HAIDA GO SEEK
In a fast-paced world, this Canadian island is like a restorative gulp of oxygen
Overtourism is the latest travel industry buzzword. In colloquial terms, it describes too many visitors flocking to a destination, causing traffic and pedestrian chaos, jampacking landmarks, hotels and restaurants, and generally pushing infrastructure to its limits. It drives the locals nuts and tests the patience of those travelling for pleasure.
At the other blissful end of the spectrum is Canada’s Haida Gwaii. On this 10,000sq km archipelago 100km south of Alaska, there is only one traffic light and elevator. As a local tells me, “If there are three cars outside the bar, you know inside there’s a party.”
There is also more biomass per square meeting than anywhere in the world. Not the infuriating selfie-stickwielding human kind, but trees, plants, animals, insects, marine life and so on. The claim that this is the most oxygenated air in the world is perfectly feasible.
Haida Gwaii is also so far off the usual tourist trails that when, during my 24 hours in transit in Vancouver, I mention my travel plans to Canadians, few of them are familiar with the area (previously called the Queen Charlotte Islands). I tell them it’s a 2½-hour flight from here, or an eight-hour ferry ride from Prince Rupert in northern British Columbia.
This lack of awareness soon may change, because, if Barcelona feels like a mosh pit or you can’t find a bed in Iceland, remote, magical and “undertouristed” places like Haida Gwaii, population 4500, may inch into itineraries and onto bucket lists. I’m told by the guide who greets me, “you’ll never be able to experience it all”, but in five days I do my best. Here’s a taste of the place nicknamed the Galapagos of the North.
The aerial view from the small plane which takes me to Haida Gwaii sums it up in a snapshot: one way there’s ocean, the other it’s dense, monotone green.
Over the few days, in the ancient and old growth forests of Sitka and golden spruce, western and mountain hemlock, pine, and the hero of them all, cedar, come into full view. Daily trail walks reveal the ecosystem complexity. Trees more than 60m high stand majestic over fresh moss, dramatic, sculptural root systems and 1145 different types of mushroom.
The Golden Spruce Trail in Port Clements is most famous. First, it is tied to a folkloric tale about disrespect for nature and the futility of focusing
on the past rather than moving into the future; then the subsequent, tragic, real-life cutting down of the tree that symbolises the story.
The day I visit, the walk is choked with six other hikers and we all stop to marvel at an 1800-year-old cedar. A carved sign explains the importance of the land: “I am more than a forest. I am a lifeline. Within my canopy is a pharmacy for sustaining life. Licorice root, mint and yew provide proven remedies. I am rich with life – geese, deer, beef, cranes, and ravens. The Haida eat only what is necessary. I can be transformed into paddles, medicines, art, nourishment, baskets, tools, clothes, and homes. I provide food, shelter and survival. In turn, the Haida bestow allegiances, thanks, and respect. Together we live harmoniously”.
Many visitors choose the DIY option for exploring, but we go with Dale Lore, logger-turnedenvironmental activist, and his son Alan, a kayak guide and operator of a backpacker hostel in Port Clements. Their knowledge of local history and customs, and ability to navigate the 4WDs down many loosely charted roads, give the day a real local flavour.
Day trips are spent zigzagging through waterways with local fishermen, or flying overhead in a seaplane, and reveal that the ocean is just as vital to the Haida as the forest. At the large end of sea life are whales, dolphins – 20 species in all, including grey, humpback, orca and minke – sea lion and seals, salmon, halibut, rockfish, and various crustacean. Brothers James “Flicker Bird” and William “Moonshadow” Cowpar of Haida Style Expeditions tell me to treat the relationship with the sea as you would with your family: with respect, honour and awe. They add that Haida heaven is underwater and people who have had good lives come back as killer whales. I learn that in addition to
gasysiigang, the person who sizes up the waves so the boat can go out, there are 54 words for the types of waves and weather conditions including
sgiidGaadxaagang or waves hit boat and knock it about; gaay.yuuwaay
gaayGaaging meaning waves are flat;
and gam nang gii tl’a chiixwaay gid gang, tide waits for no one.
Phred Collins, a guide from Haida House, is another passionate local keen to preserve and promote the region’s beauty. He speaks of
yah’guugang or respect for living and non-living things, and has a particular passion for the region’s birdlife which includes nearly 300 species and 750,000 breeding seabirds.
Black bears are another attraction, though not as easy to spot. During my five-day visit, I have three encounters: two from a boat when I spot lone bears on the shores, another from a 4WD when a family of four wanders over the road. They’re smaller than grizzlies, but it’s a thrill to see them.
For a greater understanding of the culture and history of the Haida people and their land, visit Heritage Centre at Kay Llnagaay in Skidegate. Here you’ll learn the importance of totem poles and the skill which goes into making them. Story poles are those at the front of every village, telling the story of the clan or family who lives there; mortuary poles hold the remains of a person of high esteem; and memorial poles for a deceased person whose body did not make it home, usually lost at sea.
The history of the Haida Watchman is also explained. These protectors of the natural and cultural heritage make remote parts of the region home for summer ensuring no more than 12 people at a time visit.
WHERE TO STAY
My base for the week is Haida House, a bed and breakfast at Tllaal that was a bear hunting lodge prior to the banning of such practices. There are two standout reasons to stay here: first, the warmth and knowledge of the hosts, Joelle Rabu especially, means every question I have about the area is answered with rich detail, Next is the food. Haida House restaurant is also the go-to for locals. In a quest to learn the differences between sockeye, chum, coho, pink and chinook, I choose salmon for every meal. Sometimes it’s grilled, other times smoked, dried into jerky, candied or cured.
Rooms are simple – twin beds, a desk, small bathroom, no television – and there’s a common room with TV and basic refreshments. On an island still with limited full-service accommodation options, this is one of the most established.
Loosely charted roads meander through the ancient forests; locals have a keen respect for the land and wildlife.