Haida Gwaii

By Marie Bruce


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It seems every time I read a newspaper or travel articles  Haida Gwaii was featured. The Charlotte Islands, now called Haida Gwaii, have been referred to as the Galapagos of the North. There is also a whole plethora of recent books and films about the Islands. Of course I wanted to go there too, it was on my bucket list for a couple of years. I love nature and wild places and I especially love Emily Carr's atmospheric paintings from her time in Haida Gwaii so I went ahead and booked my Air Canada flight to Sandspit to travel in early August 2015. 

I never plan my trips years ahead, I had two months to research and book accommodation I wasn't worried. It was perfect timing for me because I had just moved and I felt I needed a break from all the decisions and hassles involved in moving house.

The Queen Charlotte Islands are remote and hard to access except by plane or a long ferry ride from Prince Rupert, this remoteness is part of the mystery of the Islands. Many local people I met rarely leave the islands except for hospital visits and rare shopping sprees to the mainland. Just to give an example the ferry from Rupert to Queen Charlotte takes about 7 hours weather permitting.

I started my research on the internet and immediately up popped the wonderful site “go Haida Gwaii” with stunning nature photography and hard to grasp information. I was still a bit confused about the logistics of getting around. Independent travellers were not mentioned. I phoned up to the visitors bureau in Charlotte city and Masset. I was always referred back to the website “Go Haida Gwaii”. An Island bus was hinted at but no information about a schedule or if it could be booked ahead, it was all very vague and I was still confused. The car rentals were booked solid, I felt sure there had to be at least some tourist facilities to transport visitors especially with all the recent publicity and advertising Haida Gwaii was generating. 

Since my flight and a few Bed and Breakfasts were booked, the trip had to go ahead. I was apprehensive leaving Vancouver on my own with such vague plans, in retrospect I had every reason to be. Here is what I learned from my own experience.

  • Haida Gwaii or Queen Charlotte Islands is all about fishing and logging but  there are some very comfortable and expensive “fly in” fishing lodges with world class fishing and a solid reputation for a once in a lifetime experience, in fact these lodges are booked year after year by returning avid fishermen.
  • I realized later on that most of the publicity and gorgeous photographs were taken on Gwaii Haanas. My confusion arose from the fact that Gwaii Haanas National Park Reserve is a World heritage site and inaccessible without reservations.  It is situated on Moresby Island and is the most photographed and written about Island in the archipelago. Permits and guides are required to visit Gwaii Haanas, with only a limited few operators doing pre-booked trips. I should also mention that it is boat access only, very remote, subject to the extremes of weather, very expensive but people tell me it is well worth it.  This is not a solo adventure and in fact many Queen Charlotte residents I spoke to have never been there.

There are many small inaccessible Islands in the archipelago but I had to content myself with visiting Graham Island, the working Island and while there are some tourist facilities scattered about, they are few and far between. Local B.C. tourists do come to Graham Island to fish and camp and there are an abundance of camp sites. I was told by fishermen that the fishing on the Thell river is outstanding. I noticed Masset's little harbour was jammed with fishing boats; they were all there for the superb salmon and halibut fishing. Skidegate village is the home to the Haida people.

It was mid August when I flew into Sandspit. There is a bus to meet incoming flights and deliver passengers up and down Graham Island. I took the bus from the airport and crossed by ferry to Graham Island and on to Charlotte City, the largest town and administration centre for Haida Gwaii. A very good paved road runs the length of Graham Island.

It was a misty grey evening when I was dropped off by the bus at my Bed and Breakfast on the main street of Charlotte City. My first impression was one of gloom and I felt far from holiday elation as I trudged out in the rain to find somewhere to have dinner. I was directed to a diner up the hill – a very unremarkable place both in cuisine and atmosphere but I had to eat something.   My plans were sketchy for the next few days, I had booked accommodation in Thell and Masset but there was no local bus. The car rentals were booked completely even when I phoned up from Vancouver two months before. I dropped into the visitors bureau hoping for enlightenment and I did meet a few travellers all in the same boat as myself, we were all trying to figure out how to get up Graham Island without a car.

They all suggested hitchhiking, so at age 71, I dragged my case up the hill and stuck my thumb out. I got a lift immediately from a local Haida man. He was very informative and pointed out the scenery and name places and explained about the Haida culture and clans, namely the Eagles and Ravens. My very own tour guide. He dropped me at the wonderful Haida Heritage museum just before Skidegate village. This museum is a must see when visiting the Charlotte Islands. I watched a Haida Carver chisel out a massive log – a totem pole in the making. I also recommend lunch at the museum café; delicious, wholesome food and good soups. I had to make it up to Thell where my next bed and breakfast was booked. I was very lucky with my next ride - a charming kind Haida family who lived in Masset. They were very impressed with my courage to hitch and we exchanged family news and tidbits about my life in Vancouver. We had to drive around Thell (a non existing village) looking for the Bed and Breakfast I booked, eventually after many wrong turns we found it was up a dirt road virtually in the middle of nowhere. I think they were as horrified as I was – how was I going to survive this remote location on my own without a car, not to mention food or even a bottle of wine. I was also the only guest staying there. We parted with hugs and their phone number and address to call them when I got to Masset.

There was a note left on the door for me directing me to my room and telling me the owner would be back in an hour. I needn't have worried, the hospitable owner who also surprised at my guts to find her accommodation, being a solo traveller.  She understood I would need dinner and since she was dealing with her year's supply of venison she gave me a bowl of meat and some vegetables from her garden to cook for myself in the shared breakfast kitchen. The Queen Charlotte deer are much smaller than our coastal deer and is a staple in the local diet. The next day the owner put me on the road to Masset. It was the most beautiful stretch of coastline and I had plenty of time to admire the beach and flora as I sat on a bleached log waiting for a ride. I made it to Masset in good time for my next Bed and breakfast. It was a sunny day and little Masset is a picturesque village with a local population of fishermen and retirees. Still in Masset but separate from the town is a Haida village and graveyard. I walked along and met my good Samaritan family who were very pleased to see me and hear my adventures. On everyone's recommendation I had dinner at Charters – a wonderful restaurant in Masset.

The following day I met a couple who were going my way up to the northern tip of Graham Island. A wonderful ride with a delightful couple and we all enjoyed our coffee at the very quirky cafe – Moon over Naikoon – a hippy place in the woods. We made it up to Rose spit – they had a 4 wheel drive – a massive big vehicle with lots of room. The beach was packed with logs and driftwood – very wild and untouched. I spent another night in Masset and then made my way back down to Sandspit.

I had two more days to spend in Sandspit at the Sandspit Inn. It was relaxing with plenty of travellers to chat to, mushroom pickers, tree planters and tourists. The bonus there was a cafe and bar which was open all hours of the day and night. I rented a bike from Moresby Tours and explored the area. I enjoyed the beach and went for a hike on the Dover trail to see the old growth trees and mosses. There was a spectacular exposed path along the edge of the airport, it was wild and windy and not really a biking path but I rode it anyway. The surrounding beach was empty and isolated and overhead the air was filled with the screeching of seabirds. The Ravens are very tame cheeky birds and they swooped down to stare at me, I had ravens for company everywhere I went. I only met one wonderful old man walking the trail, he told me he was 98 years young and still had all his own teeth.

My recommendation for Haida Gwaii is to book a kayaking or boating trip down to Gwaii Haanas well in advance. This would be an unique experience to explore the remote inlets and shoreline and the remains of the Haida Villages still standing. To sum up, I give thanks to the wonderful kind people I met on the road and while my experience was unique too, it is not one I would like to repeat.

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Comments

Showing 1 to 1 of 1 comments.

Great article, very interesting angle on Haida Gwaii. Well done and keep travelling, your an inspiration to all seniors.

Posted by Dee | October 8, 2016 Report Violation

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