I have been back in Canada since July enjoying the summer here with family and friends. The highlight of my time here so far was a trip to Haida Gwaii, an archipelago 80km west of northern British Columbia and 65km south of Alaska. Formerly named the Queen Charlotte Islands by the British, the name was changed in 2010. My sister Florinda and I flew from Toronto to Vancouver where we switched to a small plane to fly to Sandspit on Moresby Island. I have taken many flights in my lifetime, often to remote places, but I had never been on one where the fight attendant called for more people to move to the back of the plane before we took off, to balance the weight better!
Haida Gwaii is the historic territory of the Haida people who have inhabited the islands since around the 12 cenury BC. It consists of more than 150 islands, the largest being Graham and Moresby. The southern part of Moresby and the islands off it have been designated a provincial park called Gwaii Haanas and the only way to visit this part is by boat.
Needless to say, one can’t do this on one’s own so we went on a 4-day tour starting from Sandspit, organized by Moresby Explorer’s Group.
There were 10 of us in the group including my niece Charmaine from Vancouver, her husband Neil and their young daughters, Alexa and Yvonne. We travelled by Zodiac operated by our guide Brian who had a wealth of information on the history, geography and biology of the islands. Although we had beautiful weather, Haida Gwai can be very wet and cold and the weather can change in minutes so it’s best to be prepared. Before setting off, we had to don bulky waterproof dungarees, jackets, rubber boots and life vests. We soon learned to go to the bathroom (read outhouse in the wild) before donning all this.
Zodiacs can travel at speed and we whizzed along seeing spectacular scenery. The archipelago is thought to have broken off from the edge of the continent that was originally a cliff and you see coastal rain forests clinging to mountain slopes and plunging almost vertically into the sea. It is also thought that parts of the islands were left untouched by ice sheets during the ice age so there are species of flora and fauna not seen anywhere else. From the boat, we saw whales mostly orcas, and also a humpback which came so close to the boat that we could see it’s teeth when it opened it’s mouth. I was so stunned, I couldn’t gather my wits to take a picture.
We saw seals, sea lions, puffins sitting on rocks, giant jelly fish in the water, eagles above from time to time, and occasionally deer on the banks.
Walking into the coastal rainforest is an awesome experience. The ground is covered with spongy moss and spectacular trees of Sitka spruce, western hemlock and red cedar tower above growing up to 300 feet. The trunks of some are so massive that all 10 of us together could not surround many of the trees. Below the trees are shrubs, ferns, waterfalls, streams and bogs. It is dark, the air is cool and it can feel a bit spooky, I was glad to be with a group.
We spent two nights on a floating lodge where every single item has to be brought in by boat and dirty laundry and garbage taken back to Sandspit. Despite this, the food was superb including freshly baked home made breads each day. We dined very well with delicious breakfasts, snacks and packed lunches during the day, and delicious dinners in the evenings.
We were very lucky that the water was calm close to the lodge while we were there and we even did a little kayaking. Thanks to Charmaine, Alexa and Yvonne for persuading me to go with them after breakfast as the others sat on the deck drinking coffee and watching us, which was tempting.
The Haida culture was almost destroyed with the advent of otter hunting and logging by people from the mainland. The Haida population was also decimated by diseases such as smallpox brought in inadvertently, or otherwise, by outsiders seeking to cash in on the natural resources of the islands. The traditional way of life had almost disappeared, suppressed by mainland Canada wishing to impose its own cultural identity on the Haida people.
It is only more recently that the people are trying to revive their language and arts. Abandoned villages, often formerly looted of their carvings have been declared UNESCO heritage sites and have a Haida person (watchmen) on site to take visitors around and explain the Haida way of life. One of the major cultural characteristics is the presence of poles carved from giant cedar tree trunks in the villages. There are memorial poles, mortuary poles, inside house poles and frontal poles outside the house. The carvings are representations of human, animal and supernatural figures and each pole tells the story associated with a person or the family lineage. The mortuary poles are formed from trees placed with the base on top such that the base is hollowed out and a bentwood mortuary box holding the remains of the dead person can be inserted into the top. The pole is allowed to decay with time and the idea is that it will eventually fall and the person’s remains will return to the earth. We saw a number of poles in a village called SGang Gwaay on Anthony Island south of Moresby regarded as a sacred site as people died and were buried here during a smallpox epidemic. The sad part was that they will not last as tradition demands that they be left to disintegrate with time. I felt privileged to have had the opportunity to see them as there will be nothing left to see in a few more years.
Brian would never tell us in advance where we were going as the weather can change in an instant and decisions have to be made accordingly. We spent one night in a cabin at Rose Harbour on Kunghit Island, one of the southernmost islands. On the way back up, he wasn’t sure whether or not the springs at Hotspring Island were open but it was a lovely morning and he decided to take us there anyway. Luckily, they were open and we just wallowed in the springs going from pool to pool all at different temperatures. I could have stayed there for hours but we had to get back on the boat.
Charmaine and family have a camper van. After our trip to Moresby, we set off in camper van and took the ferry to Graham Island where there are a few roads and we were able to drive around. We stayed in a cabin near the beach at Rose Spit which is only about 65km from Alaska.
There, the more intrepid among us, led by Charmaine, went crab catching in the ocean (I stayed on the beach!). We cooked our own food, bought fish from local fishermen and dined very well. We visited Masset, Port Clements, Queen Charlotte and Skidegate.
The main town, Masset has a relatively new museum showcasing Haida culture. Sadly, many spectacular Haida carvings are not in Haida Gwaii but have been carried off to museums all over the world. However, there are still carvers alive who are trying to pass on the tradition to younger people. It is encouraging to see a revival of Haida culture. There are only 24 people left who speak the language fluently and there is a drive to get these people to teach it to the younger generation as well as to pass on the legends, stories and songs, all of which belong to an oral tradition. Haida is now being taught in schools. Last week, I saw a Haida movie at the Toronto International Film Festival called ‘The Edge of the Knife’ which was in the Haida language with English subtitles. It was heartening to see that cultures of the First Nations are finding their voice.