discovering the secret landscapes of haida gwaii - day 3

The following article chronicles the third day of our Haida Gwaii journey, beginning just outside the limits of Gwaii Haanas National Park-Reserve. Gliding through the intricate waterways of the park reserve’s northern section and visits to two ancient Haida villages marked the highlights of this final leg of our journey.

discovering the secret landscapes of haida gwaii - day 3

by Ron Williams, published 
A house boat and wooden wharfs roped to a huge log float in a small inlet with green forest behind
Float camp in early morning

22 June 2006

The travellers woke up on the Float Camp anchored near the head of tortuous Crescent Inlet, just outside the limits of Gwaii Haanas National Park-Reserve. We had spent a fascinating evening the night before reading historic and geographic documents about the islands, and had slept well on the gently moving vessel. We were a little slower getting up and organized on this third and final morning of our trip to the southern reaches of Haida Gwaii and back; everyone was tired including our guide and pilot Laura!

By the water, a woman in a pink windbreaker sits on a wooden bench to put on her hiking shoes
Sachi prepares for our departure from Float Camp
Two smiling young women stand together with a pontoon boat visible behind them
Our pilot/guide Laura and Hajar, our host at Float Camp

Hajar, in charge of the Float Camp, brought us up to speed with scrambled eggs and a full breakfast, and we were soon ready to go, heading out down the Inlet for the final day of our journey. The water surface was very calm and many sea creatures were visible, including jellyfish, which resemble large poached eggs floating in the water. Of course they are dangerous creatures, to be avoided.

A jellyfish with transluscent star-like tendrils floats in green waters among aquatic plants
Jellyfish - fascinating but dangerous!

Laura explained the nomenclature of the many waterways we were travelling:

  • An inlet has an end; it gets narrower and shallower and finally closes;
  • A sound is a larger body of water that can be open to several parts of the sea;
  • A channel is a distinct narrow passage between two larger bodies of water;
  • A bay is broader and usually shallower than an inlet, and is not linear.

But since all of these islands and peninsulas are so complex in shape, and were explored bit by bit, lots of water bodies have names that do not fit the above definitions. For example, Skidegate Inlet on Hecate Strait connects up to Skidegate Channel, which permits passage (though difficult) all the way to the Pacific Ocean.

Across the water two low wooden buildings stand by the shoreline before a forest of towering green trees
Laura pilots us skilfully downstream leaving Float Camp in our wake

As usual, we wore full rain gear: rubber boots, rubber overall pants and rubber coat with hood. This equipment (supplied by Moresby Explorers) was worn over other coats, rubber pants etc. We needed everything when travelling fast in rough water, often in the rain. We were glad to have gloves also. I had not worn rubber boots since grade school and they were surprisingly comfortable.

On a map showing a series of interlocking islands a sinuous path weaves in and out through narrow waterways
Our Day 3 route, from Float Camp via two ancient Haida villages and back to our original starting-point
High mountains enclose tranquil waters surrounding a spit of land covered in dense forest
Winding our way down Crescent Inlet

Our first stop was Klunkwoi Bay to lower prawn traps for the next mission. The site was even more spectacular than yesterday - water dead calm (Laura had never seen it calmer), and better visibility of the mountains. This created perfect reflections of the mountains in the bay, sometimes complicated a bit by the waves from our boat. We found it much easier to lower prawn traps than to pull them up.

A series of high mountains rises out of gently rippling waters
Calm waters at Klunkwoi Bay

We exited the bay to the north-east through Logan Inlet and then turned south-east through Tanu Passage between Richardson Island and Tanu Island. The water was still very calm. We rounded Tanu Point, travelled east along Richardson Inlet, and then tucked into Klue Passage, which allowed us to land on the sheltered east side of Tanu Island at a watchmen camp near long-uninhabited Tanu Village.

Framed by trees, a gravel beach forms a gentle curve along the shoreline
Sheltered beach at Tanu village

Tanu Village

At the camp, we briefly met the two Haida women who oversaw the village areas, then Laura guided us through the remains of the village, with their permission. No poles were standing, though several corner-posts of houses still projected from the ground, at diverse angles.

Wooden poles stand broken or lay covered in moss at the edge of the dark forest
Remains of totem poles at Tanu village

The houses had generally collapsed into large excavations, in the two tiers of beams that characterize the interiors of Haida longhouses …. “Returning to the Earth.”

Green moss carpets the ground under large tree trunks fallen in decay
Moss-covered remains of 'big houses' at Tanu
A rectangular depression in the forest floor marks the spot where a house once stood

The gigantic size and length of some of these longitudinal beams was astounding. Many beams were still solid. Moss has grown over everything in this humid environment.

After visiting the village, uninhabited for several generations, we continued north on a forest path lined with brightly-shining white shells to the Tanu cemetery. Here we paid homage to a number of graves and monuments including that of the famous Haida artist Bill Reid. It is not a conspicuous monument, and we would not have known whose it was had Laura not told us, since only Reid’s Haida name, Iljuwas, is indicated.

On a slight rise is a more elaborate memorial, including a number of carvings, in honour of Miles Richardson, a well-known Haida leader. The father of current leader Miles Richardson, he was very much involved in the Lyell Island blockade of the 1980s - a seminal event of modern Haida history - along with Arnie Bellis, David Suzuki and other dedicated conservationists.

The Forest

Behind the village and around it is the forest, perhaps not the “old-growth” original vegetation, but certainly very old judging from the large diameter of its trees. It’s a rather open forest, to our surprise. There were many fallen trees and the ground surface was a jumble of decaying logs, all overgrown with ferns, Salal (a species of Gaultheria), and young new trees.

Healthy plants with broad, green leaves sport garlands of tiny pink flowers
Salal plants in understory

Apparently there is little nourishment in the soil here, for the same reasons that explain a similar phenomenon found in tropical rainforests. Abundant rain and luxuriant growth mean that nutrients are largely tied up in living and decaying trees, while heavy rains leach minerals down through the soil to the water table and away. Thus the best place for a young tree to establish itself is on the decaying remains of an old tree, which explains the “nurse tree” phenomenon - a row of young plants growing vigorously along a fallen log, in a line; as well as the “elevated tree” whose roots are 8’ or more in the air, on top of the stump of a fallen tree. This makes for a very irregular forest floor surface, though you can see the ground (unlike the even more complex Pacific Rim North Park forest, on the west coast of Vancouver Island).

A jungle of leaves in all shades of green fills the view
Ferns and ground cover plants near Rennell Sound

The main trees here are mostly 3 conifers:

  1. Western Red Cedar (Thuja plicata) with its brownish-red stringy bark, used for boats, construction, poles and other artwork. The bark can be removed in long strips; even boards can be prepared by judicious cutting of live trees without killing them. Such trees are called “culturally modified trees” or CMT. Western Red Cedar can live for 500 years or more, but they rot from the centre without betraying this on the surface; so Haida artisans have developed a way of “core-drilling” trees prior to cutting, to make sure the wood will be solid for construction purposes.
Young shoots of bright green grow from the tips of the branches of a conifer
New growth of Sitka Spruce
  1. Sitka Spruce (Picea sitchensis) - a lot like Norway Spruce with rhythmic sprays of projecting branches, but these are more angular and straight compared to the Norway’s curved-branch signature. Rough, scaly grey bark, with very soft young yellow-green needles getting sharp and poky in short order. Small feeder roots of Spruce are harvested by Haida women and woven into baskets and hats, so tightly that they are impervious to water. The hats are shaped to smooth, elegant profiles that are mirrored on “potlatch” symbols or guardian/watchmen hats on totem poles. A variety of intricate patterns are worked into these artifacts. Cedar bark, divided into fine strips, is also used for baskets and hats. This art is very much alive, reminiscent of similar work in Bali, Indonesia. Each artifact represents a huge amount of work and is quite expensive - but it’s a work of art.
A rough sketch shows the shape of a hat like a truncated cone with a wide, round brim
Typical Haida hat made of materials from coniferous trees
  1. Western Hemlock (Tsuga heterophylla) - Tiny, soft leaves, bright yellow-green at first, then dark-green. These trees grow just as high as spruce and cedar, are long-lived, and are much sought after as wood for construction. The bark is grey, rough like Sitka Spruce but characterized by long vertical lines instead of shorter “scales”.

Other conifers occur on the islands: Lodgepole Pine (Pinus contorta, at Tlell on the east side of Graham Island and Masset on the north), and Yellow Cedar (Chamaecyparis nootkanensis), also used for artwork. I learned this tree as “Port Orford Cedar” at Berkeley. A handsome tree with long horizontal branches, it’s a member of the Cypress family with distinctly yellowish wood.

A principal deciduous tree is Red Alder (Alnus rubra), in the Birch family; it grows in sunny areas and disturbed soils, and is the first tree to come back in the natural succession of logged areas (thus a dead giveaway, when seen from a distance, of former clear-cuts).

Huge trees with oddly twisted branches tower above people who stand on the forest floor below
Spectacular Red Alder tree at Skedans

Skedans (K’uuna) Village

Tanu Village was a sombre place. We returned to our boat and headed north, out of the National Park-Reserve, past heavily-logged Talunkwan Island, across the open water of Laskeek Bay, then passing between Limestone Island and the larger Louise Island, at the eastern point of which is our final landing place, Skedans village, historically known also as Koona and now usually written as K’uuna.

Totem poles decorated with the faces and bodies of various animals stand tall in front of wooden buildings
Skedans (Koona) village, 1878 photo by George M. Dawson

A town that has been extensively studied, photographed and painted, Skedans is located on a peninsula with beaches on both sides, protected from the sea by massive rocks to the east.

On a peninsula, A dozen longhouses and many totem poles line the south beach leading to a rocky headland.
Sketch of Skedans village layout
A rough sketch shows a gently concave beach with rocky outcrops at either end
A typical beach, as found at many locations along the coasts, coves and lakes of Haida Gwaii

Our arrival was most auspicious: Skedans was the only native village we approached straight from the sea, pulling up on the beach as the Haida had done. Many of the original totem poles were still standing - seeing them looming out of the Salal and conifer over-growth like ancient sentinels was an awesome and powerful experience.

Only the bases of two old totems still stand, leaning precariously backward
Totems at Skedans village
The stumps of three old totems stand leaning at various angles. Young plants take root in their wood, warn and cracked.

We met the Haida watchmen: two engaging and cheerful grandmothers named Irene and Gerry who were busy with several tasks around their house. We ate lunch at a picnic table nearby: the sun came out, as always. Sachi suggested that one of the watchmen accompany us during our visit to the village, something that had not happened up to now. Laura agreed and Gerry volunteered to join us; to do so she put on her woven spruce-root hat, identical to that shown in my sketch above. Throughout our visit, Gerry and Laura - a person held in great esteem by the native people, we felt – both provided their comments and reflections.

Two women smiling, stand together at the foot of an old tree
Haida Watchman Gerry with Laura, our pilot and guide

Our guides explained the heraldry of the poles, some of which was still visible - Ravens, Eagles, Killer Whales; a number of creatures from the mainland, perhaps due to its relative proximity to Skedans: Wolf, Beaver; and some hybrid, supernatural characters: “Sea-Grizzly” - halfway between a grizzly bear and a killer whale, a truly fearsome creature. Plants were growing from the poles, particularly mortuary poles and entrance poles which were already hollowed out, as they would from any other decaying cedar tree.

Carvings on the base of an old totem are still visible despite the effects of time
Detailed view of Sea-Grizzly on totem at Skedans
An old totem still stands, reaching to the sky with moss and leaves clinging to its cracked surface
Plants growing from monument pole at Skedans

This is a large, almost double, village, with 2 overlapping curves of houses. No houses were standing but their vestiges were clear, as at Ninstints and Tanu. About ¾ of the way to the west of the village, there was a space with no totems and no house remains. Our guides told us that, without warning or compunction, a lumber company had smashed a road through here to harvest a section of the adjoining forest. This was quite recent, long after the publication of the book Those Born at Koona (1974), by Professor John Smyly and Carolyn Smyly, a detailed catalogue of all totems and houses in the village. Irene and Gerry loaned a copy of this book to each of us to help us understand what had been here before. Gerry mentioned that Professor Smyly, whom she held in high regard, had recently passed away; but that his wife and co-author was still alive.

She also pointed out that Emily Carr had painted the totems in this village, and that her mother had guided Ms. Carr to them. They had to fight their way through the Salal, she said; at that time there was a lot more underbrush. Now it’s mostly native grasses, very soft.

Faces and bodies of animals are carved into the wood of ten totems that stand along a beach
Emily Carr's 1912 watercolour Skedans Poles, Queen Charlotte Islands. Royal BC Museum and Archives, Victoria

The houses were only located along the southern beach, not the northern one, since the wind was stronger on the north side and trees sheltered the south side beach. Gerry’s ancestral town is Tanu. Since the Watchmen usually rotate through the various villages and other stations, we asked her if she had stayed there. She told us no, she hadn’t and didn’t want to… “too many ghosts.” She said that even here at Skedans, many miles away, she thought she could hear the drums of Tanu from time to time. Such is the legacy of the terrible epidemics of the late 19th century which depopulated the whole southern half of the Islands.

On leaving Skedans/K’uuna we entered the last phase of our voyage, turning west into Cumshewa Inlet between Louise Island and a peninsula of Moresby Island to the north, and thence into Gillett Arm to our point of departure 2½ days ago at Moresby Camp. Laura had orchestrated the trip like a work of art, never taking the same route twice and balancing out the dramatic (and scary) passages with quiet moments of reflection.

On our way we passed close to Cumshewa, another uninhabited Haida village whose hereditary chief had built a longhouse there. We again passed the ruined dock of the lumber company that had cut Sitka Spruce during WWII for Mosquito aircraft (and for which nearby Mosquito Lake was named), and we docked at Moresby Camp.

Grey clouds drift over green mountains behind a rocky beach. Two covered boats docked by the shore
Returning to our point of departure at Moresby Camp

We got out of our rubber outfits for the last time, confident veterans now; a lot different from our enthusiastic but trepidation-filled departure a couple of days before. Laura pulled up the boat, helped transfer luggage to the van, and then drove the van across logging roads to the ferry terminal at Alliford Bay. Here we paid for our journey and said farewell to our remarkable pilot and guide. She had expressed some reticence concerning airplane tours when we were visiting Hotspring Island; when we asked her if she could fly a plane, she said no. None of us believed it.

The five intrepid voyagers stayed together on the ferry, exchanging addresses and email coordinates and promising to send photos. In fact we did see each other two days later on North Beach east of Masset, and had supper together at “Moon Over Naikoon”, and we got along just as well.


Other observations regarding Haida Gwaii

A majority of the non-natives we met had originally visited Haida Gwaii with the intention of staying for a short holiday; and here they were, 10 or 20 or more years later.

At the time of our visit, there were no cell phones on the islands, and no chains such as Tim Hortons. There were, however, a considerable number of one-of-a-kind enterprises with unusual business methods, including a restaurant that seemed to be open only on Tuesdays.

The frequently-used expression “non-native” (see above) shows high respect for the native Haida people and their central role, historic and current, in the islands.