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.
After helping us transfer to a Zodiac inflatable boat with a rubber duck mounted on the bow, Lemaire introduced us to a 24-year-old Haida Watchman named James Williams. Employed by the Canadian government to oversee tourists visiting Gwaii Haanas, the Watchmen function as both guides and custodians. They stay in cabins near the park's cultural sites to lead tourists around once they arrive and to make sure the sites remain well protected. It was a 20-minute, wave-tossed passage to reach our goal, Anthony Island. Along the way, we zipped past schools of leaping herring and sent two rare horned puffins furiously flapping into the distance.
At Ninstints, the ancient village on the beach, Williams took us to a sun-bleached red cedar pole with the image of a bear carved in it--"a mortuary pole," he explained. The notch in the top of the pole, one of 21 along the beach, was used to hold a box with the bones of a native who, in all likelihood, was killed by smallpox. The virus was a major influence in the decimation of the Haida population, which went from more than 10,000 before 1774 (the first year of contact with Europeans) to less than 1,000 in 1911. This particular village, once home to 300 people, was abandoned in the 1870s. All that remains of its 20 longhouses are sunken pits, fallen beams, and the totem poles. In Haida belief, totem poles are meant to be left alone until they return naturally to the earth, so the ones on Ninstints's beach are all being allowed to slump, with glacial dignity, to the ground.
Back in the Cessna, as we flew over Hecate Strait, Koop saw a column of vapor, and we banked sharply to get a better look at a family of humpback whales--two adults and a calf--feeding on schools of krill. The ocean was teeming with life. Sea lions, which looked like grains of brown rice from our perspective, sunned themselves on rocks, and seagulls flocked over orange bands of plankton. Pods of slender fin whales bellowed beneath the plane, their exhaled spray creating rainbows. We spotted a dozen, two dozen, and finally gave up counting.
And then the plane landed in the sheltered bay of Hotspring Island. Also accessible by boat, the island was a $63 add-on to the charter plane fee, and well worth it. After tying up the plane, we met a soft-spoken Watchman who pointed us to a site more therapeutic than cultural: shorefront hot springs, filled with sulfur-rich water. Stripping to my briefs, I made a dash for the frigid breakers, and when I was good and chilled, clambered into the pool. Leaning against the smooth rock wall, I tingled with the kind of glow you get after a day at a bathhouse. Giant ravens stood guard, 100-foot-tall spruce trees provided the decor, and best of all, there was not a single trace of what is today known as civilization.