Two weeks on Haida Gwaii

By Riley Pollom

As the plane touched down on Haida Gwaii, I thought I had a pretty good idea of what to expect. In preparation for the trip I’d devoured all the material I could find on the establishment of the Gwaii Haanas National Park Reserve, Marine Conservation Area and Haida Heritage Site, a conservation success story if there ever was one. Established in 1988 on the southern part of the archipelago, Gwaii Haanas protects some of Canada’s greatest biological and cultural treasures. Even so, I was astonished by what I saw over the next two weeks.

My partner and I started the trip at Rose Spit on Graham Island. According to Haida tradition, it’s here where life on earth first began. It was here that Raven, a trickster figure in Haida cosmology, opened the clamshell to release the first people. The creation legend is famously portrayed by Bill Reid in his 1980 sculpture, The Raven and the First men, housed at the UBC’s Museum of Anthropology. We hiked from Tow Hill, the highest point on the northern part of the island, down along the rocky and aptly-named Long Beach. Along the way we encountered the many signs of marine life lapping onto the beach — dungeness crab molts, giant kelp stalks, and the shells of countless mollusks. We also encountered many locals harvesting razor clams at low tide, a practice that has gone on sustainably for thousands of years. The spit itself was quite a sight – picture two perpendicular coasts meeting, with a long, tapering stretch of land jutting into the strait.  

From there we visited Tlell, home of the Edge of the World Music Festival, and then the ancient village of Tanu for an ecological and cultural tour with Haida guides.  We started out in Queen Charlotte, a logging town that became the largest settlement on the islands, and then zipped across glass-smooth water to Skedans on Louise Island. 

Skedans is an abandoned Haida village, one of the many that flourished for centuries, until the nineteenth century. The village’s 200-year old totems are slowly returning to Mother Nature, as the remaining Haida elders wanted it. Central to every aspect of life for the Haida, including village life, hunting and fishing, and even in determining who could marry whom, the totems are a stark reminder of how this community once thrived.

Life here was disrupted by a smallpox epidemic that took decimated the local villages, reducing a population of 20,000 to a few hundred people. As large portions of each village succumbed to the disease, it was decided that the survivors would congregate in two villages – Skidegate and Masset – the only Haida villages still inhabited.  As a result of the epidemic, the Haida lost valuable traditional knowledge, along with the governance structures that helped them manage their forest and ocean resources effectively. In their absence, commercial fishing and extensive old-growth logging took hold on the islands for many decades, badly damaging the ecosystems that the remaining Haida communities depended on for survival. 

But today it was hard to see any sign of these past hardships. The new management plans instituted as part of the Gwaii Haanas Agreement — which gave the Council of the Haida Nation a direct stake in the park — are clearly working. In Skedans, ocean and forest were both teeming with life. I struggled to grasp how such a place of abundance could have once suffered such cataclysmic losses, human and animal. As we departed Skedans, en route to the more southerly village of Tanu, we came across a large pod of humpback whales feeding near Moresby Island. A huge adult humpback leapt completely out of the water within 100 metres of our boat, sending our jaws to the floor. What a sight! Our guide, on the job for 20 years, had never seen such a complete breach, or one so close. 

Tanu was another sight to behold, with large hemlocks, cedars and firs growing up out of ancient Haida totems and longhouses. Although many of their ancestors and cultural traditions lied buried there, there’s a sense of comfort that comes out of the fact that these remnants are giving way to new life. 

On our last day in Haida Gwaii we ventured through Skidegate Inlet to the west coast of the islands to see the salmon – some of the largest in the world — that make Haida Gwaii so popular with sportsfishers. As our aluminum boat bounced out over the Pacific chop, I told our guide that we would be unable to ship our catch home (we had a three-day train ride to Vancouver awaiting us), and so we were okay with catch-and-release. “The Haida never play with their food,” he said, teasing me. To our amazement (and regret) we caught large coho and chinook salmon with in a few minutes. The biggest was 30 pounds!  An abundance of boats, both Haida and charter, bobbed along the steep cliffs of the islands catching as many as we did, revelling in the abundance of such magnificent creatures. 

And so the Haida go on. Fishing and living off the ocean as they always have. I returned to Vancouver convinced that, under the right conditions, both human societies and biodiversity can recover from unspeakable hardship and degradation and even flourish. The thriving ecosystems and animal populations of Gwaii Haanas are a thrilling testament to this.