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Exploring British Columbia’s Haida Gwaii

Travelling into the land of totems.

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Exploring British Columbia's Haida GwaiiPhoto: Andrew Querner

We lean into our strokes, our kayaks carving across the bay and onto the flanks of Reef Island. We navigate through rocks and kelp beds, which brush and thump under the hull. There are eagles wheeling overhead, seals eyeing us from the moss-covered shore. We paddle until our arms ache, until we arrive in another tiny bay, a perfect microcosm of this amazing place, the rocks slick with seaweed and clinging starfish. We can hear the wind sifting through the forest, the ocean lapping at the wat­er’s edge, mimicking our own heartbeats. The Haida-the native tribe to whom the region is home-say that everything is connected to everything else. It’s possible to get a glimpse of that idea, even as a visitor, resting in the swell right where the land meets the water, the shoreline gesturing to an infinity above and below.

This morning, bobbing in our kayaks, we are just beginning this journey through one of the last truly ancient lands: the Gwaii Haanas, located in the south end of the Haida Gwaii archipelago in British Columbia. Its name means “islands of beauty” in the Haida tongue. The MV Atlas, our trusty 13-metre mother ship, is loaded with kayaks and fishing gear, comfortable berths and a restaurant-grade pantry. In it, the four of us and our skipper, James Nickerson, can cover distances that would have once taken weeks for the Haida in canoes. But we also stop and explore-by kayak, by foot, by Zodiac-encountering the land and the sea as it might have once been experienced by these people daily in their most hallowed places.

The Haida have been watching and guarding this place for more than 12,500 years, archaeologists tell us. Nowadays, these 5,000 square kilometres of land and sea are officially known as the Gwaii Haanas National Park Reserve, the National Marine Conservation Area Reserve and the Haida Heritage Site. They are protected, thanks to a Haida-led anti-logging protest at Windy Bay on Lyell Island in 1985. The Government of Canada and the Haida Nation signed a co-operative management agreement in 1993 and have been working together since to ensure the protection of village sites like Tanu and Skedans, and the UNESCO World Heritage Site at the Haida village of SGang Gwaay, where the largest collection of standing Haida poles on Earth may be found.

Over 1,000 visitors a year can now be welcomed and hosted here, but only because of the Haida’s inextinguishable loyalty to these inlets and narrows, to these forested hillsides and rocky cliffs.

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We spend days exploring. On our second afternoon, we eat lunch aboard the boat and then churn southward down Shuttle Passage. We jig for rockfish off De la Beche Island.

At the end of the next day, we pull up prawn pots outside Skaat Harbour, which Nickerson cooks in spectacular style with chilies and garlic. We eat while sipping Pinot Grigio. Nickerson tells stories of his childhood in these parts, of walking the stream with his father, counting salmon. The MV Atlas is a cocoon of light suspended on the black sea, tucked into the foldsof a sleeping island.

The following morning, we set out on foot from the beach up the valley toward Yatza Mountain. It’s a good, tough day hike that more than repays the effort. At 719 metres high, the summit offers a view of the west side of Moresby Island, out over Upper Victoria Lake, Wells Cove and the long roll of the Pacific Ocean beyond. We cross through marshes and by gnarly cedars, then into the fringe of hemlock around the mountain’s base. We turn up the rocky ridgeline, the valley spreading out below us, clubmoss and deer fern underfoot, threading our way through toxic hellebore and the tiny open jaws of carnivorous sundew plants shimmering in the light. We climb over the first shoulders and second shoulders. The slope steepens, and we need handholds to hoist ourselves to the next level.

The trees grow dense again beneath the summit, as if to protect it. We have to pull our way up, navigating around trunks and ascending through the long grass, evidence of bears everywhere- clawed-out pits on the mossy parts of the slope, where a feast of grubs has been eaten. We reach the bald cap of the mountain in the mist, but Upper Victoria Lake and the ocean beyond can still faintly be seen. When Nickerson produces a Thermos of hot chocolate and pours out cups, we sit on the moss and let the steam envelop our faces, smiling with that summit feeling, knowing all of Gwaii Haanas is spread out around us. Everything connected to everything else.

We continue southward and reach “the end of the world” on our fifth day, the tendril tip of Haida Gwaii, where we hike through soft grass and thorny salmonberry to Cape St. James. There, we climb the wind tower, step by step on the metal ladder into a salty breeze, until we’re standing, swaying on the platform, and we can see the Haida world dropping into Hecate Strait, corrugated waves rolling into the horizon, where they lace themselves into seams of cloud. Back in the boat, we troll for coho up the west coast of Moresby, then head to a place that is a real local secret: a white-sand beach tucked into a cove at the north end of Gilbert Bay near the ancient village site of Saaw. We grill a salmon pinched between a lattice of cedar that hangs beside the fire, potatoes and onions in foil nestling near the coals. We eat in the sand under the steady gaze of the patiently waiting crows.

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The sky is powder blue when we reach SGang Gwaay on our sixth day. The sun cuts through the canopy in dusty shafts as we walk in from the stony beach, rounding giant trees, under hanging branches, smelling the earth, the scent of skunk cabbage, fir and fern. Three hundred Haida lived here at the village’s peak, a warlike and powerful people, the stories go. Although only the welcoming Watchmen remain, to act as guides and guardians, that history seems incredibly close as we walk the long rows of poles and house sites. Our Watchman, James Williams-who, in a typically local twist, went to high school with our skipper-reads the poles: the grizzly with twin human faces above his claws; the Wasco sea wolf leering over the sea. Some poles lean precariously, almost lost to decay. Others remain standing, defying time and gravity. The Haida barely intervene to help them. But the feeling of witnessing them return to the soil is bittersweet. “Who are we to change something established so long before us?” Williams explains. Sensing our attention on him, Williams twirls a strand of grass in his fingers, then gestures toward a sunken moss-filled pit of a longhouse, the corner poles sprouting through with a new tree. He asks, “You know where the Haida slept, right?”

We all wait for the answer.

“In Haida beds!”

The closing smile is one to remember, and perhaps that optimism comes from the fact that more poles will rise in the future. In the summer of 2013, the first pole went up in Gwaii Haanas in over 130 years. Carved by young artists in Skidegate, it stands now on the very spot that brought Gwaii Haanas back to life: Windy Bay on Lyell Island.

We see the site from the air, flying back to the village of Queen Charlotte by float plane. Heading north, the pilot dips the wing and circles the summit of Yatza. He traces the grooves of Burnaby Strait, where we’d spotted starfish earlier on. Then he heads out around the eastern point of Lyell Island and over Windy Bay. Here, the ridge forests are cut by a long, dramatic line, where logging was halted after those Haida protests 30 years ago. In the clear-cuts, there’s a deepening green, stands of spruce, fir and pine surging upward, the recent past fading as a deeper past seems to flourish again.

© 2014 By Timothy Taylor, enRoute (April 2014).