My interest in Haida Gwaii spiked when I mentioned it to a few more worldly adventure writers than myself—folks who spend their weekends traversing Mongolia on skis—and got a collective “Haida what?” in response. Can’t blame ’em: Though it’s only 80 miles off Canada’s Pacific coast, Haida Gwaii (previously known as the Queen Charlotte Islands) gets perpetually bypassed for the cruise-ship-frequented shores of nearby Alaska, just 50 miles to the north. Getting to the island chain is also logistically challenging enough that the spoils remain a step removed. That said, it’s a quicker trip from Seattle—just six hours by plane and train— than a journey to Denali.
Separated from the B.C. mainland by the roiling Hecate Strait and tucked under the crook of Alaska’s panhandle, the 150-plus islands that make up the Haida Gwaii archipelago resemble the Olympic Peninsula if you tore it off the continent and dunked it in the wild North Pacific. Where sandy beaches and limestone cliffs end, skyscraping forests of Sitka spruce, hemlock, and western red-cedar carpet the steep flanks of these islands in arboreal camo. Until recently, tourism was an afterthought behind logging and fishing. But thanks to ongoing efforts by Haida natives (more on them later) and locals to protect much of the area as national and provincial parks, the doors are swinging wide for adventure travelers. If you’re looking for a Lost World, these islands—isolated since the last Ice Age—fit the bill in every way that counts: geographically, biologically, and culturally.
As I paddle past the snaggletooth ridges of the San Christoval Mountains in late August, the peaks are still tattooed with snow, looking much meaner than their 3,900-foot elevation would suggest. Here on the western coast (portions of which are still uncharted), the fjord-cut mountains tumble into the ocean, where bulldozer waves assault the shore.
Haida Gwaii’s dramatic geography is matched only by its lush and supersized ecosystem, which begins at ground level with the rivers and salmon. Massive spruce trees keep streams cool enough in late summer for the waters to swell with pink, chum, and coho salmon runs. Animals from sea slugs to starfish to sea lions gorge themselves. Without competition from brown bears, black bears get the choicest bits of the feast, and grow massive jaws and nearly two-inch teeth. They drag salmon carcasses inland, where eagles, ravens, pine martens, and other scavengers grow huge on the protein boost. (Bears in just one river system carried more than 13,600 pounds of salmon 500 feet into the forest during a single below-average spawning cycle.) When the salmon finally rot and fertilize those enormous trees, the cycle begins anew.
But to see all of these behemoths, I first had to negotiate some monster seas. Twenty-four-foot tides erase safe takeouts and five-knot currents suck burly paddlers out to sea; Southeasters boil over the mountains, even in summer, to clot the horizon. A small-craft advisory is permanently in effect. I’m ready to be trained for seagoing warfare, and expect our guide to be a paddle-wielding drill sergeant. So I’m caught off-guard when I first meet Konik, looking mellow on a yellow-sand beach, where he’s frying up just-caught rockfish in cornmeal and grilling sweet potatoes.