Natural paradise on the edge of the world
There’s a lot of excited rod, reel and tackle talk on the one-hour North Cariboo Air flight from Vancouver to Sandspit, in Canada’s British Columbia. The plane is filled mostly with American fishermen on their way to what used to be the Queen Charlotte Islands
– now known by their indigenous name Haida Gwaii (Islands of the People) – chasing the prized fat salmon that inhabit these pristine East Pacific waters below Alaska.
But I’m heading to the 150-island archipelago they call “the edge of the world” or “the Galapagos of the north” for non-piscatorial pursuits.
While Canada lures plenty of Aussies, Haida Gwaii is not one of the maple leaf nation’s better-known destinations, even among Canadians. But having experienced this frontier paradise, I can attest that the effort in getting there is more than worth it.
From Sandspit Airport on Haida Gwaii, my fellow guests and I board a helicopter for the 15-minute flight to the Englefield Bay fishing lodge to deposit the anglers before a boat transfer to Ocean House. The chopper ride gives us an eagle’s eye perspective of this remote, largely uninhabited island haven off northern British Columbia (eagles are highly significant on Haida Gwaii, but more on that later). We skim across turquoise inlets and island mountain ranges, verdant with thick forests of spruce, cedar and hemlock stretching from soaring peaks all the way down to rugged shoreline. It’s early summer but snow still covers the higher crests.
Ocean House, about 20 minutes by boat from Englefield, is a brand-new luxury wilderness lodge nestled in Peel Inlet, on the northern part of Moresby, one of Haida Gwaii’s two main islands. Opened in June this year, the former fishing lodge underwent a lavish upgrade by Haico, the commercial arm of the native Haida Nation, which also owns wild seafood, fishing lodge and timber businesses.
After motoring gently into the inlet, we tie up at the Ocean House dock to be greeted by a lineup of beaming staff welcoming us “aboard” the floating lodge. The smiling salutations set the tone for the week ahead, during which the Haida people will warmly and proudly show off their heavenly homeland and rich ancient culture.
The lodge boasts just 12 luxe guest rooms with balconies to take in the stunning scenery, as well as a spacious restaurant, cosy upstairs bar with fireplace, theatre room, health spa with steam room, sauna and massage service, library, relaxation deck, gym and gift shop. On the dock, a fleet of shiny new runabouts, kayaks and stand-up paddle boards is at our disposal. We check in before enjoying a welcoming cocktail served by Ocean House’s charismatic barman Rodney Brown, a proud Haida man who loves to share a story or two about his people and their 12,000-plus-year connection with this unspoilt natural wonderland.
Our first dinner gives us a taste of the gourmet feasts we’re in for at Ocean House, where succulent, locally caught seafood – including salmon, halibut, crab, clam and prawns – figures prominently and deliciously on the menu. Many dishes feature foraged produce such as spruce tips and wild mushrooms.
With the sun setting at 10.30pm, we work off dinner with a kayak paddle around the inlet, soaking up the serenity of this arcane archipelago where black bear, deer and raccoons forage for food on the rocky shores, bald eagles soar overhead and orcas bob up next to you without warning.
The next morning, after a sumptuous breakfast, we board the boat for the first of our cultural excursions with Haida elder Captain Richard Gold, a quietly spoken, 70-something historian, author and archaeologist with a deep knowledge of Haida culture. Our destination is Kaisun, one of the old Haida villages that was abandoned in the 1800s when smallpox and other diseases brought by the white man cut
a cruel swath through the native population.
From the pebbly beach ringed by sitka spruce, the captain leads us into the dense forest, where towering trees crane for sunlight and thick, impossibly soft moss shrouds the undergrowth like an enchanted green mist. He points out huge cedar beams that once held up Haida long houses, shows us
a “culturally modified tree” from which his ancestors stripped bark to weave everything from cooking pots to nappies, and let us sample traditional medicinal plants such as the spruce tip (rich in vitamin C) and liquorice root fern (used to combat sore throats). Where the forest meets the shore, young indigenous woman Jaylene Shelford becomes a songbird, crooning a haunting Haida ballad to the beat of her great-grandmother’s elk-hide drum. Later, as we comb the otherwise deserted beach, our Haida hosts break into spontaneous song.
Gold tells of the “supernatural” experience of lying down in these ancient forests, among the spirits of his ancestors. “It was so powerful I just had to get up,” he says. “Everywhere we go, we’re finding archaeology – it’s mind-blowing.”
In the following days, we venture by boat to other sacred spots including majestic Security Inlet, where we shed our shoes and socks to “bathe” in the mossy forest floor. From Gold and our other guides, we hear about their people’s native crests – if you’re Haida, you are either of the eagle or raven clan – and hear the legends that have been passed down.
Legends like that of the greedy village chief who hoarded the sun, the moon and the stars in a bentwood box (a carved cedar trunk used by the Haida to store their treasures), keeping the world in darkness. “Raven turned himself into a hemlock needle, which fell into the chief’s daughter’s drinking water,” Rodney Brown tells us on the banks of Security Inlet. “The daughter swallowed the needle, and Raven was transformed into her unborn child, the chief’s grandson. When he got older, the boy begged and begged the chief to let him play with the bentwood box and finally, the chief relented. “Raven turned himself back into a bird and flew through the smoke-hole [in the chief’s house] into the sky, where he opened the box and released the sun, the moon and the stars.”
On my final morning, as the sun freed by Raven rises above Haida Gwaii, I kayak across the inlet. The trees and dawn sky are perfect inverted reflections in the mirror-glass water, the sploosh of my paddle the only sound to break the tranquility. I’ve been to the edge of the world, and its beauty is boundless.
The writer was a guest of Destination British Columbia
BOOK IT NOW
Haida Gwaii (Islands of the People) is located off British Columbia’s West Coast, about two hours’ flying time from Vancouver.
Camping and motorhome parks through to guesthouses and luxury lodges, such as Ocean House (oceanhouse.ca) and Haida House (haidahouse.ca). Three-night Ocean House packages from $A4546 pp; three-night Haida House packages from $A2190 pp (four- & seven-night packages available for both). Seven nights in both lodges (3 nights Ocean House/4 nights Haida House) from $A9082.
Haida cultural tours, trekking, kayaking, sport fishing, surfing, festivals.
Air Canada has direct daily flights from Brisbane to Vancouver.
FROM THE OCEAN TO THE RIVER ….
The next leg of my Haida Gwaii adventure takes us from Ocean House to Haida House at Tell on Graham Island, home to most of the archipelago’s 5000-odd residents. A car ferry transports us from the northern tip of Moresby Island across a narrow channel to Skidegate Landing on Graham Island.
On the drive north to Tell, we spot a black bear lumbering into the bush. A Bald eagle dries its huge wings atop a colourful totem pole as we pass through the quaint village of Skidegate (where Prince William and Kate paddled a Haida replica war canoe during a royal visit in 2016).
Nestled between the Tlell River and the starkly beautiful beach of Hecate Strait, separating Haida Gwaii and the Canadian mainland, Haida House is a cosy, 10-room, log cabin-style former bear hunting lodge that Haico acquired several years ago, retiring its hunting licence.
It’s our base to explore more of Haida Gwaii over the coming days, starting with the impressive Kay Lingaagaay Heritage Centre and Museum at Skidegate. During a fascinating tour, our guide, Haida artist Albert “Aay Aay” Hans, explains the stories behind the crests on each of the six totem poles erected outside the museum to represent Haida villages: from eagles, ravens, bears and beavers through to the supernatural wasco (sea wolf), thunderbird and two-finned killer whale.
That night, we tuck into a spectacular Haida feast at the oceanfront Skidegate home of local cook Roberta Olson, an elegant lady of indeterminate age who for 20 years has hosted everyone from Japan’s Crown Princess to environmentalist David Suzuki and travelling foodies in her homely living room.
The next day sees on a seaplane and zodiac, travelling to world heritage-listed SGang Gwaay, where a Haida “watchman” (guardian) guides us through the ruins of this sacred ancient village, its weather-beaten totem poles still standing defiantly on the stunning shore in the face of time, tide and rapacious artefact collectors.
Another highlight of our Haida House stay is a day tour with colourful former logger turned greenie Dale Lore, who takes us deep into the local forests to show us Haida cultural treasures including the remains of a huge half-built war canoe, left abandoned when the men carving it presumably dropped dead from smallpox.