Heritage Site often referred to simply as Gwaii Haanas and is located in the southernmost part of the archipelago and was the destination for our kayak expedition. We also had a few days to drive north to see some of the small communities on the northern half of the islands including Skidegate, Tiell, Port Clements, and Masset.
Kayaking Gwaii Haanas
Our journey began with a bone jarring skiff ride to Rose harbor on the southern end of the archipelago. Despite heavy seas and foul weather our local charter operator Moresby Explorers Ltd had the equipment and knowledge to deliver us and our kayaks safely to the start of our adventure. Below is a map showing our kayak route that took us 20 days and 172 miles to complete. Maps are courtesy of Parks Canada
After waiting a day in camp for the weather to calm our first objective was the historic Haida village of SGang Gwaay on Anthony Island. The island is several miles out and exposed to the open Pacific Ocean and even though the storm had passed we faced seas of 3 to 5 feet and 10 to 15 mile an hour winds to reach the Watchman station on the north end of the island. We were taken on a two hour walking tour of the village site to see the still standing totem poles and beams from the long houses. Our guide was warm and friendly and provided an in-depth understanding of the rich history and fascinating culture of their village and way of life. We cannot thank the Watchman staff enough for their hospitality and generosity during our visit!
Our next paddling challenge was getting around Point Benjamin and Goodwin both facing into the fierce winds and currents of Hecate Strait, though we waited for the best conditions, seas ranged from 4 to 6 feet and often stacked up in chaotic cresting waves at the points. I was too busy paddling for my life to take any photos at that time but here is a photo of Brenda as she finally makes it around Deluge Point and into the calmer waters of Skincuttle Inlet.
At last in the protected waters of the inlet we could relax and enjoy the myriad of bird and marine life, many of them new to us such as the Cassin’s Auklet and Rhinoceros Auklet with its distinctive bill. Many of the smaller islands in the bay host rookeries for thousands of sea birds.
Over the next several days we traveled on through the Dolamite Narrows, Island Bay and surfed a following sea down Juan Perez Sound to our next destination Hot Springs Island for a welcome soak. This hot springs is truly a paradise in the wilderness allowing us a hot shower and a relaxing hot tub to soothe away the aches and pains of our journey with a magnificent view of the islands and Juan Perez Sound. Interestingly two species of bats also are fond of the springs as well, Little Brown Bat and Keen’s Long Eared Bat, that live in rock crevasses near the springs to keep warm and raise their young.
In some ways kayaking Haida Gwaii is similar to SE Alaska, the eagles and the whales are the same, however the diversity of life has had much longer to develop in Haida Gwaii than in Alaska making it truly a unique destination. Haida Gwaii has often been called the Galapagos of North America as it holds incredible biodiversity with some spices found nowhere else. This becomes very apparent with a walk through the forest behind camp, huge trees and lush understory kept us looking in our plant ID book to see if we could figure out what was what.
Black Bears live on the islands and this unique sub-species (Ursus americanus carlottae) is one of the largest in North America with larger with larger jaws and teeth, an adaptation that is believed to have evolved from chewing on hard-shelled invertebrates in the intertidal zone.
The Black Tail Deer is an introduced species and due to few predators has become so widespread that some people we talked to seemed concerned that they were disrupting the native ecosystem by over browsing, we often would see a dozen in a day and they are not very shy either, however most people’s attitude seemed to be “just more meat on the table aye?”.
The sea under our hull was also full of critters we had not previously encountered; it made us wish we had brought mask, snorkel and fins!
Another neighbor come to say hello, don’t let the raccoons (also introduced) get you.
Often we would paddle early in the morning to avoid the stronger winds that came in the afternoon.
We had a few rainy days but for the most part the weather gods smiled on us.
By the time we reached Moresby Camp where our car was parked both of us were ready for a hot meal and a shower, and since we were in a couple of days early it would give us time to take in a bit more of the local culture and hike a couple of nearby trails.
The Haida Heritage Center had a wealth of fascinating objects and exhibits
Also a nice collection of large dugout canoes
How is this for a trailhead sign?!!
Of course we would love to stay longer, there was so much more to see and do such as Naikoon Provincial Park at the north end of the islands, but alas it was time to jump on the ferry and go home. By the way the BC ferries are pretty nice!
Local artist Maryanne Wettlaufer
I saw two of her paintings hanging at the Rising Tide Bakery and fell in love with their color, energy and movement. Her paintings seem to capture the spirit and beauty of the islands very well, “in my opinion”. See what you think, you can check out her work at http://maryannewettlaufer.com/
3201 Third Avenue, Queen Charlotte, BC. Phone: (250) 559-8420
The gallery has works for sale by local island artists with an interesting mix of modern works and traditional Haida art, the outside has a unique collection of owner Jack Greenwood’s beach combings, very cool. We spoke with Jack awhile and found him to be a fascinating gentleman who cares deeply about the environment of the islands and its conservation. He also recommended the book The Golden Spruce “everyone should read that book and pass it on to someone else” he said. Like us he is very concerned with the rise in corporate power and greed that is a threat to all life on this planet. Keep spreading the word Jack!
Haida Monumental Art: Villages of the Queen Charlotte Islands by George F. MacDonald
Initially published as a limited edition hardcover and finally available in paperback, it includes a large number of remarkable photographs, selected from a collection of over 10,000 original prints and photographic plates. They depict the Haida villages at the height of their glory. MacDonald explains how the houses and poles are part of a fascinating web of myth, family history, and Haida cosmology and thus provides a unique insight into Haida culture.
The Village of Tanu
The Golden Spruce: A True Story of Myth, Madness, and Greed by John Vaillant
From Publishers Weekly: The felling of a celebrated giant golden spruce tree in British Columbia's Queen Charlotte Islands takes on a potent symbolism in this probing study of an unprecedented act of eco-vandalism. First-time author Vaillant, who originally wrote about the death of the spruce for the New Yorker, profiles the culprit, an ex-logger turned messianic environmentalist who toppled the famous tree—the only one of its kind—to protest the destruction of British Columbia's old-growth forest, then soon vanished mysteriously
“Masters in all branches of art must first be masters of living, for the soul creates everything” -Bruce Lee