Gwaii Haanas (Place of Wonder)
Sailing among Queen Charlotte Islands opens up an unparalleled cruising ground.
At Canada's northwesterly point above the 52nd parallel, the Queen Charlotte Islands cling to the edge of the continental shelf, just before the ocean plunges to incredible depths. Culturally rich, ecologically unique, teeming with wildlife and dramatic scenic diversity, they offer fascinating cruising grounds.
The islands lie 60 miles out to sea from the Canadian mainland, 30 miles from the southern tip of the Alaskan panhandle, and 100 miles northwest of Vancouver Island. The passage across
the shallow Hecate Strait and Queen Charlotte Sound can be rough, but the weather was benign for our visit and we even had to motor-sail part of the130-mile trip from Port Hardy.
A deep-red sunset heralded a memorable night and brilliant phosphorescence glowed in our wake as a bright Great Bear constellation sparkled overhead.
A succulent dinner arrives on board in time.
"Look, those are sooty shearwaters," Andy pointed out excitedly to Jamie, our youngest son. "Do you remember we last saw them as 'muttonbirds' in Australia?" Jaegers and storm petrels also wheeled about the boat and two birds rested for a while on the pulpit, cheekily cocking their heads and staring at us with their beady black eyes. Suddenly dolphins were riding the bow wave, then the fishing line buzzed out with a well-timed dinner. It was wonderful to be back on the Pacific Ocean.
Sea lions are among some of the other mariners one is likely to encounter on this stretch of coast.
At dawn we were drifting past the Kerouard Islands off Cape St. James, entertained by the sea lions at play. Some barked noisily as they leapt into the swells. Others enjoyed a relaxing drift before laboriously clambering back up the steep, slippery rocks, only to flop down again into the surf below.
The wind came up for a great sail to SGaang Gwaii (Anthony Island), a rugged, bird-foot shaped island off the southwest coast. Over 300-feet high and constantly battered by waves from the western Pacific, it is home to our largest species of black bears, being visited as well by migrating whales and many exotic birds, such as, black-footed albatrosses and tufted puffins. It also has the best-preserved Haida village, Nan Sdins (Ninstints), which was declared a World Heritage Cultural Site by UNESCO in 1981.
Haunting totem poles attest to the ancient seafaring Haida.
The Haida were one of the most culturally rich and highly developed people of early North America. They are particularly known as a seafaring nation and for their lavish potlatch feasts and sophisticated art forms. Nan Sdins was home to the Kunghit Haida and the few centuries-old weatherworn cedar totems that line the beach, with their moss-covered beams and the pits of tumbled longhouses behind them, are a moving sight.
Tragically, this once thriving village was decimated by small pox, which was brought to the islands by missionaries and traders in the nineteenth century. By 1862, only 600 of the estimated 7,000 Haida in the islands still survived. In 1884, 25 carved mortuary poles still stood here. Many rotted away, so in 1957 others were removed and taken to the mainland to be preserved.
A typical Queen Charlotte's anchorage. When anchoring don't forget to account for those 23-foot tides.
We edged cautiously into the bay to the south of the abandoned village, watching the depth carefully as it shallowed to six feet, avoiding the rocks and kelp off the rocky point. This small anchorage is open to south winds and only of use in fair weather (as is the northerly anchorage that is currently favored). We quickly launched the dinghy and went around to the village. At high tide—a 23-foot range—small boats can enter the short channel, although care has to be taken to avoid the wide strands of golden kelp. Landing on the protected, curved, gravel beach in front of the village, it was easy to imagine it lined with decorated cedar canoes. At low tide a still usable ancient canoe-launching ramp was exposed, although it was covered with seaweed and looked slippery.
The ground was springy under our feet as we walked slowly in the brilliant sunshine, frequently pausing to absorb the sight of the leaning memorial poles in their lush setting, framed by dark cedars and golden grass. It was a fascinating glimpse of life gone by, a testimony to an ancient heritage. According to legend, the Haida were created here by the raven who captured the sun after it brought life-giving light to the dark ice-encrusted earth. We felt privileged to be able to stand and absorb this poignant scene before all signs of the village disappear into the earth, which inevitably happens in this climate.
Sgaang Gwaii is part of the South Moresby Island Gwaii Haanas National Park Reserve, and stretches over 60 miles from north to south, encompassing 138 islands and 800 miles of shoreline that provide spectacular anchorages. (See sidebar for park regulations.) Scenery varies from lush green growth to bare rocks, from misty inlets to dramatic mountain vistas. There are old-growth rainforests of huge western hemlock, red cedar, and Sitka spruce that were alive during the time of the crusades, and an amazing 500 abandoned Haida sites.
|"We felt privileged to be able to stand and absorb this poignant scene before all signs of the village disappear into the earth . . . "|
The area has become known as the "Canadian Galapagos" due to its diverse ecosystem that developed because, unlike most of Canada, portions of the islands escaped glaciation. Many unique species of plant and animal life have been found, while other species are only duplicated in Japan.
The annual plankton bloom triggers a fish feeding frenzy that in turn attracts migrating birds and whales. There are a quarter-million nesting birds of many varieties—peregrine falcons, hawks, aukletts, and the highest concentration of bald eagles in North America. A variety of whale species may be sighted, including blue, sperm, minke, sei, gray, finback, humpback, and orca, and there are huge numbers of sea lions and seals. Burnaby Narrows has an incredibly rich display of inter-tidal life, with nudibranchs, shellfish, crustacia, anemones, and starfish of innumerable shapes and colors, all fascinating to explore at low tide.
Even the mightiest totem pole bows to the elements over time.
Haida watchmen safeguard both the natural and cultural treasures during the summer months. We found them great personalities, well versed in the art of story telling. In Skedans, the Warden and Haida-member, Charles, had taught his serene granddaughter Mandy to show tourists around. With old pictures she brought alive the rotting logs that had once stood proudly as frontal poles of longhouses, family symbols of heritage, lineage, status, and prestige. Barely discernible bumps and hollows were shown to be carvings of raven, eagle, hawk, and killer whale. Even the beaver was present, which was interesting, since beavers are not found on the islands.
"It would have been sighted on one of the expeditions to the mainland, so it was even more prestigious," she explained. By the end of the morning she had brought alive the clearing with its few scattered logs to recreate the village and daily activities of a community 700 strong of both the Eagle and Raven clans.
Who needs hot water on board when there are hot springs ashore? The captain and crew soak up the good life.
Clam and abalone shells lined the trail up through ancient spruce and cedar to the small cabin where Mabel, the local caretaker of the hotspring, lived on Hotspring Island. We scrambled over the rocks to the hot mineral pools that are fed by bubbling sulphurous springs. It was wonderfully relaxing soaking up to our necks in the steaming water, while looking out over spectacular Juan Perez Sound. In the distance a group of brightly-dressed kayakers energetically paddled to their next campsite in a small cove.
A few days later there was a sudden change in weather, not uncommon for these waters. It was amazing how rapidly the winds increased and the seas came crashing in on the shores.
A replica of Chief Clus longhouse at Windy Bay.
It was due to these fierce winds that the Haida had to develop large sea-going canoes and became the most feared of the Indian tribes, Wesley, another tribal member, told us at Windy Bay, where a small replica of Chief Clu's longhouse has been reconstructed. He also told us proudly how the Haida had banded together in 1985 to prevent logging in the nearby old forest. They held out long enough to attract international attention and secure protection for the park and Haida Heritage Site. We climbed up to inspect some of the oldest trees. They were huge—the moss covered trunks making a mockery of Andy's two-meter arm span.
Our three-week vacation flew by, and then it was time to hand Bagheera over to friends. On this trip we had five families sharing our boat over a two-month period for the visit from Vancouver. The unpredictable weather demands a flexible schedule to come this far north (almost 500 miles from Vancouver), especially by sailboat. Winds can be strong, but sometimes there are several weeks of calm and a reliable engine becomes essential if running on tight deadlines.
The vistas, the wildlife, the fascinating inter-tidal discoveries, the Haida sites, the local personalities, and the adventure of cruising in a remote area made the Queen Charlotte Islands a remarkable cruise. Adults and children alike still discuss their beauty with animated enthusiasm.
Procedures for visiting Gwaii Haanas National Park Reserve
The area is protected by a joint agreement of the Haida Nation and Canadian Government.
A reservation to visit the park must be made in advance because visitors are restricted to 300 per day in the peak season, which includes most of July and August. Call Supernatural BC at: 1-800-435-5622. There is a $15.00 non-refundable reservation fee per person. Park entry is $10.00 per person per night from one to five days, a flat fee of $60 per person for six to 14 days, and a flat rate of $80.00 per person over 14 days that allows multiple entries. In addition to those booked, six standby places are allowed. Consideration will be given to late arrival due to bad weather.
An appointment with the Park—(250) 559-8818—for an orientation is also required. These are held two or three times daily in both Queen Charlotte City and Sandspit, depending on the season. Those arriving from the south can call the wardens at Ellen Island or Huxley Island on VHF Channel 16 to make an appointment for an on-site orientation.
|Sailboat Charters |
|Anvil Cove Charters ||53-foot Schooner ||Keith and Barb Rowsell |
Tel: (250) 559-8207
|Takuli Sailing Adventures ||45-foot sloop ||Bill Plummer |
Tel: (250) 559-8667
|Bluewater Adventures ||68-foot Island Roamer || E-mail:firstname.lastname@example.org |
|Copper Sky Charters ||88-foot schooner || E-mail: email@example.com |
|Duen Sailing Adventures ||72-foot gaff-rigged ketch || E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org |
|Maple Leaf Adventures ||90-foot schooner ||E-mail: email@example.com |
|The Queen Charlotte Islands can be reached by ferry from Prince Rupert, BC, or by air. |