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