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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.

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  

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