discovering the secret landscapes of haida gwaii - day 2

The following article continues the story of our journey through Haida Gwaii (“Islands of the People”), located off the coast of northern British Columbia. Previously known as the Queen Charlotte Islands, the archipelago has been inhabited by the Haida people for many thousands of years.

discovering the secret landscapes of haida gwaii - day 2

by Ron Williams, published 

The previous article described the first day of our journey, which took our group of five visitors to the islands, led by our expert guide and pilot Laura, from Alliford Bay in central Haida Gwaii down to the Gwaii Haanas Park Reserve in the southern part of the archipelago. Travelling in a very fast “Zodiac Hurricane” watercraft, we were amazed by the spectacular landscapes and rich forest ecosystems we passed through. The high point of our first day’s travels was our visit to the ancient totems of Ninstints village, located at almost the southern tip of Haida Gwaii. After our overnight stay in the unique settlement of Rose Harbour near Ninstints, we were ready for the second day of our journey, the story of which is recounted below.

21 June 2006

The intrepid voyagers woke up early and walked around the fascinating site of Rose Harbour for a while before our second day of travels. We took a last admiring look at the highly original handcrafted houses, the colourful and productive gardens, and the magnificent natural setting. Then we started packing up for the next phase of our journey.

A wooden house with cedar roof shingles, slate blue siding, yellow window frames and mauve trim
One of the handcrafted houses at this unique outpost

After a great breakfast of pancakes and maple syrup (with organic Québec yogurt) provided by Susan, we headed out from sheltered Rose Harbour into Houston Stewart Channel, under our guide and pilot Laura’s expert guidance, and thence our Zodiac made its way eastward into the open sea. Hecate Strait was not too rough that day but we did experience occasional rain.

Early morning light on a sailboat moored in a quiet bay surrounded by a coniferous forest
Early morning at Rose Harbour

Heading North

Our first visit that day was to Garcin Rocks, a sea lion “haul-out” (ie inhabited but not a true rookery, according to Laura; such colonies are to be found in the extreme south of the archipelago, at Cape St-James). A great multitude of sea lions, which are much larger than harbour seals. They make a terrific roaring noise, and are coloured light orange (which looks dark brown when wet). There appeared to be three large males, each one surrounded by a harem of females and occupying a local high point on the rock. They didn’t seem afraid of us nor did they acknowledge our presence in any way.

A group of eight seals lounging on a rocky outcrop on the sea
The sea-lion "haul-out" on Garcin Rock, outside Houston Stewart Channel

Then straight along the coast, outside all the rocks and islands, retracing part of our course yesterday towards the north-west. We passed Ikeda Cove on a peninsula of Moresby Island, where Japanese-Canadian Arichika Ikeda established a copper mine in 1906, now abandoned. A nearby island and shoal are named “Arichika” after him. Then we headed west into Skincuttle Inlet and Harriet Harbour, where the former Jedway open-pit iron mine was exploited until 1970. Many of these mineral projects involved whole towns, often jerry-built and improvised, accommodating hundreds of employees. Hard places to live, in remote locations with harsh weather.

After leaving Harriet Harbour, we proceeded westward through Skincuttle Inlet to see the Swan Bay Youth Camp at the southern extremity of Burnaby Island. This camp, operated by the Haida community, is one among several efforts to reconnect current generations with their heritage in the southern islands, which have been uninhabited for several generations. The Watchmen system – which supports, and is supported by, Parks Canada - also helps achieve this goal. Presumably, both the camp and the Watchmen program are also symbols of sovereignty, “showing the flag”, since the Haida consider all of Haida Gwaii to be their territory.

A map shows a group of islands and a circuitous path from the south island toward the north
Our route on Day 2, from Rose Harbour north through the Park Reserve to Moresby Explorers' Float Camp

We continued west through Skincuttle Inlet and then north-west through narrow and treacherous Burnaby Strait, full of rocks and shoals, where Laura had to line up the boat with pairs of red stakes on the banks to zig-zag the boat past dangers.

A wooden tripod stands in water, supporting a white arrow and a white square-shaped symbol
Traffic signals for boats in treacherous Burnaby Strait
Rough waves on the ocean with a mountainous skyline in the distance
Rough water on Juan Perez Sound

Then we traversed the very broad Juan Perez Sound, named for a Spanish explorer of the mid-18th century, the first European to report seeing Haida Gwaii. This was the roughest water we faced, big choppy waves from all directions at once, plus cold winds and rain. It took a long time to get across the sound, with much bouncing and banging in the Zodiac. Sachi and I had brought gloves and wool-possum fur New Zealand hats; - a wise decision.

A small, rocky island partly covered by green vegetation, surrounded by seawater
While traversing the sound, we passed near "All-Alone Stone", an isolated feature surrounded by a vast body of water
A closeup of a small, rocky island partly covered by green moss and conifers

A digression: animals of Haida Gwaii

I have mentioned just a couple of the animal species we met in the Park-Reserve – guillemots, dolphins, sea lions – but in fact the islands boast a tremendous variety of animal life, often showing some minor variations from their mainland relatives. Some of those we encountered:

Eagles :
They are everywhere in the Park-Reserve, where they are neither threatened nor endangered. These large and elegant creatures float on air currents. They live in big nests, a lot like squirrel nests, at the very tops of trees, usually at key strategic locations (at points of land, for example) that permit them to survey a large area. “Eagles like a nice view.”
A bald eagle stands on the branch of a tree before a backdrop of tree-covered mountains
An eagle strategically poised on a treetop next to the beach at Hotspring Island - a great vantage point
Ravens :
These legendary birds are really large member of the crow family (also abundant here) : all iridescent black, head feathers a bit scruffy, with a slightly curved back. Like blue-jays (to whom they are related), they scold people. We heard them make a strange gulping sound. Sometimes they can imitate the human voice, thus providing a possible basis for the legends of ravens talking to people. You can hear the beat of their wings from a considerable distance. In First Nations stories, the raven is often a clever and devious trickster, but nonetheless helps people out.
In shadows, a black raven sits silhouetted, at the foot of the trees by the edge of the forest
A raven keeping a close eye on us at Ninstints
Robins :
To our surprise, there are lots of robins at Spruce Point and Rennell Sound, a deep indentation on the west coast of Graham Island, where they live in Red Alder forests. The Haida people have a legend about how the Robins’ breasts became red.
Pigeon Guillemot :
Small black and white water birds, bright red feet. Faster than a Zodiac.
Deer :
Introduced to the Islands in 1885 for food and hunting, they have spread all over the islands, causing serious ecological impacts. They eat small trees and slow down the regeneration of the forests. Deer in Haida Gwaii are very small and scrawny. While they are hunted outside the Park-Reserve, they have no natural predators (other than people), resulting in overpopulation and a diminished fear reflex. They seem to be totally unafraid of humans, coming quite close to check us out.
A deer, almost hidden by lush green undergrowth, twists its neck to looks back at us
Small deer in the forest just beside Skedans village - not shy a bit!
A deer stands in the tall grass near the edge of the forest and looks toward us
Bears :
The opposite. A genetically distinct subspecies of Black Bear, which is larger than any other. We saw none. They remain in the high mountains, coming down to feast on salmon in the late summer. During other periods of the year they forage for berries and other plants. Local residents seem to consider them to be lazy, and we heard no stories of unprovoked attacks on people.

Back to the narrative: Hotspring Island

Completing our traverse of Juan Perez Sound, we went around Ramsay Point into Ramsay Passage (north of Ramsay Island) where the water calmed down a good bit, and finally we entered perfectly calm, flat water between House Island (we couldn’t visit it because it’s a place associated with a Haida origin story) and Hotspring Island, where we came ashore on a broad gravel beach on the island’s east side. Here on the beach we had lunch as the sun came out (which it did every time we had lunch, and in fact every time we beached the Zodiac. We could never figure out how Laura managed that). It was a truly magnificent place. Laura worked very hard pulling ropes to get the Zodiac into the harbour, helping us five landlubbers into and out of the boat, and getting lunch ready. She wouldn’t accept any help.

With a gentle curve, a pebbly beach encloses a small cove surrounded by green conifers
The sheltered cove and beach at Hotspring Island
A woman in a red coat stands on a pebbly beach near large pieces of driftwood that litter the ground
Further along the beach, Sachi explores the logs and flotsam deposited by the sea

We crossed the island through old growth forest after lunch and stopped in to ask permission from the Haida Watchmen, a young couple. Each stop on Haida Gwaii was the occasion to have our Parks Canada Guidebooks stamped with a drawing of the original Haida Watchmen figures wearing cedar hats with cylinders on top, a traditional feature seen at the top of many totem poles, honouring those who acted as sentinels for the ancient villages.

Then came the major program event of the day – our visit to Hotspring Island, where we were invited to enjoy three different hot-water pools, in which natural hot water seeping up from the rocks below is captured in man-made pools, some partly enclosed by stone walls and barriers. The water at the seepage points is indeed very hot. Down by the beach was a splendid small pool; a terrific “cliff pool” is located higher up, with a great view. Since there were no other visitors at the time, the five adventurers stayed in this amazingly comfortable upper pool for nearly an hour and a half, discussing all the problems of the world and resolving most of them. But they could not remember afterwards what had been decided.

On a rocky shore by the ocean a woman bathes in a natural pool
Sachi enjoying the hotwater pool perched above the beach at Hotspring Island

Reluctantly we left Hotspring Island, then circled around its northern side and again crossed Juan Perez Sound, heading west this time. It was just as demanding and exciting as before. Finally we rounded Richardson Point into quieter Darwin Sound, bound approximately north-west towards the limits of the Park-Reserve. We saw Harbour Seals on little rocks north of Shuttle Island.

Prawns in Klunkwoi Bay

At the top of Darwin Sound we entered the very quiet Klunkwoi Bay, surrounded by gigantic mountains with snow at their upper levels, gently fingering down the slopes. Close to the north shore of the bay Moresby Explorers had placed four prawn-traps a few days before, sitting at the bottom of the bay (100’ - 200’ depth) with floats on the surface. Laura showed us how to haul them up - hard work, hand over hand. Various types of bait are used in these wire boxes (dimensioned 2 ft. x 2 ft. x 1ft. approximately, with lobster-trap entrances) : pieces of fish, cat food, prawn heads. Some of the boxes were almost empty, while two were very full with large prawns (Laura radioed the news to our camp so they wouldn’t have to make soup).

A range of mountains, some tree-covered, some snow-capped, towers over the sea
Klunkwoi Bay
A box shaped cage filled with red prawns and made of wire mesh sits on the pontoon of a zodiac boat
A successful catch of prawns!
Closeup of a red prawn dangling spindly legs and antennae held by a human hand

One trap had been invaded by predators - a little octopus inside and a huge 20-armed starfish outside. Both had eaten some of the trapped prawns and the starfish had a prawn-shaped bump on its surface, like le Petit Prince’s snake that swallowed an elephant. We transferred the prawns to a bucket of water and took them along for supper.

A large, orange starfish covers the entire top portion of a box-shaped trap made of wire mesh
A gigantic starfish taking advantage of a prawn trap

Float Camp

We turned north with our prize around Triumph Point into Crescent Inlet, which curled around to the left, getting narrower and narrower; the channel always seemed to be coming to the end, but somehow it continued past the next corner. Finally, just outside the park in a quiet lagoon was our destination for the night: Moresby Explorers’ “Float Camp”, 2 thick wooden platforms supporting a staff bunkhouse and a little peak-roofed structure with a kitchen, dining room, four bedrooms with bunks, and a bathroom. No electricity, but lighting and power were provided by propane. A very comfortable place – somehow I had envisioned a “tent on a raft”, but this was more like a cabin in the woods. All built of wood, of course.

Tranquil waters of a narrow inlet enclosed by mountain forest
Travelling up Crescent Inlet …
Two small cabins, floating on wooden docks, are moored to huge tree trunks laying in the seawater
… and arrival at the Float Camp at the end of a splendid day of discovery

20-year-old Hajar was in charge of the Float Camp; she cooked a delicious supper for us, including our prawns. She had been raised till age 5 at Rose Harbour, where her parents were members of the collective; a childhood friend was the co-owner of Moresby Explorers at the time of our visit. She usually stayed on board for 9 days at a time during the tourist season.

The Float Camp possessed an excellent book collection, primarily featuring Haida Gwaii and other northern B.C. subjects. We avidly regarded several, including many books about Haida art and several displaying the work of celebrated nature photographer Michio Hoshino. It was a very enjoyable social evening – among other amusements, we told elephant jokes, which Andrew thought were both hilarious and “preposterous”. Since we were so far north (about 52 deg. 45 min.) and it was the longest day of the year, the sun did not really set until about 11:00 pm. Sachi and I stayed up reading after the others went to bed; at 11:30 Hajar called us outside to see amazing phosphorescent algae in the water; she stirred the water beside the float, and many tiny lights like fireflies came to life in the water.

References – some of the books at Float Camp :

  1. Michio Hoshino, Arctic Odyssey, 9 June 1994. Printed in Japan. ISBN-10-395602-X C0072. Amazing colour photos of Canadian landscapes and animals.
  2. Bill Holm, U.S. professor. Wrote about the Haida graphic vocabulary and used/invented the term “formline” for one of its basic elements.
  3. George F. MacDonald, Monumental Haida Art. Definitive catalogue of village plans and totem poles.