Haida Gwaii: A Mist-enshrouded Showcase of Haida Culture 

Haida Gwaii, which literally translates to “Islands of the Haida People,” is an archipelago located off the northern Pacific coast of Canada. It’s a place that’s immensely rich in culture, and spending time here allows visitors to tap into a history and way of life that’s filled to the brim with valuable lessons and insight. Not to mention the utterly stunning natural landscape.

Loo Taas (Wave Eater) by Bill Reid
Loo Taas (Wave Eater) by Bill Reid. Photo Credit: Hans Tammemagi

Aboard a 12-seater Sikorski 76 helicopter, we head west soaring through mountain passes and along lush, remote valleys to a cove on northwest Moresby Island, part of the Haida Gwaii archipelago off the northern coast of British Columbia.   

Ocean House comes into view, an elegant two-story resort floating like a mirage in a secluded cove. Arguably, it is the most luxurious resort in Haida Gwaii. Built on a barge, it can be towed anywhere. (Since my visit, it has been moved to Masset.) Formerly a high-end fishing lodge, Ocean House was extensively remodelled and upgraded. Most striking is the pervading Indigenous theme. Masks, paintings, photos and carvings immerse guests in the traditions of the Haida First Nation

Ocean House in a secluded Cove on Haida Gwaii
Ocean House in a secluded Cove. Photo Credit: Hans Tammemagi

Getting to Know Haida Gwaii

Jaylene, a young Haida woman, sings a welcome song, while beating her grandmother’s 70-year-old drum. I don’t understand the Haida lyrics, but I am captivated. 

Next morning, a zodiac carries us through twisting bays and fjords, all enshrouded in an ephemeral mist. We see no clear cuts, no fish farms, no sign of humans. It is remote, soothing and totally captivating. Because of its unique flora and fauna — its waters teem with grey, orca and humpback whales, salmon, seals, sea lions, porpoises and marine birds — Haida Gwaii has earned the name “Galapagos of the North.” 

Riding a Zodiac around Haida Gwaii
Riding a Zodiac around Haida Gwaii. Photo Credit: Hans Tammemagi

At a secluded cove, Jaylene, our guide, leads us into a primal old-growth forest: rich, soft, all carpeted in deep moss. Amongst the greenery we find evidence of the abandoned village of Ts’aa.ahl. Skeletal totems are grim reminders of a once-vibrant community with 37 houses and a population of about 500. Now all is moss covered and decaying.

A 40-foot totem, grey and weathered, still looms upright. Jaylene says, “This pole is about 250 years old and was the house pole for a longhouse.” I get goose bumps. 

Motoring to another isolated bay, Jaylene points to a living cedar tree with a strip of bark removed, “My ancestors harvested cedar sustainably here for centuries.” Enveloped in the deep, dusky greenery I think I glimpse trolls in the forest around us, and understand why the Haida believe in supernatural creatures. 

Cuisine, Culture, Kayaking

That evening, we savour a dinner suitable for the most discriminating foodie. An amuse bouche of scallops is followed by a main course of salmon with razor clam fritters and finally an elegant panna cotta.  

Chef Brodi Swanson explains he loves to prepare fresh-caught seafood like salmon, halibut and his favourite, razor clams. He learned his culinary skills the Haida way; his parents and elders encouraged him and he received extensive mentoring.  

Next morning, I meet the artist-in-residence, Marilyn McKee, a Haida of the Eagle and Hummingbird clans. Surrounded by jewellery tools, masks and a splendid white button blanket, she patiently teaches me how to hammer and bend a piece of copper into a bracelet.  

On the last afternoon, I paddle a kayak down the sound. Soon islands hide the lodge and I’m alone floating in this mystical place of legends, spirits and supernatural creatures.  

Later, the Sikorsky carries us back to the Sandspit airport, and I set off to learn about the Haida and their land.  

Old Masset on Graham Island

Sarah’s Haida Arts & Jewellery Shop on Old Masset
Sarah’s Haida Arts & Jewellery Shop on Old Masset. Photo Credit: Hans Tammemagi

Haida Gwaii has two main islands: Graham, the main population centre in the north, and Moresby in the south. There are numerous smaller hamlets and attractions throughout. And not a single traffic light, shopping mall or Starbucks mars the landscape. 

At Old Masset, at the northern end of Graham Island, we pass an Anglican church whose spire incongruously shares the sky with a nearby totem pole. 

I enter Sarah’s Haida Arts & Jewellery Shop, and admire masks, silver and argillite jewelry, cedar hats and wood carvings featuring the bold ovoid designs of bears, ravens and thunderbirds. Many of the local artisans were inspired and trained by Bill Reid, whose art is renowned internationally. 

I return to my lodgings at Haida House, a post-and-beam cedar lodge, which is so steeped in Haida art and culture it is becoming an attraction in itself.  

Visiting the Haida Heritage Centre

The Haida Heritage Centre
The Haida Heritage Centre. Photo Credit: Hans Tammemagi

Rising early next day, I head to the impressive Haida Heritage Centre, which opened in 2008 with an emotional celebration attended by Haida bedecked in button blankets, cedar hats, ceremonial masks and traditional regalia. Dances and song filled the centre and canoes were launched, including the famous Loo Taas (Wave Eater) by Bill Reid.  

The Centre, fronted by six traditional totem poles, consists of five long houses containing the Haida Gwaii Museum, Performance House, Carving Shed, Canoe House, Bill Reid Teaching Centre, a spacious Welcome House area, and Gaa Taa Naay, the Eating House.  

The Centre is a huge tourist draw but, more importantly, it also symbolizes the resurgence of a proud people. Nika Collinson, the Curator, said:

“The Centre and Museum are important for the Haida – they support our arts, culture, language and further reconciliation.” 

The Canoe House contains Reid’s Loo Taas and his Dogfish Pole, with stylized figures of a raven, frog, killer whale, dog fish and three watchmen. When raised in 1978, it was the first new pole in Skidegate in almost 100 years.  

Louise Island, and All That Surrounds It

Next, I clamber aboard a Zodiac that weaves around Louise Island, sometimes in mist, sometimes in rain and — for a few fleeting moments — even in sunshine. This wild land is home to an abundance of wildlife, ranging from the largest species of black bear to the smallest species of stoat. The introduced black-tailed deer and raccoon are abundant. Gulls and ancient murrelets bob in the water.  

“These waters offer world-class sport fishing and draw anglers from near and far,” says the guide. “Salmon is the most popular catch followed by halibut, and a variety of bottom fish including lingcod and snapper.”  

The Village of Skedans and the Gwaii Haanas National Park Reserve

The Haida history on these islands can be traced back 10,000 years. The first contact with the white man came in 1774, and by 1911 a population of about 14,000 had been reduced to 600. Dozens of villages became ghost towns.

Today, the Haida Nation forms about half of the islands’ population of 5,000. 

We enter a bay where the village of Skedans once stood. A Haida Guardian greets us, “Welcome to Ḵ’uuna Llnagaay or Skedans. This is a sacred place to our people so please treat it with respect.” Skeletal totems are grim reminders of a once-vibrant community with 56 totems. I walk slowly amongst the fallen and leaning poles, now weathered to a dull grey showing only traces of the once-elaborate carvings. I feel a chill, for this is a spiritual place. 

The totem poles in the village of Skedans
The leaning totem poles in the village of Skedans. Photo Credit: Hans Tammemagi

A little farther south lies Gwaii Haanas National Park Reserve consisting of Moresby and more than 130 smaller islands. The park was created in 1988 after the Haida Nation led a major protest against logging that lasted more than a decade.  

But it was a good move, for in 2005 National Geographic named Gwaii Haanas the best national park in North America. At the same time, the Haida Watchmen program was created for five abandoned Haida villages, including Skedans. 

As the airplane departs, I look down at the mist enshrouded isles and think: This is a place every Canadian should visit. 

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *