July 10 – July 17, 2014: Haida Gwaii, ~250km
I have known about the islands formerly known as the Queen Charlotte Islands for many years, but they didn’t mean anything to me until recently. Formerly, they were simply a shape on a map. An apparition beyond the horizon. I knew they were north of Vancouver Island, and I knew they were inhabited. That’s about it. In fact, I didn’t even know about their name change (which happened about four years ago, I believe) until I began to earnestly consider visiting them on my way north. They are an archipelago of about 150 islands, but the two principal landmasses are Graham Island to the north and Moresby Island below it. Graham Island carries the majority of the population in towns or reserves: Queen Charlotte City, Skidegate, Tlell, Port Clements, Masset, Old Massett, etc. Moresby Island’s main settlement is Sandspit on its northeastern tip.
I was bound for the northern island, as I have a friend who lives in Masset, the sibling of a friend whom I stayed with on my previous X-Canada trip, in fact.
As I boarded the Northern Expedition at Port Hardy the previous morning, I had the early symptoms of a head cold. I was very fortunate to have met the folks I did at the rest area by the terminal, because they provided me with a couch to crash on in Prince Rupert, the Inside Passage route’s endpoint, and a temporary rest stop for me before one more ferry ride to the islands.
The next morning, my symptoms were worse, but I knew I had to make the connecting ferry, so I stumbled off the couch and onto my bike for a short but miserable ride down to the ferry terminal. I immediately took a room on board, hoping that the rest might prevent my symptoms from worsening.
No dice, but I did manage to sleep for the entire 8 hour ride. I was feeling quite delirious, and I knew I shouldn’t chance wild camping. I headed towards Queen Charlotte City – about 5km from the ferry terminal – and took a room in the first hotel I came across. The owner took pity and offered me a reduced rate. I quickly went to sleep in cold sweats. Welcome to Haida Gwaii.
After a couple of nights in the hotel I was ready to get going. It’s never fun being sick in an unfamiliar place, and especially so given that I wanted to be out exploring this unfamiliar new land. Small hotel rooms are no place restless wanderers.
The road from QCC to Tlell traces south then eastern coast of Graham Island. From there it heads inland to Port Clements on what is apparently the longest “perfectly straight” stretch of road in BC (quite the claim). From there, it winds its way just east of the Masset Inlet towards Masset.
I stayed in Masset for several days, and spent my final night in Haida Gwaii wild camping on East Beach with a new friend. I’ll share my thoughts of the island on a few topics.
Coming to the island, I had a very narrow view of first nations’ culture, one defined by its simplified caricature pervasive in the tourist-friendly city of Victoria. I was hoping that my time on Haida Gwaii, a place where the Haida population accounts for around 45% of the total, would give a more human dimension to my many untenable assumptions.
Everyone I met, even briefly, was warm and engaging. What seemed most pervasive in the first nations (Haida) people was a great sense of humour. Upon arriving at a nondescript building, I asked a local if it was the liquor store. His response was “Ya saw me leaving it, didn’t ya?” I received smiles and friendly nods as I rode down the streets, and I never felt unsafe, even if I left my bike temporarily unattended and unlocked.
The people here struck me as those searching for simplicity in life, or perhaps for something lost in the rapid development of civilization. If one wanted to truly be “off the grid,” this is the place for it. I sensed a purity of intention in them, a desire for an honest existence alongside nature, not at its expense. Homes were understated and unobtrusive, for the most part. Occasionally, I saw egregious, western homes with multi-car garages and souped-up SUVs, but these were infrequent enough to be more amusing than offensive.
Haida Gwaii is understated in its presentation: the trees are shorter on average, often resembling bonsai due to the shallow topsoil near the road (and sometimes extending much further away from it); the mountain range that gives definition to the southern horizon is one of humble proportions, rising just over 1000m above the sea at its highest point (not small per se, but compared to the coastal mountains of BC whose greatest peak, Mount Waddington, reaches just over 4000m, a modest summit). In stark contrast are the impressive spectacles of North Beach – spanning at least 30km along the northern coast of Graham Island – and East Beach, lining nearly the entire eastern coast of the island. On a clear day, Alaska is visible to the north and mainland BC to the east.
Marshes, covered in water lilies, frequently appear along the roadside, especially inland. The presence of marshes would seem to speak against the potential for farming, but, near Tlell, there was clear evidence of an active farming community: large, fenced-in pastures, ploughing equipment, and a sign indicating a weekly farmers market.
The islands invited adventure and exploration. Little trails jutted into the forest from the main road, and the beachside shoulder was riddled with well-worn pullouts snaking away into private clearings by the surf. Off the main highway, on old logging access roads and trail beds, there was an unkempt ruggedness. While exploration felt encouraged, it was hardly offered up on a platter. I once went with some friends in search of a popular hike, Sleeping Beauty, only to spend most of the day in search of the trailhead instead, a sort of adventure in its own right.
I don’t think I experienced the adventure here that some might come seeking – one filled with epic views, precarious hikes, or crashing waves, but I found, in littler moments, an equally memorable experience that I had difficulty relinquishing.
I remember tentatively wading over sea asparagus through rapidly rising tidal waters on the return from a meandering coastal hike (the Pesuta shipwreck).
I remember a conversation with a Haida argillite carver, Myles Edgars, in which he displayed with uninhibited enthusiasm his love for his craft, and his appreciation for simple pleasures, like the view of bears on the beach across the Masset Inlet. He asked that I find him a wife on Vancouver Island.
I remember looking to the horizon off the northern beach and seeing the distant, craggy coast of Alaska. I felt pulled towards them with an indescribable intensity: the pull of unfamiliar lands soon to be discovered.
I remember the pervasive presence of bald eagles, almost to the point of banality.
I remember seeing, on the beach, the cloven footprints of feral cows, descendants of free-range cattle left behind by earlier settlers. The hippy cows.
I remember waking up in the middle of the night on East Beach. A waning gibbous moon hanging low in the eastern sky lit up the night, yet the Milky Way was clearly visible directly overhead. I stood outside, naked, vulnerable. The ink black surface of Hecate Strait was placid, save for the gentle coaxing of the breeze. The sound of the water lapping against the shores was as tentative as that of the leaves rustling behind me. I was saturated with the minutia. I crawled back into the tent, my sleeping bag, transfixed.
These oddly specific experiences hardly scratch the surface of my time on Haida Gwaii, but they do stand out, more so on reflection. The whole that they were a part of is one I will cherish. and I wonder if the road ahead will ever satisfy me in the way that my six days on the islands have.
I suppose, on some level, I knew that this might happen. The fear born from leaving the comfort found in an extended stay is not new to me. Leaving Quebec City, QC and Waterloo, ON last year left me feeling similarly distraught. In times like this, I find it helpful to remember that, in the past, the fear was often short-lived.
Try as I might, however, I can’t stop thinking of past goodbyes, and not future hellos. Time to focus on the physical. Just turn the pedals. Rotate the wheels. Inch by inch. Minute by minute. A few more days. A few more cities. Somewhere down the road, I’ll regain my momentum.
But first, one more ferry ride.