Land of the Watchmen: The Queen Charlotte Islands

Known as the Canadian Galápagos, the Queen Charlotte Islands make a breathtaking argument for sustainable tourism. You can thank the native Haida, who keep a close eye on the place.

Sea lions frolic in the southern part of Gwaii Haanas National Park Reserve

The spongy forest floor, studded with stumps and toadstools, looks like it's been draped with a damask of emerald moss. I'm standing still, transfixed by the twisted roots of a toppled Sitka spruce. The upended root bell, as it's called, must be 30 feet in diameter and has created an intimate alcove in the rain forest, fit for a troll fiesta. Awed, I reach for comparisons: It's like a Japanese Zen garden, maybe, or a glade of Ents, the walking trees from The Lord of the Rings.

"I know what you mean," chuckles James Williams, one of the Haida Watchmen who oversee significant native sites in the Queen Charlotte Islands. "It's totally Yoda's den in here."

Located off the west coast of British Columbia, the archipelago of more than 150 islands is sometimes referred to as Canada's Galápagos. Animals grow big (black bears can reach the size of Volkswagen Beetles), and plants grow odd (there's a genetically unique spruce with golden needles). Seabirds lay eggs in the roots of millennium-old cedars, and the waters remain populated by pods of whales. Bald eagles seem about as common here as pigeons in city parks. It's the kind of place that appears, in many ways, never to have changed.

And if forest preservation activists have their way, it won't be changing anytime soon. In February, after 10 years of vacillation on the initiative, the Canadian government vowed to protect more than five million acres of coastal rain forest from logging. If all goes as planned, by the end of 2006 that same protection will extend to include some of the Queen Charlottes.

The same isolation that allows a rich biodiversity to thrive has its downside: Getting to the islands isn't easy. The cheapest method is to drive 16 hours north from Vancouver to Prince Rupert, then take an eight-hour ferry across the rough Hecate Strait. I opted for Plan B: a two-hour flight ($155 each way) from Vancouver to Sandspit Airport on a twin-propeller Dash 8.

Most visitors use Queen Charlotte City (pop. 1,000) as a base to explore the islands, which are known as Haida Gwaii, or "Place of the People," to the islands' 2,000 Haida natives. (There's one other branch of the Haida people, called the Kaigani; they live on Alaska's Prince of Wales Island.) The city is on the south end of Graham Island, the archipelago's largest. It's a pretty low-key place: Fishing boats bob in the small harbor, and seaplanes wait by the pier. There's not a single chain hotel, store, or fast-food restaurant. Locals don't like to use cell phones. And the area businesses tend to multitask in interesting ways. I made sure to show up for a salmon dinner at Queen B's, a restaurant that also sells Tibetan prayer flags. Premier Creek Lodging, a 12-room cedar hotel originally built for steamship passengers in 1910, does double duty as a car-rental agency.

But no one comes to the Queen Charlottes for the city life. Most travelers' main destination is the stunning Gwaii Haanas National Park Reserve (Gwaii Haanas is "Place of Wonder" in Haida, which is also the name of the language), co-managed by the Haida and the Canadian government. A particular highlight I was intent on seeing is Ninstints on Anthony Island (SGaang Gwaii), the ruins of an old Haida village. It's one of the few places in the world where ancient totem poles are still in their original setting.

Without a private float plane or a $1,500-a-night reservation at a posh sportfishing lodge, getting from Queen Charlotte City to Gwaii Haanas takes some serious planning. Or so I learned at the Visitor Information Centre in Queen Charlotte City. Only 300 visitors are allowed into the park each day during high season, from May to October, and (other, better-organized) people start reserving summer permits on February 1. There are no designated campgrounds; a free lecture on low-impact camping and safety is required for those who choose to go in their own boats. Most people, however, travel with a guide, and get to skip the lesson.

As a solo traveler without a reservation, I had one option: to leave my name with one of several charter companies, such as Moresby Explorers or South Moresby Air, which lead excursions to Anthony Island. I gave my phone number to South Moresby Air, hoping fellow adventurers would also drop by and be willing to share the substantial cost of a day's charter.

While waiting for the call over the next few days, I took a series of day trips around Graham Island, where the bulk of the Queen Charlottes' 5,000 residents live. I followed the island's only highway through the east coast community of Tlell and then headed inland, passing so many pint-size black-tailed deer that they started to look like lawn ornaments. There are only 54 miles of paved highway on Graham Island, and in Naikoon Provincial Park, the asphalt soon gave way to dirt. The cedar trees were tightly packed. Their branches were blanketed with moss--at times, it grew into bulbous shapes that called to mind cocoons of hibernating aliens. Naikoon is a protected wilderness area, but there's also one comfortable beachfront place to stay, the Alaska View Lodge on the northernmost coast.

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Note:This story was accurate when it was published. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.
 

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