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The magical islands of Haida Gwaii

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ever have I been to a place where the whole population is so mindful about taking only what they need from the planet, and the people’s connection to the land and sea is so evident through their art, mythology and way of life. Beautiful Haida Gwaii, meaning ‘Islands of the People’, is an archipelago of approximately 150 islands off the west coast of British Columbia. With only two paved roads, one conveniently passing through all the main towns on Graham Island, and one through Sandspit on Moresby Island, these islands are remote, and travel to Gwaii Haanas (‘Islands of Beauty’) National Park Reserve and Haida Heritage Site is by air or sea only. Perhaps the best way to see Gwaii Haanas is by multi-day boat trip of at least a week, but if your time or budget does not stretch that far, it is possible to do a day trip and spend your remaining time exploring the many beaches, hiking trails and cultural sites accessible by road.

Given how isolated the islands are, the unpredictable weather (expect rain, high winds and big waves) and a (very welcome, in my opinion!) lack of resort-style kid amenities, this may not be the first place you think of for your family holiday, but I urge you to reconsider. We have just spent an adventurous week on Haida Gwaii, where Theo was in his element. We flew from Vancouver to Sandspit and then hired a car to enable us to explore the islands as far the paved and logging roads would allow. There are many options for accommodation; we decided to stay near Tlell, just inside the boundaries of Naikoon Provincial Park, in a self-catered guesthouse. This option is perfect for families as we were able to cook our own meals and had more than enough space for the three of us.

Theo is at an age where hikes of up to 15km/10miles are manageable and enjoyable for us all. He’ll happily walk a fair amount of this, but we use a sling or back carrier when he wants a break. This also maintains our sanity after we’ve chased him heading back the way we’ve just come along a trail/down a hill/to the edge of cliff for the umpteenth time! We did several beautiful hikes on Graham Island, including Spirit Lakes, a loop trail that can be done with a member of Gwaii Haanas staff as a guide, and Tow Hill, a 122m/400’ hill formed from lava eruptions approximately 2 million years ago. The trail at Tow Hill is well-signed for both the summit and the surge channel known as the ‘Blow Hole’, it offers beautiful views over North Beach and the lava rock beach directly below, and a number of plaques provide written information about the significance of the area to the Haida. North Beach was the location of Theo’s first driving lesson. On a wet, misty day, the beach was deserted so we allowed him to sit behind the wheel of our Jeep (on Alex’s lap). ‘Brum brumming’ is his favourite activity of late but this, of course, had previously been restricted to when the engine is off. “Left, left, left!”…”No, not that far left, right!” we laughed/yelled as the ocean and then rocks alternated into our line of sight. I think it’s fair to say that he might need a bit more practice at directions and steering control before we let him loose anywhere other than miles of tightly packed sand, shared only with a few eagles and a small shipwreck!

The smells, sights and sounds of the rainforest are best when unfiltered by human presence.

Tow Hill
North Beach shipwreck

Our favourite hikes were those off trail. The smells, sights and sounds of the rainforest are best when unfiltered by human presence. One afternoon, we were exploring the logging roads by car, looking for a trail to stop at, when we came to a dead end of what can only be described as a ‘tree graveyard’. We felt saddened to see the immense cedar trees reduced to huge piles of debris, and understood the Haida’s long battle against the occurrence of logging on their islands. We scrambled over the wreckage towards a river, in the hope that this would lead to Yakoun Lake. The river took us through the forest, moss covered trees once again towering above us, to a bay on the lake. We navigated a river crossing by walking along fallen trees and jumping across rocks, and worked our way to a spot where we could see the full expanse of water and the mountains surrounding it. We found a canoe and paddle tied to tree and hoped that the owners wouldn’t mind if we borrowed it. Sadly, we weren’t on the lake long before the rickety boat started filling with water, so we made a swift return. Thankfully we had enough time to enjoy the colours of the approaching evening from the water before turning our attention back to our return walk and keeping an eye (and ear!) out for bears!

Wildlife is in abundance and we were privileged to have close encounters (thankfully from the car, not on foot!) with at least half a dozen black bears during our time on the islands. Hiada Gwaii black bears are the largest subspecies of the American black bear, and have evolved to have larger jaws, molars and skulls than their mainland cousins, thanks to their crunchier diet of crustaceans and molluscs as well as salmon, berries and plants. We also had frequent sightings of bald eagles, ravens and other birds of prey. Sitka black-tailed deer were introduced to the islands in the late 19th century and can now be seen around every bend. They are largely responsible for the lack of ground-level vegetation and wild flowers in the forests, so are now under management in an attempt to restore balance to the natural ecosystem.

Evidence suggests that the Haida have lived on the islands since the end of the last ice age. Prior to European contact, the considerable Haida population was spread over dozens of villages. Outbreaks of smallpox and tuberculosis following the arrival of Europeans reduced the population to approximately 6-700, all of whom congregated in two villages that still exist today and are home to the majority of the remaining Haida: Skidegate and Old Masset. The Haida Heritage Centre in Skidegate houses artefacts and artwork, and is well worth a visit. There are six totem poles located at the centre, and you are welcomed into the carving house where artists work on others as well as canoes. During our visit, Jim Hart, Haida chief and master carver, and his team were working on a 30’ pole for the new hospital in Queen Charlotte, which aims to welcome all its patients, visitors and staff. When completed, it will feature an eagle and a raven, representing the two clans of the Haida, a nurse, and a watchman. Totem poles traditionally tell a story or illustrate a family crest, and are raised outside homes in order to identify who lives there, at significant locations, or for particular celebrations. They typically depict a mixture of animals and mythical creatures. We were lucky to meet several highly regarded artists during our stay, including Jim Hart and Ben Davidson, who were happy to explain the stories and inspiration behind their work. Take the time to stop in the many art galleries and studios to appreciate the unique Haida style and learn more about their culture, but don’t expect to be taking any artwork home with you unless your budget stretches VERY far. The Heritage Centre is also committed to preserving the Haida language, which is unlike any other in the world, Haida traditions, such as the potlatch, a gift-giving feast and opportunity to discuss important community business and celebrate social occasions, and is the location of many cultural celebrations.

The carving house at The Haida Heritage Centre

 

 

Magical Haida Gwaii is where the fairies of your childhood stories live.

 

Gwaii Haanas is a ‘must’. Jointly run by Parks Canada and the Council of the Haida Nation, it is the only park in the world that offers protection from ‘mountaintop to seafloor’. Unless you have your own boat, kayak or seaplane, you will have to approach one of the tour operators to organise your trip. The zodiac boat trips can be choppy, windy and wet and can take a number of hours, depending where in the park you want to visit, so may not be the best option for younger travellers. For this reason, we opted for a seaplane, which we shared with 3 others, thus bringing the cost down (it actually worked out cheaper than a boat!). Theo sat up front with the pilot and loved it! Gwaii Haanas contains approximately 500 identified Haida heritage sites and is abundant in flora and fauna. There are no established trails, but you are free to walk within the park as long as you remain respectful of the cultural significance of the area, as well as the delicate ecosystem. The most popular sites to visit are popular for good reason and, with a limit of 12 people at a site at any one time, everyone is able to experience the wilderness of Gwaii Haanas without feeling crowded by other tourists. The totem poles and longhouses in Nang Sdins Llnagaay (Ninstins) on SGang Gwaay (Anthony Island) are a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The remains of other villages can also be seen at K’uuna Llnagaay (Skedans), T’aanuu Llnagaay (Tanu), Gandll K’in Gwaay.yaay (Hotspring Island) and Hlk’yah GawGa (Windy Bay). Windy Bay celebrates old with new and is the location of the 13 meter legacy pole raised in 2013 to celebrate the 20 years of joint management of Gwaii Haanas. Theo had a wonderful time splashing in the hotsprings on Hotspring Island, while Alex and I enjoyed a relaxing soak with a beautiful view of the surrounding islands.

The purple and blue mist enveloping the hills, the carpet of moss that creeps up the trees, the tales of mythical creatures and the life of the forest; magical Haida Gwaii is where the fairies of your childhood stories live.

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