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HAIDA GWAII - SHROUDED IN MYSTICISM
 
(2014 - Spring/Summer Issue)

Writer: CECE M. SCOTT



Situated off the northwest coast of British Columbia, Haida Gwaii (formerly the Queen Charlotte Islands) is an archipelago canvas of Mother Nature’s finest opuses.

Known as the “islands of the people,” the lush foliage, shimmering lakes and a culture rooted in colourful, centuries-old Haida history form the nucleus of a visit to these islands.

Haida Gwaii, which includes two main islands, Moresby and Graham, along with 150 smaller islands dotting the Pacific Ocean’s Hecate Strait and Queen Charlotte Sound, is not about five-star resorts, exquisite spas or nightclubs. In fact, many restaurants are shuttered before sundown and there is not one brand-name burger outlet or coffee-to-go drive-through in sight.

What the islands do offer is a plethora of nature, feel-good physical activity in the form of biking, hiking and kayaking, a blissfully sauntering, easy-going pace and a tranquil ambience that immediately separates the true nature seekers from the iPhone addicts. Cell phone service, activated on the Islands a mere seven years ago, is sketchy at best. But that in itself is quite liberating, a singular opportunity to connect with both travelling companions and the wraparound silence that is intrinsic to the spirit of these islands.

Delightful Accommodation

My companions and I lucked into a private house rental at the north end of Graham Island, a two-hour drive from Queen Charlotte City. The house, with three bathrooms, three bedrooms and floor-to-ceiling windows, was fronted by sugar-white sand dunes that tossed their grains in the afternoon breeze. On clear days we could see the snowy peaks of Alaska on the horizon, although the “aw shucks” Sarah Palin was nowhere in sight. 

We also spent a night at the Copper Beech Guest House in Masset, a B&B owned by the dynamically witty Canadian poet and author, Susan Musgrave. Surrounded by a brilliant potpourri of red, yellow and orange flowers, the house is an exceptionally eclectic collection of cosy couches, books, masks, Haida art and fascinating Canadian icons: Douglas Coupland sequestered himself in Copper Beech’s Cloud 9 room to finish his book, Generation A; Pierre and Maggie Trudeau spooned in the Harbour Master’s Keep room; and Margaret Atwood describes the house as “luverly.”

After a lip-smacking breakfast of eggs, homemade jams, breads, preserves and fresh fruit, we strolled down to the water where we were wowed by a family of bald eagles perched on a pier in the bright morning light.

Folklore and Ancestral History

Since Haida Gwaii provides such great opportunities to hike, bike and kayak, RVs and camping are hugely popular, with stunningly situated campsites on ever-present beaches. We stopped at Agate Beach campground in Naikoon Provincial Park on our way to Tow Hill to forage like kids for shiny agate stone treasures, which we could make into necklaces.

Dramatic imagery and minutely-detailed jewellery and carvings are a core part of the Haida culture, one that is replete with images representing the folklore of the two Haida clans, the Eagles and Ravens. Crystal Cabin Gallery and the Sitka gallery in Tlell have some gorgeous intricate silver pendants, bracelets and rings that depict the otherworldly mysticism of Haida beliefs, such as the whale (the traveller) and, of course, the salmon (the provider).

To get a full sense and appreciation of the Haida’s ancestral history and culture, my companions and I made a trip to the sacred village of Skedans (K’uuna Linagaay), which is just outside Gwaii Hannas National Park Reserve. National Geographic Traveler rates the park as the No. 1 park destination in North America.

“People say a visit to Gwaii Hannas changed their life,” Susan Musgrave states.

To get to Skedans, we had the option to take either a four-hour Zodiac ride or a float plane out of Queen Charlotte City. Having had a hip replacement three months previously, I figured the float plane was a wise choice over an extended bouncy Zodiac ride. Besides, I have a fascination for float planes, so the promise of soaring over the patchwork of lushly draped islands floating in sapphire waters was just too tempting; too tempting that is, until I spied the three-rung ladder we had to climb in order to squish into the seven-seater Beaver plane. It was an unequivocal undertaking stepping off the dock and holding onto a moving ladder with one hand while clasping a cane in the other. However the pilot was attentive and experienced and it wasn’t long before we were up and on our way to the village, estimated to be close to 300 years old.

The original footings for several of the village’s longhouses, one of which belonged to the Raven Chief Niis Wes, are easily visible in the plush green moss that covers the island. Mortuary poles, used to house the remains of highly esteemed clan members, dot the root pathways with majestic solemnity. It is interesting to note the clan’s very wealthy enjoyed a double mortuary pole, which just proves that throughout the ages some things never change. Ancient Haida superstition demanded the deceased’s mortuary pole had to be carved and ready in one day because evil spirits would slink in and forever haunt the spirit of the deceased.

The Haida Gwaii Museum in the Heritage Centre at Skidegate provides a captivating visual dialogue about the Haida community, including the late Chief Skidegate’s private art collection. Mighty ancient totems, button blankets, argillite carvings and magnificently-carved canoes provide a fascinating historical backdrop to our Canadian ancestral past.

Travel Planner

Air Canada (aircanada.com) flies twice daily from Vancouver to Sandspit while Pacific Coastal Air (pacificcoastal.com) flies between Masset and Vancouver South Terminal. Flight-seeing tours are available through Inland Air (inlandair.bc.ca).

For lodging, sightseeing and dining options, log onto gohaidagwaii.ca. For Haida jewellery, sculpture and art, check out Crystal Cabin Gallery in Tlell (crystalcabingallery.com) or Sitka Studio, also in Tlell (1-800-557-4241).

For more information, visit:

Copper Beech Guest House, Masset: copperbeechhouse.com

Haida Heritage Centre: haidaheritagecentre.com

 
 
 
 
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