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.


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.

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