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.
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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.

"Why are those logs staring at us?"

The question sounds absurd until I look beyond the rolling aqua-blue breakers to see what my girlfriend’s talking about. Sure enough, in the kelpy soup 30 feet off the beach where we’re standing, two logs that each look to be at least 900 pounds pitch, roll, then stop to gape at us with open mouths and black eyes the size of eight balls. They’re threatened Steller sea lions, close enough for me to count canines and whiskers. The pair bobs and checks us out, decides we won’t snatch the herring, and then resumes cruising the intertidal buffet table that stretches from here to Alaska. We gasp and cackle at our luck, positive that it’s a once-in-a-lifetime glimpse into the private life of a rare marine predator—until it happens again 10 minutes later.

Everywhere I go on Haida Gwaii, an island archipelago off the coast of British Columbia, it’s the same story, just different species. The typical scene: Six feet below my paddle, I can see a platoon of beet-purple Dungeness crabs looting a rockfish carcass through Stoli-clear water, and a quick scan of the foggy crags ringing this inlet shows one, two—no, four—bald eagles circling for salmon in wide arcs. The slick gray dome and snout of a curious harbor seal that’s been tracking my progress for more than 30 minutes periscopes 10 feet off my bow. He gives a Labrador’s snort of approval and disappears with a soft plunk.

We’ve been kayaking on the fringes of Canada’s Gwaii Haanas National Park long enough now that I should be used to the fin-and-feather crowd pressing in from all sides. But it’s day three of a nonstop nature bender, and I’m still drunk off the idea that you can spot more wildlife in 15 minutes here than in a week in Yellowstone. The encounters are also more surprising than in Wyoming: Thanks to an abundant, year-round food supply and the quirks of island biology, species like bears, eagles, and crabs grow bigger than their mainland cousins—while others like Sitka deer adapt by getting smaller. The size extremes represent a unique evolutionary duality known as island gigantism/dwarfism; Haida Gwaii is one of the best places in the world to observe it firsthand.

We first experienced this ecological funhouse on day two. After beaching our boats in pea gravel and tromping into the temperate rainforest onshore, we surprised a jet-black bruin sitting Buddha-like atop an old-growth stump. He capered through the ferns, shot us a lazy glance, and flopped on a nurse log the size of a Winnebago for a nap. I guessed him at about 350 pounds—no slouch on the mainland, but a relative flyweight here, where black bears grow 25 percent bigger than anywhere else. Minutes later, a deer the size of a greyhound flitted through a nearby grove of huckleberry bushes.

And not a safari bus or ponchoed camera-clicker in sight. Since arriving, we haven’t seen another kayaking party or shared a beach camp yet. “Where is everybody?” I ask our guide, Steve Konik. “Is it always like this?”

“Oh, not always—I’ve seen four other kayakers,” he says in his pronounced Canadian accent. “In a month.”

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.

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.

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.

ADVENTURE PLANNER

PADDLE

Hot spring Island to SGang Gwaay/Ninstints

Experience tranquil hot springs, empty beaches, towering totems and trees, and lavish sea life on this 10-day paddle in Gwaii Haanas National Park Reserve and to the Haida Heritage Site (the journey includes highlights of the author’s route). A Zodiac shuttle from Moresby Camp plunks you onto Hot Spring Island, where you’ll warm up in an alfresco Jacuzzi, then paddle a half hour to nearby Murchinson or Ramsay Islands. The following day, make a tough two-hour crossing of Juan Perez Sound to camp on Burnaby Island. On day three, head southwest for Burnaby Narrows and its hallucinogenic intertidal zone, or circle around Burnaby’s outer shore to Skincuttle Inlet to spot endangered birds.

Press south past Ikeda Bay to the Rankin Islands, where nearby open water is home to Steller sea lions and orcas. Cross Carpenter Bay and peel around the headlands of Benjamin Point, then wait for an inward current (check your tide chart) to pull you into the Houston Stewart Channel. Turn south at Kunghit Island to pull ashore near Rose Harbour, an old whaling station. Grab a bed at the Rose Harbour Guest House ($120/night with meals; roseharbour.com), or just dinner and a shower ($35). The last day, paddle to the western coast to see precipitous fjords. Your final stop: Hike with a Haida interpreter through SGang Gwaay, a UNESCO World Heritage Site with the most standing original totem poles in the world. Catch a Zodiac (or a seaplane) ride back to Moresby Camp.

Do it Consider hiring a guide. Rough weather and paddling conditions will test even expert kayakers. Guide Ocean Sound Kayaking (oceansoundkayaking.com) offers full-service, 10-day trips from $2,395 CDN.

Park Independent visitors must attend an orientation with Parks Canada staff. Entry fees are $20 CDN/day, $118/season (bit.ly/gwaiihaanas)

Transportation/gear rental Moresby Explorers (moresbyexplorers.com) offers shuttles from Sandspit to Gwaii Haanas ($175 to Hot Spring Island), plus kayak rentals ($360 CDN for 10 days).

HIKE

Cape Fife/Rose Spit/Tow Hill Loop, Graham island

This 21.7-mile, three-day loop in Naikoon Provincial Park undulates through coastal forests and across driftwood-strewn sandscapes to Rose Spit, a 3.7-mile-long tongue of sand and gravel dunes lolling into the ocean. Start at the Cape Fife trailhead near Masset and hike through winding, mostly flat Sitka spruce forest. Grouse, bear, and Sitka deer hide here. At mile 6.2, you’ll hit the beach and the cozy Cape Fife shelter. On clear evenings, hike two more miles north along East Beach and find a campsite near the driftwood piles.

The next morning, continue two miles to your second camp at Rose Spit and watch for bald eagles perching in the trees and harbor seals offshore. Wander up the spit to spot more than 64 species of birds and round its point to see the blue-green waves of the North Pacific pound the shore (hike this section at low tide). Keep your eyes peeled for Steller sea lions (our scout saw four) in the kelp beds. Squint north and spot Alaska’s Prince of Wales and Dall Islands. Stay another night here, or cover the 12 miles back to Hiellen River and your car in one day.

Do it Expect fog, wind, and rain anytime; late July/August offers the best chance for optimal conditions. Hike counterclockwise to keep prevailing winds and blowing sand at your back. Tank up at unnamed streams and bogs on the eastern coast.Carry a tide chart, too.

Contactbit.ly/naikoon



G
ET THERE

Fly to Sandspit, B.C., on Moresby Island via Vancouver. Or, take a train to Vancouver (amtrak.com), then fly to Sandspit directly (approximately $450). Feeling adventurous? Drive to Prince Rupert and jump a seven-hour car ferry to Skidegate on Haida Gwaii ($126-$153; bcferries.com).

Shoot Pro-Quality Animal Photos

Study your subject and perfect your position to capture memorable shots.

>> Learn about species behavior Research your target online or using field guides like The Complete Tracker, 2nd Edition, by Len McDougall ($20; lyonspress.com) to anticipate peak activity, likely habitats, and top photo ops. You’ll get the best plumage shots of birds in spring, while ungulates are best photographed in the fall, when their antlers are fully developed and their coats are in prime condition. In summer, herds of elk and flocks of birds might crowd a meadow or lake, but the same location may be abandoned in winter. Wildlife photographer Tom Mangelsen suggests asking locals (or hiring a guide) to locate likely hot spots.

>> Know your equipment Practice making quick camera adjustments to account for multiple subjects at different distances, fast-changing light, or animals on the move. Keep your camera set to a versatile setting so you can snap unexpected activity or wildlife. Mangelsen recommends toting a standard zoom, a telephoto, and a wide-angle or low-light lens for optimal versatility, and using a tripod when shooting with long lenses or in low light. You may shoot sharp images of large animals with shutter speeds as slow as 1/125, but to freeze birds in flight, use shutter speeds faster than 1/500 (for large birds) or 1/1000 (for hummingbirds).

>> Compose artfully Find your desired setting, like a peak or a lakeshore, and position yourself so that animals will travel between you and your planned backdrop. For the most interesting composition, employ the “rule of thirds” by dividing your frame into three horizontal and vertical parts and positioning your target along one of the intersecting imaginary lines. Or shoot so that the animal fills the frame, or is small against a dynamic landscape.

See More Wildlife

Maximize sightings by looking at the right times and blending in.

>> Target high-activity times Most forest animals (bears, deer, moose, etc.) are crepuscular—active at dawn and dusk—but some (like caribou and squirrels) are on the move during the day, and others (like mountain lions, owls, and badgers) are nocturnal. Study your subject’s behavior, and be cautious if you see an animal active during “off” hours; unusual activity may be a sign of an illness, which can make animals more aggressive.

>>Hide out Wait near game trails or along the edges of territory frequented by your target species, and arrive earlier than you expect to see them—squirrel, bird, or even insect alarm calls as you approach your hiding spot could scare away your quarry. Layer up to stay warm as you wait, and consider using a poncho or bivy sack as a weatherproof (and camouflaging) blind.

>> Blend in Wear a hat and color-blocked camo to break up your body’s rounded shape. Mask your smell and the odor of your gear by applying Scent Killer, which is available as soap, deodorant, and spray ($8-$20; wildlife.com). Go at least 100 yards away from your hideout if nature calls, and bury waste (even urine) in a hole at least six inches deep (or pee into a resealable bottle).

>> Be patient “Serious observers may have to wait for weeks,” says Mangelsen.



FIND MORE WILDLIFE


Get your animal fix here.

Corcovado National Park, Costa Rica

Want the squeal-inducing wildlife sightings of a rainforest adventure without worrying about guerillas or paying for an epic plane ride? Head to this Costa Rican park, one of the most biodiverse places on Earth. The park is packed with macaws, toucans, and parrots, not to mention four different species of monkeys. Keep your eye out for the snakes that inhabit the area—boa constrictors can reach 13 feet—and, if you’re extremely lucky, you might spot one of the Osa Peninsula’s elusive pumas or jaguars. Four of the park’s ranger stations offer tent or bunk camping, and you can rent equipment in the nearby town of Puerto Jiménez. From there, take a bus to the La Leona ranger station on the southern coast for your first night. Depending on your ambition—and whether you want ocean or rainforest views—hike north across the Osa to Los Platos station, or head west along the coast to Sirena station, then continue to the park’s northwest corner and San Pedrillo station. visitcostarica.com

Channel Islands National Park, CA

Explore beaches, backcountry, and shorelines on a 24.5-mile hike and kayak tour of Santa Cruz Island, just 19 miles off the Southern California coast. While paddling the shore, peek into sea caves to spy ashy storm petrels, pigeon guillemots, and Xantus’s murrelets, along with harbor seals and sea lions resting in the caverns’ interior. Keep your eyes peeled for elephant seals, dolphins, gray whales (from December through March), and humpback whales and blue whales in July and August. Grab views of the Pacific while hiking the Scorpion Canyon Trail and be on the lookout for golden eagles, island foxes, feral pigs, and tons more wildlife. For a complete trip guide, head to backpacker.com/channelislands.



Ngorongoro Crater, Tanzania


See black rhinoceroses, hippos, and lions in this park that boasts more than 160 volcanic craters, including one of the world’s largest. Take the “walking safari,” a guided hike through the huge caldera, where dense populations of wildebeest, zebras, hippos, rhinos, and gazelles graze. Time it right: In December, 1.7 million ungulates, including 260,000 zebras and 470,000 gazelles, along with more than 500 species of birds, migrate into the area. In June, they decamp and head north. On the crater rim, look for large elephants, buffalo, hyena, and other life-list animals. ngorongorocrater.org

Yellowstone National Park, WY

Take the 18.5-mile point-to-point trek through the Black Canyon on the Yellowstone River Trail, and, according to recent counts, you could simultaneously share a two-square-mile area with a wolf, mountain lion, grizzly, and black bear. The low-elevation and mostly downhill route begins with a trot through a forest of Douglas fir before reaching the Yellowstone River suspension bridge. Keep moving through a

rocky canyon and grassland, score views of Electric Peak, then cross the Blacktrail Bridge and hike down to the river. Camp at miles 12.4 or 13.5 (bring a bear canister). (307) 344-2163; nps.gov/yell