Haida Gwaii and Gwaii Haanas

The beauty of Haida Gwaii, formally known as Queen Charlotte Island (now Canada is starting to have 2 names for everything like India) is evident in every leaf, shell, coral, stranded kelp, animal, vegetable and person. It is a magical place that is made even more magical by the history and the difficulty in getting close to that history. The Hecate Strait is known as one of the worst waters to cross. More on that as the story unfolds.

My first day on the Island was truly fun filled. Renting a bike from my sweet, albeit frazzled hostel owner. This hostel is great, by the way. The Premier Hostel. The hostel is a little house in the backyard with a full kitchen, 1 full bathroom, one 1/2 bath, 2 rooms with bunk beds and 1 room with a double bed. The funny thing Lorna (the owner) doesn’t like people to be in the same room unless they know each other. So I got the double room, while the guys bunked. Then when I returned she gave me a room in the hotel for the same price, because otherwise I would have to bunk with a strange. Oh tragedy! We tried to explain the hostel concept to her and she seemed shocked. Anyway, I got a private room so I was happy.

Getting back to my day. I rode the 10 km from Queen Charlotte to Skidegate and beyond to check out Balance Rock and do some beach combing. Never having lived by the ocean I was shocked by all the creatures, corals, crabs, birds, vegetation that grows around. Not to mention the vastness of the ocean itself. I have through out my journeys stared up at snow capped mountains and even climbed a few marvelling (as well as groaning at times) at the grandness of them and the insignificance of myself. However, nothing compares to seeing mountains and the ocean side by side to truly pound that point home.

Next was the Heritage centre just opened in Skidegate. A must see. They offer informative tours on canoes, weaving and poles. If you only have time for one do the poles for sure. You will learn so much and have a good base for your tour to Gwaii Haanas. There are also artist tours and if you are lucky a cruise in a traditional canoe or a dance performance. I was unlucky. So I headed to Spirit Lake to trek around and check out the new Look-out trail. It was a great up, up, up trail, with logs and ropes and great rewarding views. Needing a drink on my ride back from the run I stopped at Jags Beanstalk Cafe to find out that Jags and his daughter were the ones that built the new look out trail. If you have time and are really nice he may invite you to a private trial he built on his property with swings and ladders.

I soon realized that there was so much more to see in Haida Gwaii and that I would have to make a return visit to the northern part of the island, at some point. Add it to the list!

After much deliberation I decided to splurge and take a 4 day boat and camping trip around Gwaii Haanas and the heritage sites, including SGang Gwaay Unesco site. With the added bonus of my own kayak they through on the top so I could paddle through the inlets.

I did find time to do a little paddle through Burnaby Narrows and get close to 5 dolphins playing around. It was wonderful. This only was possible because the Hecate Strait decided to show us who was boss.

Waves were 2 meters plus and the winds were 25-30 knots making it impossible to get to SGang Gwaay, the Unesco heritage site. Our captain, a cool dreadlocked dude named Glen made a valiant attempt. Knocking the small but sturdy aluminum boat against the waves. Turning around twice to attack the waves and wind again until we got knocked heavily three times in a row. I watched his face. It looked more and more grave with each knock the Spruce Cove took. Until Glen’s face dropped completely as we crashed down. I began counting down from 10. I knew…9, 8…he would call it a day…7, 6, 5…”Lexy!” Glen yelled to our guide and his partner. ..4,3…”We are moving to plan B.”…2,1. I was relieved.

The next 2 days we hit all the other heritage sites on different islands. Meeting the watchman, that look after the islands and heritage sites during the summer, and getting our Gwaii Haanas passports stamps. So cool!!! Camping on the islands with blacked tailed deer grazing on the salty beach. Beach combing and taking walks in the forests, and spending an afternoon at the hottest hot springs ever. I had to jump in the freezing cold ocean to cool off before entering the 108F hot springs. David the hot springs watchman even gave us some yummy butter clams to eat with our chowder that night. Delicious!

The last night we had the luxury of sleeping in the longhouse. A traditional Haida home. Which was built during the protests. The day we arrived was the day of the watchmen change over, so no one was on the island yet. Lexy gave us a tour, pointing out all the vegetation, Gloria the 260 year old huge sitka spruce, picking huckleberries etc…

When the watchman did arrive they informed us they had never been on the island before. Seeing at Lexy was busy I took them on a tour of their island. Yup the so unnative Torontonian. Off we went me, three Haida lady watchmen and 5 kayakers that had just arrived. I did good. I pointed out the false azalea, Gloria, huckleberries, grandfather beard, and where the bark was peeled for weaving. When we got back Lexy wanted a report on how I did. Elaine one of the watchmen told her everything I said and stamped my passport with a special stamp and inscription. So sweet. Lexy smiled and said “You did good grasshopper.” And that is how the new species named Windy Bay Grasshopper was born.

It was a beautiful place to camp and the gorgeous full, orange moon casted an amazing glow over the water.

The next morning being our last day and final attempt for SGang Gwaay we were up early and walked a long way to the boat due to the extremely low tide. A phenomenon a was mesmerized by often during this trip.

The weather was good to us, and we made it. Seeing the rows of mortuary poles we shocking. I had no idea there would be so many. After hearing that all the totem poles were taken to UBC, I didn’t expect much. But walking through the trail towards them you could feel a sense of mystery. Then seeing the row of poles leaning at 45 degree angles with west side being so weather worn was breathtaking. Behind these you could see the remnants of homes. In front the no longer set foot on Shaman Island. Truly a beautiful place with such an amazing history, surrounded by people that are proud to share. I am so happy I came.

It was enlightening to see the forests, the oceans and the poles. The poles continuing to nurture other trees as they grow around and through them.

On this Island I often stood and stared in complete awe of nature and its ability to exist and persist in a quiet resolve to survive. If we as humans could only be so quiet in our movements throughout the world and in our interactions with each other and nature.

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