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Tuesday, July 21, 2009

QUEEN CHARLOTTE ISLANDS 2009



The Queen Charlotte Islands, perched the very edge of Canada’s Pacific continental shelf, is located 80 kilometers west of British Columbia’s mainland coast. National Geographic  Traveller rated Gwaii Haanas National Park in the Queen Charlottes as Canada’s # 1 national park, and it is one of this girl’s favourite places to go.


When we arrived this year for our sea kayaking trip, a northwesterly was blowing.  The warm sun felt good and song birds flirted around the yellow fragrance of the flowering scotch broom.  Leaving behind our Blackberries and street clothes, we load up our groceries and gear, take a look at the map for an overview of where we will be traveling, and head south into the wilderness.


The tide was low when we reach the the ocean shore. Some of us had traveled over 15 hours from our home airport to get here and it was their first chance to look around to where we have traveled. We see carpets of golden rockweed algae, bald eagles soaring silently, and sunlight filtering through the hemlock fronds. Lo, our 22 year old petite 5’2’ 100 pound local guide will transport us into the Park. She offers her knee as stepping platform for a 6’ 180 pound male to board her craft. We travel 60 kph past cedar lined narrows. The wind is calm and the sea glass  as we pop out into Laseek Bay where humpback whales are feeding everywhere. We kill the engine and float silently, holding our breath and pointing our cameras to the sound of the whales exhalations. Water spouts break the silence and pectoral flippers churn the sea, as prey is directed to the surface. Tail lobes raise silently as the whales dive—we count over 30, and three or four of them are heading directly toward us. 


This is Haida Gwaii—the beautiful islands. Over our shoulder we see hues of purple and blue as jagged points mesh against a backdrop of islands and peaks of the 3000’ rugged mountain range of the San Cristobals. Arriving to our drop off, we step ashore on a beach still warm from a sun high in the western sky. It is 8:30 at night. After moving our gear to above the high tide line, we set up our tents, cook chicken fajitas over a cedar fire, crack a beer and learn more of each other. We are a couple and a best friend from Chicoutimi, Quebec, another couple from the Netherlands who have taken 4 months off to travel in some of Canada’s most pristine wilderness areas, one from the heart of New York City and one from Vancouver. Our ages range from 44 to 68 years of age. We are instantly enjoying each others’ company. 


The morning dawns to the  chorus of Hermit Thrushes and Townsend Warblers followed by the  ruckus of the red billed Black Oystercatchers and the high pitched call of the Pigeon Gullemont.  The coffee tastes as good as the weather is fine.  After breakfast, we go over how to pack, paddle and dress for sea kayaking and soon after launch for the short crossing to the abandoned village of Tanu. 


Armed with 110 year old photographs, we explore this now abandoned Haida village of 545 inhabitants with an estimated 30 to 40 hundred meter square cedar houses. The success of these villages depended heavily on the numbers who lived there, as up to 20 men were needed to pull a cedar tree out of the forest for roof beams, totem poles, or canoes; cedar planks and strips of bark were needed for house walls, baskets, nets, traps and weirs. LIfe hummed alongside the elders buried high on the mortuary poles in cedar bent wood boxes. Kids laughed. Stories were told, and adzes blazed out artistic carvings. 


5 years after the small pox endemic hit the Queen Charlotte Islands, the life of the Haida as they knew it then ended; their successful villages of that day lay buried today under the collapsed, moss covered cedar remains. House poles carved with raven’s wings, bear’s eyes, humpback tail and eagles talons  lay decayed beyond recognition, going back to the earth under a canopy of 100 year old fifty meter Sitka spruce successfully seeded in the nursed  life-giving cedar  remains. We are walking in silence by the time we reach the far side of the village where we honor the monuments of Charlie, a Haida who converted to Christianity before his death more than a century ago; and to Tanu chief Miles Richardson and Bill Reid, whose mother’s family came from this village. Reid’s work contributed greatly to the world recognition and appreciation of the Haida and their art. We return to the beach where we left our kayaks anchored, in awe of the Haida.  A perfect way to start our 2 week voyage through their land.


We cross over to Lyell Island on the ebb tide. A breeze from the southeast sets up a two foot chop which has us ease out to a set of rocks. While resting in the lee of these rocks, we watch some male Harlequin ducks take flight. These beautiful ducks mate for life, with the pair making an annual flight as far east as the Canadian Rockies to mate. The female then remains beside the mountain streams to incubate and raise the chicks while the male returns to the coast. Later summer, the female and chicks will return to the coast to reunite with the male.  We marvel the fact that these birds can find each other, separated over a 1000 km, year after year. Further along, we paddle underneath a cathedral of black lichen covered basalt cliffs dotted with yellow Cinquefoil and tussocks of grass. Steep ravines echo out a pair of Peregrine falcons’ shrill call.  We arch our heads back to witness the falcons chasing off a bald eagle venturing too close to their nest


The headwind slows our pace as we pull to Windy Bay.  Here we have entered the watershed too beautiful to log.  This watershed was where the 10 year struggle between the Haida, environmentalists and loggers that eventually won the honor to create the Gwaii Haanas national park reserve. Two eagles fly silently through a clearing made possible with the natural fall of virgin timber blanketing the peaceful salmon and trout filled river valley. The climax forest is evident with the towering Western Hemlock and  Red Cedar.  900 year old Sitka Spruce invade our senses. These are some of largest and oldest trees in the world.  I can not help but invite everyone to place their palms on a great tree, and feel the energy. Even the most skeptical leave walking a lighter step and sporting a more peaceful smile. This forest is home to a greater mass of life than even the  tropical rain forests, with trees taking hundreds of years to decay, and those decayed logs giving home to thousands of species.  In this forest, we see evidence of the Haida everywhere still: ancient cedar  standing tall, still alive, with bark and cedar planks removed from over a century ago. 


We catch the tide south to Murchison and as we approach our next camp, we hear our first trumpet calls from the Humpback whales. Humpbacks are migrating from Hawaii to SE Alaska, following the migration of the Herring through the Queen Charlotte Islands. We usually see these 12 meter whales further out in Hecate Strait, but this year they have come in closer to shore. Tail lobes, exhalations, pectoral flaps break the silence of these misty isles as we sit next to our crackling fire. Hours later, as we prepare to dive into our sleeping bags, we hear a mother and calf pair come close to our camp. We linger a little longer on the rocks, watching this magnificent pair navigate the narrow channel of water.


The new moon is in the northern hemisphere, and is in it’s closest orbit to the earth. This perigean moon is responsible for next  few days of zero foot spring tidal lows.  We wake to explore the many colourful invertebrate animals and seaweeds that are often seen only by divers. There is an impressive array of encrusting sponges, red flowering tube worms, sea cucumbers, sea stars and more. 


After a breakfast of eggs benedict, we paddle to Hot Springs for an afternoon soak. Humming birds buzz past our ears to flowering salal; NW crows craw, the skyline of the San Cristobals cap the scenic beautify of Juan Perez Sound. Haida elder Kathleen Hans, known locally as Goalie, comes to Hotsprings every year. Some of her cedar hats line the shelves at the long house and she teaches the younger Haida some words in their language. She greets me by holding one of my cold hands in her warm hands for close to 10 minutes.  She tells me of her busy day filleting the halibut Kevin gave her, preparing the clams and kelp the others just harvested with the low tide. She sits in her easy chair beside the glass door where I can see the cedar rack airing the thin halibut which will dry within a days with the salt air. Goalie sits back, places her book high on her lap, flexes her wrists back and comments hon how she just loves it here on Hot Springs. “When I die, I want some of my ashes to be spread just along the shore here—the other half of my ashes can be buried next to my husband”.  


When she hears how bookings are down this year with tour operators, she reflects that they’ve been busy as ever at Hotsprings. Archie, another watchman leans back in his chair and laughs, saying “Here in Haida Gwaii we are the center of the universe. The world spins around us”. And so it feels as if it does with the bounty of spouting fish, a richness and diversity to earn this place to be called the Galapagos of the North. We push off in the early evening, with the sun still high in the sky for our camp a mile away overlooking the Juan Perez sound. En-route we fill our water bags. In camp we watch the humpbacks feed in the kelp bed less than 200 ‘ from our beach. We fall asleep with the waves lapping the shore. We are well rested. 


Join us in 2010: http://www.legendaryex.com/expeditions/list/queencharlotteislands.html

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3 Comments:

Blogger Dan said...

http://www.canada.com/news/national/Arctic+researcher+flees+after+wolves+gorge+bacon/1964535/story.html

Real classy.

Legendary like a white spot cheeseburger maybe.

September 5, 2009 at 2:36 PM  
Blogger Spatch said...

http://www.canada.com/news/national/Arctic+researcher+flees+after+wolves+gorge+bacon/1964535/story.html

Indeed, Dan. I came here to post the same link.

Stay classy, Whitney and Smith.

September 5, 2009 at 4:58 PM  
Blogger The Piton said...

Whoa. Definitely recommend you don't ignore this. Please write something on your blog explaining the situation before you loose your business.

http://www.canada.com/news/national/Arctic+researcher+flees+after+wolves+gorge+bacon/1964535/story.html

September 5, 2009 at 6:27 PM  

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