Haida Gwaii :: SEP -- OCT 2002

Subject: Gwaii Hanaas
Date: Thursday, September 19, 2002 10:40 AM


6:58 Campground; Prince Rupert, BC :: MON 16 SEP 02

It is now 7AM in a campground less than a kilometre from the Prince Rupert ferry terminal. I was awakened as RVs and cars packed up and pulled out to board the Queen of the North on her southward passage to Port Hardy. When we pulled in last night at 10:20, the rain had stopped. A blessing for someone hoping to set a nice, dry tent. During a night-time egress, I was amazed to see a sky full of stars. But this morning, the grey clouds have returned. Brief, intermittent showers spatter against the tent.

13:29 Premier Creek Hostel; Queen Charlotte City, BC :: WED 18 SEP 02

I arrived here on Haida Gwaii in Tuesday's pre-dawn. A light drizzle fell as I cycled the 2K from ferry terminal to Queen Charlotte City. Across the channel, the dark low mountains stretch out beneath a lightening sky. There lies Moresby Island, the northern half of which is being heavily logged. The south, making up the bulk of Gwaii Hanaas National Park, is protected, much of it pristine. The park encompasses Lyell Island where in the 1980s environmentalists and Haida people stood side-by-side, and stopped the logging.

I won't make it to this park. There are no roads, only the sea and air. I do not have the resources to hire a charter or take a tour. I do not have the skill or equipment to kayak into the park. So, at least for this journey, the Gwaii Hanaas will remain enigma.

The hostel did not open until 8AM, so with a couple hours to kill I watched the sunrise, and the growing morning activity of this small community. The drizzle ended; openings to the lightening sky appeared. A lone kayak entered the tranquil bay, cutting the glassy surface, its pace as lazy as the vehicles lazing their way along the highway behind me.

The kayak pulled alongside a jetty. The occupant slithered out, pulled the kayak onto the decking. He stepped up onto the float plane tied up there and a few moments later, the engine began its slow grumble to life. Having slept in a tent for the last week, I knew how it felt.

And while the pilot walked up the gangway to the charter operation's office, allowing his aircraft a moment alone to warm to the idea of another day in the air, I thought, "Now that is an enviable commute."

When the hostel opened, I booked a room, unpacked some gear, and slept until noon.

I am here, and I'm not certain what comes next. But I'm warming to the possibilities. There will be no Gwaii Hanaas, but there is all of Graham Island with Massett, Skidegate, Tlell, and Naikoon Provincial Park. North Moresby's Sandspit hs museums, and parks, and a hilly, rough logging road to explore. There are, in all these places, ancient trees, totem poles and abandoned villages. Miles of shoreline to explore. Rivers to fish. There are museums and visitor's centres. And there are the people of the Islands. The Haida clans of Raven and Eagle, and the European and Canadian settlers.

In the northern Pacific, just below Alaska's southern tip, an archipelago formed. When the ice came, covering a continent, the ocean intervened and spared it. Balanced on the edge of the continental shelf, it is a knife-blade, its seaward edge serrated by tide and storm. There the mountains rise up precipitously, forbiddingly, to rocky wind-blown peaks. The eastern side is the settled side, where the land is mellow, wet, and blanketed with trees.

This land is warmed by the Japan Current, which sweeps up from the South Pacific, carrying its pineapple winds of warm, moist air. Snow rarely falls here, and more rarely lingers. Life thrives. Some call this place, "Canada's Galapagos."

For 10,000 years humans have also thrived here. The Haida, at their peak when the Europeans came, built longhouses from 40 foot boards and beams split from ancient cedar. The light, knotless wood with its tight grain, split flat and straight, and it is naturally resistant to ageing and decay. From whole trunks they carved totems over 10 meters tall which were erected for ceremonies, and as a catalogue of stories. Th.ey carved massive ocean-going canoes with which they ruled not only the seas of their Island home, but hundreds of miles of continental shoreline.

Smallpox reduced their numbers from 20,000 to 400. The missionaries came, and consolidated the few remaining Haida in Massett and Skidegate, saving the people while obliterating their culture by outlawing carving, dance, song and potlach. And that culture nearly died, before a few artists picked up adze and paintbrush in the latter half of the century, and re-ignited a dormant spirit.

Like so many other indigenous groups, in their own language the refer to themselves simply as Haida, "The People." Haida Gwaii means, "Land of the People," and Gwaii Hanaas, "Beautiful Land."

And I am here. With a day of full-stop behind. Rested and ready, the adventure begins.

p.

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