Shirtless and sporting a sun hat, the owner of Haida Gwaii’s Ocean Sound Kayaking looks like Canada’s surfing ambassador; without his liberal “eh’s” I might have thought we were in a coniferous corner of Maui. A small clutch of word-of-mouth adventurers from Switzerland and Germany share the nearby beach with a handful of Haida Gwaii locals. We watch seabirds catch fire in the sunset, pitch our tent on a soft bed of moss, and savor a rib-sticking apple pie by a crackling driftwood fire—all of which eases my big-seas anxiety.
Doesn’t last: Our first paddle the following morning has us surfing through three- and four-foot swells, dodging rogue waves, and getting tossed around like rubber ducks in a Jacuzzi. We’re attempting an open, three-mile crossing of the Cumshewa Inlet where it kisses the Hecate in between Moresby and Louise Island when I almost get taken out. A big-daddy wave slaps my back and washes over my spray skirt from behind. I’m bobbling as I hurtle down the wave’s curve, but the boat’s 14-foot length covers for me, steadying my keel when I reach the trough.
Having sloshed our way through the route’s crux, we spend the rest of the day gliding at an even pace along the shallow coastal waters of Louise Island, shaded by the area’s most visible giants: the trees. Some of the world’s biggest spruce grow here, upwards of 300 feet tall. Some biologists speculate that Haida Gwaii holds one of the highest wood volumes per square mile in the world.
The next day, we launch into an incoming tide and the inward flush propels me along at blazing speed. I revel in the benefits of going with the flow, coasting on the steroidal current, using it to seesaw at leisure between the depths in the middle of the Cumshewa Inlet and the sparkling boulders of its shallows. Out in the center of the inlet, my eyes trace kelp streamers 30 feet below the surface, where they form dense forests that shelter juvenile salmon and herring. Closer in, meadows of swaying eelgrass hide sculpin, sole, and rockfish. But the real underwater fireworks happen in the intertidal zones closest to shore. At high tide, iridescent anemones, glowing nudibranchs, shuffling crabs, and webbed bat stars appear under my boat as if on display in a glass case. The extreme tidal action, intensified by the shallow channels between islands, constantly flushes in plankton and nutrients from the Japanese current, which helps support one of the highest densities of biomass in a tidal zone anywhere. Translation: the Amazon, underneath your boat. Biologists conducting research in nearby Burnaby Narrows, a channel between Moresby and Burnaby Islands, counted 293 species in the 160-foot wide canal (with 74 bat stars in one square meter). I could almost do the same: Turban snails, limpets, barnacles, sea cucumbers, periwinkles, clams, and hermit crabs spackle the seafloor everywhere I look.
When we pull ashore to make camp on night two near Mathers Creek, we luck out: Schools of humpbacked pink salmon struggle up the shallow stream—and where there are salmon, there are bears. After watching the fish flop and charge up the trickle, we follow Konik on a bushwhack through thick red alder and blackberry brambles. Puffs of eagle feathers float through the air. Before long, we come upon a salmon slaughterhouse. We push through a game trail cut in knee-high grass.
Around a hedge, I spot the first body: a fat pink salmon, sides shining and mouth agape with its guts ripped out. Ten feet later there’s a headless victim, and stray scales pepper the grass down to the riverbank where bear toes have left sausage-size indentations in the sand. We’re following all the rules—talking loudly, making noise, traveling in a group—but I’m wondering if disturbing a snacking bear’s fish appetizer isn’t a good way to end up on the main course. I nearly step on a stray liver before we see the butcher: a hulking black bear fading into the understory’s shade. Luckily, she’s more interested in salmon than us, and our racket gave her the heads-up to mosey towards a quieter table.