Gwaii Haanas (Place of Wonder)
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
A deep-red sunset heralded a memorable night and brilliant phosphorescence glowed in our wake as a bright Great Bear constellation sparkled overhead.
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.
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.
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.
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.
"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.
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.
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.