Lose yourself on Haida Gwaii
Story by Katie Marti
MASSET, BRITISH COLUMBIA — Through the mist I can see almost nothing, including my feet as I trod upon a wooded trail overgrown with moss and surrounded by western red cedar and Sitka spruce trees older than Canada itself. Even the dog is quiet as we hike and begin to feel a reverence for the land, which is unspoiled and remote in a day and age where all such places seem to have been forever conquered and stolen from the wild. We’re grateful for the pace, slow as ferns unfolding, and fall into step with the basic rhythm of things, stopping to eat when we’re hungry and rest when we’re tired. Naturally.
Haida Gwaii had been on my radar for years as a place I’d like to visit, having heard wonderful stories and seen beautiful photos of friends’ trips, which featured images of them sea kayaking around Gwaii Haanas National Park Reserve. I longed to stand among the longhouses of the Haida people and get to know the place, truly and experientially, whether on foot or by boat. When the opportunity to go finally manifested in the form of a road trip, it didn’t matter to me that we’d only have four days on-Island or that we’d be visiting at the end of October when most tourism-related businesses were already closed up and shut down for winter, avoiding the storm season. Now was better than never.
Woodsy Experience in Haida Gwaii
In order to maximize our time, we took the overnight ferry from Prince Rupert, British Columbia, landing in the village of Skidegate before the sun. Our first stop was to visit with a friend who had come all the way from New Brunswick three years prior and never left. Despite our early arrival, she insisted we go to her place for tea, breakfast, and a proper welcome to the islands of Haida Gwaii — which means “Land of the People” — and so it was that over oatmeal porridge by a woodstove fire as the sun came up, our dear friend helped us set the tone for a visit that would ultimately fill our souls to overflowing with humility and gratitude.
During the course of the next four days we saw and heard and smelled and tasted Haida Gwaii in everything we did: from kayaking in borrowed boats around the towns of Skidegate and Queen Charlotte to cooking dinner on a beach with not a soul in sight to surfing the vast expanse of ocean along North Beach near the town of Masset and hiking several small peaks and sacred trails in blissful peace and quiet. We met locals who greeted us like friends and some who quickly became just that. It’s that kind of place.
One such local is Mike McQuade, a relatively recent transplant from the opposite side of the country who now lives, works, and raises his family in Masset on the north shore, where we spent the bulk of our time holed up in a rustic, yet charmingly cozy cabin on the beach. McQuade owns and operates North Beach Surf Shop in addition to spearheading a number of local initiatives aimed at keeping kids active in the community and promoting Haida Gwaii as a surfing destination alongside the likes of Tofino, a tourist hot spot on the west coast of Vancouver Island. Friendly and knowledgeable, McQuade was our unofficial guide to the area, giving us tips on where to surf depending on the tide and alternate options if the swell flattened out. We chatted about the annual surf and art festival, Expression Session, and shopped from his colourful collection of T-shirts, prints, and posters. By the end of our visit we were exchanging emails with the vague but enticing prospect of doing a house exchange or some other such collaboration in the name of adventure.
Beachcombing on the Far West Coast of Canada
It’s our last day and we hike a nearby trail and walk the beach, the fog draping us in a heavy cloak and adding to the mystical serenity that permeates every inch of Haida Gwaii. Lisa Schultz, owner of North Beach Cabins where we lived our dream for a few days, greets us and takes photos of our dog for an article in the local paper promoting her business as the pet-friendly slice of heaven that it truly is. We chat, our hair frizzy and damp against our foreheads and, within minutes we laugh like old friends and hug our goodbyes as if we were family as opposed to business acquaintances. Typical.
This is Haida Gwaii. There is no room for pretentions and there is no time for preoccupation with trivialities. Maybe it’s because the islands themselves are so far removed, physically, from the mainland and have, therefore, managed to escape certain elements of society. Maybe it’s because the poles and longhouses that line the shores serve as a constant, looming reminder of the ancient ways that refuse to be forgotten. As we board the ferry and head for home, I can’t help but feel as though I’m being rudely awoken from a deep sleep full of sweet dreams and I scramble to document every detail by making notes and editing photos on my computer, but the gesture is full of irony and only makes me feel more desperate to capture the moments and preserve them forever. I go outside into the cold midnight air and look to shore, hoping to catch a final glimpse of the islands, but they’re gone. If I strain I can maybe convince myself that I see a red light blinking in the far off distance, but it’s a stretch. The mist and the darkness have reclaimed Haida Gwaii and I’m left with nothing but words and pictures and a bit of sand on my shoes. I do take solace in the fact that I went at all and that the islands are part of my own history. And I take comfort in the knowledge that the longhouses and poles and people of Haida Gwaii will continue to hold their space and keep it true. And I’ll know I’ll be back.
It’s that kind of place.
MORE ABOUT HAIDA GWAII
Getting There: Air Canada and Pacific Coastal Airlines offer flight service from Vancouver. BC Ferries has regular sailings from Prince Rupert to Haida Gwaii. Many resorts and tour operators also offer seaplane and helicopter flights to the islands.