A close-up cruise of Bri­tish Columbia’s mys­ti­cal isles

San Francisco Chronicle - - FRONT PAGE - By Margo Pfeiff

Delv­ing into cul­ture and wildlife of Haida Gwaii aboard a con­verted ‘lux­ury’ tug­boat.

I’m not sure who’s more sur­prised, me or the black bear.

The early morn­ing fog parts for a mo­ment and there we are, him frozen while chomp­ing on a beach snack and me half­way through a pad­dle stroke. The in­stant passes and feels so nat­u­ral and non­threat­en­ing that I con­tinue kayak­ing and he car­ries on am­bling the peb­bly shore­line at the foot of lush green rain for­est trees where bald ea­gles perch like gi­ant white can­dles.

It’s day four of a week­long cruis­ing ad­ven­ture, pok­ing around the nooks and cran­nies of the mys­ti­cal Haida Gwaii Is­lands off Bri­tish Columbia’s north coast, just south of the Alaskan Pan­han­dle.

One of my great pas­sions is small­boat-cruis­ing through re­mote wilder­ness on for­mer work­ing boats, and B.C. has plenty, in­clud­ing the MV Swell, a clas­sic, con­verted 1912 tug­boat that took on a new ca­reer as a lux­ury tour craft with Maple Leaf Ad­ven­tures.

Ev­ery morn­ing starts with the same bliss­ful rou­tine: curl­ing up early with a cof­fee on an up­per-deck sofa, de­vour­ing a deca­dent break­fast (smoked B.C. salmon eggs Bene­dict), then slip­ping into a kayak to ex­plore the shore­line where I spot cu­ri­ous ot­ters and seals, beavers, deer, bears and dis­tant whales.

The clear, cold wa­ters are a win­dow into the lives of Tech­ni­color starfish and anemones.

While the 88-foot Swell’s lines are stately and grace­ful and it has a long his­tory as a hard­work­ing pow­er­house along B.C.’s coast, it also has a cheer­ful cute­ness about its physique that re­minds me of the “Theodore Tug­boat” kids’ series that ran on PBS. Since 2015, af­ter a $4 mil­lion re­fit, this un­ortho­dox ex­pe­di­tion yacht has been ply­ing those same wa­ters — from the Gulf Is­lands off Van­cou­ver to the Great Bear Rain­for­est and Haida Gwaii — to the de­light of a max­i­mum of 12 guests in six el­e­gant, wood­pan­eled, en-suite cab­ins.

I had come to Haida Gwaii to ex­pe­ri­ence the Haida peo­ple’s rich cul­ture, for glimpses of their an­ces­tors’ long-aban­doned vil­lage sites shel­ter­ing the world’s last re­main­ing stand­ing totem and mor­tu­ary poles now pro­tected within Gwaii Haanas Na­tional Park.

I wanted to walk wild beaches, hike in some of the con­ti­nent’s most ver­dant rain for­est drenched in 52 an­nual inches of rain, to whale- and wildlife-watch and — hope­fully — to spot the elu­sive and al­most com­i­cal-look­ing mi­gra­tory tufted puf­fin in a re­gion nick­named “Canada’s Gala­pa­gos.”

I had flown from Van­cou­ver to Mas­set, a fish­ing town at the north­ern end of Gra­ham Is­land, the big­ger of two main is­lands that make up the blade-shaped ar­chi­pel­ago 70 miles off Bri­tish Columbia’s coast.

We start by tour­ing Old Mas­set, one of two re­main­ing Haida vil­lages, with guide Cody Waller.

“There were once over 500 Haida com­mu­ni­ties in the is­lands with a pop­u­la­tion of more than 7,000,” he ex­plains. Then, in the late 1800s, small­pox epi­demics dec­i­mated their num­bers to less than 700.

Over the past half cen­tury, Haida cul­ture has ex­pe­ri­enced a re­mark­able re­vival, and one of the game-chang­ing new mas­ters is carver and Old Mas­set Mayor Jim Hart. Seated in the open air next to his sea­side home, he is sur­rounded by the smell of fresh cedar shav­ings lit­tered around a gi­ant totem pole, his lat­est project.

Nearby, at Sarah’s Haida Arts and Jew­elry, lo­cated in a styl­ized old long­house com­plete with a funky wood stove, I browse the works of lo­cal artists from painters and print­mak­ers to sculp­tors.

We spot three sand­hill cranes and a bear en route to a pic­nic on peb­bly Agate Beach in Naiko on Pro­vin­cial Park, where we pick wild thim­ble and salmonber­ries and hike into forests of gi­ant Sitka spruce and cedars where cash­mere moss blan­kets ev­ery­thing from fallen logs to fence posts.

Our first night is ashore at the na­tive-owned sea­side Haida House near the vil­lage of Tlell. We start on fresh ra­zor clams, then move on to Dun­geness crab, salmon, hal­ibut and other lo­cal ocean del­i­ca­cies.

“We have a say­ing here,” our wait­ress says. “‘When the tide is out, the ta­ble is set.’ ”

At Skide­gate the next morn­ing, the sec­ond Haida com­mu­nity on Gra­ham Is­land’s south­ern tip, we visit the $26 mil­lion Haida Her­itage Cen­tre opened in 2008, a na­tive-run com­plex in­clud­ing a mu­seum, tra­di­tional am­phithe­ater, Haida cafe and a vast ca­noe/totem shed where mas­ters teach young peo­ple carv­ing skills.

The com­plex lies above a cres­cent beach, a con­tem­po­rary ren­der­ing of a series of tra­di­tional long­houses that once stood here. Six totems erected out front were cre­ated by lo­cal carvers in­clud­ing the iconic Haida artist Bill Reid, whose mon­u­men­tal works are show­cased in Van­cou­ver and at the Canadian Em­bassy in Washington, D.C.

By early af­ter­noon we are on the 20minute ferry ride to Moresby, Haida Gwaii’s sec­ond big­gest is­land. Af­ter a bumpy hour on a for­est log­ging road, we reach the launch where a Zo­diac boat shut­tles us out to the Swell, an­chored just off­shore.

Step­ping aboard the 104-year-old Swell is a trip back in mar­itime his­tory. Pan­eled in nat­u­ral wood with glis­ten­ing nau­ti­cal brass touches, the tug­boat has also been a fish­ing boat, a pri­vate yacht and a live-aboard scuba boat. Af­ter warm muffins and a warm wel­come, we

pull up two traps, count­ing 151 fresh spot prawns des­tined for din­ner.

We put­ter south­ward into the clus­ter of 150 densely forested is­lands ac­ces­si­ble only by float­plane and boat, most of them part of Gwaii Haanas Na­tional Park, a unique re­serve jointly man­aged by Parks Canada and the Coun­cil of the Haida Na­tion.

We sail past ru­ins of old wooden salmon can­ner­ies and log­ging camps that once clear-cut these lush rain forests. We an­chor that evening at Ikeda Cove, where we hike in the morn­ing amid the moss-blan­keted rem­nants of an early 1900s cop­per mine com­plete with rails from a horse-drawn tramway.

On our sec­ond day, Jane Tay­lor of Bos­ton snags a 15-pound ling­cod that be­comes part of that evening’s Thai chow­der along with salmon and hal­ibut caught by a guest on the pre­vi­ous trip. “It weighed 60 pounds and the girl who caught it was only 10!” says our chef, Oliver.

Ev­ery morn­ing af­ter break­fast, I kayak for an hour or more, spot­ting a re­mark­able reper­toire of crit­ters, in­clud­ing, one day, a small herd of Sitka deer munch­ing along the low-tide line on sea as­para­gus that our chef har­vested and served that evening to ac­com­pany our sable­fish din­ner.

One day we spend over an hour bob­bing silently just off­shore watch­ing a black bear — Haida Gwaii is home to North Amer­ica’s big­gest — browse the shore­line. Ev­ery af­ter­noon af­ter a shore ex­pe­di­tion, I sink into the up­per deck’s hot tub with a glass of cus­tom Maple Leaf beer cre­ated by Victoria’s Spin­naker mi­cro­brew­ery, lis­ten­ing to the gen­tle chug of the tug.

In front of two long­houses on Lyell Is­land, where a 1985 block­ade by Haida and en­vi­ron­men­tal­ists brought clear-cut log­ging to a close in these is­lands, we meet Vince Col­li­son, one of the Haida Watch­men — lo­cals who spend sum­mers pro­tect­ing their her­itage and guid­ing vis­i­tors at pop­u­lar is­land sites.

In Au­gust 2013, Vince says, Haida and Parks Canada staff raised the grand Legacy Pole at Lyell Is­land’s Windy Bay. “It was the first mon­u­men­tal pole raised in Gwaii Haanas in 130 years.”

We visit the haunt­ing re­mains of Skedans and T’anuu vil­lages, where mas­sive poles and fallen roof beams make dis­tinct mossy bulges across the for­est floor and span the sunken in­te­ri­ors of on­ces­pa­cious long­houses where ex­tended fam­i­lies lived. And we hear tales about the mass graves of vil­lagers who died of small­pox.

At the aban­doned Rose Har­bour whal­ing sta­tion where a pair of gi­ant metal “bone di­gesters” (ren­der­ing drums) rust on the beach, we en­counter Götz Hanisch, a master Span­ish gui­tar player who also runs a re­mote guest­house and is one of the is­land’s three res­i­dents.

“In the early 20th cen­tury,” he ex­plains, show­ing off a fin whale jaw­bone, baleen and flip­per bones, “4,000 whales were pro­cessed here, their oil be­com­ing fuel and their meat and bones re­duced to fer­til­izer.”

We fol­low our on­board nat­u­ral­ist, Sherry Kirkvold, on a hike to a dis­tinc­tive ca­noe-shaped log on the rain for­est floor.

“The trees were par­tially hol­lowed out be­fore be­ing moved on log rollers to the wa­ter,” she says. “There they were filled with hot stones and wa­ter to steam them open.”

Ca­noes up to 60 feet long were one of the Haida’s most valu­able trad­ing tools and have been found as far afield as North­ern Cal­i­for­nia.

The high­light of the trip is Nin­stints, also known as Sgan Gwaii, a tiny is­land at the ar­chi­pel­ago’s south­ern­most tip. Walk­ing a mossy board­walk from the beach through earthy, pun­gent rain for­est, I glimpse eyes and great gap­ing mouths through the trees ahead. Goose bumps prickle the back of my neck.

One weath­ered totem pole af­ter an­other ap­pears, a tow­er­ing cedar me­nagerie of killer whales, ravens, beavers and bears, tilted and vul­ner­a­ble. A sa­cred site for the Haida, UNESCO also found it pre­cious in 1981 when it was de­clared a World Her­itage Site.

It’s hard to imag­ine the trip could get any bet­ter when Cap­tain Dave sud­denly points ahead of the Zo­diac re­turn­ing us to the Swell. An un­gainly flock of birds is lift­ing off the waves, with chunky or­ange beaks and bright yel­low mo­hawks flap­ping in the wind — “Tufted puffins!” we shout in uni­son, as the un­gainly flock rises, banks and flaps to­ward the mys­ti­cal forests of a sa­cred is­land.

Photos by Margo Pfeiff / Spe­cial to The Chron­i­cle

From top: Kayak­ing around the Haida Gwaii Is­lands off Bri­tish Columbia’s north coast. Mossy trees at Tanu in Gwaii Haanas Na­tional Park. A par­tially com­pleted totem pole by master carver Jim Hart, in Old Mas­set. Happy hour snacks on board the MV Swell, a con­verted 1912 tug­boat.

Pas­sen­gers spend time watch­ing for wildlife on the MV Swell dur­ing a week­long cruise around the Haida Gwaii Is­lands of Bri­tish Columbia.

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