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Land of the Watchmen: The Queen Charlotte Islands

By Taras Grescoe
March 14, 2006
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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.

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.

Near Tow Hill, the sea had receded a quarter of a mile, revealing scuttling crabs and giant purple starfish. Beachcombers in hip-length waders scanned the sand for the telltale holes of razor clams. On Agate Beach--sprinkled with milky stones tumbled smooth by the tides--I watched surfers doing their thing, and was able to see Alaska in the distance.

Until 1997, a 300-year-old Sitka spruce mutant, famous for its golden needles, stood on the banks of the Yakoun River, three miles south of Port Clements. Sacred to the Haida, the golden spruce was chopped down by a woodsman-turned-activist, Grant Hadwin, in a misguided attempt to draw attention to the effects of logging in British Columbia. (It's rumored that Hadwin later faked his drowning, and that he still roams in the woods.) Today, only the stump remains, and to get to the old viewing spot requires a 10-minute hike through old-growth forest. I found a hopeful epilogue to the sad story at the Port Clements Historical Society and Museum: Photos showed another, smaller, golden spruce growing on Graham Island. Fortunately for its long-term prospects, this one is only accessible by helicopter.

I still hadn't gotten that call, so I booked a room at Copper Beech House in Masset. A sprawling cedar house built by a Swedish carpenter in 1914, the B&B is surrounded by a garden of rhododendrons and poppies. The drive from Queen Charlotte City took about 90 minutes, and I arrived just in time for a buffet of halibut sashimi; smoked oolichans, oily fish eaten head and all; and rhubarb and salal berry pie.

Owner David Phillips, a self-taught cook, used to be an interior designer in Toronto. How he ended up in the Queen Charlottes is quite a story. "In 1971, I tried to circumnavigate the islands in a rowboat, in black dancing pumps," he said. "I got to the west coast, which is like the Emperor's Garden--these three-mile, deserted sandy beaches, with one rocky outcrop after another--and my boat started to sink. Fortunately, a fishing boat came along at the last minute and threw me a line." Phillips's only serious culinary competition is Roberta Olson. She's a Haida grandmother who runs a regular event called Dinner at Keenawii's (her Haida name) at her house in Skidegate. After serving her guests lavish seafood meals, Olson encourages them to toss salmon scraps to the bald eagles on the beach outside.

In Old Masset, I stopped for a cappuccino at Haida Rose, an Internet café, where I struck up a conversation with a gentleman wearing a fedora woven from cedar bark. In addition to being a spokesman for the Haida Nation, Gilbert Parnell is occasionally a tour guide, and he kindly agreed to show me around Skidegate (pop. 750), the islands' largest Haida community.

We began at the Haida Heritage Centre at Qay'llnagaay, a 53,000-square-foot complex opening next spring that will include a performance space, museum, restaurant, gift shop, and more. "People on Haida Gwaii are getting out of the traditional fishing and logging industries," Parnell said, with the polished tones of a radio announcer, "and each year we're seeing the Haida people becoming more involved in tourism. The Heritage Centre is a good example." Another example is Aay Oo Guiding Services, which offers an environmentally sound alternative to expensive lodges: Native guides take small groups out in four-passenger power boats to do a limited amount of sportfishing.

"We've got some things happening, cross-culturally, that I think the world has to look at," said Parnell. He drove me to a workshop where craftsmen carve cedar canoes and make jewelry from argillite, a soft, black slate that only the Haida are allowed to mine. Though Skidegate's native population is among the fastest-growing in all of Canada, only 30 people still speak Haida fluently. The Skidegate Haida Immersion Project was designed to preserve the language: Elders create teaching materials, including glossaries and workbooks, to be used in schools.

Our last stop was a popular stretch of beach just north of Roberta Olson's house. The tide was out, fully exposing Balance Rock, a six-foot-wide boulder poised on a pivot point not a whole lot bigger than a dinner plate. A campfire was burning nearby, and Parnell bowed his head as he crumbled a cigarette into the flames--an impromptu Haida offering to ensure comfort and security for his family.

Later that afternoon, South Moresby Air called to say they had a place for me on a plane leaving the next morning. I met up with Brad Koop, the pilot, and my fellow passengers, a nice couple from Alberta. Sharing the Cessna meant that I paid $561, versus $1,500 if I'd gone alone.

We flew south, over forests and abandoned logging camps, finally landing in Rose Harbour, the only private land in the national park. Patrick Lemaire, a tall, bearded French Canadian, met us at the dock. Lemaire first came to Moresby Island in the 1970s, before it was designated as a park, and he now runs the funky, solar-panel-heated Gwaii Haanas Guest House with his wife and two sons. Rooms start at just $96--a fraction of the cost of airfare to get down there--so Lemaire arranges discount flights for guests.

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.

Operators

  • Moresby Explorers Sandspit, 800/806-7633, moresbyexplorers.com, hot springs day tour $148, Ninstints four-day tour $862
  • South Moresby Air Queen Charlotte City, 888/551-4222, smair.com
  • Aay Oo Guiding Services Skidegate, 877/262-9929, 10-hour private boat tour $1,000 per boat, includes up to four people
  • Salt Spray Explorers Tlell, 250/557-4453, saltsprayexplorers.com, salmon-fishing day trip led by marine biologist $438 per day, for a three-person boat
  • Transportation

  • BC Ferries 250/386-3431, bcferries.ca, Prince Rupert to Skidegate, $91 one way
  • Air Canada Jazz 888/247-2262, aircanada.ca, Vancouver to Sandspit, $155 one way
  • Hawkair 250/624-4295, Vancouver to Prince Rupert, $150 one way
  • Lodging

  • Premier Creek Lodging Queen Charlotte City, 888/322-3388, qcislands.net/premier, rooms from $52, car rentals from $28 a day
  • Spruce Point Lodge Queen Charlotte City, 250/559-8234, qcislands.net/sprpoint, from $80
  • Copper Beech House Masset, 250/626-5441, copperbeechhouse.com, from $110, dinner $44
  • Alaska View Lodge Masset, 800/661-0019, alaskaviewlodge.ca, from $100
  • Gwaii Haanas Guest House 250/559-8638, gwaiihaanas.com, from $96, includes all meals
  • Food

  • Queen B's 3201 Wharf St., Queen Charlotte City, 250/559-4463, salmon dinner $15
  • Dinner at Keenawii's 237 Highway 16, Skidegate, 250/559-8347, $48 per person
  • Haida Rose 415 Frog St., Old Masset, 250/626-3310, cappuccino $2
  • Activities

  • Port Clements Historical Society and Museum 45 Bayview Dr., 250/557-4576, $2
  • Haida Heritage Centre at Qay'llnagaay 1 Second Beach Rd., Skidegate, 250/559-4643
  • Resources

  • Gwaii Haanas National Park Reserve 250/559-8818, parkscanada.gc.ca/gwaiihaanas, permit $9 per person per day
  • Visitor Information Centre 3220 Wharf St., Queen Charlotte City, 250/559-8316, qcinfo.ca
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