Wild about Canada’s Galapagos

Photo of Suzanne Morphet

Haida Gwaii, or Canada’s Galapagos, is a place so remote it still carries an aura of mystery, even for Canadians.

A whale slaps his tail repeatedly against the calm surface of the water. The rest of the enormous humpback’s body is submerged, as if he is performing a headstand. The noise carries to our sailboat, where we sit on deck watching and listening for many minutes.

It is our first day exploring Gwaii Haanas National Park Reserve in Haida Gwaii, an archipelago sometimes called Canada’s Galapagos, with more than 150 islands. Separated from the British Columbia mainland by a 120km stretch of water, these rugged islands are thought to have escaped the last ice age and have been a refuge for wildlife ever since.

When the whale finally disappears we look to our on-board naturalist for an explanation of its behaviour. “It could have been territorial,” says Scott Wallace, but he admits that no one really knows. Whatever the reason, it seems a fitting introduction to a place that’s so remote it still carries an aura of mystery, even for Canadians.

“Our taxi driver thought we were going to Hawaii,” chuckles John Crossen, a cartoonist from Vancouver who is one of just five guests on my voyage. Once called the Queen Charlotte Islands, they were renamed in 2009 to acknowledge the Haida Nation’s long presence here. Archaeological evidence goes back more than 12,000 years.

Once on the islands, our adventure begins with a short flight by float plane from Sandspit on Moresby Island to Rose Harbour, a former whaling station at the bottom of the archipelago. Following the curving coastline south and flying well below the clouds, we were awed by long stretches of white sandy beaches. 

The lushly forested San Christoval Mountains rear up on our right, while a pod of humpback whales churns the water white below us and Steller sea lions sprawl on rocky islets. There are no roads into Gwaii Haanas. You arrive either by air or by boat.

When we land on the glassy water of Rose Harbour, Capt. Russell Markel welcomes us aboard our home for the week — the classy and comfortable Passing Cloud

The 21m (70-foot) staysail schooner was designed by William James Roue (who also designed the legendary Bluenose), and has three private guest rooms, a lounge that doubles as a dining room in inclement weather, and a traditional wheelhouse. Polished brass, varnished wood, Persian-style carpets and shelves filled with books about British Columbia’s natural and cultural history speak of a much-loved vessel and comfort ahead. In fact, any fear of privation in the wilderness is quashed when chef Ryan Bissell — who has worked at one of the best restaurants in Whistler, BC — serves curried ling cod for lunch on the sunny upper deck.

Rounding the southernmost point of Haida Gwaii we soon learn one reason why this place is so remarkable. These islands are on the edge of the open ocean — the closest point in all of North America to the Continental Shelf, where the ocean floor drops off abruptly to 2500m. 

“The Continental Shelf causes massive upswelling,” explains Russell, who has the unusual distinction of being both a master mariner and a research scientist with a PhD in marine biology. “The biggest wave ever recorded in BC was here — 30 metres.”

Even smaller waves on this outer coast are so powerful they can knock the eyeballs out of basking sea lions. “They’re called pop-eyes,” says Scott, which causes us to chuckle, until he adds ruefully “they probably die as a result.”

Fortunately for us, we are here in mid-June but even for summer it is unusually calm.

 Puffins nest in rocky crevices of small islands, while pigeon guillemots take flight before us, their bright red feet tucked under short black bodies. We watch seagulls chase a bald eagle with a fish in its beak. On a nearby beach, a massive fin whale rots in the sun, evidence of our proximity to the Continental Shelf and offshore sea life.

When it comes to endemic species, Haida Gwaii really does resemble the Galapagos. “Just as Darwin found a different finch or tortoise on each of the Galapagos islands, it’s possible in Haida Gwaii to find a different kind of deer mouse on each island,” says Russell, “or a different kind of stickleback in each lake.”

And just as tourism in the Galapagos is highly regulated, so it is in Gwaii Haanas National Park Reserve, with 300 visitors allowed per day.

As we head north through a maze of channels, bays and inlets in subsequent days, we stop to walk barefoot on beaches, and gaze into tidal pools at low tide. We climb craggy hillsides wrapped in fog. We kayak quiet coves where orange-and-blue bat stars and spiny sea urchins cling to rocks. Most days, there is no one else but us.

The marine life is particularly astonishing, even though it’s out of whack.

 Sea otters were wiped out in the late 18th and early 19th centuries in a frenzy of trading between the local Haida and British and American traders, and were never re-introduced. As a result, sea urchins — a favourite food of otters — are now out of control, razing the kelp that would normally protect the shoreline from erosion and provide habitat for baby fish. “What happened here 200 years ago is still playing out today,” observes Russell. “Life goes on but it’s different,” adds Scott with a tinge of sadness.

Soon after the slaughter of the sea otters, the Haida themselves were almost destroyed. Smallpox and other diseases reduced the population from about 20,000 to fewer than 600. “In one year we lost 75 per cent of the people,” says Sean Young, a Haida watchman at Tanu, one of five abandoned villages open to visitors. Here was once a thriving community with between 25 and 40 long houses fronted with carved poles. The houses collapsed long ago and are now slowly sinking into the earth.

At SGang Gwaay (pronounced SKung Gwhy), the best- preserved Haida village and a UNESCO World Heritage Site, a dozen or so poles still stand, the last gasp of a once-vibrant village. Cracked, bleached and leaning precariously, the poles exert a powerful pull. We stand before them in silent reverie.

The Haida themselves are surprisingly upbeat and optimistic. “It feels like we’re going back to our roots,” explains Donna Carter, who helps watch over what was once a major settlement at Windy Bay on Lyell Island. “It’s kind of neat, our language is coming back.” And the clan system that Haida have always used continues today. Haida are born into either the Eagle clan or the Raven clan, Donna explains, and are supposed to marry a person of the opposite clan. “I’m an Eagle and I married an Eagle. Maybe that’s why it didn’t last,” she adds.

Windy Bay is where, in the 1980s, the Haida protested against the rampant logging of these islands. “Haida elders — ladies in their 70s and 80s — were going out and standing in front of logging trucks,” recalls Scott. “It was a socially tumultuous time.”

Fortunately for them — and us — the Haida won that battle, which led to the creation in 1993 of the park reserve, Haida Heritage Site and National Marine Conservation Area, which, together, cover the southern third of this dagger-shaped archipelago. Some of the biggest and oldest trees that were saved are at Windy Bay. We look up at a massive sitka spruce that was somewhere between 900 and 1000 years old when the Magna Carta was created in medieval England. 

From the water’s edge, Haida Gwaii’s forests look dark and forbidding but inside we find them bright and welcoming. “I don’t know whether it’s all the negative ions or what but I feel very different in here,” confides Steve Shanaman, a semi-retired businessman from Washington State. “It’s like Stanley Park (Vancouver) but on steroids,” jokes his buddy John. When we come to a babbling brook surrounded by a bed of lime-green moss I can’t resist. I lie down and sink into its soft embrace.

Pushing northward, we are sailing to our final anchorage when a dorsal fin slices the water on port side. Then another, and another. Someone quickly drops a hydrophone overboard. And just like that, we are eavesdropping on killer whales. We hear excited squeaks, enthusiastic squeals. It is easy to imagine they are talking about us. Perhaps they are sad to see us go, but nowhere near as sad as we are to be leaving.

Fact File

Getting to Haida Gwaii: Air Canada offers one direct flight daily from Vancouver, BC to Sandspit (just under two hours). You can also take the ferry from Prince Rupert to Skidegate. The crossing time is eight hours.

Outer Shores Expeditions offers multi-day cruises to Gwaii Haanas National Park Reserve between April and October each year. The price per person for eight days/seven nights in 2017 is $C5695 ($5572) and includes a float plane ride either to or from Passing Cloud. outershores.ca and phone 1 250 220 2311.


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