It’s calm, sunny and a little chilly as the Haida Gwaii Highlander putters out from the Queen Charlotte harbour with Trent Moraes at the wheel. This afternoon, it so happens that a local Haida chief from the Skidegate Gidins clan wants to check his crab traps, so we’re heading out to pick him up. Steering the landing craft around a bay and right up to the shore, Moraes tells me this is the same boat the Royals embarked on when they visited the islands during their Canadian tour last fall. “And now you’re with Haida royals!” he says, smiling. When Chief Wiigaanad (whose English name is Sidney Crosby) gets on board, all casual in a red tuque with a turquoise pompom, dark-rimmed glasses and gumboots, I cancel the curtsey and get to chatting. As we skirt the coastline of Skidegate, one of the larger communities on this northern archipelago, he points out his totem pole, the first to be erected by a chief in 100 years. Wiigaanad hauls his traps up from 20 metres, throws back the female encrusted in coral-coloured eggs and those that aren’t a hand’s-span wide, and there’s our dinner on deck. For bait, he’s using a chunk of halibut that would give a fishmonger emotions. No wonder people around here say the islands could feed all of Canada. A feeling of abundance surrounds us – it seems that everything and anything is out there.
With a lot of sea lions in the area, killer whales are feasting, too; we might even spot krill-loving humpbacks and greys. Entering the Narrows, tree-brushed inlets between Moresby and Graham islands that are notoriously shallow and percolated with whirlpools, I’m scanning the water, trying not to want it too hard. And then up ahead, there they are: solid darkness rising from liquid darkness. Dorsal fins arc through the water as two orca calves follow their mother, who must be six metres long and several tonnes in weight. Heavy and buoyant, with those didn’t-have-to-be-so-distinctive two-tone markings of brightest white and slickest black, they show themselves for a few minutes before descending to the depths. “Stealth mode,” Moraes comments, noting that they can travel up to 50 kilometres an hour.
Back at the wharf, I borrow a pail for those Dungeness crabs and make a short grocery list. Item one: butter. Item two: wine. After a stop at the store in Queen Charlotte (a sign in the window says No Shirts No Service), my friend and I head north toward Highwater House, arriving at our seaside cottage near the town of Masset under armfuls of stars. Getting the crabs into the pot of steaming seawater goes a little sideways – think the lobster scene in Annie Hall – but they turn out so freshly delicious, we don’t even need butter.
Sometimes called the Hawaii of the North, and even the Galápagos of the North, these lush islands on B.C.’s north coast are bucket-list material for folks looking to connect with the planet. From the Gwaii Haanas National Park in the south to Tow Hill at the northern tip, this is the Canadian wilderness on steroids: red cedar, yellow cedar, Sitka spruce, waves, wind, rock. And from the moment the airplane lands at Sandspit, you sense you’re part of something bigger. Most people visit in summer, but the off-season has its own magic. The waves stand up and howl and hurl razor clams onto the shore; storm-watching and surfing are prime from October to May. Fewer visitors means perhaps more space for serendipity – the local Haida, hippies and loggers (total population 4,760) have time to spend with strangers in a strange land. All the better because cell coverage goes with the wind. Watching the reception bars on my phone disappear, I go through the city-girl states of anger, denial and finally acceptance. Pretty soon, I stop checking what time it is.
There are only 120 kilometres of paved roads on Haida Gwaii; the rest are logging roads that end in a question mark. Head into the woods, and who knows what you’ll find: forest canoes, which were made on the spot where the tree was felled and abandoned before being portaged to a waterway that leads to the ocean; or maybe a loggers’ shanty from the early 1900s, in a clearing of alder stumps. You don’t really want to drive too far into the backwoods without a truck, a radio and a spare tire, but a good land guide like Alan Lore, based out of a youth hostel in Port Clements, will point out the small things as well, like a rock left on a stump by a raven to remind you it lives here, too (according to Haida lore, the god Raven founded the place).
“We call this the fairy highway,” says Lore, pointing ahead to what’s clearly a portal to another dimension. He’s parked the car at the end of one of those roads to nowhere. With a swing of his dreadlocks, he sets off along a path so cushioned with thick moss that my feet sink in as I follow him. As we wend our way through a canopy of limitless second-growth spruce and cedar, balancing on slippery logs that have fallen conveniently over gushing streams, the air is so cool and fresh I could drink it. This whole landscape of interconnected green has sprung up since this area was logged 50 years ago, and it’s absolute magic. Now, I’m not claiming that I actually saw fairies. But if leprechauns were to appear in this forest, carrying little bindles on their backs, it would totally make sense that they’d come here from Ireland for a vacation. It all seems possible in Haida Gwaii.
Amid this abundance, watchfulness – the Haida have stewarded this archipelago for some 14,000 years, through logging and commercial fishing, smallpox epidemics, residential schools and all the rest of it. These days, positive signs. A winning basketball scene: The Skidegate Saints will be competing again this summer at the World Indigenous Basketball Challenge, against Maori, Haitian and Sudanese teams. A Haida feature film: Set in the 1800s, told in Haida dialects and made by the same producers as the Inuit film Atanarjuat: The Fast Runner, it will start shooting soon. A new sustainable fishing and food-gathering company: Haida Wild is based on yahguudang, the notion of respect for all living things.
One point of pride is the Haida Heritage Centre, a series of interconnected longhouses built on an ancient village site, opened 10 years ago to share what local people call “living culture” – not just artefacts, but artwork, dance and craft. “Haida art is our version of an encyclopedia; within the images our histories are intertwined,” says cultural ambassador Erika Stocker as she tours me through a collection of the poles, woven hats, masks, bentwood boxes and giant canoes (“Gorgeous, but tippy – I’ve been in them a few times,” she laughs). Haida art makes visible the things we cannot see. The manifestations are majestic and delightful: That bear is flaring his nostril at something delicious, the sea otter is enjoying the prickle of urchin against his belly, that frog is either going to giggle or leap. The eagle and raven are more serious, of course, but there’s joy there too. “To us, animals are basically people in animal suits, so we have to see them as part of us,” Stocker explains. This just in: an enormous ear from an antique totem, found at auction, that curator Sean Young has identified as once belonging to Yaku, a community that was abandoned in the 1850s. Stolen legacy, returned to its home. The pieces at the Vancouver airport are stunning, but in their natural setting, they are even more powerful. Another day, when we come across a master carver, Christian White in Old Massett, working on a 20-metre pole, I grasp the immensity when he explains that three metres of it will be underground, and still it will tower above you. Replicating a historic totem that stood in Hiellen Village 150 years ago, it’s slated to go up in Naikoon Provincial Park in June. White and his eight young apprentices have their work cut out for them.
Even if the coldest months don’t deep-freeze, there’s no forgetting you’re up north. The sun sidles over the horizon around 9 a.m., and takes until early afternoon to clear the treetops. The shadows are epic, all day long. For someone still on Eastern Standard Time, the hours between 5 a.m. and sunrise are ripe for introspection. And so it is that, aiming for extrospection, I put on a headlamp, trot down the cottage’s outdoor staircase and step right into big nature. It feels like someone opened a giant fridge door over the coast. Wind rustles the forest, glides over the scraggy plants on the dunes and onto the river flats, and joins the lap and thunder of the ocean. Driftwood forms are dark against the sand. Shells crunch underfoot, bull kelp bursts. As I’m beachcombing, from the Sangan River to South Beach, a beam of light catches paw prints – the claws go in very deep, and I gulp back the thought that bears don’t always hibernate here. In the pink of dawn, I find the most perfect stone. It’s cool, dark, smooth and shaped for my hand, a bespoke stress-reliever. By the time I get back inside, Alaska is discernible in the distance and there’s Folger’s in my cup.
On our final day, we have Tow Hill Road to ourselves; in summer, we’d be racing RVs to get the best camping spot in Naikoon Provincial Park, at the northern extreme of the islands. Hiking paths lead through a quiet landscape of monumental trees – just my breath and the lungs of the planet – up to volcanic cliffs. The information plaques at lookout points spin folklore about giant spiders and underwater creatures, explaining that Haida stories “reach back to the time of the supernatural.” And I’m not checking what time it is now.
K’aaw, or herring roe on kelp, is a favourite First Nations treat. The Nanaimo bar of the sea, it’s salty to the tongue, bursts with a moist crunch and looks as though it were made by a sushi chef. in fact, this delicacy, which occurs naturally when fish lay their eggs on the broad-leafed seaweed in sheltered coastal waters, is a popular export to Japan.