Exploring Canada's Haida Gwaii: the edge of the world

Westernmost of Canada’s ten provinces, British Columbia has the motto “splendour without diminishment”. Nowhere is this more evident than Haida Gwaii, a remote and rugged archipelago of roughly 400 islands and islets. Rough Guides writer Rachel Mills climbed aboard a propeller plane for the rackety two-hour flight from Vancouver to the far north.

Haida Gwaii is special. Unique. Standing on the edge of an ancient ruined village as clouds flit across the sun, I stare up at a faded totem pole, split in two where a sapling pushes up through the rotten moss-covered wood. Here, it is easy to understand the Haida worldview that “everything is connected to everything else”.

Even more than the hauntingly beautiful landscape, it’s the Haida Nation and their relationship with the land that will stay with me.

The islands have been inhabited for more than 12,500 years, with the name Haida Gwaii, meaning “Islands of the People”, officially restored in 2010.

It’s the Haida Nation and their relationship with the land that will stay with me

With the British Columbia mainland around 100km to the east, across the shallow Hecate Strait, the only way to reach the islands is by plane, or a 7- to 8-hour ferry crossing from Prince Rupert. On the rough and wild west coast there is only ocean as far as the eye can see; here, the seabed drops from 100m to more than 1000m: it feels like the edge of the world.

Haida Gwaii’s two main islands are Graham, to the north, and Moresby, to the south. Many islanders make a living from the logging, fishing and tourism industries; the sense of community is tangible.

Driving the only highway on Graham Island, you will likely only pass one or two other cars – each time I stop to stretch my legs at the next ridiculously beautiful beach, lake or remote viewpoint, I share it only with silence.

Everywhere there is moisture in the air and the smell of cedar and spruce and the sea. In Queen Charlotte where I am staying, the long summer evenings are perfect for waterfront strolls, as the sun hovers on the horizon and smoke from wood burners carries on the evening breeze.

To explore the islands I see dotted offshore, I go out with Kitgoro Kayaking to paddle in Skidegate Inlet. As bald eagles swoop overhead we glide silently through the waters; getting up close (but not too close) to a harbour seal and her hours-old pup is a once-in-a-lifetime experience, but I can’t help but think of the whales in the depths beneath.

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When the Haida were forced to abandon nearly all of their traditional villages – it’s estimated that the islands’ population fell from 20,000 to barely 600 after contact with Europeans – survivors banded together and settled on Graham Island in Old Massett and Skidegate.

Today, these two villages make up roughly a third of the islands’ population, and the Haida Nation are determined to self-govern in order to protect their land, language and cultural and hereditary rights.

Totem poles, integral to Haida history and tradition, are once again being carved and raised on the islands

The late, great, Bill Reid was at the forefront of a revival in Haida art, and totem poles, integral to Haida history and tradition, are once again being carved and raised on the islands.

At the fascinating Haida Heritage Centre visitors learn about the different types of poles, which clans – all Haida are either Eagle or Raven – they belong to, and the histories and legends the killer whales or beavers, frogs or grizzly bears relate to.

For the spine-tingling feeling of mooring at an actual abandoned ancient village, Haida Style Expeditions speed visitors down to Gwaii Haanas National Park Reserve and Haida Heritage Site to see moss-covered depressions where longhouses once stood, view original carved poles before they return to the earth, and hear stories and history from the Haida themselves.

From May to September, watchmen (and women) serve as guardians and guides to visitors at the five main village sites of K’uuna Llnagaay (Skedans), T’aanuu Llnagaay, Hlk’yah GaawGa (Windy Bay), Gandll K’in Gwaay-yaay (Hotspring Island) and most remote of all, UNESCO World Heritage Site, SGang Gwaay.

The park reserve was created in order to protect these sacred places, as well as the unique wildlife and ancient rainforest at risk from logging. It is truly wild – independent visitors must attend an orientation before they set out. Watchmen and visitors share the forests and shorelines with black bears.

It is truly wild – visitors share the forests and shorelines with black bears

Even in summer, storms aren’t uncommon and the wind can be ferocious. There are no roads here, or designated campsites. You truly leave civilization behind, sailing or kayaking between islands, setting up camp on remote beaches, fishing and foraging, hiking where there are no trails, and feeling completely alone on the edge of the world.

For more information on Destination British Columbia, visit www.hellobc.com. Rachel flew with Air Canada who offer more daily flights from the UK to Canada than any other airline; find out more at www.aircanada.com.

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