Soaring over Gwaii Haanas, the pilot points out coastal temperate rainforests, sea lions, humpback whales and an invisible fault line in the Pacific Ocean that he calls “the true edge of North America” like he has seen them all a million times but is still awed.
The sea is too stormy for Peter Grundmann to land the six-seat de Havilland DHC-2 Beaver — Canada’s iconic bush plane — to get in a Zodiac and explore historic Haida village sites with a Haida Watchman. And it’s choppy enough in the air that another seaplane is heading home because people are throwing up and feeling queasy.
Not us. We’re buckled in tight and loving the turbulent Plan B flightseeing trip over this wild place that’s quietly known as the “Galapagos of the North,” even if not everyone loves the nickname or the growing attention that comes with it.
But I desperately want to set foot on Gwaii Haanas, and the Inland Air Charters pilot is allowed one landing per trip, so when we spot a calm bay on the Pacific side, Grundmann swoops down and floats our plane to shore for a quick visit.
“This is crazy awesome,” enthuses Haida Watchman David Dixon as we scramble along a rocky shore in Gowgaia Bay, stopping to pick up a battered plastic wrapper that’s surely debris from the 2011 Japanese earthquake and tsunami debris. “This is my first time being here and I’ve been doing this for years, so we are very lucky.”
Dixon, wearing a traditional Haida cedar hat that took him months to weave, was born here but works for an Indigenous catering company in Vancouver most of the year. When he first applied to be a Watchman, “there were bets on how, how long I would last — two weeks, two months — before going back to the city.”
He loves it.
Traditionally, Haida Watchmen were posted at strategic spots around a village to raise the alarm if enemies approached. Now the Haida Gwaii Watchmen Program post guardians at five historic village sites on Gwaii Haanas from May to September, welcoming visitors while protecting the natural and cultural heritage. The Council of the Haida Nation works closely with Parks Canada, which issues permits to allow only 12 people to be at each village site at a time on “the islands of beauty.”
The full name of this federally protected spot is Gwaii Haanas National Park Reserve, National Marine Conservation Area Reserve, and Haida Heritage Site. If that’s hard to wrap your mind around, then so is the entire archipelago of Haida Gwaii.
One of Canada’s hottest emerging destinations, Haida Gwaii was renamed in 2010 from the Queen Charlotte Islands. It lingers in Canadian minds as the place where the Haida won a showdown against loggers over Lyell Island (now part of Gwaii Haanas) in the mid-1980s.
If the Isle of Arran is “Scotland in miniature,” then Haida Gwaii in Northern British Columbia should be considered “Canada in miniature” or, better yet, a perfect version of this country.
With a population not quite reaching 5,000 and two main islands (Graham Island in the north and Moresby Island in the south, which includes Gwaii Haanas, plus about 150 smaller islands), this is a culturally and biologically rich place.
Rugged, primal, wild, spirited, fierce, mythic, and magical are the words most used for Haida Gwaii. Canadian artist Emily Carr came here twice for inspiration. There is storm watching, sea kayaking and surfing, totem poles and longhouses, mountains, rainforest and old-growth forest, seafood, seabirds and land animals, loggers, artists, environmentalists and hippies, plus an Edge of the World Music Festival to play on the edge-of-the-world appeal.
“Bucket-list material for folks looking to connect with the planet,” Sarah Musgrave wrote in EnRoute magazine. Make that “connect with the planet while disconnecting with the modern world” since it’s a shock to face minimal cell service and painfully slow Wi-Fi.
There are tsunami warning signs along the roads, though, urging people to go to higher ground or inland in case of an earthquake like the one in 2012 that was Canada’s second largest. Haida Gwaii is our most earthquake-prone area and experts predict another large quake and tsunami are coming. Islanders have no choice but to be self-sufficient.
From the airport, I head straight into the woods to the Tow Hill/Blow Hole hike with Haida House guide Phred Collins, a builder, bird expert, “biologist-geologist of sorts and a lover of falcons.”
Like all non-Haida people, he takes extreme care with his language, saying things like “this is Haida land and I’m a settler here. Canada says this is Canada. The Haida say this is Haida Gwaii.” Collins talks with great passion about Haida Gwaii and warns “it’s very difficult to absorb it all,” and “we’re dealing with a different paradigm here,” in a place where people “are willing to stand up for the land, the landscape.”
We marvel at Western red cedar, Sitka spruce, Western hemlock, red alder and moss-covered trees that provide homes for rare birds. We try salal berries. Collins details the “seasonal species matrix” that makes this Canada’s Galapagos. He warns that we must write about the realities of this place and “ensure we don’t turn Haida Gwaii into Disneyland.”
Like all islands, the fact that Haida Gwaii is so far from the mainland (an eight-hour ferry ride from Prince Rupert) lets distinct sub species thrive.
Collins shows me my first banana slug, a thumb-sized creature I learn later from Parks Canada’s Cohen Isberg “are kind of the unknown hero of our forest floor.” Banana slugs eat dead leaves and plant material, turn them into rich soil, and create nurse logs (fallen trees that decay and support other plants and creatures).
“Banana slugs are part of the reason we have such beautiful forests,” says Isberg on the Spirit Lake Trail’s moss-carpeted forest and admiring “cultural plant enclosures” and “culturally modified trees” used by the Haida for things like canoes, totem poles and medicine.
The learning is non-stop.
“This is the wild West Coast. It’s pretty temperamental,” says Shawn Cowpar, co-owner of Haida Style Expeditions, on a boat cruise where I hear about the rhythm and dangers of the ocean tides and watch a feisty young bear travel the shoreline.
At Haida chef Roberta Olson’s home-based Keenawaii’s Kitchen, I have a family-style local feast with venison, berries, salmon and seaweed. I can’t get enough k’aaw — herring roe that spawns on kelp and is fried in butter.
My last day is spent walking the Golden Spruce Trail, driving logging roads and exploring the forest and coastline with Dale Lore, a former logger and former local mayor turned tour guide and medicine/food forager with 10,000 hours spent walking the Haida Gwaii forest.
“I was pretty friggin’ redneck. It was pretty embarrassing,” admits Lore, who repeatedly stresses that his tours explain history not culture and the goal is “to have you appreciate what these people are and achieved and did.”
It’s an important distinction for a non-Haida to make, especially when Lore leads me into the woods where a huge Haida canoe being carved out of a cedar tree lies moss-covered and abandoned, likely due to a smallpox epidemic. “I can walk into 22 of these canoes,” boasts Lore. “Another 10 to 15 haven’t been found. The logging companies got rid of the rest.”
Lore unpacks all kinds of hard-earned wisdom, which he calls “my truth, my whole truth and nothing but my whole truth.” The best, which is true here and everywhere, is this one: “The more you learn, the stupider you feel.”
To visit Haida Gwaii, he figures, you need at least 10 days to even begin to understand it. “An amazing number of people around the world want to get here,” says Lore. I’m one of them, but only have five days so can’t even pretend to understand it, only to love it and want to know it better.
Jennifer Bain was hosted by Destination British Columbia and the Northern B.C. Tourism Association, which didn’t review or approve this story.
When you go:
Get there: I flew Air Canada to Vancouver and took Pacific Coastal Airlines the next morning from the Vancouver International Airport (YVR) South Terminal to Masset on Haida Gwaii.
Get around: Some lodges offer all-inclusive packages, but otherwise a car rental gives the most freedom. Book well in advance as vehicles are limited.
Stay: I stayed at luxury ecolodge Haida House at Tllaal (haidahouse.com) where the meals are fantastic and the beach is minutes away. It specializes in all-inclusive Haida culture and adventure packages. I stayed at the Fairmont Vancouver Airport (fairmont.com) on either end of my trip. It’s inside YVR and my soundproofed room overlooked planes at their gates and came with a plane spotting guide.
Eat: The Haida House at Tllaal Dining Room is open to the public for meals. I also had a family-style meal at Haida chef Roberta Olson’s Keenawaii’s Kitchen (find it on Facebook, reservation only, February to September) in Skidegate. Jags Beanstalk (jagsbeanstalk.com) in Skidegate has a bistro and espresso bar as well as guest rooms.
Do this trip:
- Parks Canada (pc.gc.ca) oversees permits and trips to Gwaii Haanas National Park Reserve, National Marine Conservation Area Reserve, and Haida Heritage Site, which can be reached by sea or air.
- Inland Air Charters (inlandair.bc.ca) does flightseeing tours.
- Haida Style Expeditions (haidastyle.com) does boat tours for storytelling and fishing.