GETAWAY: Haida Gwaii

As the big Zodiac inflatable slowed on its approach to the beach, the silvery-gray carved poles stood out in solemn contrast to the deep green forest backdrop. Salt air and high winds have scoured them, wiping away all traces of colour that once gave life to their fearsome grizzly bears and killer whales. From the boat, the foreshore of Skedans looked abandoned and ghostly ““ a place only remembered by lingering spirits.

Skedans is an abandoned Haida village at the head of the Cumshewa Inlet on Haida Gwaii ““ also known as the Queen Charlotte Islands ““ a hundred kilometres off the northwest coast of mainland British Columbia. It is also now part of the Gwaii Haanas National Park Reserve that protects the delicate ecology of the southern portion of this archipelago comprised of nearly 150 islands. The village is also a national historic site.

I'd come to the islands because they've fascinated me ever since I first read about them in elementary school and a family attachment to the Royal Canadian Navy destroyer, the H.M.C.S. Haida.

Once we climbed over the shingle beach strewn with improbably big driftwood logs, we were presented with a scene that rang a bell deep in my memory. I had seen it somewhere before. Then I remembered an Emily Carr painting ““ part of a set of Canadian art prints that adorned my 1960s elementary school classroom.

After a steamboat journey remarkably unchanged by the passage of time, the fussy little woman arrived on this beach a little over a century ago in her quest to make a name for herself. These same poles were standing more erect when she visited – including a pole with a new sapling sprouting from it's base, the painting of which became part of her portfolio of work from the village. That sapling is now the stump of a fully-grown tree.

The poles ““ these are commemorative, mortuary and clan poles, not “totem” poles ““ are slowly returning to the earth. It's part of the Haida philosophy to let nature take its course. The site at Skedans will eventually revert to a state of nature with only a few depressions in the ground marking the location of the village's pit houses.

Culturally important sites, like Skedans, are protected by Haida Watchmen under an agreement between the Haida Council of Elders, the provincial Ministry of the Environment and the federal government. The Watchmen live on-site guiding visitors, watching out for fires and making sure artifacts remain in place. 

Walter Russ was the Watchmen at Skedans when I visited. He and his wife live in a solar-powered cabin for months at a time. He is stocky and you can tell he's spent a lifetime working in the mountain forests. Walter also has a historical connection to Skedans.  His grandfather was Emily Carr's guide when she visited the region.

“My grandfather took her around to the different villages and helped her carrying her painting stuff”¦ She was nice enough, but he thought she was kind of a bossy old lady.”

Carr came north from her home in Victoria in 1912 to document the rapidly disappearing West Coast aboriginal culture. At the time, the Queen Charlottes were a fishing and logging centre. Few travellers without business interests made their way here because of their remote location.

Rather than just acting as a documentary painter, Carr brought a new way of interpreting what she saw. Which, in itself put her work at risk. Museum curators believed that any documentation should be strictly representational, but Carr would have none of that. She had studied in Paris and London and her paintings imbued the poles and village scenes with a life that helped to bring First Nations' art to the attention of the world beyond the islands.

There are two big islands in the group ““ Graham and Moresby Islands. Moresby Island is the major island contained within Gwaii Haanas preserve and lightly populated while Graham is the archipelago's economic centre and home to most of the 5,000 people who live on Haida Gwaii.

You can get to Haida Gwaii in your own car by taking the regularly scheduled BC Ferry from Prince Rupert to Skidegate, which I did.

For travellers not wanting to make the seven-hour ferry trip from Prince Rupert on the mainland, regularly scheduled flights land at Sandspit (weather permitting), but the major towns ““ Queen Charlotte, Skidegate and Masset ““ are across the Skidegate Channel.

A number of companies offer eco tours throughout the park, but one of the best ways to explore the islands and coves is aboard the schooner Passing Cloud. The ship, designed by the same architect who designed the Bluenose, takes a limited number of passengers for a week-long excursions in Gwaii Haanas.

Most accommodations and restaurants on Graham Island are located in Queen Charlotte, but there are also a number of B&Bs and resorts at Port Clements, Skidegate and Masset. In Queen Charlotte City they encircle the harbour and are of that quaint pre-chain vintage.

At Masset I stayed in April White's Eagles Feast House ““ a combination B&B and art gallery featuring her work. April specializes in traditional Haida themes rendered in a number of different mediums.

April's Haida name is Killer Whale Woman. Despite the ferocious association, my hostess was gentle and self-effacing. She was also a fount of knowledge about Haida culture and we spent several mornings talking about art, the matrilineal organization of the nation's society and what the future might hold.

Along with being charmed by her, I was tickled with her website that announces Eagles Feast B&B is “”¦open by chance or appointment.”

One morning she told me about the Golden Spruce, a golden-colored Sitka spruce that figures in Haida lore and became the focus of the international media and a best-selling book in the 1990s.

The tree's colour was a mutation that singled it out in a grove of old growth trees. In 1997 an unemployed forester, Grant Hadwin, cut it down in a misguided statement against industrial-level logging on the islands. He confessed to the crime in a rambling fax then disappeared on his way to trial.

Throughout the grove where the Golden Spruce once grew I found trees where Haida artisans had cut away strips of cedar bark to use for weaving mats and clothing. The remains of the Golden Spruce's top end are still in place, but native carvers have harvested the lower parts of it.

You won't get any better west coast seafood than in Queen Charlotte City. It comes right off the fishing boat and through the kitchen doors. I had a marvelous broiled halibut steak with a half bottle of Okanagan chardonnay at the Sea Raven Hotel's Ocean View Restaurant. My table overlooked the harbour giving me a splendid view of the harbour as the setting sun painted the fishing boats, piers and float planes gold.

Salmon was the big draw of the ocean. The Pacific and Hecate Strait teemed with the fish. Fishermen also set their nets for herring, halibut, blue shark and other species, but salmon was king ““ as it is today.

Haida Gwaii is home to some of Canada's top fishing lodges like the North Island Lodge at Langara Island. A floating palace, it is anchored in place right over the fishing grounds. More than the red-checked, flannel shirt lodge of bygone days, fishing resorts like North Island Lodge off five star accommodations and exceptional cuisine based on locally available ingredients. Fishermen from around the world flock here to take on the challenge of landing one of the 40-pound Coho or king salmon.

Traditionally salmon was the staple of the Haida people. They drew their  living from the sea and built their homes close to where they had easy access. It also made them exceptionally good sailors and boat builders.

The Haida had long been the technological masters of their specific geography. Before the arrival of the Europeans, the cedar tree was as central to life as were the salmon.

From the cedar, they wove tightly-knit mats, baskets, clothing, and rope. Gigantic cedars provided single logs for finely crafted canoes of 20-metres or more. Hull's Museum of Civilization has one on display. 

At Skidegate, the Haida Heritage Centre is the island group's major repository of traditional crafts and skills. Planned to reflect the lines of a traditional village, the buildings look out over Hecate Strait. Inside, artists and guides give visitors an intimate look at Haida life as it once was through artifact displays, live presentations and audio-visual programs. The centre also houses an impressive collection of poles and traditional canoes.

The award-winning centre is the result of an agreement in the late 1980s between the federal government and the Haida Nation. At the time logging was such a profitable business for mainland companies that Haida Gwaii was in real danger of being denuded. This resulted in the 1985 blockade of logging that brought the clear-cutting of old growth forest to a screeching halt.

Before that, Haida culture came dangerously close to dying out in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. First contact with the European brought unknown diseases like small pox and the measles. These swept through aboriginal communities across Canada and the United States decimating their populations and becoming known as “The Great Dying”.

While looking for the Golden Spruce I was diverted by signs indicating there was an abandoned canoe in the forest. Abandoned canoes sat in the forests for as much as 150 years after the Great Dying before anyone began paying attention to them. No one knows how many were left partly finished.

Dale Lore came into the picture because Bridget Quinn, the Logging Museum's curator knew about another canoe. Her neighbour, Dale, found it and liked to show it off. Before I could ask its location, Bridget was on the phone to Dale.

A few minutes down the same logging road I had just come up, we turned into a tunnel of scrub alder. Three hundred metres off the main road we stopped. “You go first. You should see this by yourself. There are four archaeological gems. See if you can find them.”

At first all I saw was a giant cedar stump. Its covering of moss proved it hadn't been felled recently.  To my left was another cedar featuring a three-foot wide window cut into its heart about head high. It was a test hole cut by a canoe carver checking to see if the tree was suitable. Then I turned around and saw the canoe lying at the bottom of a gully.

At first it looked like any other log except the top was unnaturally flat along the top. The bow and stern were carefully shaped and the hull was upright so the hollowing process could begin. It was abandoned by its carvers who returned to the villages to die.

Without a tape measure I could only estimate dimensions. My best guess was that it was around 40-feet long.

The top section of the canoe tree, the fourth archaeological prize is now a nursery tree with five baby cedars growing out of it.

Dale found the canoe in 1995 and since then, he has had plenty of time to come up with some interesting theories.

“The guys building it had iron tools, not steel. You can tell from the tool marks on the stump. They chopped then burnt, which you still needed to do with iron, but not with steel tools. The canoe is new enough they would have had iron tools. The Haida got iron from Russian fur traders and it wasn't until years later that they had steel.”

Dale is not Haida, but he adopted the islands after moving to them in 1987 from Vancouver Island.

“We think it's at least 130-years old. The key to the age comes from the top of the tree.” After following him to the tree's mouldering upper reaches, he asked, “What do you see?” Before I can answer he continued the tutorial, “This tree's turned into a nursery tree and it takes at least a hundred years for that to happen. You see the young trees growing out of it? Well cedars are slow growing and those are at least 30-years old. So that puts this site somewhere around 1880 ““ right when the smallpox epidemic was killing everyone.

Haida culture has been undergoing a resurrection over the past 50 years. It began with young artists, like Bill Reid, in the 1960s talking to their elders to retrieve as much of the remaining knowledge as possible. Reid rocked the west coast world when he launched, Lootas (Wave Eater), the first Haida war canoe built in nearly 75 years for Expo '86.

Others like Christian White ““ April's cousin ““ learned his craft directly from his dad Morris White and by studying the work of his grandfather Charles Edenshaw. By 21, Christian's argillite carvings were being purchased by major art and educational institutions for their collections.

Visiting Christian in his long house takes you to another world. Two canoes his father carved sit awaiting paddlers. They share the same ancestry as Dale Lore's abandoned canoe. On other working supports is a new clan pole. The cartoons of the different figures that will grace it have been drawn into the finely finished cedar and carving will commence after lunch.

The efforts of the younger Haida artists and their mentors bore fruit this year on August 15, when members of the Haida nation raised the first Legacy Pole to be erected in 130 years in Gwaii Haanas.

Carved by Jaalen Edenshaw, a well-known Haida carver (and another cousin of Christian and April White) the Legacy Pole commemorates the 30th anniversary of the signing of the agreement between the government of Canada and the Haida Nation that established Gwaii Haanas as a National Park Reserve and the development of the Haida Heritage Centre and more subtly the rebirth of the island group as the home of the Haida nation. 

If you go

Eagles Feast House B&B
April White
2120 Harrison Ave., Masset

Christian White

Haida Gwaii Tourism

Northern BC Tourism

Queen Charlotte Visitor Info Centre

Council of the Haida Nation

Haida Heritage Centre

Gwaii Haanas Nature Preserve

Outershores Expeditions (Passing Cloud)