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Gwaii Haanas

Considered to be among the world’s top paddling destinations, Gwaii Haanas is an unequaled oasis of raw wilderness situated at the southern tip of Haida Gwaii. No wonder it is our favourite place to be! It is a world untouched by boundaries where old growth forests and fresh water creeks, ancient human cultures and animals of the sea and land are constantly shifting and shaping each other. Everyday brings new insights and understandings and we are very excited and grateful to be able to explore and witness the wonders of Gwaii Haanas with you!


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Community Living

Haida Gwaii’s small population of approximately 5000 people is divided among 7 unique communities connected to one another by one paved road, which also happens to be the westernmost section of Highway 16. We just call it “the road”.  It takes approximately 2 hours to complete the stunning drive between Queen Charlotte and Masset, along the way, passing protected inlets, winding estuaries, thick forest, sparse bogs, and cattle farms that stretch down to windswept beaches. The journey across Haida Gwaii is an incredible experience in itself, and with so many lovely people to meet along the way, it is sure not to disappoint regardless of the weather.


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A Brief History in Time

Origins of the land – Formal studies by Simon Fraser University suggest that 55000 BCE Haida Gwaii was likely covered with tundra and low meadows which connected to the mainland via the Hecate Strait (then a marshy expanse just above sea level), and was occupied by grazing animals such as the caribou and mammoth. With the recession of the ice age around 16000 BCE, water levels slowly rose and Haida Gwaii eventually became the archipelago we know today. Despite its relatively northern latitude, Haida Gwaii’s climate is moderated by a Pacific Ocean current resulting in mild temperatures and rainfall throughout the year.


Gwaii Haanas

Considered to be among the world’s top paddling destinations, Gwaii Haanas is an unequaled oasis of raw wilderness situated at the southern tip of Haida Gwaii. No wonder it is our favourite place to be! It is a world untouched by boundaries where old growth forests and fresh water creeks, ancient human cultures and animals of the sea and land are constantly shifting and shaping each other. Everyday brings new insights and understandings and we are very excited and grateful to be able to explore and witness the wonders of Gwaii Haanas with you!

NATURE

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Haida Gwaii is host to a great variety of life due to its nutrient rich waters, moderate climate, and relative isolation from human interference. More than 1.5 million seabirds use the islands as their nesting grounds making Haida Gwaii a birder’s paradise. Twenty-three species of marine mammals feed and socialize in the surrounding waters and are often seen while touring by boat. Haida Gwaii also has the highest concentration of endemic sub-species (unique to the geographical area) anywhere in Canada, which is how it earned the nickname “the Galapagos of the north”.

Fish and Sea Creatures

There are literally thousands of different species of fish, sharks invertebrates, and oceanic plants to be found in the waters of Haida Gwaii. Some of the more common (and edible) one’s include – salmon (spring, coho, and steelhead), halibut, lingcod, herring, dungeness crabs, mussels, razor clams, butter clams.

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Marine Mammals

Different varieties of whales, porpoises and dolphins can be seen in these waters depending on the time of year. Grey and humpback whales’ spring migration routes pass through Haida Gwaii on the way to summer feeding grounds further north, while Orca’s are elusive but present all season preying on resident populations of harbour seals and stellar sea lions. Minke, sei, fin, and blue whales are occasionally sighted.

Birds

Haida Gwaii has approximately 4700 km of shoreline rich in food sources for migrating birds, making it one of the single most important avian habitats in Canada. Rhinoceros auklets, ancient murrelets, tufted puffins, horned puffins, Cassin's auklets, pigeon guillemots, Leach's storm petrel and fork-tailed storm petrels are among those most frequently spotted on the water. Bald Eagles, Peale’s Peregrine Falcons, and Saw-whet Owls are the resident raptors.

Terrestrial Mammals

The composition of land mammals on Haida Gwaii has been greatly influenced by humans as some species, such as the caribou and cave bear, were hunted to extinction while others, such as the black-tailed deer, raccoon, rat, and beaver were introduced either by accident or for harvesting purposes. These invasive species have created a great deal of change within such an isolated environment –in some cases re-shaping the very forests themselves. The large iconic black bear of Haida Gwaii is a unique sub-species to its mainland relative and can often be found feeding along the shoreline.

Trees and Plants

Temperate rain forest covers 90% of the islands with alpine tundra and wetlands accounting for the remaining high and low lying areas. Within Gwaii Haanas one will encounter giant western hemlock, sitka spruce and red cedar towering above, with thick vibrant moss carpeting the forest floor below.  There are many varieties of edible plants and mushrooms within the forest, intertidal zone, and shallow coastal waters – some of which we will sample on our trips.

Haida Heritage Sites

Skedans K’uuna Llnagaay (Skedans)

Located on the northeast corner of Louise Island this heritage site is not technically within Gwaii Haanas but well worth a visit. At its height, the village had between 26 to 30 longhouses, 22 frontal poles, 18 single mortuary poles, 3 double mortuary poles, 5 memorial poles, and 5 mortuary figures, making it quite the site to behold. Today, there remains a few carved memorial and mortuary poles along with the obvious depressions of former dwellings, and most importantly, an incredible sense of importance and beauty.

T'aanuu Llnagaay (Tanu)

Once a significant village home to hundreds of Haida, Tanu has now almost entirely retuned to nature with just the faded outlines of long houses to remind us of its former state. The knowledgeable Haida Watchmen of this site help us to visualize what once was with their detailed descriptions of village life.  

Hlk'yah GawGa (Windy Bay)

Famous for the legacy pole, which was raised in August 2013 by visitors, volunteers, park staff and the Haida – a tradition not previously practiced within Gwaii Haanas for the past 130 years. The pole serves as a representation of the co-management of Gwaii Haanas by Parks Canada and the Haida Nation.  Windy Bay was also an important site of protest during the creation of Gwaii Haanas when the Haida, along with Non-Haida supporters, took a stand against logging which was expanding to southern Moresby Island. There are great hiking opportunities in this area that travel along the last remaining watershed of Lyell Island and past 900-year-old sitka spruce trees.

Gandll K'in Gwaay.yaay (Hotspring Island)

This heritage site was once a place of healing and comfort for the Haida that would soak in its warm baths. Unfortunately, in October 2012 a 7.7 magnitude earth quake off the west coast of Haida Gwaii caused a disturbance in the hot water flow which essentially rendered the pools cold. While rumours are circulating that the hot springs have returned, they are still not as they once were. However, some hot water is now

SGang Gwaay (Anthony Island)

This mystical island at the southwestern edge of Gwaii Haanas can be difficult to reach by kayak but well worth the effort. There are multiple entrances to this former Haida stronghold and it’s not difficult to understand why they chose the site. The village of SGang Gwaay consists of several mortuary poles facing out towards Kungit and the Hecate Strait beyond with the depressions of former longhouses dispersed throughout. Guests will walk through narrow ravines and magical forest while exploring this UNESCO World Heritage Site


Community Living

 

Haida Gwaii’s small population of approximately 5000 people is divided among 7 unique communities connected to one another by one paved road, which also happens to be the westernmost section of Highway 16. We just call it “the road”.  It takes approximately 2 hours to complete the stunning drive between Queen Charlotte and Masset, along the way passing protected inlets, winding estuaries, thick forest, sparse bogs, and cattle farms that stretch down to windswept beaches. The journey across Haida Gwaii is an incredible experience in itself, and with so many lovely people to meet along the way, it is sure not to disappoint regardless of the weather.

Sandspit

Quiet, remote, with stunning vistas: this community stands alone on Moresby Island (separated from Graham Island by a 20 min ferry) and now serves as the gateway to Haida Gwaii for anybody flying with Air Canada. Once a thriving logging town, Sandspit has now shifted towards tourism serving as the primary launch point for trips to Gwaii Haanas. All of our guests can expect to spend at least one before and after a trip here – we recommend the Bayview Garden B&B.

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Queen Charlotte

The most southerly community on Graham Island, “Charlotte” is a veritable metropolis with nearly 1500 people and a solid economy. Set deep into the Skidegate Inlet, the view from town is that which most people imagine when dreaming of the iconic west coast: snow-capped mountains reaching down through lush green forests to a rocky, rugged coastline dotted with islets and small coves. The population of Charlotte swells in the summer months when many tourists use the town as a base for exploring the rest of Haida Gwaii.

Skidegate

Located just 5km north from Charlotte this Haida community is a beautiful mix of traditional culture and contemporary development. The Ḵay Llnagaay Heritage Centre is a must visit when in the area . Constructed in 2008 the “Kay Centre” is perfectly situated in a protected bay overlooking the Village and Hecate Strait beyond.  From the outside, this marvel of design emulates a traditional Haida Village, and inside contains a museum, gift shop, conference centre, educational space and restaurant (the Kay Bistro is some of the best food to be had on island). Skidegate is also host to the main ferry terminal where boats regularly arrive from both Prince Rupert and Sandspit (see BC Ferries website for schedules).

Tlell

A further 20 min drive north from Skidegate, Tlell is a very small community nestled into the forest where the Tlell River meets the ocean. You won’t see much from the highway except a few farms and Crow’s Nest Café (another excellent place to eat), but if you explore the side roads you can find some lovely art and craft shops selling locally made pieces. Naikoon Provincial Park, which stretches all the way to the northern most tip of the island, also begins at the Tlell River and provides many great hikes along the beach.

Port Clements

Best known as the infamous logging town which was once home to the now deceased Golden Spruce. “Port” is still active in the forestry sector and simultaneously developing a tourism scene of its own with boat and kayak tours available to explore Masset Inlet.

Old MassetT

Located 2 km north of Masset this Haida community is home to nearly 800 people, including some well-known carvers, and sits on the site of three traditional Haida villages. Old Massett is named after Maast Island, a small island in Masset Sound, which is believed to have been named after an early European sailor who was buried there years ago. Today, Old Masset is the administrative seat of the Council of the Haida Nation, which serves as a strong governing body on island.

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Masset

This community sits at the end of Hwy 16 and bears many similarities to Queen Charlotte in terms of size and composition. Masset has a small airport, which connects to Prince Rupert and Vancouver through Pacific Coastal Air. Most of the locals here can be found surfing at various breaks along Tow Hill Road, which extends north to the very tip of Haida Gwaii. The northern beaches are wild and exposed offering views over to Alaska on a clear day – well worth checking out


A Brief History in Time

Origins of the land

Formal studies by Simon Fraser University suggest that in 55 000 BCE Haida Gwaii was likely covered with tundra and low meadows which connected to the mainland via the Hecate Strait (then, a marshy expanse just above sea level), and was occupied by grazing animals such as the caribou and mammoth. With the recession of the ice age around 16 000 BCE, water levels slowly rose and Haida Gwaii eventually became the archipelago we know today. Despite its relatively northern latitude, Haida Gwaii’s climate is moderated by a Pacific Ocean current resulting in mild temperatures and rainfall throughout the year.

First people

The Haida have a storied history dating back to at least 13 000BCE when both fossil records and Haida tales indicate that people (and trees) started to occupy the islands. The first people would have been greatly dependent on the ocean for food, supplementing their diet with the larger mammals (such as cave bears and caribou) that once occupied the land. As Haida Gwaii eventually became the densely forested environment that we see today, resources were abundant, and the Haida were able to construct intricately designed long houses, canoes, and art forms that define their culture. The Haida were a very powerful group at the height of their development, cruising the coast with giant war canoes to gain power over their mainland neighbours with basic immunity from retaliation due to their remote location.

Colonials

The Spanish vessel, Juan Perez, was the first to arrive at the islands, briefly interacting with a small group of Haida in their canoes off the north shore. At this time, the Haida were nearly 30 000 strong. Many Europeans would follow, including the famous James Cook, to conduct trade with the Haida for the highly prized sea otter pelt, which was once available in abundance. The demand for pelts drove both the First Nations and Europeans alike to hunt the sea otter to near extinction along the entire west coast. At first, the Haida actually benefited from their European interactions, gaining new metals and woodworking techniques which allowed for even greater artistic and engineering developments. This was a brief golden age for the Haida to be horribly overshadowed by their ensuing downfall.  Much like their mainland contemporaries, the Haida were decimated by small pox and venereal disease brought by the Europeans, leaving them defenseless against the following intrusion of settlers. The Haida culture was nearly erased by the “re-education” of the First Nation’s people conducted by the Canadian government as children were taken from their homes and put into residential schools where they were forbidden to even speak their native language.

Industry

From the mid 1800’s, resource extraction has driven the economy on Haida Gwaii with logging and commercial fishing being the primary industries. Following tighter regulations and diminishing resources in the 90’s, both these operations have scaled back significantly and are slowly being over-taken by a growing tourism market.

Recommended Readings

This history provides but a glimpse into the remarkable and dynamic history of Haida Gwaii. The best way to grow familiar with the archipelago is through a first hand visit; however, we highly recommend these books and stories as well.