Twenty years ago, when I first began leading commercial sea-kayaking journeys on British Columbia's West Coast, there was an unspoken hierarchy among the locations that a young guide could be assigned. At the foot of the totem pole were weekend trips to the Gulf Islands, where fancy homes peppered the coastlines and Vancouver was never far from sight or mind. Orca-viewing journeys in the busy waters of Johnstone Strait, while somewhat commonplace, represented a step up. More tempting were expeditions to the central coast's Haika, or Kyuquot Sound on western Vancouver Island. But towering over all – the object of every guide's innermost desires – was an assignment to Gwaii Haanas, or simply "the Charlottes" as we referred to the area back then. Only the most experienced were sent north, and they returned with whispers of verdant glory and savage seas.
Ludicrous, in retrospect, to scoff at any of those guiding opportunities, for every environment – Gulf Islands to the Gulf of Alaska – is blessed with its own beauty and magic. There is no "better" or "worse" in the nature, only different. But such wisdom comes with time, and as young guides we had no patience for the nuances of familiar landscapes. We wanted to be smacked over the head with the most rugged and primal land imaginable. We wanted trees the size of skyscrapers, dripping with slabs of moss as thick as mattresses. We wanted wind in our hair, and cold jagged rocks underfoot, and camps that faced the howling eternity of the cold Pacific.
To be fair, we had that much right. If wild is what you want, in more than 25,000 kilometres of British Columbian coastline, you would be hard pressed to pick a wilder or more spirited place than Gwaii Haanas National Park and Haida Heritage Site.
Perched on the southern tip of the Haida Gwaii archipelago, Gwaii Haanas is a land of superlative beauty and rich environment. The park's 130 islands are blessed with rain, five days each week on average, which leads to lavish growth. Everything, it seems, is bigger. Temperate rain-forest giants – cedar and Sitka spruce – tower overhead, casting spells of reverence (and creating sore necks). Banana slugs swell to the size of, well, bananas. No roads penetrate these realms – the park is accessible only by boat or seaplane – and a journey to the misty and mysterious archipelago becomes a trip back in time, a view of what the wild West Coast once was.
Millions and millions of seabirds bob offshore; some nesting, others passing through on long migrations. The nutrient-rich waters are awhirl with grey and humpback whales, Steller sea lions and salmon. The intertidal zone is productive beyond imagination: Picture headlands and kelp forests festooned with turban snails and mussels, sea cucumbers and bat stars. Isolated from the mainland for millennia by the inhospitable waters of Hecate Strait, it is no wonder these islands are oft referred to as the "Galapagos of the North."
While the western coast of Gwaii Haanas is exposed to the full fury of the Pacific, its eastern shores are sheltered behind the high spine of the San Christoval Mountains. Here, a maze of islets and inlets creates a kayaker's paradise. There are hot springs to soak in, fish to catch, quiet beaches to explore and history around every corner.
Haida Gwaii is the homeland of the Haida, the West Coast's most prosperous first nation, a people renowned for their artistry, their seamanship and their ferocity. Wander in the woods and you are likely to stumble upon murmurs of this past: moss-covered canoes, cedar with strips of bark removed, middens (heaps of discarded shells). Most famously, at SGaang Gwaii, near the archipelago's southernmost cape, is a grove of hauntingly beautiful cedar mortuary poles, slowly but steadily decaying. Consumed by the elements, in Haida tradition they are being left to return to the soil of their birth.
Long before the national park existed, the Haida Nation noticed visitation to these quiet islands creeping upward, and instituted its now-famous Watchmen Program, sending friendly but vigilant caretakers to spend the summer at remote heritage sites. Yet it took a single, pivotal moment, 26 years ago, to change forever the course of Gwaii Haanas: the Haida blockade on Lyell Island.
Fed up with the relentless logging of their homeland, and fed up with years of committee meetings, negotiations and court cases that led nowhere, the Haida made a stand. For two emotional weeks, they united before heavy logging equipment, driven in some cases by friends and neighbours. Seventy-two were arrested, and it was the images of elders, in full regalia, being shackled and led away, that changed the mood of a nation.
The blockade led directly to the establishment of Gwaii Haanas National Park Reserve and Haida Heritage Site. Perhaps most notably, from the ashes of this divisive blockade grew a uniquely co-operative management structure. Parks Canada and the Council of Haida Nations share jurisdiction over Gwaii Haanas, and all decisions are reached by consensus.
Recently, a National Marine Conservation Area Reserve was added to Gwaii Haanas. Extending roughly 10 kilometres offshore, the Marine Reserve covers 3,500 square kilometres of ocean, and marks the only place in the world that an entire landscape – right from mountaintop to ocean seabed – is protected. Fisheries and Oceans Canada now sits as an equal partner at the management table.
In 1985, when elders defiantly took their place at the front of the blockade – they said they had no choice but to protect Gwaii Haanas for their unborn grandchildren. Those grandchildren are here now, and in an act highly symbolic of all that has been achieved in a quarter-century, native students from schools across Haida Gwaii gathered on Lyell again last week, part of a Parks Canada rehabilitation program. Their goal: restoration of salmon habitat devastated by logging during the 1970s and 1980s. (Imagine, only decades ago, logs were routinely skidded through salmon-bearing streambeds; we have come so far.)
Many of the children had never before seen the land their parents and grandparents fought for, yet they came with salmon fry, carefully incubated in their classrooms over winter. Fisheries and Oceans officials (who had captured the brood stock from a nearby healthy creek the previous fall) were on hand for the release. So was Guujaaw, the revered president of the Haida Nation, along with his young daughter. Ernie Gladstone was there too, Parks Canada's first Haida superintendent, who, without hesitation, said: "I don't think there is anyone on these islands [Haida Gwaii]who has not been impacted in a positive way by the national park."
One of the wildest places on the coast is now growing wilder, giving Canadians – young and old, guides or not – the chance to wander cathedral-like forests, drift and bob on the edge of eternity, glimpse the Haida war canoes, experience this realm of magic.
READY TO EXPLORE GWAII HAANAS?
Getting there: Air Canada has daily flights from Vancouver to Sandspit, Haida Gwaii. Or take B.C. Ferries from Prince Rupert.
Explore: Since 1988, Moresby Explorers in Sandspit has been the first stop for visitors to Gwaii Haanas. Moresby operates Zodiac tours, kayak rentals, expedition support and boat shuttles to every corner of the park ( moresbyexplorers.com).
Sail through Gwaii Haanas with Blue Water Adventures on a 70-foot sailing ship ( bluewateradventures.ca), with on-board naturalists, researchers and guides.
Explorers' Corner runs kayaking expeditions that traverse the entire length of Gwaii Haanas ( explorerscorner.com)
Stay: Stay in one of two guest houses at Rose Harbour Guest House, at an abandoned whaling station near the national park's southern tip ( roseharbour.com; $120, includes three meals a day). The food – from an organic garden and caught from the sea – is fantastic.
For more information: pc.gc.ca/eng/pn-np/bc/gwaiihaanas/index.aspx.