Heavily forested islands, fog-shrouded mountains, lush vegetation and lots of rain – that’s how I pictured the Queen Charlotte Islands (Haida Gwaii) before my visit. Once there, this picture turned into reality and grew into a colorful, living canvas with everything I had imagined and more – minus the rain. For the most part of our 8-day kayak trip in Gwaii Hanaas National Park, we experienced the "misty islands" under bright sunshine.

Day 1     By Zodiac, we and our kayaks are transported south into Gwaii Haanas National Park. We speed over the water, past numerous wooded islands. Then we arrive at the starting point of our kayak trip: the island of Tanu (T’aanu), where once a village of up to 40 longhouses and a forest of totempoles dominated the beach. At the turn of the century white settlers arrived, and with them the small pox, to which most of the Haida succumbed. The few survivors escaped north to the towns of Skidegate and Masset. Today, only indentations in the ground, moss-covered roof beams and posts remain, but one can still sense the spirit of the place. A path, lined with seashells, leads to the simple grave of renowned Haida artist Bill Reid.

The Zodiac has left. Stillness. We stow our gear and launch the boats. As we paddle to Kunga Island across from us, the sea is calm at first, but then the southwest wind picks up. Whitecaps start forming. In the lee of some rocks we eye our goal, Lyell Island, separated from us by a passage of wind-churned water. Shall we go for it? "It shouldn’t take more than half an hour," Jake yells behind me, and with the motto "now or never" we steer our kayak into the waves. Cold spray hits my face and neck, and my hands tense around the shaft of the paddle. We concentrate on a landmark on Lyell and start paddling towards it. Once we are near the coast, the worst is over. We round the northern tip and paddle to Windy Bay (Hlk’yah), an inlet on Lyell’s East Coast, that once also had a Haida village. As we pass through the entrance, wind and waves are suddenly switched off. Calm water, dark forest, a creek and a sandy beach beckon us to land here. In the shadow of firs, spruce and cedars stands a replica of a Haida longhouse and a cabin for the Haida watchman, who lives here in the summer. Today, however, nobody is at home, and we settle into the longhouse. I am glad to get out of my soaked clothes, but with my cramped fingers I can barely open the zipper on my life-jacket.

Battleground of Conservationists

During the 1980s, Lyell Island became the staging ground for battles between conservationists and logging magnates. After year-long demonstrations and arrests that created a stir internationally, logging in the southern part of Haida Gwaii was stopped. Today, Gwaii Haanas National Park covers the southern part of Moresby Island and hundreds of smaller islands.

Tree Giants

Day 2     We explore the interior of the island. Soft light filters through the dense branches onto the moss-covered ground. And then we stand in front of a giant: a tall Sitka-spruce with a diameter of over 20 m. My neck hurts as I try to view this giant in its entirety. We lie down on the moss and engage in a quiet dialogue with this wonder of nature. As we continue our walk, we encounter more tree giants, among them cedars that bear scars on their bark and burn marks – signs of activities of former Haida craftsmen.

The cedar was revered by the Haida, because its wood, bark, roots and needles supplied them with everything they needed to make a living: from the wood they built houses, canoes and tools, and from the bark and the roots, household-, hunting- and fishing utensils. And finally, the cedar supplied the material for ceremonial and artistic articles: totempoles, mortuary boxes, carvings and masks.

"Oh, the cedar tree!
If mankind in his infancy had prayed for the perfect substance for all materials and aesthetic needs,
An indulgent god could have provided nothing better."
(Bill Reid)

In the late afternoon we sit in our kayaks at the entrance of Windy Bay and bounce our fish hooks, on which we have tied jigs, on the bottom up and down. The reward: several lingcod. For dinner we enjoy a delicious fish stew and are entertained by the squabbling of a bald eagle and a crow.

Island Paradise

Day 3     We leave in the morning with the incoming tide. A strong northerly pushes us southwards, along the East Coast of Lyell Island. To our left is the notorious Hecate Straight, which separates the archipelago from the mainland. Small whitecaps appear on the wave crests and we are running before the wind, reach the entrance to Juan Perez Sound and fight our way through to the leeward side of Hotsprings Island (Gandle K’in). It’s low tide now and we just manage to land our boats on a tiny strip of pebbled beach. Among heather and small pine trees we follow a pebbled path until we come upon the feature that has given the island its name: blue-green, rock-fringed pools, filled with hot water. Here too is a Haida Watchman’s hut, but nobody is home. In the bath house we clean ourselves with hot water and then submerge ourselves up to the neck in the pools. The smell of the pines and the buzzing of insects have a relaxing effect. In front of us we have a spectacular view across the sea and towards the snow-covered San Cristobal Range of Moresby Island. We have found paradise.

But camping in paradise is not permitted anymore, so we have to pack up and continue paddling. In the late afternoon we land on the western tip of Ramsay Island, erect our tents on moss-covered ground under the trees, and cook mussels in a pot over a campfire.

Idyllic Islands

Day 4     Brilliant sunshine once again. How can this be? We had been warned about the rainy weather. We launch the kayaks in a light breeze and paddle westwards to a group of islands called the Bishoffs. As we get closer, a magical world opens up: crystal clear water, swaying kelp forests, and a group of seals, which follows us floating playfully through the passage between the islands. The outgoing tide forces us to a quick decision about a camping spot. We pitch the tents on a narrow piece of land, which is almost pinched off by two adjacent bays. Everywhere around us is life: rocks covered with mussels, tide pools filled with sea urchins, colorful starfish colonies, and the cute oystercatchers, who, with their stick-legs, mince around on the washed over rocks. With the incoming tide we paddle out of our bay once more and round the islands. In the increasing wind we try our luck at fishing on the leeward side and return to camp with four fish.

Day 5     Birdsong wakes me at 5 a.m. The sky is overcast and the wind stirs the water on the south side of our islet. Jake says it’s too windy to paddle, so I snuggle back into my sleeping bag. At 8:30 a.m. the wind has dropped, but now it is low tide and the water in our bay has drained out. So we breakfast leisurely and wait for the tide.

Mysterious Inlets

A light swell rocks our boats as we round the southern tip of Lyell Island and cross Juan Perez Sound. In strong winds and waves a crossing such as this would be too risky because on the open water one would be exposed to the elements. In the afternoon we steer our boats into a small bay on the East Coast of Moresby Island, set up camp and take a lunch break. Afterwards, we get back into our kayaks and explore Kostan Inlet, the next bay north from our campsite. Soon we are surrounded by steep, wooded slopes, which gleam with red, orange and purple starfish colonies below the waterline. A flock of honking Canada geese passes by. Seals frolic in the dark-green water. The bay narrows. The darkness of the forest and the water lends a mysterious atmosphere to the surroundings. Then a rainsquall hits and envelops everything in a gray veil. While we get out our raincoats, it is already over.

On the way back to our campsite we try our luck at fishing once more. We return to camp with three fish and a pot full of big mussels. A benign evening sun tempts me to have a quick wash in the creek. How soft the water of the creek feels! At dinnertime comes a disappointment: when we open the big mussels, we discover little crabs inside them. The taste, too, leaves a great deal to be desired. Disgusted, we throw them to the seals and seagulls.

Day 6     Another clear morning. At 10 a.m. we’re on our way. To reach the southern tip of Shuttle Island, we have to pass the entrance of Bigsby Inlet, from where strong wind gusts sweep down from the hillsides. The paddling gets more strenuous. Then the sky darkens, and as we land on a small beach at the southern tip of Shuttle Island, light rain begins to fall. We seek cover under a cedar tree. Soon, the sky is clearing again and we enjoy great views across Juan Perez Sound. We spend the afternoon with beach combing, reading, and snoozing, and set off with the incoming tide. Through Hoya Passage we continue north, first, hugging the coast of Shuttle Island, where, once again, we admire the numerous starfish colonies. Then we cross Hoya Passage and follow the coast of Moresby Island. In the evening we enter a narrowing inlet, until it ends in a meadow with a creek, surrounded by steep forested hillsides. Here, at Echo Harbor, it appears as if we’re camped on an alpine meadow, because the narrow inlet bars any views towards the sea. Only the tides remind us that we are near the coast.

In the Footsteps of the Prospectors

Day 7     In the early morning the sky is clear; then it starts to cloud over. With the incoming tide we leave this protected harbor. Our next destination is Anna Inlet, another fjord-like bay, where from 1907 to 1928 prospectors staked claims and fisheries built canneries. Soon we come upon a trace from those days: a boardwalk, which leads in switchbacks upwards in the forest. Curious, we follow it, but there are many times when we have to make our own way through the brush because this "road of the goldseekers" disintegrates more and more. An hour later, we reach the shore of Anna Lake, a dark-green mountain lake. It feels great to stick the feet into freshwater. After this side trip we paddle a short distance further north and camp at the end of a tiny bay that offers views of Klunkwoi Sound and Richardson Island. This is our last night in Gwaii Haanas National Park, and we enjoy the evening stillness one more time. During our trip we encountered not a single soul; only occasionally did we glimpse a fishing boat in the distance.

Last Day     In the morning, our tents are covered in heavy dew, and the grass is frosted over. But a campfire warms us, and when we paddle into Klunkwoi Sound, the rays of the morning sun hit us. Now we have only a few more hours to paddle. We have to reach the next bay, Crescent Inlet, where the outfitter has a floating boathouse. We had been instructed to arrive there at 11 a.m. and to wait for the Zodiac. This last day couldn’t have been more beautiful: The snow-covered peaks on Moresby Island stand out against a deep blue sky, and the sea is glittering. 

Shortly before 11 a.m. we arrive at the boathouse, hoist the boats out of the water and empty them. Then we pack our gear into our dufflebags and packs, lay down on the warm dock and wait for the Zodiac. Hours pass. We wish we could continue paddling instead of hanging out here. Bored, we investigate the hut and find several books, most of them about the culture and history of Haida Gwaii. A photo of Tanu, taken around the turn of the century, illustrates what the village once used to look like.

Finally, at 5:30 a.m. the Zodiac arrives, and after an hour of busy loading, we are ready to depart. As we ride the whitecaps in Hecate Straight under the roar of the outboard engine, and as the wind chills us to the bone, I am sad and disappointed that the farewell from Haida Gwaii has been so abrupt.

 

Haida Gwaii – "Islands of the People"**

On the west coast of British Columbia, 75 nautical miles from the mainland, lies the archipelago, which consists of over 160 islands. Here one can experience the wild beauty of the Pacific Northwest: sheltered fjord-like inlets, heavily-forested mountains, rich fishing grounds and clear salmon-spawning streams, hidden lakes, and the silent remains of abandoned ancient Haida villages.

For over 10,000 years the Haida have been living here, their existence once dependent on the bounty of the sea and that of the temperate rain forest. Their close connection with their environment is reflected in their legends and their societal structure: the population is divided into the raven- and the eagle clan. Today, Haida artists are famous for their intricate carvings of argillite and their imposing totempoles.

*The name Gwaii Haanas means "Place of Wonders"

**(In 1787, the British captain George Dixon named the islands Queen Charlotte, after his ship and the consort of his king. Today, the indigenous name of the archipelago has been widely accepted.)

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Text and Photos: © Karin Herrero, Canada, 2000

 

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