Ever since I was a youngling I’ve wanted to go to Haida Gwaii — or the Queen Charlottes as my parents called it when reflecting on their time there in the early 1980s.
Before I was born, my parents lived in Tasu, a remote spot inlet on the West side of Moresby Island, where there used to be an iron-ore mine. They worked there for two years. When the mine shut down, and they had to leave, they moved to the Lower Mainland, jobless, and decided the time was ripe to have me.
Fast forward three decades, after being raised in Ontario, I found work in Prince Rupert. My parents took the first chance they had to come visit me and together we went back to the islands on the edge of Canada that my parents held a strong fondness for.
We took the eight hour BC Ferries overnight trip over to Haida Gwaii with my well-used red Kia Spectra packed tightly down below the deck.We arrived in Skidegate before 7am and decided to drive up to North Beach since the weather seemed reasonable and the next two days were unpredictable.
First stop, Jags Beanstalk, a coffee breakfast joint that my friends recommended we check out. Apparently, everyone else on the ferry had the same idea. While we waited for the restaurant to open, Dad started his rock collecting along the beach, and more cars pulled up to stand in line for caffeine and sustenance. Breakfast was delicious, and the coffee even better. Refuelled, we drove up the coast on Graham Island and tried to absorb its beauty.
We had a list of sights we wanted to see, or things we wanted to experience and right away we saw a sign for the “Balance Rock” — a giant boulder that balances on one narrow point at its base. Torrential weather and waves haven’t been able to budge the rock and neither have curious individuals who may have tempted it at some point in history.The ancient rock only made me want to break out into a yoga pose. After spending some time with the natural phenomenon we continued on our way up the Yellowhead Highway. Next up, only a short distance from the rock was St. Mary’s Spring — a legend that any traveller who drinks from the spring water will one day return to the island.
I expected to have to do a bit of a trek into the ancient forest before tasting water from the spring, but the questionable pond was right alongside the highway near a wooden Madonna with a sign about the legend. My Mum, Dad and I all took a sip while taking the necessary photo as proof. Mum couldn’t quite wield Dad’s camera and he had to keep going back for more sips of what we figured is probably water rife with beaver fever or urine. We all survived, parasite free, so I guess we’re returning back to the island.
We continued up the coast, passing about 100 small deer along the way. It was amazing that none of them even threatened to jump onto the highway. These local deer were introduced to the islands a long time ago, and haven’t had any predators save hunters and cars. They seem to be everywhere, yet completely indifferent to the traffic along their feeding routes. These calm, methodical grazers are exactly what you’d expect a laid back island animal should be.
Within a couple hours from Skidegate we were driving through the dense brush on an unpaved road in Tow Hill. We parked when we reached the end of that road and decided to explore the walking routes. I say walking because most of the “hikes” on Haida Gwaii are so tame you could do them in your gum boots, which I did.
My parents and I strolled along the boardwalk to the Blow Hole, said to be the blow hole of an ogre’s pet whale that was turned to stone after pissing off the Haida people. The rock formations were stunning, and after playing around in the jagged crevasses and watching the ocean, the water being pushed through the rocks intensified and we got to see what the blow hole legend was all about.
We continued along the boardwalk up the steps to the two lookouts on Tow Hill. The view from the very top presented the u-shaped curve of the north beach. The sand and rocky shore set against the dense green forest. The hike was steep but not difficult. I was in my gumboots, which I wore for all the hikes on the island to avoid blisters from my cruel torturous hiking boots.After the hike we meandered over to Agate Beach campground where I passed out to the calm sound of the waves on the shore. My Dad took a photo of me, mouth open catching flies, in a peaceful rest, much to his own humour. When I woke up, it was time to drive back down the island for another two and a half hours to the village of Queen Charlotte, the former ‘city’ that never quite lived up to its name. We booked our stay at Spruce Point Lodge, one of the only available places in the village, but I enjoyed being away from the slightly busier main street.
Nancy, our timid host, asked us what time we wanted her to bring us breakfast and then she left us to our own devices, without explaining why the shower was retrofitted into the closet. We went out for dinner at the Ocean View Restaurant, which turned out to be the only decent place we found while we were in the area. Then we crashed pretty hard after our long day.
We woke up to Nancy’s knock at the door. She had brought us a fresh pot of coffee, a basket of fresh muffins and bread to our room. We poured our coffee and walked out to the picnic table by the beach. The tide was out and it revealed a boat that lay on the sea floor permanently. We watched as a mother carried her son on her shoulders as he screamed in confused sadness. When she passed us by she explained that he lost his spiderman pencil beneath the cracks of their wooden deck.
The weather was on and off again rain so we went to the Haida Heritage Centre in Skidegate — after grabbing another coffee from Jags. We had a great experience at the centre, mainly because we had a bright young Haida tour guide who explained the totem poles on the site and the meaning of the carvings. Above, is a close up of the beaver, who holds a stick in its hands to stay occupied and avoid chewing the wooden totem to ruin.We also saw this totem pole in the works by the legendary Haida artist Bill Reid. I enjoyed the rest of the museum. It wasn’t information overload and the artwork and artifacts were in a bright space. The highlight was Kay Bistro, located inside the museum. My parents and I shared a flatbread, taro chips and a seared tuna salad. Heaven.
In the afternoon, we hiked the Spirit Lake Trail in Skidegate, up the road from the museum. The path was clear with some hills until it reached the lake. There were eagles abound, and my Dad thought he had a connection with one of the birds he kept photographing. The lush green life on the trail was different from what we experienced up in the north end of the island. There were feathered ferns surrounding the trail and tall moss decorated trees.
Our day continued with my parents searching for souvenirs and Haida artwork — particularly a bentwood cedar box. They are already planning their passage into the next life and they want their ashes stored in one of these beautiful boxes. Of course, bentwood boxes aren’t cheap and most are a bit too large for a suitcase so my parents decided against buying one on this trip. We also couldn’t find that many shops. Artwork and carvings were either in the living room of someone’s home or in an overpriced gallery.
My Dad wanted to take a gander at the grocery store. My parents wanted fish, but people don’t buy salmon or seafood when they can catch it themselves. Unfortunately, not bringing a cooler of food was a foolish decision but thank you to my friends who gave me great advice and yet forgot to mention this little tidbit. I’ll know for the next time.
We relaxed and had dinner out again, then went back to the lodge and cracked a few beers out on the picnic table by the beach and watched the boat disappear under the sea water.
We planned a couple more hikes for our last day. First, we drove back up to Tlell to find the Pesuta Shipwreck while the tide was out. We hiked through the forest and the magnificent trees for the first 30 minutes to reach the beach. The next hour was along a somewhat slippery rocky beach where you could see the faint outline of the triangular shipwreck in the distance.In 1928, a bad storm left the 200 foot Pesuta log carrier in dire straits and its wooden remains still characterize this beach in Tlell. Every year bits of the ship disappears and other remnants appear. There was a tour guide who brought some tourists up the beach in his car and I overheard him say that the chain from the ship was only recently found along the beach.Despite the easy hike and the constant misting of rain, the site was worth the two hour effort. I loved moving through the bones of the ship and imagining what it once looked like. We had the ship to ourselves for a short time before others reached the site and the magic was somewhat lost.We continued onto our next trail and another gravesite although this time of a once mystical tree — the Golden Spruce. We drove up to Port Clements and found the trail entrance about 20 minutes down a logging road. No one else was there. It only took another 20 minutes to walk to the site of the fallen tree. Along the trail were wooden plaques reminding visitors to be mindful of the environment.I loved that line — “Do not look back. There is much more to see, feel and love.” The Haida legend of the Golden Spruce goes along the lines of a boy who disrespects nature and a nasty storm then destroys his village. The young boy and his grandfather escape but they’re told not to look back. The boy disobeys once again and after looking back his arms and legs turned into branches and he grew into the Golden Spruce.
The Sitka spruce used to stand proudly along the Yakoun River. It had a genetic mutation where its needles were golden and remarkably it lived for 300 years until 1997 when a disturbed man snuck into the woods at night and chopped the tree down to make some sort of political statement. The man was never caught or punished for his actions. The Golden Spruce remains were it fell as an eerie reminder of how senselessly destructive humans can be.We went to the Port Clements Museum afterward to learn more about the spruce and to temporarily escape the rain. The greatest discovery in the museum was an old metal Aladdin lunch box with the sign: “A much used logger’s lunch bucket.” My Dad, still to this day, uses the exact same lunch bucket that he’s had since he worked on the North Coast.
Then we checked out the Golden Spruce sapling grafted from the original tree. The tiny spruce is surrounded by a fence and barbed wire to ensure its safety.
Our time on the island was ending. We had to return to Skidegate in a few hours to catch the ferry back to Prince Rupert. To burn some time we drove up to Old Masset with the hopes of seeing totem poles and some more Haida culture. Instead, we felt oddly out of place in an unwelcoming community where one decrepit home hung a Canadian flag upside down in the window. We visited a couple shops and left.
The ferry packed my tiny red Kia in tight. After squeezing out of the parking space we had a bite to eat and a beer on the boat and then we hit the hay in our private room only to be rudely awaken over the loud speaker at 4am with only 30 minutes to get to our vehicles. Luckily, I live about a 5 minute drive to the ferry dock, and we went straight back to sleep for a couple more hours before our next adventure.