May 25, 2018
Travel: Nature in the wild
Haida Gwaii is a magical place where First Nations legends come to life amid pristine wilderness
Story and Photos by Lucy Hyslop
It starts with the screech of “ki-ki-ki-ki” from a four-year-old at ground level and ends unexpectedly with a perfect echo from the verdant canopy above.
Our hiking group is bouncing over a carpet of moss, beside old-growth cedar and hemlock, and past the handsome 42-foot totem legacy pole that’s recently been raised on Hlk’yah GawGa (Windy Bay) on Haida Gwaii’s Lyell Island. But all attention is on our nimble leader, Little Raven, a daughter of one of the Haida Gwaii Watchmen who guard these magical shores, and her uncanny chat with the bald eagles.
Communing with nature is already at the heart of this northern B.C. archipelago. Seeing it through a child’s eyes, however? Priceless for us nine adults from B.C., Ontario, Oregon and New South Wales, whose excitement levels have just ratcheted up a notch on a two-day trip with local guides, Moresby Explorers.
Scything through the ocean around the Gwaii Haanas National Park Reserve by Zodiac boat, we are joined by humpback whales—including a mother and baby feeding in the shallows, their spouts synchronized as they breach.
Even if it’s a nippy 10-degree day, the next moment we’re giddily stripping off our waterproof layers to our swimwear and dipping into the warm thermal water pools on Gandll K’in (Hotspring Island). And talk about exclusive: Only 12 people at a time are allowed on the island, where the hot springs just reopened last summer after the heat vents dried up during a local earthquake in 2012. We’re surrounded by stony, driftwood-strewn beaches and swaths of expansive, albeit damp, trees. (You’d be hard-pressed, it has to be said, to spark a forest fire in Haida Gwaii.) The world’s most luxurious spas have nothing on this natural vista across Juan Perez Sound.
Then, barely at sunrise, we jump into kayaks to paddle through the low-lying mist across the still waters to see a black bear. He’s putting on an hour-long show, giving us the chance to forensically observe—and indeed, hear the crunch—of him cracking open shelled ocean life along the tideline before being swallowed himself by the mountain’s dense foliage.
It’s only when we’re touring around the ancient Haida heritage sites that our chatty group turns a little quieter. Knowledgeable Watchmen and Moresby Explorers’ guide Jesse lead us around T’aanuu llnagaay (Tanu) and K’uuna Llnagaay (Skedans), following the routes outlined by abalone-shell markers.
Everything from the decaying, moss-covered foundations of the nation’s houses and house posts to the slanting mortuary and legacy poles, with their ghostly images of sea-grizzly-bears and killer whales, radiates the vibrancy and glory of thousands of years of past village life.
It all brings to life Emily Carr’s century-old paintings at these isolated sites, including our launch point of Cumshewa Inlet and her memory of “a great lonesomeness.” On a quiet spot overlooking the ocean on Tanu, our group also makes a silent pilgrimage past a few deer to renowned Haida carver Bill Reid’s grave.
On Moresby Island, we overnight in a floating lodge that certainly takes the rough out of roughing it. With private bedrooms, spacious sitting room, freshly cooked three-course feast and well, most importantly for us city dwellers, flushing toilets, the upscale cabin’s a welcoming and notably toasty way to round off a day on the water.
Leaving the remote southern island, we take a short ferry ride to the north’s more populated Graham Island. Haida Gwaii’s sensory overload continues on the hour-and-a-half drive up Highway 16—still with barely a car on it—beside the ocean and Naikoon Provincial Park to the coastal towns of Masset and Old Massett.
Must-visit spots include the award-winning Haida Heritage Centre near Skidegate, where carvers are busy in the giant hangar-like workshop that houses the Bill Reid pole, and the giant immovable boulder known as Balance Rock sitting boldly out in the middle of a beach.
A journey through nature still fuelled, of course, by one question: Just who would Little Raven be chatting with?
If you go
Here’s what you need to know to be in awe of Haida Gwaii.
Fly from Vancouver to Masset by Pacific Coastal Airlines (pacificcoastal.com) or by Air Canada to Sandspit on Moresby Island (aircanada.com).
Alternatively, you can drive to Prince Rupert and catch a ferry to Skidegate. bcferries.com
Rental cars can be in high demand, so book as early as you can. National Car Rental is based in Masset (www.nationalcar.ca) and Thrifty (thrifty.com) and Budget (budget.ca) in Sandspit.
Acclaimed writer Susan Musgrave’s whimsical B&B in Masset, Copper Beech Guest House, offers comfortable rooms.
Moresby Explorers’ Zodiac or kayak tours include accommodation for overnight trips. moresbyexplorers.com
Enjoy gorgeous fresh fish and salads at Sherri’s Gas Bar and Grill in Old Massett. facebook.com/sherris-gas-bar-grill
For fabulously authentic dishes, seek out Haida chef Roberta Olson’s Keenawaii’s Kitchen in Skidegate. lovehaidagwaii.com/businesses/keenawaiis-kitchen
Explore the Haida Heritage Centre near Skidegate. haidaheritagecentre.com
For more information visit: gohaidagwaii.ca, lovehaidagwaii.com and pc.gc.ca/en/pn-np/bc/gwaiihaanas/active.