Friday, November 21, 2008

Haida Gwaii

Arriving at Banks Island early afternoon, we pushed our way through mounds of kelp, more than we had ever attempted to transit before, and got out our make-shift boat hook to nudge the pieces that managed to get lodged in the rudder. We anchored amidst a small fleet of boats offloading geoduck to the larger mothership. Geoduck (pronounced goo-ee duck, sounds appealing, doesn’t it?) was something I had never heard tell of until we met Jean-Marc. He dives from his own boat to gather these giant clams, which have a lifespan upwards of 150 years and are considered a delicacy in Asia.

While all those aboard the boats at anchor continued to work, it was time for us to play. We rowed… no... PADDLED… you paddle a canoe… ashore and poked around for evidence of the wolves. There were plenty of tracks, none too recent though. An epic canoe journey ensued, into moderate surf not suited to canoes, but we explored many small inlets and islets, and our beachcombing turned up evidence of more wolves, bears, mother-of-pearl, tiny snails, and some baleen from a whale. I’m an obsessed beachcomber, but only until the point where I become overwhelmed with too much stuff, and overboard it goes. Usually all at once.

Arriving with high hopes of a wolf sighting but leaving with mild disappointment, we set out across the Hecate Strait to the Queen Charlotte Islands. My friend Chris, who has spent time in the Strait aboard Coast Guard vessles, refers to it as the Hell-Cat Strait, and it is known for being treacherous. Like the Great Lakes of the Canada-US border, and the North Sea adjacent to Great Britain, it is very shallow. The result is steep seas with short wavelengths that can build quickly with very little coaxing from the wind. Despite the area never being too long without a gale this time of year, we had a beautiful sail.

The Queen Charlottes have recently become known as Haida Gwaii, a closer resemblance of the original name of Xaadala Gwayee in recognition of the Haida Nation and to place less emphasis on their colonial past. We had heard from many that the West coast of the Charlottes was the place to go, as most cruisers, the few that venture to the Queen Charlottes in the run of a season, head down the more protected east coast. The remnants of Haida native villages are everywhere, having been abandoned during the late 19th Century as European explorers introduced diseases such as smallpox, typhoid, and measles. The Haida people were almost entirely decimated, their population reduced to a mere 350 from approximately 50,000 before the arrival of the explorers. As the Natives fell ill, survivors abandoned their villages and took to the woods, splitting from family and friends, and most of them eventually re-congregated in Queen Charlotte City, Masset, Sandspit, or Skidegate.

We waited a week dockside in Queen Charlotte City as gale after gale blew through, and eventually decided it was best to just head back from whence we came. Not being familiar with either the east or west coastline of the Charlottes, and having spent hours pouring over the charts on loan from Jean-Marc, it didn’t seem like there were many options for good safe anchorages from the inevitable storms along the 200 mile stretch we’d have to navigate. We picked our weather window, probably the only 10hr stretch of reduced winds in over a week, and set out before sunrise, bound once again for Banks Island and to make our way south through the Inside Passage. Re-living my visit as I write, I realize just how much I'd like to believe it was more than just another stop along the way. I want to return and take in what I missed; the remnants of totem poles over 100 years old, the antique trading beads lacing the shoreline, the long-submerged glassware of Japanese sailing ships washed ashore or uncovered on a regular basis by fierce Pacific storms, not to mention all the natural beauty of the landscape and seascape. Someday.

It wasn’t all disappointment though. We met a Haida elder who was eager to share his stories, and he gave us a driving tour of his home town of Skidegate, described their matriarchal society and how all the remaining Haida (approximately 4000) all belong to one of two social groups, or moieties; Eagles or Ravens. There are more than 20 lineages that exist within each of the Eagle and Raven moieties, and an Eagle must marry a Raven, never a fellow Eagle, and any children belong to the same group as the mother. Members of any of the Haida lineages have certain entitlements of land, hunting and gathering areas, and other natural resources.

Our guide took us to a totem pole along the shore of the reserve that was carved in the 1970s by renowned Haida artist Bill Read, whose art is also depicted on the Canadian $20 bill. His ‘Jade Canoe’ sits in Vancouver International Airport and apparently leaves a lasting impression for all those arriving on international flights (I only say apparently because I have no recollection of it despite passing through there just a few months ago). As a last stop, he left us at the newly opened Haida Cultural Center. A couple of current projects are underway at the Center, including the carving of totem poles and traditional Haida canoes. The canoes, sometimes more than 50ft in length, are carved from a single massive trunk of cedar. By hollowing the trunk, filling them with water, then dropping hundreds of pounds of red-hot rocks into the resulting wooden 'bath', the canoes can be manipulated and thwarts (seats) can be forced into place, permanently reshaping the canoe as the wood cools.

The other end of the Center focuses on the geology, biology, and history of Haida Gwaii. Here I learned of the shocking practice of the 18th and 19th century explorers confiscating anything from art, general household items, family heirlooms, and even Haida remains as trophies which they sent or carried back to their homes in Europe. Most of these items or remains eventually found themselves in the hands of museums throughout the world, and as part of the organization of the Cultural Center, a call was put out for the return of all these artifacts. Every museum known to possess these artifacts was contacted, and I was impressed to learn that every last one has complied and returned what rightfully belongs in Haida Gwaii.