discovering the secret landscapes of haida gwaii - day 1

These travel notes recount a three-day trip taken by Ron and Sachi Williams with Moresby Explorers, from central Haida Gwaii down to the Gwaii Haanas Park Reserve in the sparsely-inhabited southern part of the archipelago, in June 2006.

discovering the secret landscapes of haida gwaii - day 1

by Ron Williams, published 

The western bulwark of the North American continent, Haida Gwaii (“Islands of the People”) is an archipelago located about 80 km off the coast of northern British Columbia, across Hecate Strait from the mainland. The islands can be reached by ferry from the mainland city of Prince Rupert, or by air from Vancouver. Known as the Queen Charlotte Islands before their official renaming in recent years, the islands have been long inhabited by the Haida people, who also live on Prince of Wales (Taan) Island in southern Alaska - perhaps for as long as 13,000 years.

Along the Pacific coast of the islands runs a mountain chain that angles from northwest to southeast, resurfacing in Vancouver Island to the south; the eastern half of the archipelago is a fairly flat plain, the un-submerged portion of the coastal trough that continues down through the Strait of Georgia between Vancouver Island and mainland B.C. Surrounded by ice-free waters throughout the year, the islands enjoy moderate temperatures and colossal quantities of rain, promoting a rich forest ecosystem.

These travel notes recount a three-day trip taken by Ron and Sachi Williams with Moresby Explorers, from central Haida Gwaii down to the Gwaii Haanas Park Reserve in the sparsely-inhabited southern part of the archipelago, in June 2006. We had planned to make the journey south in a large boat with some 12 passengers, but a partial stoppage of ferry service from Prince Rupert had caused many tourist cancellations, and our intended tour was no longer offered. We were lucky to sign on, at the last minute, for a substitute tour with Moresby Explorers. We had “lucked out” - our journey proved to be a most exciting and original experience.

Travellers in life jackets board a motorboat with pontoons.

We travelled in a 20 foot “Zodiac Hurricane”, a very fast (up to 30 knots) open boat with fibreglass hull and an inflated pontoon all around. Manufactured in Delta, B.C., the Zodiac featured a one-foot keel for control and a 150 horsepower outboard motor, with steering wheel and throttle inside. Our destination was Gwaii Haanas (it means “Islands of Beauty”) National Park Reserve , the Haida Heritage Site and Marine Conservation Area Reserve in the southern part of the archipelago. The Park Reserve is jointly administered by Parks Canada and the Council of the Haida Nation through the Archipelago Management Board (AMB).

A hand-drawn map showing a tall, thin group of islands. A colored line traces a sinuous path from the middle to the southern tip.

20 June 2006 : On Board the Zodiac

Following a quick taxi ride from our lodging at Spruce Point near Queen Charlotte City, we took the B.C. Ferry at 7:30 AM from Skidegate Landing on Graham Island, the major northern land mass, across to Alliford Bay on southerly Moresby Island. Here we met the other members of our tour party: Andrew, a laconic and crusty Maritimer, and Ontario couple Norman and Natalie. From Alliford Bay we travelled overland in the Moresby Explorers’ van, following old logging roads south through second and third growth forest. The entire section of Moresby Island that we passed through had been logged and, in some areas, logged out, years before. Our immediate destination was Moresby Camp on Cumshewa Inlet (see map), where we were to board the Zodiac for the journey south to Gwaii Haanas.

Heavy clouds over a tranquil sea with mountains in the distance.
The view from Moresby Camp, looking east toward Cumshewa Inlet

Moresby Camp was larger than we expected – several buildings including a recreation centre. Here we met our guide, Laura (age 22-25 at the time), who immediately took charge of all aspects of our voyage – the boat, meals, lodging. Born on an island near Queen Charlotte City, Laura learned to drive a powerboat at age 12. She was extremely competent as a sailor, handling all water conditions including the big Pacific swells at the southern extremity of the islands, while simultaneously providing interesting explanations and commentary on everything we saw and experienced. She knew and respected the traditions of the Haida people, and was to guide us with great skill and politeness through the Haida lands and villages, managing our relations with the Haida Watchmen and island residents alike.

In front of a motorboat with pontoons, a young tour guide kneels by the shore to collect crab.

Laura suited us up with rubber pants, overcoats, hats - we provided only the rubber boots – and lifejackets. We were pretty puffed-up with all of this gear, but it served us well in our subsequent travels in an open boat on rough water. Here we also met our Zodiac, christened “Rhonda”. We climbed aboard – three ranks of seating, two people in each rank, Laura at front right and, to our surprise, Andrew at front left (where he stayed, facing straight into the blasting winds, for the whole trip). We pushed off and began our journey. The first place we passed was an abandoned logging station called “Aero Camp”, founded during World War I and largely employed to cut the light and strong Sitka Spruce trees used to build World War II Mosquito fighter-bombers. “Pigeon Guillemots”, black and white aquatic birds with bright red feet, have colonized the old lumbering dock. The tide was very high - up to the tops of the barnacles on the piers.

Instead of following Cumshewa Inlet out to the open sea, we turned south through a narrower passage between Louise Island and much larger Moresby Island. The passage became tighter and tighter leading into Louise Narrows, a long gateway to open water. We saw many Red Alder trees; they grow on disturbed sites so there were lots of them along the Narrows, which is a lot like Big Sur River in California, with gravel deposits along the shores and in the channel. It was dredged out in the 70’s to provide free passage at all tides, and the material thus thrown up caused the Red Alders to grow. Smaller Sitka Alders also grow on the islands.

A dense forest of moss-covered tree trunks.
Red Alder forest

There are Lion’s Mane Jellyfish here - the largest jellyfish in the world. From above, they look like poached eggs. The water is not too polluted here - very clear; you can see the bottom. But apparently these jellyfish don’t mind polluted water in any case.

Once through the Narrows, we followed Selwyn Inlet, a much broader waterway, around the southern margin of Louise Island. To our right was Talunkwan Island – an exemplar of the logging practices long exploited in Haida Gwaii. The land hasn’t “greened over” though the logging stopped 20 to 30 years ago; and poor road building has promoted lots of landslides. Big horizontal scars and diagonal slides mark the hillsides. This island is used on Haida Gwaii as a classic example of bad logging; there is no logging in the Park Reserve now.

Aerial view of a mountainside stripped bare of trees.
Aerial view of a clearcut carried out some years previously

Windy Bay

Selwyn Inlet led us north of Talunkwan Island out into the open ocean and, for the first time, rough water at Laskeek Bay. We encountered medium waves through which Laura piloted with ease. The great expanse of Hecate Strait was to our left as we zoomed south, crossing the invisible boundary line into the Park Reserve. After a brief stop at Tufts Island to see lots of seabirds, we turned into Windy Bay or Hlk’yah GawGa to meet the “Watchmen”. These are Haida first nations who live for rotations of weeks or months at half-a-dozen stations throughout the park reserve, mostly at former Haida villages, to maintain Haida presence and sovereignty over the islands. The “Watchman” title makes reference to traditional personages who figure on Haida totems. The Watchmen’s buildings, which resemble Haida longhouses, operated on solar power (and, incidentally, had beautiful outhouses featuring Phoenix composting toilets - no smell, no impact; each user throws in a scoopful of wood shavings when finished).

Looking out to sea under a cloudy sky over calm waters with dark mountains encroaching on either side.
Moving out into open water at Laskeek Bay
Peaking between wide trunks of pine trees, a low wooden building with a rounded door and painted animal faces on the wall.
Haida Watchmen’s station at Windy Bay

At Windy Bay, we met with Haida Watchmen Louise and grandson Albert, who made us welcome, explained the purpose of the Watchmen stations and the collaborative relations between Parks Canada and the Haida Nation (a monumental totem pole was erected at Windy Bay in 2013 to celebrate this relationship). After visiting the nearby old-growth forest, we sat out on nearby shoreline rocks and enjoyed a crab lunch provided by Laura. These big rocks protect a gravel beach shaped in a long concave curve, into which empties a small stream that teems with salmon at spawning time. This is a typical site chosen by the Haida people for their villages. Houses were installed perpendicular to the shore above the beach, and boats were drawn up onto the beach on sections reserved for each family (and guarded jealously, as attested by numerous stories of fighting over alleged territorial invasions). As at Windy Bay, every Haida settlement we visited was carefully located so that rocks, islands or peninsulas provided natural protection for the beach.

We continued south-east parallel to the coast of islands and peninsulas, three hours of steady progress across rhythmically pounding waves. The high point of this part of our journey, after about an hour of grey, soaking-wet travel, with the islands just a distant, indistinct horizon off to our right, was the sudden arrival of half a dozen dolphins – sleek grey-and-white Pacific White-sided Dolphins – who took turns swimming alongside the boat for about ten minutes, checking us out and occasionally leaping out of the water in long parabolas.

The rough waves of the open sea with mountains in the distance.
Heading south in Hecate Strait
Two dolphins splash in the waves as they swim away toward the distant mountains.
Looking over the side of the boat, white waves crash against a tree-covered shoreline in the distance.
Pacific swells in Houston Stewart Channel

SGang Gwaay (Ninstints)

Finally we came back to land and entered Houston Stewart Channel between Moresby Island and Kunghit Island, the most southerly large island of the archipelago. We met relatively smooth water in the channel until we rounded Cape Fanny, the south point of Moresby, where we confronted gigantic swells off the Pacific. Laura navigated us through the channel perpendicular to the waves, the boat smacking down into deep hollows after each swell. We struggled our way through this tumult around to the west side of much smaller Anthony Island, SGang Gwaay, suddenly turning through rocks and islets into a perfectly calm anchorage on the northwest side of the island, where the boat beached (Sgang Gwaay is the name of both the village and the island in the Haida language).

From our landing spot, Laura led us along a very irregular path through old-growth forest, past a series of overgrown fallen giant logs covered with moss. We checked in with the resident Haida Watchmen, as we would always do when coming ashore or visiting a village; then continued on our path until we emerged from the forest on the edge of a south-facing beach, looking across at a stunning view of the ancient totem poles of long-abandoned Ninstints Village (SGang Gwaay). Laura guided us through the village, explaining the significance of the poles, a kind of heraldry/familial “coat of arms” with sculptures of ravens, eagles, and many other animals, people and other elements. We walked among powerful and dignified longhouses of 2-beam and 6-beam design. Our close study of these 150-year-old artefacts was the high point of our trip.

Two travellers walking between moss-covered boulders in a dense forest of tall trees.
Through old-growth forest to Ninstints (SGang Gwaay)
A broken tree trunk lies on a flat, pebbly shore. In the distance, some totem poles are barely visible among the trees.
Ninstints, first view of totems
A row of aging totem poles stands facing out from the edge of the forest.
Mortuary poles at Ninstints

According to Haida practice, poles are allowed to decay and fall, to return to earth. For mortuary poles, this is part of the return of deceased people to earth, and the spirit world (in bentwood boxes at top of pole, hidden by a sculptured front panel). Other types of poles are house frontal poles installed at the front entrance to longhouses, which are built of Western Red Cedar (like all Haida structures and much artwork) and have entrance openings to the house at their base; and monument poles, erected in honour of some person or event.

We are usually taught that the art of making totem poles died out following the 19th-century epidemics of smallpox that decimated the populations of the Haida villages in the southern islands. The surviving people moved north to Skidegate and Old Massett on Graham Island; simultaneously, Canadian authorities discouraged – even made illegal –traditional arts and cultural practices. But this is not completely true; the art never died out, but was always practiced on different surfaces and materials. Mungo Martin and Bill Reid mastered and reinvented the traditional arts of sculpture and totems in the 1950s, and were soon followed by a new generation of artists, including brothers Robert and Reg Davidson of Old Masset. Thus the art of creating totems is very much alive and, following tradition, old posts decay and are replaced by new ones.

Rough sketch of a totem pole indicating position of family crest, 3 to 6 foot depth of base and upper section to contain carvings of hats corresponding to the number of potlaches given by chief.
Monument pole
Rough sketch of totem pole showing sculptured panel and position of body at the top.
Mortuary pole
Rough sketch of a low building with triangular roof and central totem pole decorated with animal faces.
Longhouse entrance pole

Rose Harbour

After this amazing experience we left our calm anchorage and returned to Houston Stewart Channel (much easier with waves coming from behind us), and thence made for Rose Harbour, located on quiet water on Kunghit Island, on the south side of the channel. Again a unique experience: Rose Harbour is the remaining nucleus of a communal settlement of the 1980s, built on the site of an old whaling station, a flourishing business until the 1950’s or so. Rose Harbour had been a large village with families and schools; only two residences are occupied now - one by Susan (originally from New York) and her family, including her son Reuben; the other by Götz, of German origin. Both have lived here for 24 years, since 1982. Thus, this community was founded well after the “hippie” era of the 1960’s and early 70’s, though it bears strong resemblance to some of the “intentional communities” of that time, with their emphasis on getting away from a corrupted civilisation to seek a completely autonomous living, based on home-grown agriculture (the two houses are adjoined by wonderful gardens including greenhouses and flowers), and freewheeling art forms.

A house hidden amongst tall conifers by a rocky shore.
Arriving at Rose Harbour. The mysterious brown spherical object is a vestige of the whaling station that occupied this site during the first half of the twentieth century.
Colorful flowers populate a wild garden.
A beautiful garden at Rose Harbour
A two-storey house covered with wooden shingles.
One of the settlement’s fascinating and original residences
At sunset, boats anchored in a tranquil bay, surrounded by forest with cloud-capped mountains in the distance.
Calm ending to an eventful day

Both houses are beautifully constructed of native woods with a number of idiosyncratic features, as is Götz’s guest house where we stayed overnight. Susan provided our supper - Ling Cod, and vegetables grown in her garden. Götz is an excellent guitar player, has made CDs (we purchased one); tonight he entertained visitors on a yacht moored in the harbour. Rose Harbour is the only place in the park that accommodates visitors; it’s an enclave of private property purchased by the collective from the whaling company.

Vestiges of whaling are everywhere: giant tanks at funny angles; gears and wheels; miscellaneous metal items strewn about the settlement and gradually rusting away. We took a hot shower powered by Götz’s wood-fired water heater. There is no electricity here so candles, fire, and propane are used for all purposes.

We had enjoyed pretty clear weather on the first day of our journey, some sun though mostly grey, but no rain. The evening was sunny and beautiful; the sun set at 10:30 - 11 pm since we are far north (52 degrees), and almost the longest day of the year.


  1. There has been much negotiation and discussion with the Haida people regarding logging rights over the years, and some dramatic confrontations involving such influential outsiders as David Suzuki.
  2. I have often wondered if the natural shape of these beaches, found throughout Haida Gwaii, had something to do with the “formline”, identified by U.S. professor Bill Holm as a basic element of the Northwest peoples’ artistic vocabulary. See Holm, Bill, Northwest Coast Indian Art, An Analysis of Form, Seattle/Vancouver, University of Washington Press/Douglas & McIntyre 1965.