The Emily Carr exhibit at the Art Gallery of Ontario and Charles Wilkinson’s film, “Haida Gwaii: On the Edge of the World,” shown at Hot Docs in Toronto last week, reminded me of our absolutely breathtaking trip to Haida Gwaii a few years ago. The name is magical. And so is the place.
The Haida are a proud people with a rich cultural heritage. Theirs is a mystical world across the water at the western edge of the continent, where old-growth forests, thick green moss, rich sea life, and totems sinking into the earth evoke ghosts from the past. No wonder Bill Reid and Emily Carr and so many others have returned to the islands, and returned again, and stayed. The Haida have been there forever. Others, quirky Islanders and environmentalists, came from elsewhere, fell under the spell, and never left.
In the past, they all stood up to logging companies clear-cutting old-growth forests. The result was the Haida Heritage Reserve designated in 1985, and the national park initially set aside in 1988 and formally named Gwaii Haanas in 1993. Together, they are a protected remote wilderness of Moresby Island and over 137 other islands accessible only by boat or chartered aircraft. Now the people of Haida Gwaii are fighting the proposed Enbridge pipeline and the oil tankers that would threaten their fish-based environment and the pristine beauty of their coastline.
Haida Gwaii is made up of two principal islands, Graham Island to the north and Moresby Island to the south, and an archipelago of over 400 other islands. Visitors can fly from Vancouver or Prince Rupert to Masset or take the six-hour B.C. Ferry trip from Prince Rupert to Skidegate Landing. Most of the 5000 inhabitants of Haida Gwaii live on Graham Island, where there are only 141 kilometres of paved roads from Queen Charlotte City at the south to Tow Hill in the north.
As small as it is, Graham Island has lots to see and do. Old Massett is the home of many native artisans and carvers and has an extensive totem pole collection. Naikoon Provincial Park offers excellent camping, hiking, and beach life. Skidegate, the site of the Haida Heritage Centre, is a community of over 1,000 living above the waterfront where Bill Reid’s pole towers over the longhouse. Skidegate Days, held every July, bring locals and visitors together for barbecued salmon, fry bread and pies, games, music, dancing, and the Totem to Totem Marathon. The Village of Queen Charlotte City, the administrative centre and home to 1,045 people, is ten minutes to the west. A short ferry trip crosses the channel to Alliford Bay on Moresby Island. There are only 22 kms of paved road between the ferry terminal and Sandspit, now the jumping off spot to Gwaii Haanas.
To go to Gwaii Haanas, we joined a three-night, four-day zodiac trip run by Moresby Explorers, which we would highly recommend. Others kayak in the park, or tour around the islands on revamped fishing boats or up-scale yachts. We had never travelled by zodiac before and were somewhat apprehensive. The hardest part is climbing over the sides into the zodiac wearing waterproof coveralls and a long slicker. The seats were surprisingly comfortable and we were much warmer than we had expected as we zipped over the water.
Our guide was superb. She showed us the rich sea life on the rocks and under the water, abandoned villages hidden in the forest, and stands of huge old-growth trees that blended into the greenery. We visited the Haida heritage sites where Haida Gwaii Watchmen live and guide visitors during the summer months: Skedans where Emily Carr painted, Tanu where Bill Reid’s ashes were strewn, Windy Bay where the Haida and environmentalists stopped the clear-cutting on Lyell Island, Hot Springs Island with its glorious hot pools (since diverted by an earthquake, two years ago), and the World Heritage site of SGang Gwaay (Ninstints) where the iconic totems still stand facing the sea.
The cooperative relationship between the Haida and the government is reflected in the compromise they reached over sustaining these totems. The Haida believe that totem poles should eventually return to the ground. For that reason, many of those seen by Emily Carr at Skedans and Tanu have long since fallen and faded into the moss. Those at Ninstints, however, are held up by unobtrusive steel rods, the better to protect them at the site. For how long, no one knows.
Our trip with Moresby Explorers included two overnights at their floating lodge moored in a bay just outside the park. Our third night was at Rose Harbour on Kunghit Island, at the south end of the park. A former whaling station, it is now a back-country “inn” operated by two Haida Gwaiians from somewhere else (Germany and New York City). She is the cook who serves exquisite meals of seafood and fresh vegetables and herbs from her well-tended garden. He maintains the somewhat primitive sleeping quarters and chops the wood for the fire which heats the shower water. It’s an enchanting spot.
The final scene of Wilkinson’s film shows all the Haida Gwaii community (not just the Haida) raising a very tall Legacy Totem at Windy Bay last year. The first time they have raised such a totem in 100 years, it was a great festival and a joyous celebration. The totem faces Hecate Strait, where the Enbridge oil tankers are projected to pass. You think they will? I’m betting on the people of Haida Gwaii. They have protected their land before, and will do it again. More power to them, and us.