Impressions of Haida Gwaii – Pt 1


Impressions of Haida Gwaii Pt. 1

By Fred Kaufhold

We set out on a voyage of discovery to Haida Gwaii in June 2018 with three boats in our party:

Dream Weaver, a 35 Mariner Seville (Helmsman) crewed by Stephanie, myself, and our dog, Tina
Discovery, a Northeast 400 motorsailer crewed by Jim and Marlene
Harmony Bay, a Nordic Tug 37 crewed by Rob and Barb

Our group staged in Larsen Harbour at the north end of Banks Island for our 65-nautical mile crossing of the sometimes-treacherous Hecate Strait. It is a well-protected anchorage and a good jumping off point, and also quite wild. Before departing, Marlene urgently advised me to hurry up and get in the dinghy while I was walking Tina on the beach as a lone wolf was loping toward us along the shoreline. We were impressed by the speed of his arrival!

Haida Gwaii lies north of Vancouver Island.

Here was our Happy Hour toast the evening before crossing Hecate Strait:

Here’s to our crossing
With adventure to find
May the seas be calm
and the wind be kind

It didn’t work! We had a very rough crossing of Hecate Strait on our anniversary. The wind was 20 knots from the southeast and swells were 2 meters with a very short period. Not what was predicted! Turns out that we may have experienced wind against tide for the first half of the trip while crossing the swash channel near Banks Island. Fog surrounded us the whole trip. Needless to say, landfall at Lawn Point was a welcome sight.

We had reserved slips for all three boats with Kelly in Sandspit marina. We topped off with fuel at the convenient fuel dock in the marina. Kelly was very personable and helpful and the marina was busy with fishing charter boats and local characters. We were anxious to get on to Queen Charlotte for our orientation so did not explore beyond the marina on this visit.

Queen Charlotte has a crowded boat harbor. If space is available, it is probably outboard a local fishing boat. Rafting two deep is strongly encouraged. There is a nice pub across the street from the marina, laundry and grocery a short walk to the left and the helpful visitor center a short walk to the right with scoop ice cream at the convenience store en route.

We rented a 6-passenger van from Bob, 250-559-2380, for 3 days at $95 per day, including mileage. He lives in town so he picked us up with the car and brought us back to the marina when we turned it in. He also owns the taxi business and was very accommodating.

The village of Skiddegate

The first order of business was to drive to Skidegate for our orientation briefing and to purchase permits to cruise in Gwaii Haanas National Park Reserve and National Marine Conservation Area Reserveand Haida Heritage Site. We arrived at the Haida Heritage Center a little before 9am and went down behind the offices to the impressive museum complex near the water for the daily 90-minute orientation. You should allow extra time after the orientation to explore the excellent museum exhibits and perhaps catch the informative totem pole tour, as well as registering with Ginette at the office for your permit. You will need your boat registration numbers as well as the usual information to fill out the form. There is a daily charge for visiting the Reserve, $19.60 for adults, $16.60 for seniors. Children 17 and under are free. If you want to spend more than 6 days in the Reserve, a season pass is equivalent to 6 days of daily fees. Even with a season pass, you need to register for the specific dates you plan to be in the reserve. There is a limit of 100 visitors in the Reserve each day. You will want to allow at least 2-3 days from the time you leave Skidegate area before you actually enter the Reserve to visit Skedans village site and experience some of the anchorages in the area outside the Reserve. Hang on to the excellent spiral bound booklet that is handed out at the orientation and take it with you when you visit the Haida Watchmen villages. They each have a special stamp that can be put in your booklet as a souvenir.

After a full morning at the Heritage Center and Museum, we were off to drive around Skidegate and north along the coast. We stopped to get the obligatory picture of holding up balancing rock and continued to Tlell for a delightful lunch at the Crow’s Nest along the highway. We returned to Skidegate to pick up our Haida courtesy flag at the Band office ($25) behind the Co-op market. We flew it proudly during our visit. Then home to Queen Charlotte for laundry, walking around town and dinner at J and T’s Chinese restaurant.

The next day was a big celebration for the annual Hospital Days which started with a benefit pancake breakfast put on by the firemen at the Queen Charlotte Community Center. Then came the parade with good representation from the local businesses and residents. All afternoon there were softball games, food booths, games and face painting for the kids, and a chance to mix and mingle with our neighbors.

Prior to the pole raising at the Hospital Days celebration.

This Hospital Days celebration was different, though. At 4PM everyone gathered at the new hospital for the raising of a magnificent, freshly carved, “wellness pole”. When we got there, the pole was resting on a support at a 45 degree angle in front of the hospital where the clan chiefs, honored matriarchs, pole carvers and special guests were gathered. After speeches and ceremonial scattering of eagle down, all the assembled lined up on the four large ropes and commenced pulling with all their might to slowly raise the massive pole into position. It was a thrill and bonding experience to be at one with the grunting strangers in front and behind us.

The Hospital Days potlatch.

After the pole was successfully secure, the dancers took over and we headed out to the Skidegate community center for the celebratory feast or potlatch. We sat at long tables with 1000 of our new friends and spent the whole evening eating, conversing, listening to speeches, watching traditional dances and generally immersing ourselves in this welcoming culture. It was a day to remember!

On our last day with the car, we headed north to explore Graham Island. Graham Island does not really lend itself to exploring by boat. The east coast and most of the north coast are marked by long flat stretches of sand/gravel beaches with few suitable anchorages/harbors for cruising boats. The west coast is wild and remote and better accessed from Skidegate channel. First stop on our car trip was at the old St. Marks Anglican church in Port Clements to see the Golden Spruce sapling in the Memorial Garden. After reading the book Golden Spruce, it was almost humbling to see this tiny tree struggling to survive with its shining needles touched by the early morning sun.

Moon over Naikoon is a bus-based bakery with cinnamon rolls.

At Masset, we turned east on the Tow Hill road, headed for Rose Spit. We stopped on the way at the Moon Over Naikoon bakery bus for a mid-morning cinnamon bun. It was a real 60’s throwback experience. The paved Tow Hill road turned to a well-maintained gravel logging road and led us to the trail head for the boardwalk enhanced trail to Tow Hill. In the middle of the forest we found a suitable spot to plant some cedar seedlings that we were given at the Hospital Days parade. When we come back in 25 years, we will check up on them. We broke out of the woods at North Beach and were greeted by the sheer rock bluff that is Tow Hill. We enjoyed the vistas along the gravel beach to Rose Spit and back toward Masset. On the beach, we visited the local denizens of the basalt tide pools and scrounged for agates among the pebbles. Then it was back to Masset for lunch at Cool Daddy’s Pub and grocery shopping at the Co-op. After driving around Masset and Old Masset, we headed south, tired from a long day, but filled with the wonder of this place on the edge of the world and its people.

A boardwalk trail through coastal rainforest.

Here was our Happy Hour toast that evening:

Here’s to the Haida who have touched our hearts
Here’s to our friendships that grow each day
Here’s to the beauty of the land and the sea
Here’s to us all, how lucky are we!

 Finally, a day of settled weather and we were off aboard our boats for points south. We retraced our steps out of Skidegate Inlet, around buoy C19 and, skirting Dogfish Shoals off Sandspit, pointed our bows toward Cumshewa Head. We passed the weather station there and continued up Cumshewa Inlet to our anchorage in Gordon Cove beside Moresby Camp.

The next day we dinghied over to Moresby Camp and walked around the southernmost road access on Moresby Island. A new group of visitors had exited a van and were being briefed by the crew from a large charter sailboat while their luggage was ferried aboard. Soon they were crowded aboard the tender and embarked for their week-long adventure through the wilds of Gwaii Haanas. We were reminded how fortunate we were to have the privilege of cruising this amazing area on our own boat at our own pace. That evening, Jim and I collected firewood and, along with Marlene, set up a beach picnic. We gathered for a weenie roast and s’mores as the sun dipped behind the trees. Yet another memorable day.

A view from the bow of Louise Narrows.

It was time to stage for a visit to our first Watchmen village at Skedans. We caught a rising tide at Louise Narrows, and our timing was good. We had 12-15 feet of very clear water for our transit. The trees were close on either side and the rocks even closer, but with careful attention to the chart and bordering gravel banks, the trip was delightful. Our anchorage was in Thurston Harbour, equidistant from Skedans and Tanu village sites. We shared the ample anchorage with two other boats, setting the hook in soft mud with good holding. Nice doggy access ashore and after a delicious Moroccan dinner aboard Harmony Bay, we called it a night.

We awoke to fresh southwesterly winds, so a visit to Skedans was not in the cards. We would try again on the trip back north. Since our allotted time in Gwaii Haanas did not start for another day, we opted to head for Crescent Inlet. But with a dog, the first order of business was a trip ashore. Later, as we pulled up the anchor, the low tide beaches came alive with hordes (tribes? herds? gaggles?) of raccoon. Supposedly they live in the abandoned house that sits askew, off its foundation, on the near shore.

A black bear on the shore at Dana Passage.

The trip to Crescent Inlet took us through Dana Passage. It was a drizzly, overcast day, not unusual in these parts. It added another dimension to the constantly changing vistas that surrounded us every day. Dana Passage is pretty, protected and easily navigated at most any tide. We were surprised by the number of land slides that dotted the surrounding hillsides. We anchored again in mud with good holding and watched bears graze in the meadow at the top of the bay. After waiting a respectful period, I ushered the dog ashore on a short leash, armed with a loud horn and under the watchful eyes of fellow cruisers in the anchorage.

We had one more day before we could enter the Reserve so we spent a relaxed day at anchor. I tackled the chore of cleaning out the jellied remains of a Lion’s Mane jellyfish that had gotten too close to the generator intake the night before and clogged the strainer. VHF weather reception was very spotty in Crescent Inlet so it took many repeats to get the basics. More bears were sighted on the beach, so we switched doggy destinations to a large slide area that came right down to the water which did not seem to interest our friendly bears.

Finally! Gwaii Haanas Day. Our permit period begins. We were underway early in settled weather to arrive off the Tanu village site shortly after the 8AM opening. Mary answered our hail on VHF 06 and gave us permission to come ashore after we assured her that we came in peace. She also invited Dream Weaver to use the mooring buoy in front of the village. We found that our aluminum RIB with light weight electric outboard was ideal for landing at all the village sites because it could be easily carried above the high tide mark on the gravel landing beaches and it did not matter about the state of the tide or wind direction. This was important since our visits typically took about 2-3 hours.

We joined Walter, Mary, and her daughter Raven on the beach and after properly beaching the dinghy, at Mary’s direction, began our tour with Walter. It was a most informative and enlightening interpretation of the village history and cultural traditions, after which, Walter led us to the Watchman’s house to sign the guest book and stamp our souvenir booklets. We had an enjoyable visit and Walter took us to Bill Reid’s grave (the famed Canadian artist) before escorting us back to our dinghy.

Since it was just midday and the weather was still settled, we decided to head to Windy Bay for the afternoon. The mooring ball was occupied by another boat when we arrived, so we anchored and went ashore after getting permission on channel 06 with the following request: 

“We would like to come ashore at Windy Bay. We are brave and have traveled far through treacherous waters. Today we request permission to step ashore and back in time to learn your history and share your stories. In exchange for this experience we will be respectful and tell of your fame to brothers and sisters of distant lands to the south. Ha’awa (thank you).”

Totem at Windy Bay.

This request was extremely well received. We were treated to a detailed description of the recently raised memorial pole depicting the struggle for Haida protection of Gwaii Haanas revealed in the intricate carving of traditional totem figures. Ken then escorted us across the creek in an aluminum skiff with the help of a pullied clothesline to see a 1200-year-old Spruce. Wow! That was impressive. We also passed a “culturally modified tree” (CMT) where the bark had been partially stripped to make baskets or other necessary objects for Haida daily life. The Watchmen have recently fenced off a small area of the forest to keep the deer out and let nature show what she does without four legged herbivores devouring every new shoot and seedling that sprouts. It is a long-term project! Ken shared his art work before we left and stamped our booklets.

As the day waned, we pulled anchor and traveled the short distance to Ramsay Passage Cove. Here we found two mooring balls and a delightfully settled anchorage just east of the peninsula. It was another long and stimulating day.

Relaxing in a hot spring on Hot Springs Island.

Canada Day! Since we were so close, it was a short trip to the anchorage at Hot Springs Island for an early visit. Watchman, Sheldon Moody, met us at the beach and escorted us through the woods to the hot springs and Watchman house. We were the first visitors of the day to luxuriate in the baths so we had them all to ourselves. We were amazed by the new changing rooms and showers with hot running water complete with body soap and shampoo. Jim, Barb and I soaked in the 100-degree water while Stephanie, Marlene and Rob explored the shoreline and took pictures. Others were calling in for permission to land as we took our final shower and headed back to our beached dinghy.

5 Risso's Dolphins surface simultaneously.

We weighed anchor and took advantage of the settled weather to make an outside passage to Bag Harbour at the south end of Dolomite Narrows in Burnaby Strait. Our arrival was heralded by a pod of Risso’s Dolphins who were cavorting in the anchorage. Talking to the charter sailboat that was leaving as we arrived, the dolphin had been there all day. The rest of the afternoon and into the evening we were mesmerized by the sight of these magnificent animals with their distinctive curved dorsal fins and blunt white heads, cruising back and forth at the head of the bay, apparently feeding and generally enjoying themselves. It brought to mind the image of the five-finned whale seen in the Haida drawings and other art works.