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Backpacker Magazine – January 2013

Canada: Treasure Island

You don't have to travel across the world to get off the map. British Columbia's Haida Gwaii boasts uncharted coastline, seaside hot springs, and more sea lions, whales, and bears than you can count.

by: Ted Alvarez

Welcome to the Galapagos of North America. (Photo by gwaiihaanas.com)
Photo by BP0113HG_GwaiiHaanasKayak_bjk_445x260
Welcome to the Galapagos of North America. (Photo by gwaiihaanas.com)
Haida Gwaii's black bears, grown significantly bigger (Photo by C. Cheadle/SuperStock)
Photo by BP0113HG_Bear_SuperStock_22123_bjk_260x445
Haida Gwaii's black bears, grown significantly bigger (Photo by C. Cheadle/SuperStock)
Ancient totems of the Haida people (Photo by John Marriott)
Photo by BP0113HG_marriott__QueenIslands_bjk_445x260
Ancient totems of the Haida people (Photo by John Marriott)
Maximize sightings by looking at the right times and blending in. (Photo by Paul Morrison)
Photo by BP0113HG_Morrison_eagle_0154_bjk_445x260
Maximize sightings by looking at the right times and blending in. (Photo by Paul Morrison)
Haida Gwaii's Bald Eagles, another example of island gigantism (Photo by Paul Morrison)
Photo by BP0113HG_Morrison_Eagle_bjk_445x260
Haida Gwaii's Bald Eagles, another example of island gigantism (Photo by Paul Morrison)
Haida Gwaii's starfish grow huge. (Photo by G. Osborne/SuperStock)
Photo by BP0113HG_Star_SuperStock_58173_bjk_445x260
Haida Gwaii's starfish grow huge. (Photo by G. Osborne/SuperStock)

Of course, no place with such ample natural gifts could truly go unnoticed; the Haida people have lived here for more than 12,500 years. Seafaring warriors, they raided the mainland Viking-style in cedar dugouts that could hold 60 fighters. The shallow Hecate Strait provided a natural, intimidating barrier against reprisals—only the Haida could navigate its maze of waves and rip currents. Back on their paradisiacal island fortress, the Haida paid tribute to their finned, furred, and feathered neighbors by carving their likenesses onto longhouses and totem poles. I first encounter the statues at the historic village of Skedans, reached on day six of the 10-day paddle. Splashing through the cold surf, from afar I can’t distinguish the remains of the once-vibrant totem poles from dead trees. A local Haida guide named Walter Russ explains that what wasn’t stolen has simply moldered away. “Untreated cedar doesn’t last very long, especially out here,” he says, pointing to a grayed and cracking mortuary pole where a two-foot-tall bear face sprouts a topiary. As he leads us along the clamshell-lined trail, Russ describes the history and tribal lineages of the totems: Frogs, eagles, bears, and killer whales come into sharp relief before my eyes. Where I previously saw rotting wood, I now breathe in the alliances, rivalries, and hopes of K’uuna Llnagaay—the Village at the Edge—expressed in weathered animism. Grass fills in the floor plan of a once-great Haida longhouse, and alder seedlings spill from a wooden box atop a mortuary pole that once contained a respected tribe-member’s remains. With waves slapping in the distance and that bear eye looking down at me, I feel like I’m surrounded by ghosts.

The frequently wet weather adds to the spooky vibe, as if spirits thrive on the storm-lashed islands, just like the wildlife. For nearly a full day, it rains too hard to paddle, and there’s nothing to do but count the spiderlings that have found their way into my tent and are now rappelling off the ceiling. For every ocean vista lit in moonglow, we get two shrouded in creeping fog. But every paradise has its price, and good storm gear seems like a cheap entry fee here.

Luckily, the most decadent reward on these islands is impervious to foul weather, even on a cloudy, misty day. Rugged as Haida Gwaii is, the islands harbor a five-star perk to shame the Bellagio: A small nub of rock and salal called Gandll K’in Gwaay.yaay, or Hot Spring Island, hides 26 geothermally heated pools with temperatures ranging from a lukewarm 89°F to a crab-cooking 170°F. I ease myself into a 104°F pot and feel my deltoids uncoil. I almost feel guilty ditching my wildlife search to revel in such an obscene level of relaxation. But then I look past the pool tinted with blue-green algae, through the steam, and watch an unhurried oystercatcher use its neon-red bill to pick through the frutti-di-mare on offer at low tide. In the distance, humpback whales undulate against the serrated horizon of the Juan Perez Sound, lazily gulping at troughs of plankton.

Neck-deep in warm water, I find it easy to understand why they and so many other animals keep coming back to Haida Gwaii. I’m thinking of making it part of an annual migration myself. •

Former BACKPACKER associate editor Ted Alvarez is the managing editor at environmental news site Grist.org.  




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