Sampling Haida Gwaii

By Chris Millikan & Jessica Millikan

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Photos by: Chris Millikan & Jessica Millikan Pesuta shipwreck

Haida Gwaii’s legendary windswept beaches and towering old growth forests lie off British Columbia’s remote northern coast. Eager to hike there, my daughter Jessica and I fly into Masset, just a two-hour flight from Vancouver’s south terminal.

Herb shuttles us to the car rental office. “First timers, eh? Well…you’re at Graham Island’s most northerly point. Of Haida Gwaii’s 150 islands, this and Moresby to the south are our biggest,” he winks. “You’re gonna love it! I came up for a two-day job… and stayed 40 years!”  

Our mama-daughter expedition continues across the causeway at Copper Beech Guest House. Over tea, we chat with Susan Musgrave, renowned Canadian poet, writer, teacher… and current owner of this B&B. She urges us to take it slow and see what unfolds during our stay. Already, we’re suspecting we’ll be short of time.

To start us off, manager Julia tours us around our lodgings. Shaded by a giant beech tree, this blue-trimmed cottage built in 1914 brims with antiques, books and artifacts. “Each room’s different,” she grins. Covering the top floor, “Cloud 9” becomes ours for five days. Here, Douglas Coupland wrote the ending for his novel, *Generation A*. Downstairs, guestbook entries show us that other celebs also enjoyed cozy stays overlooking Delkatla Inlet: Pierre and Maggie Trudeau; Margaret Atwood; David Suzuki.

Inspired, we reconnoiter downtown Masset, still a small fishing village clustered around a picturesque harbour… and one of the first places European pioneers settled in the 1800s. Our plans evolve over Bison burgers at Mile Zero Grill, the Yellowhead Highway’s westernmost starting point. Glancing at our roadmap, Jessica observes, “Look! We’re driving that very road tomorrow!”
Our after-breakfast road trip takes us south to Skidegate. Glimpses of Hecate Strait punctuate sparsely inhabited landscapes; Sitka deer graze roadsides; eagles soar in blue skies. Soon, the picnic area north of the Tlell River Bridge marks our first stop.

Kiosk notices inform us that this river has one of BC’s best angling spots for Coho and Dolly Varden. Also, hikers of all abilities flock here for the many trails. The experienced trek north along BC’s longest beach to Rose Spit, a demanding five-day, 78-kilometre wilderness adventure. Our choice is Pesuta Trail, a 10-kilometre day hike.

From East Beach trailhead, an easy path leads us along forested hillsides; sunshine dapples lush carpets of thick mosses. Pausing often to drink in breathtaking views, we eventually descend to the beach, gloriously deserted.

Nearing the Tlell River mouth, we sight the Pesuta’s stark skeleton sticking from pale sands on East Beach. The 200-foot-long log carrier ran aground during a storm in 1928. Mostly buried or washed away, what’s left of the shipwreck seems strangely beautiful; its bleached wooden hull and rusted portholes testify to endurance.  

Heading back, the incoming tide widening the river begins flooding our trail’s lowest parts. Splashing through ankle deep spots, we safely reach higher ground unscathed. And with triumphant high fives at the car, we continue to Skidegate, a village thriving along Rooney Bay for hundreds of years.
Upon arrival, we drive along Front Street. Dugout canoes and hand-built fishing boats no longer rest on the beach; instead, canoe-shaped markers in Haida language identify residential streets. And the dogfish totem, a Bill Reid pole raised in 1978, still fronts the language immersion longhouse, the only one left along a pretty waterfront once lined with totems.  

Award winning, the Haida Heritage Centre and Museum proves magnificent. Totems carved in 2001 rise in front of stylized “longhouses” representing six early villages. Entering through the greeting house, huge glass windows allow sweeping views of Hecate Strait and forests beyond. Wondrous collections of Haida artifacts and artwork showcase these islands’ long aboriginal history. In the pole gallery, ancient totems from Tanu and Skedans dwarf us; today’s artists carve new cedar poles in the canoe house outside. Theatre presentations feature dancers dressed traditionally in red button blankets, woven hats and animal masks.  

Before leaving, a stop close to the highway reveals a wooden Madonna protecting St. Mary’s Spring. Locals believe drinking from it means returning to Haida Gwaii. Silent wishes and a few sips later, we continue to Masset.  

Bundling in layers our third day, we hike windswept beaches east of Masset. Getting there through Naikoon Provincial Park’s legendary rainforest becomes an experience in itself. Lofty trees along Tow Hill Road seem to envelope us; odd-shaped “creatures” perch on branches; mosses cover forest floors. And off this narrow gravel road, New Moon Over Naikoon bakery nestles in the woods. Munching fresh-baked cinnamon buns at tables under the trees kicks off this three-beach day.

At North Beach, we recall a Haida legend that says raven coaxed the people from clamshells onto the vast sands here. This day, locals in four-wheel drives race the wind along its firm, low tide expanses… and hardy souls swim in frigid, crashing waves. Battling stiff headwinds, we beachcomb for several kilometres toward Tow Hill, a volcanic basalt fortress. Though tempted by its steep trail to popular viewpoints up top, we try out nearby South Beach.

Thrilled, at first, to uncover moon shells of all sizes, we graduate to climbing sand dunes. Stumbling like toddlers up and down shifting hillocks takes our breath away; we rest against weathered driftwood until brisk winds swirl fine sands across our log pillows… and us!

And later prowling shorelines at Agate Beach, we search for the crystalline gems said to have healing powers. Agate colours vary from clear white, to yellow-amber, greens… even red. The trick becomes spotting irregular, translucent stones among the millions of other rocks. We happily finger smooth samples clacking in our pockets as we stroll.

This epic day of salt winds, pounding waves, and kilometres of sand and shrieking seabirds wraps up in Masset Cemetery. Forested pathways lead us past mounded graves covered with mosses and flowers; some headstones date to the early 1900s. Beyond lies access to a rocky coastline where locals walk their dogs and enjoy great bonfires. We explore this beach one-way, looping back to our car through the forest filled with early evening birdsong.

The last full day, we drive the coastal road to neighbouring Old Masset. Artists usually welcome visitors into their workshops; being Sunday, they’re closed. Instead, a pictorial map guides us to totems situated throughout the village. We try working out stories being told by carvers, identifying symbols like the frog, bringing wealth; resourceful eagle; trickster raven; strong whale and powerful wolf. And resident Jaalen Edenshaw’s 13-metre pole is the talk of the town: first totem raised at Windy Bay in 130 years. His legacy pole celebrates two anniversaries: the 20th of cooperative management of Gwaii Hanaas National Park, and 25th of preserving south Moresby’s ancient forests.

Browsing locally crafted Haida artwork inside Sarah’s Haida Arts, we find argillite carvings, sleek paddles, masks, totems, fine cedar bark baskets and hats. Exquisite handmade jewelry incorporating gold, silver and abalone inspires us to try on countless bracelets and pendants. Jessica’s new silver ring features a raven, signifying one clan.

After another round of the bakery’s cinnamon buns, we spend our last morning on South Beach. This time, silver mists shroud the coastline. Immersed in this silent, otherworldly beachscape, we marvel at our remarkable introduction to Haida Gwaii’s culture, history and natural beauty. 

When You Go:
* daily flights to Masset in summer; three times weekly in winter
* Copper Beach Guest House
* Sarah’s Haida Arts & Jewelry in Old Masset
* Rustic Car Rentals in Masset 250-626-3756
* Haida Gwaii Tourism




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Showing 1 to 1 of 1 comments.

Enjoyed the article. Found it informative and inviting. Haida Gwaii has always been on my list of places to visit and now even more so.

Posted by Lynda | April 4, 2014 Report Violation

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