A kayak trip through the stunning Haida Gwaii islands stays with you long after the last paddle
Ottawa-based songwriter Ian Tamblyn put it best in his composition "Woodsmoke and Oranges": "There’s something about this country that’s a part of me and you." All it takes is one visit to a place like Gwaii Haanas National Park Reserve and Haida Heritage Site to viscerally confirm that. Just start paddling and see for yourself. You’ll get shivers from the thought that this domain belongs to everyone.
Vast natural riches are spread above and below the tidemarks of 200 islands strewn throughout the southern third of Haida Gwaii (also known as the Queen Charlotte Islands). To float at low tide through Burnaby Narrows—properly called Dolomite Narrows—is to drift through a marine dream world. Colourful colonies of whitecap limpets, red turban snails, blue topsnails, and giant plumose anemones spread below the surface and climb the sides of the winding, shallow, kilometre-long channel that separates Moresby and Burnaby islands. Palm-sized red rock crabs scuttle through patches of seaweed that sprout like leaf lettuce. Nurtured by a constant flow of oxygen and nutrients, green, red, and brown algae lend even more hues to the intertidal palette. Biologist Duane Sept spent a decade studying this remarkable ecosystem. On the phone from his home on the Sunshine Coast, he told the Georgia Straight that preserving this marine habitat in 1987 was a great service. "There’s more protein per square centimetre here than anywhere else. Burnaby Narrows in particular is rated as having the highest density of living matter on Earth.'
Such lush scenes set national parks apart from the normal space-time continuum. Removed from all signs of human habitation, you feel as if you’ve suddenly arrived on another plane. A tingling begins in your toes and climbs to the nape of your neck, signalling an elevated state of mind. Higher ground, indeed. As Sept observed: "There are a few other such narrows along the West Coast, but nothing to compare with what you’ll find at Burnaby"—which is why you’d be well advised to pack along a copy of Sept’s newly revised full-colour The Beachcomber’s Guide to Seashore Life in the Pacific Northwest (Harbour, $26.95) to help make sense of the wealth on display.
As you lift your eyes from the glassy aquascape, Yatza Mountain rises to the west, one of a rolling series of peaks in the San Christoval Range that culminates in the 1,164-metre Mount Moresby, whose snowcapped crown stands as a reminder that even in the midst of summer it’s wise to keep a tuque and warm gloves handy. In July and August, the two months when fair weather favours paddlers on the Northwest Coast, temperatures generally hover 10 degrees below what Vancouver experiences.
Prolonged stretches of sunshine can never be taken for granted in the "Misty Isles'. A VHF radio is invaluable for staying abreast of weather forecasts. In fact, listening to updated reports offers riveting after-dinner entertainment and provides a crucial link with the water taxis that whisk groups of kayakers to and from the park and with the Haida Gwaii Watchmen staff stationed at five historic villages within the national park and heritage site.
Haida roots run millennia deep here. So when a watchman offers a suggestion or a word of advice, such as where to find sheltered campsites or sources of fresh water, it’s conveyed with authority. Teams of four watchmen work monthly shifts at each site, from Hlk’yah GaawGa, or Windy Bay, on Lyell Island—where Native-led logging protests in the 1980s resulted in the preservation of a 1,475-square-kilometre tract as national park—to Nang Sdins Llnagaay, or Ninstints, on Anthony Island, off the wind-whipped southwest coast.
By far the park’s most sought-out natural feature, besides Burnaby Narrows, are the hot springs on Gandll K’in Gwaayyayy. This island is a must-see for many reasons, especially near the end of a paddle journey, when you’ve been without the benefit of a warm shower. A state of constant dampness, if not outright wringing wetness, is the reality of sea kayaking near the rain forest. The only places you can bank on having warm feet are in a dry sleeping bag and in these naturally hot pools. Just observe the protocol of only 12 visitors at a time and you’ll be welcomed ashore by the likes of Eric Olson, whose grandfather built the first watchman cabin here in the early 1980s. "I’ve been a watchman since before there were watchmen,' he said when the Georgia Straight visited his carving shed in July.
As an artist with a growing reputation in the Lower Mainland, Olson spends a month or more each year creating masks in the original cabin where watchmen first bunked. Accommodation these days is far less rustic. Newer, more spacious quarters nearby feature solar-powered appliances and a composting toilet. "What brings me back from logging?' the 45-year-old Olson wondered aloud as he gazed around Juan Perez Sound, where humpback and grey whales were breaching. "How could I not come back?'
Transporting visitors around the park most often falls to Heron Weir and his partner, Laura Pattison, who run Moresby Explorers, an outfitting and guiding company based in Sandspit, on Moresby Island’s northeast corner. At the wheel of a Zodiac water taxi powered by twin 200-horsepower outboard motors, with eight kayaks lashed on top, Weir told the Straight that his favourite time to visit the national park is May and June. "There are obnoxious numbers of whales around then—hundreds, mostly humpbacks,' the lifelong island resident said.
National parks are celebrated for wildlife. Twenty species of whales, dolphins, and porpoises swim the waters of Gwaii Haanas, along with Steller sea lions and seals. Black bears, sleek river otters, shy Sitka black-tailed deer, and a host of raptors and seabirds work the shorelines and sheltering forest, where spongy, emerald-green mosses thickly carpet the open floor, as smooth as snowdrifts.
Spring is the best time to begin planning the logistics for a self-supported visit or to book a guided tour. Every Canadian should have the opportunity to venture here at least once. It’s our birthright. Just don’t all come at once. Hardly seeing another human soul is an integral part of experiencing Gwaii Haanas. When you do return home, the space-time continuum will never seem quite the same again. Part of you will always be floating here, on the boundary of the world.
ACCESS: Gwaii Haanas National Park Reserve and Haida Heritage Site can be reached by boat or floatplane only. Parks Canada information, including mandatory visitor orientation times, is available on-line or by calling 1-250-559-8818.
B.C. Ferries sailings to Skidegate Landing and Alliford Bay are posted at www.bcferries.com. Air Canada Jazz flies twice daily between YVR and Sandspit, on Moresby Island. The average cost per person for the two-hour flight ranges between $500 and $800, plus taxes.
For general information on Haida Gwaii, visit www.qcinfo.ca/ or www.queencharlotteislandsguide.com/. Moresby Explorers offers water-taxi service, boat tours, and kayak rentals (1-800-806-7633), as does Queen Charlotte Adventures (1-800-668-4288).
July and August are the best months to explore Haida Gwaii. However, the ocean waters around it are bone-chilling year-round. When paddling, a wet suit is a must, as are basic safety skills, such as self-rescue. Preparation for exploring Gwaii Haanas National Park by sea kayak should include a session in capsize recovery. For information on spring courses, visit www.ecomarine.com.