Haida Gwaii

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The best of Canada's Pacific Northwest.

For most American cruisers, the Pacific Northwest stops at the U.S. border and the San Juan Islands, but the scenery and cruising only get better the farther you go up the British Columbia coast.

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Among the very best of Canada’s Pacific Northwest destinations is the Haida Gwaii archipelago, at the nation’s farthest point both north and west. Once known as the Queen Charlotte Islands, they are closer to Alaska than the Canadian mainland and are packed with countless protected anchorages, mountain wilderness, spectacular wildlife and a unique native culture.

On many levels, there’s no place on Earth like it. Biologists call these islands the “Galapagos of the North” because parts escaped glaciation during the last ice age, allowing many plants and animals to evolve in ways found nowhere else. Haida Gwaii’s black bears are the largest of the species; its damp, verdant, temperate rainforests are known as the “moss capital of the world”; and just one corner of its incredibly rich waters has more marine biodiversity than anywhere else on the planet.

Gwaii Haanas National Park Reserve covers the southern tip of Haida Gwaii, as well as the ocean 6 miles offshore, making it the only national park in the world protected “from mountain top to sea bottom.” The wilderness park can be reached only by boat or seaplane — there are no roads, airports or docks — and it boasts a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Gwaii Haanas and its surrounding islands are so remote, beautiful and unspoiled that National Geographic Traveler magazine ranked it No. 1 among Western Pacific U.S./Canada national parks as a travel destination, topping far more famous — and crowded — U.S. vacation spots such as Grand Canyon, Crater Lake and Volcanoes national parks.

Haida Gwaii is also the most seismically active place in Canada; it sits on a fault line of the Pacific Rim. The two strongest earthquakes in Canada occurred here, most recently a 7.7-magnitude quake in 2012.

The indigenous Haida settlements date back more than 10,000 years and are among the oldest in North America. Known for their dramatic art and complex social structure (divided into Eagle and Raven clans), the Haida have staged a political revival in recent years and are a First Nation to be reckoned with again: The national park was created only because they waged a shrewd campaign of civil disobedience in the 1980s to stop clear-cut logging of their ancestral lands and cultural heritage there. The outcome was a unique compact that made the Haida and the Canadian federal government fully equal partners — neither with majority rule — in running the park.

To mark the 20th anniversary of that landmark compromise, the Haida and Parks Canada in 2013 raised a 42-foot-tall ceremonial pole at the site of protests that led to the national park, the first Haida pole- raising in that area in more than 130 years. Behind the symbolism, and the joint potlatch, or feast, that followed, is an extraordinary reconciliation between tribal nation and federal government.

Wild waters

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In area, Haida Gwaii — “island of the people,” in the Haida language — is a bit larger than Delaware. Its main islands are Graham, in the north, where most of the 5,000 or so inhabitants live, and Moresby, in the south, which includes the national park.

Eco-tourism by boat has been growing since the park was created. Birding is among the best on the West Coast — 1.5 million nest on Haida Gwaii. Bald eagles abound, and on my recent trip we also saw such exotics as tufted puffins, sandhill cranes and rhinoceros auklets, among others. Humpback whales visited our boat almost daily, and we also met pods of orcas, Steller sea lions and Dall’s porpoise — favorite prey of the orcas — sharks and mola mola, which are huge ocean sunfish.

Fishing here is world-class, as Haida Gwaii sits on the migratory path of chinook, coho and chum salmon. Groundfish (halibut, lingcod and rockfish) and shellfish (crabs and prawn) are also abundant. Of course, there are fishing guides and lodges.

Haida Gwaii is a boater’s paradise in many ways. Its southeastern side has lots of small islands, wonderfully secluded coves and sheltered coastline, but both the mountainous land and turbulent waters are serious and unforgiving. There are good reasons only experienced cruisers with well-equipped boats should come on their own; others should join a crewed tour.

The tidal range is extreme — as much as 26 feet between high and low — and currents can run 6 or 7 knots in the Houston-Stewart Channel, the main link between the Pacific side of Haida Gwaii to the west and Hecate Strait to the east. Tides are mixed semidiurnal, bringing two highs and two lows each day, and each high and low differs from the one before. Rain and fog are common even in the “dry” month of August, so visibility can be limited at any time. The few navigation aids that exist out here are small, dim and not easily seen.

Using the GPS requires skill with Canadian charts. Depending on your location and how close in or out the plotter is scaled, depths will be displayed variously in fathoms and feet, meters or just feet. Unless you know what to look for, there’s no warning that the units of measurement shown on the screen may have changed. That’s because the source paper charts by the Canadian Hydrographic Service that the electronic ones are scanned from vary in their units of measurement, and differently scaled charts of the same area often use different units of depth.

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For instance, the most useful paper chart of Gwaii Haanas (No. 3853, Cape St. James to Cumshewa Inlet) displays depths in both fathoms and feet for depths less than 11 fathoms: “43” means 4 fathoms plus 3 feet, or a total depth of 27 feet, reduced to the lowest normal tide. A “12” indicates 12 fathoms, or 72 feet. However, if you scale in closely on the GPS, the digital cartography will switch to a different large-scale source chart (showing a small area) that could use either meters or feet.

Haida Gwaii is a submerged mountain range, so water tends to be deep here, but recognizing what the numbers are telling you is essential to staying off the sharp volcanic rock. “With complex underwater topography, tides that ebb or flood more than 3 vertical feet an hour and the potential for rapid weather changes, it’s critical that mariners here always know their precise positions and stay up to date on the latest weather forecasts and conditions,” says Russell Markel, owner and captain of Passing Cloud, a classic 70-foot wooden schooner, who has run weeklong eco-expeditions to Haida Gwaii for more than 10 years.

A frequent threat close to shore is floating olive-green kelp fronds — the only visible sign of often huge underwater kelp forests — that easily foul the prop.

Prevailing summer winds are from the northwest, although in my week of sailing it came from every corner of the compass except due east, so even the “protected” eastern side of Haida Gwaii can get hammered. The western side is exposed to the Pacific and should be visited only in calm weather. Conditions there can change fast, especially when strong tides oppose ocean swells and winds. Cape St. James, the very southern tip of Haida Gwaii, has measured 98-foot waves and 100-mph winds in winter. One Canadian Fisheries and Oceans report warns that the sea west of Haida Gwaii has one of the “most severe offshore wave climates in the world.”

Getting around

Passing Cloud's owner Russell Markel offers expedition cruises and educational programs.

Because of the difficulty of reaching Gwaii Haanas National Park, the remote wilderness, and park licensing and visitor restrictions, most people come on crewed liveaboard tour boats (both power and sail) or on sea kayak camping expeditions. A park permit is needed, groups are limited to no more than a dozen at the Haida village sites, and an orientation session is required before you go ashore.

During my recent trip, it took two days and four airplanes from the East Coast to reach Markel’s boat in Haida Gwaii, the final leg being a delightful flight on a classic six-passenger de Havilland Beaver floatplane. Ten of us spent a week exploring the islands aboard the schooner Passing Cloud. Active, small-group wilderness excursions such as this tend to be self-selecting, so our crew meshed well.

Markel bills his expeditions as a “soft adventure” because they include physical activity — scrambling along rugged shores and hiking through thick woods, serious sailing and swimming in the Pacific — leavened with comfort: private two-person cabins, down duvets, a warm cast-iron stove in the main saloon, all meals prepared from scratch by a professional chef, and good wine.

Markel is a marine biologist and brings along a Ph.D. biologist, archaeologist or anthropologist to help identify the sea and bird life and interpret the cultural heritage while he runs the boat. Their deep knowledge of wildlife, traditional tribal practices and friendships with local Haida will open your eyes to a stunning world of strange creatures and amazing history. It is a fun, immersive and sometimes emotional experience, especially when visiting local Haida.

Of course, an adventure such as this is not inexpensive: A week’s journey runs about $4,000 a person, including food, floatplane and park fees but not airfare, which is typically $1,200 or more round-trip from the East Coast. Each passenger is limited to 40 pounds of luggage — so the floatplane can take off — so bring practical clothes you can live in for a while. Fresh water is limited, so don’t expect a daily shower. And a level of fitness is essential; you must be able to climb in and out of the dinghy, bushwhack through rough woods and hills, and scramble about the boat.

What you’ll see

Markel tailors his tours to the weather, so there is no set itinerary. But key attractions are never missed.

• SGang Gwaay (formerly known as Ninstints), once a major Haida village on Anthony Island at the far southwestern corner of Haida Gwaii, is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Remains of old long houses and a unique stand of original Haida mortuary and memorial poles provide a window into the rich culture that once flourished here.

• Tanu also was once a major Haida village on the eastern shore, its long house ruins now moss-covered and returning to the earth. This is the ancestral village and burial place of world-renown contemporary Haida artist Bill Reid.

• Burnaby Narrows, on the east side of Moresby Island, is a shallow tidal waterway (about a half-mile long and 160 feet wide) that has an extremely rich nutrient content and supports the highest known levels of biomass — 293 species — of any intertidal zone in the world. Among the examples Markel brought to the surface to show us: multicolored bat stars, several types of crabs, sea cucumbers, moon snails and squirming, bristling sea urchins. My favorite was the bizarre sunflower star — the world’s biggest (more than 3 feet wide) and fastest (4 feet per minute) starfish.

• Windy Bay, on Lyell Island, is a former village and the site of the 1985 Haida protests. More than 70 Haida blockaded logging equipment and were arrested, sparking a worldwide movement to save the forest and causing the federal and provincial governments to create Gwaii Haanas National Park Reserve. These events were commemorated in August 2013 with the raising of the Gwaii Haanas Legacy Pole, carved in the classic Haida style with 17 characters representing the life, legends and history of the islands.

Legacy Pole’s tragic legacy

Part of what makes the Haida culture unique is that it has survived. The tribe was nearly exterminated twice — first by disease and later by the federal government. In the mid-1800s, the Haida population began to collapse from European diseases such as smallpox. Of the 10,000-plus Haida alive at first contact, fewer than 600 were left by 1900. Survivors consolidated in northern Graham Island, mostly in the present-day villages of Skidegate and Masset.

In the late 1800s a national “assimilation policy” forcibly took 150,000 native children across Canada, including Haida, from their families to be raised in boarding schools subject to white culture, language and religion. As a government investigation would later document, the children’s “education” included rampant physical and sexual abuse, starvation and death.

After the scandal broke, the Canadian government closed the schools, paid $2 billion in reparations — the largest class-action payout in Canadian history — and launched a national reconciliation effort to rebuild the shattered native cultures. But for the Haida, it was the logging protests near Windy Bay that marked the end of their “silent years” and the rediscovery of their legendary fighting spirit.

Unlike other tribes, the Haida never signed any treaty with the Canadian government ceding control of their homeland. Neither side could prove legal ownership of the islands, so the two sides “agreed to disagree about ‘title’ to Haida Gwaii,” says Peter Lantin, president of the Council of the Haida Nation. They settled on a unique power-sharing arrangement to jointly protect the park, which is why Gwaii Haanas is called a park “reserve.” Full national park status awaits settlement of land claims.

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Today, the Haida are actively working to rebuild their culture, revive their native language, and regain possession of artifacts and human remains taken decades ago. A rediscovery program for young Haida teaches tribal history, legends, art and wilderness skills, including how to handle their ancestral canoes. They even started a cultural exchange with the tribe most like their own: the Maori of New Zealand, also a matrilineal, island-based society with a similar history of seafaring, warfare and art.

The Haida consider themselves children of the ocean, land and sky, and one of their core beliefs is to live in balance with nature. Since a Canadian Supreme Court decision gave the tribe control of logging licenses on Haida Gwaii, timbering has been sharply reduced and environmental protections added.

A key reason Haida Gwaii is such a beautiful place today — and is likely to remain so — is because the Haida have a say in its future once again. “Our way of life was our religion,” says Sean Young, a Haida Watchman at the Ninstints UNESCO site on Anthony Island. “Live off the land. Live off the ocean. Take only what you need.”

See rleated articles:

- Passing Cloud - Cousin of Bluenose

- The Haida Canoe and the Vikings of the Pacific Northwest

March 2015 issue