Microcosm

September 22, 2010

Our experience on Haida Gwaii is already three weeks behind us, and retrospection has begun to crystallize my memories into nuggets of tinted understanding.  I look back and feel like I have left some place unusual, someplace special.  Many others have agreed as indicated by the almost cliché story of how people went to Haida Gwaii for two weeks and stayed for twenty years.  In fact, we watched it happen right in front of us, as a whole cadre of hitchhikers and students from Vancouver passed through and stayed.   It might seem peculiar for a place that is not even known to all Canadians (“You’re going where?”).  But to anyone that has visited, it makes perfect sense.  You simply don’t feel that magnetism on the mainland, and you find yourself not only not wanting to leave, but failing to understand why anyone ever would.

Those that have visited and those that live there know that the identity of Haida Gwaii is distinct.  Not BC’s or Canada’s, the islands are their own.  A comment shared by a local contact and friend on this blog shed some light on what part of that unique magnetism might be about: “In the interest of all of us together building a post colonial world… kicker on the blog title ‘Exploring British Columbia’s Haida Gwaii,’ not too many people here think HG is BC’s and in fact when we go off island most people refer to it as ‘going to Canada.’”  For some, this post-colonial world was one with a Haida Nation.  Others envisioned it including the province of Haida Gwaii or even a new addition to the ring of fire’s family of tiny independent island nations, Haida Gwaii the country.

The form of the vision varied, but the sentiment was common.  Distinct geographically and culturally, everyone knows that the islands are their own.  There is an ideological bent to the sentiment.  But there is also hard logic to it.  Their remote locale means that islanders have always been fairly self-reliant, which is to say, reliant on each other and the land.  Of course, they also have a capitalist economic base that ties them to the mainland, a base that used to be defined by that neocolonial power, the logging industry.  But as logging slows to a permanent halt after years of resistance by locals who have long since realized that the wood would run out and Haida court battles fought and won, the islands are on the verge.  Now, in pursuit of their post-colonialist vision, they must face some difficult questions, such as what will fill the hole that logging inevitably leaves behind.  Many people have proposed alternatives such as value-added wood products like guitars or selectively logged premium timber.  Good ol’ tourism is another oft-discussed possibility.  Or is the answer a move towards away from new forms of dependency on “foreign” (read: “off-island) markets in favor of increased independence?  Some people think so, pointing to the localization of the economy through increased food security and protection of resources that may be relied upon for food and craft supplies in the future.

People will not give up their rich weaving tradition that requires easy and consistent access to spruce roots or fresh and then canned salmon that sustains everyone year round.  But no one is talking about giving up their electricity or their paved roads, either.  So, as another friend aptly described it, Haida Gwaii finds itself bobbing on a slack-tide, the time of relatively still water between the ebb and the flow of the ocean’s tides.

One might also say that neighboring Canada and many nations like it are floating on the slack tide as mainlander begrudgingly face down similar questions surrounding resource finitude and our collective economic future.  A dwindling supply of easily accessible oil has led Canada to seek more energy intensive sources in the form of the Alberta Tar Sands.  But their intention to build yet another pipeline to the coast of British Columbia to be loaded onto supertankers en route to China has met with overwhelming resistance from Haida Gwaii residents, most mainland communities along the proposed pipeline and all coastal First Nations.  They may still be dependant on oil, but the public’s favor of extractive industry is ebbing.

Haida Gwaii emerges as a microcosm of the globe.  The analogy might be a bit blunt, but I use it only to make the point that the islands are facing important questions about their economic and cultural futures and that these questions and their answers also matter tremendously to the rest of the world because at the moment, we are dumbfounded.

As Haida Gwaii bobs, I wonder where they will go and remember that the Haida were facing a like deficit of role models in the world when they undertook the fight to win their land back.  Finding nowhere to look, they made it up as they went along, instead.  Today, the Nation draws indigenous leaders from all over the world eagerly seeking the same success that the Haida made for themselves.

The only thing that could be more post-colonial than land taken back by its rightful and ancient owners would be land taken back by rightful and ancient owners that manage it in a whole new way.  It’s tempting to call the latter a pipe dream, but remember that the former was utterly impossible thirty years ago.

Lest I get too romantic remember the water and the rubbarb and the roots, I try to keep in mind that retrospection also has a kaleidoscopic effect, turning those crystallized memories made of anecdotes, moments, and the odd hard fact over on themselves to make certain stories come true.

We shall just have to see.  Or rather, we should watch because, with their toes hanging over the continental shelf and the with their vision of the post-colonial world placing them on the cutting edge, these small islands truly are on the edge of our world.

Yes, we will see.  No, go and see.  Just be warned: you might have to come back.

Snapshots

September 6, 2010

By Fiona Smith

It has been a month since we got off the water but images of our 17 day paddle are still vivid in my memory. I sift through my recent adventure and in a way, develop and impress many of my memories. Though we will all carry with us the pictures we took while in Haida Gwaii, some of our best recollections are recorded only through the snapshots we keep in our minds. Hope you enjoy the slideshow!

It’s 6:30 a.m. day one of 17 days on the water. As my alarm sounds, I unzip the tent door and poke my head out to the sight of the pumpkin patch we slept next to. We spent the night in the well-tended garden of the Moresby Explorers, our kayak rental company. They are meeting us at 7:30 in front of their shop to escort us through the logging roads to Moresby Camp, where we will pick up our kayaks and be on our way.

We pack into Tank, Tara’s 20 year old trusty Volvo, and receive our instructions for the drive. The VHF radio must be turned on and switched to the logging station. Every time we pass a mile marker, the Moresby Explorers will announce our presence: “two vehicles unloaded, mile 1.” Our job is to listen to the station and get off the road the moment we hear that something loaded is headed our way; loaded logging trucks cannot stop. The BC bush borders both sides of the one lane gravel logging road, and the drop off the sides is more than Tank can handle. Luck holds out and we make it to Moresby Camp without any logging truck encounters.

After four hours on the water the first day, our energy is drained. Even though we have not reached our goal, it’s time to stop. It’s getting late and will definitely take us a while to set up camp. As we paddle through Carmichael Passage we see a beautiful flat, green, and grassy field to our right and take it as a perfect camp for tired paddlers. We pull off in low tide and wade through the mud, mussels, and barnacles to a knoll covered in thick rubbery grass. A great tent site!

The bugs come out as we enjoy our cookies and cream pudding. After dousing ourselves with ineffective bug spray, we realize the tide is coming in fast. It has already almost reached our gorgeous field. We look at the clock and see that there are still two hours before high tide. After taking 30 minutes to debate whether or not we should move, the water is licking at the edge of our tent. Exhausted and pissed off, we moved camp into the forest. It is only afterwards, as we finally get into bed late at night, that we have an explanation for the huge number of mosquitoes and our squishy grass. We made camp in a swamp, marked neatly on our topographic map.

We paddle all day, crossing inlets filled with white caps, searching for a camper’s cabin recommended to us by our friend Kevin. If memory serves it should be close to Selwyn Point where there is also a lighthouse on our map (very exciting!). Towards dinner time we still do not see the cabin. We round the bend with the “lighthouse”, which is more of a light bulb on a stick, and see a bright red roof. This must be it. As we paddle towards it, the roof seems to grow and ends up sheltering a massive lodge, next to which is a small cabin with lights in the window.

As far as we’ve heard, nobody lives on Moresby Island, except for those in Sandspit and one house in Rose Harbor. We are nowhere near either of these places and therefore we need to investigate. As we pull up to the beach, a man comes down from the cabin. With grey hair whipped by the wind but held together by a worn baseball cap, he tromps down the hill in a heavy flannel shirt, blue jeans, and a pair of tough gum boots. We ask if he knows of anywhere we could camp for the night, seeing that this is most certainly not a camper’s cabin. He offers us a place to stay in the red roofed abandoned hunting lodge and heads up the hill to get his gator to help us with our things.

His name is Steve and, as Lauren mentioned in an earlier post, he has lived in this cabin for the past 12 years. The property is owned by a logging company and he is the caretaker for the lodge and the surrounding forest. He was waiting for a supply drop off and found us on his beach instead.

As we load our food into his gator to drive it up the hill, he remarks, “You girls don’t have any meat! I’ll get you some.” We spend two nights with Steve during which he gives us venison steaks, shows us a sow and two bear cubs across the bay, and being an ex-logger, graciously answers our questions about logging. He pops in and out, excited to talk with us for short periods of time, and then wants to get back to his regular day.

After our second night we rise early in the morning to head out, sad to leave our new eccentric friend. He will be hard to forget and we assure him that we will pay his kindness forward.

Early morning paddles are my favorite. Once I overcome the desire to stay in bed, the confusion of being awake while the moon still shines off the water, the drudgery of packing the boats, and struggling into my dry suit, I finally climb into my boat as the sun rises red against the horizon. The water is almost always calm in the morning, and the swell of the Hecate Strait starts does not get big until after 9am. We push off and I watch as my paddle dips into the clear cool water, sending ripples over the views of jelly fish bigger than my torso and smaller than my finger nail. The calm follows us through the narrow passage as low tide hits and I am stunned by the life below me. Undisturbed by the flow of my orange boat above, young Dungeness crabs fight and seaweed is pulled by the current. To the side, the passage is bordered by a rainbow collage of bat stars and sun stars as big as a car tire. There is nowhere to get out and snap photos without stepping on these amazing creatures. Even the beaches are covered by mussels as big as shoes, so dense that the land looks blue. As we round the bend, we surprise a raccoon feeding on the rare abalone, and one of the many stately eagles diving for its early morning breakfast. Stunned at the amount of life surrounding us we keep on as the sun rises in the sky, taken aback by each new and fantastic creature.

The gale warning has been in effect over the Hecate for two days now. We were winded in yesterday and we are ready to get on the water. We try to make it an early morning paddle to avoid the possible combination of the swell and the winds. Our boats are packed and our drysuits on, all we have to do is make it around the point and we will be protected from the gale and the swell. It’s really not that far. The water is capping pretty consistently but it doesn’t look that bad, and we can paddle in white caps.

Not these white caps. I push out past the protective band of rocks along the shore and I’m lifted away by the surf. I can barely see Tara and Lauren as I’m dropped into a trough and lifted by yet another forceful curling wave. Tara tries to surf her waves but is thwarted when it breaks beneath her boat and pulls at the stern. Thirty seconds on the water and we have all almost capsized. Adrenaline pumps as I realize that each paddle stroke takes me almost nowhere and each wave pushes me closer to the jagged rocks that peak out from under the crashing swell along the beach. I look at Tara and yell “land!” our sign for getting off the water in a hurry. She relays the message to Lauren and we each take a turn surfing in to a narrow nearby beach. As I ride the wave in, I pop my spray skirt, jump out, and yank the nose of my boat above the break of the wave on the beach. On land we keep a careful watch on the boats pulling them up every few minutes and making sure the waves don’t carry them off. My heart slows down and we huddle close together, glad to have survived to tell the tale, and wiser as we wait for the water to calm before we round the point.

Our paddle today is exposed to the Hecate, predicted winds are high, and there are no outs. Now, the water is calm and we are all packed, so there is no reason not to go. Our final step before we leave our beach is to make an offering. Our route advisor and good friend Kevin Borserio suggested we make offerings to the Haida ancestors throughout our trip, when we felt we were in a special place, had a dangerous paddle, or the weather started to pick up. “It’s the right thing to do,” he advised, and gave us a pack of tobacco and a bag of kaaw, dried herring eggs on seaweed. We each hold a small bit of tobacco and kaaw in our hands. As we sprinkle our gift we thank the ancestors for their hospitality at our last site and ask for protection along our exposed paddle.

As we head out we look into the trees and spot a pair of bald eagles staring down at us. We traverse the cliffs lining the western edge of the Hecate and see that we are never without the company of an eagle, keeping a watchful eye throughout the day.

Preparation for our trip warned of the unpredictable, rapidly changing, and dangerous weather patterns of the Hecate Strait. Stories are told of the 10-20 meter waves, 100 km winds, and dense fog, all of which can blow in quietly and unexpectedly. Though we had mentally prepared for the risks and promised to make only the most conservative decisions, we were still surprised by the force and speed of the weather patterns.

The third day into the expedition, listening to the weather forecast on the VHF radio we were stunned to hear a gale warning in the north and south Hecate Strait; 25-35 knot winds expected! The gale warning remained in effect for the remainder of our trip as a high pressure system was stalled over the pacific off the coast of Haida Gwaii.

We had expected nothing but rain for 17 days and instead received 15 days of straight, unrelenting sun and wind. The sunlight exposed the life and dynamics of the land and water.

The trip grew to a close. On the morning of August 6, we awoke to the peaceful drip of rain on our tent fly. The tangle of spruce skyscrapers and blankets of moss were shrouded in the delayed but promised mist. Standing at the edge of the water, looking east was like looking at a blank wall; fog revealed nothing. And the world was completely silent. The dynamic waters we had come to know had been dominated and forced to sleep by this blanket of fog. It seemed as though there was nothing but us, the forest, and the rain.

Check out our post on the National Geographic Adventure Blog

Kayaking British Columbia: Paddling Where the Sky and Sea Are One


Rhubarb (part 2)

August 29, 2010

by Julia DeWitt

We had found our seats in the bleechers for the tea that followed the raising of the mortuary pole of deceased chief Niis Wes.  It was two o’clock and it seemed inconceivable that this would actually just flow into the potlatch slated to start at six.  It was two.

But then again, we don’t usually attend luncheons on bleachers, equipped with water bottles, and toting utensils and plates as if we were squatting there long-term.  And somehow the time just evaporated as I watched kids play manhunt around the outer edges and as the MC urged the packed gymnasium to please quiet down between dances and tributes.  We freely tuned in and out, snapped photos, took up side conversations, and sat quietly.  All the while we were fed, caffeinated, and watered, creating a steady stream of sustenance that is one of the things that potlatches are known for.  Repute and status are gained not just by what powerful people can take, but also by how much they can give.

(Just think about that for a second…)

Potlatches were and continue to be the time when all of the most important political and economic negotiations happen; it is parliament and a party in one.  Because these gatherings were so central to Coastal First Nations’ political unity, they were the first thing to be made illegal in the Canadian government’s push to annihilate indigenous identity.  (Divide by banning potlatches, conquer by sending kids away to assimilation schools.)

Yesterday, we got to witness the staying power of the institution.  The steady bump of the dancing and the revitalizing sweets kept hundred of people together for ten hour (and that was short compared to others that have lasted until dawn).  After the first three, we were fully settled in, nestled into the community as they became one sort of seething mass together, an organism tweaking its homeostasis.  Sitting out on the periphery as a newly born cell, sweating in the shared body heat and greeting new friends who have treated us like siblings and daughters and nieces, I almost forgot that I was not always from here.

By midnight, all business was settled and we all walked out with our towels and band-aids and pieces of pie, functional gifts distributed goodie bag-style as a thanks for witnessing the negotiations.

Tomorrow we take our gifts and gear and post cards and pictures and board the ferry for the mainland.  Phase three is up to Kitimat for the Enbridge Oil Pipeline protest.  From one classroom to the next.  The adventure continues.

Roots

August 23, 2010

by Julia DeWitt

Early on in our stint here I approached a member of the Council of the Haida Nation in order to inquire about Haida cultural revitalization and youth involvement.  He hesitated, then explained that he had been to a conference on conservation recently.  Was he straying from the subject?  Should I rephrase the question?  “Conservation,” he explained, “is something that you find out you’re doing only when you look back.”

It was one of those moments that one must always have when doing any kind of fieldwork.  That moment of silent, but total humiliation due only to one’s own ignorance.  My interviewee was very nice about it, but I realized as soon as he shared that simple kernel of wisdom that it was like someone asking me in what ways I participate in the preservation of northeastern American culture as a young member of that foreign society.  Does my sarcasm count?  Am I reproducing my southern heritage when I layer on the picante?  (And where had my four years of undergraduate training in anthropology gone?)

Once I got my foot out of my mouth, I had time to realize and then witness the beauty of what the Haida rep said.  Earlier this week, we attended a potluck and singing practice that we were so graciously invited to by a member of the Masset Haida community.  The group was comprised of adult members of a Masset clan, but really it was a family event. One small child caught my attention as he careened around the long house beating a hand drum that he had to hold above his should because it was almost the size of him.  In spite of his size, he managed to keep a beat.  When he lost it, his mother would sing along and encourage him in his discovery of rhythm.  That toddler would be baffled by the term “cultural reinvigoration.”

The stories of older members of the Haida community give context to that moment in Chris White’s long house.  Nika, a 40-year-old Haida woman who helped paddle the Lootaas back up from Vancouver and who was present for the first totem pole raising in Skidegate, remembers a time before drumming toddlers.  At the pole raising, her mom put a necklace beaded in the style of Plains Indian over her head and explained that the necklace was not Haida, but it was Indian and that it was for days like today.  At the time, the iconic woven hats of the Haida (featured in Lauren’s photo on the “What We See” page) were too precious to wear because no one knew how to replace them.  A mere generation later those hats are being woven by dozens of women in Skidegate and old Masset, and full Haida regalia is donned at every event that calls for it.  But back then the beaded necklace was the best her mother could do.

Nika was part of the first generation to be raised around things like pole raisings and the carving of new canoes since this community verged on demographic collapse post-contact.  Before her came stories that we have not heard because they are not for public ears.  In fact, many Haida kids report that they cannot get them out of their own grandparents because of old habits learned in Canadian government residential schools where they were trained to forget their heritage and identity.  Of course, they didn’t.  But meeting with corporal punishment when speaking one’s native language and having to put blankets over the windows when celebrating has a certain kind of effect on one’s willingness to be forthright.

Twenty years after the end of assimilation schools (well, the last one actually close as recently as 1996), Nika hopes that her children’s generation will not have to think about their heritage.  But that hope for the future might already be part of the present.

Nika also had hopes for non-Haida visitors to take the inspiration to care about their own heritage.  And witnessing the passion of others, passion for their art, for the preservation of their heritage, for their families, and for their music, has had an affect.  For fully post-modern Americans like myself, heritage is a foreign and confusing concept.  But, as Guujaaw once reminded a friend, we all are aboriginal somewhere.

Highs, Lows, and Hopes

August 20, 2010

by Lauren Sinnott

Since we have gotten off the water, I have been trying to figure out how exactly to describe our epic adventure. And looking back through my journal I am reminded of our long days, full of adventures and misadventures. Each night we shared the high point of our day, low point, and a hope that tomorrow would bring. I attempted to keep track of these throughout the trip.  Below are some of my favorites, with a few of my own added footnotes.

July 22

Tara- Low: Being tired at the second channel crossing. High: pushing on kayaking at the end of the day when we were all tired and thus making it to this great spot. Hope: no rough water tomorrow.

Fiona- Low: getting to the lighthouse and seeing white caps and no cabin. High: playing with Punk[1] and seeing Jellyfish in the Louise narrows. Hope: we can catch the ebb in the morning.

Lauren- Low: getting stuck in dry suit and losing my sun glasses. High: having fun by the starfish. Hope: not spending as much time packing up the boats in the morning[2]

July 26

Tara- Low: having to get off the water when it got rougher. High: finally being able to relax at camp. Hope: that tomorrow is a less stressful day.

Fiona- Low: seeing Lauren’s face as her boat was about to crush and capsize under the rocks. High: being here at this campsite and the calm water that the evening brought. Hope: To have a relaxing morning

Lauren- Low: having to get off the water because the swell was too big this morning. High: The evening paddle and being at our amazing campsite and watching the full moon rise over a campfire. Hope: tomorrow being like this evening.

July 30

Tara- Low: Burnt quinoa stew for dinner[3]. High: every interaction with Steve,[4] especially when we asked him if there was anything we could do to help him, and he said just be nice to a stranger someday. Hope: fog is nowhere tomorrow.

Fiona- Low: fog all morning. High: same as Tara. Hope: Haida ancestors help us along on our journey to Tanu.[5]

Lauren- Low: having to put on dry suit when I didn’t think we were going to paddle. High: hot buttered rum by the fire. Hope: calm water

August 2

Tara- Low: Having to talk to Curious George High: Octopus for dinner.[6] Hope: to find fresh water.

Fiona- Low: Having to wake up at 3am and being so tired before bed High: S’mores by the campfire Hope: We run into the sail boat that was passing out fresh bread and brownies to kayakers.

Lauren- Low: Not wanting to get out of my sleeping bag this morning[7]. High: Golie’s stories and learning Haida with her Hope: that bad weather comes so we are stuck at Hot Spring Island with Golie.


[1] Punk, short for Pumpkin, was the name of Fiona’s boat.

[2] Adventure Squad takes no less than 3 hours to get anywhere.  One would think this would no longer be true. It still is.

[3] Word of advice: canned spinach does not go well with anything, especially burnt quinoa stew.

[4] Steve has not left Pacofi Bay for longer than one day in over twelve years. His favorite movie is a “Toast to the Loggers.” We watched it with him while eating cake and venison steaks.

[5] When we arrived at Tanu there were Rice Krispie treats waiting for us.

[6] One of the methods used by the Haida to catch Octupi is stunning them with bleach.

[7] This happens more often than not.

Adventure!(?)

August 16, 2010

by Julia DeWitt

Adventure is defined by the way that it unfolds in front of you, offering you opportunities you could not have anticipated.  It pulls you out of yourself to show you things you didn’t even know that you didn’t know.  To most of us, adventures is made up of vision quests and shark infested waters.  Enlightenment and learning and unpredictable encounters with heroic strangers.  Adventure is the exhilaration of the unknown and the unanticipated.

But this Adventure Squad is finding that it can also be strange, or just downright banal in its unpredictability.  Once the kayakers got off of the water, we set up at the edge of town at a campground nestled in a tall stand of trees pressed up against the bay.  In an attempt to stay mobile and adaptive, we kept most of our things in Tara’s 1991 Volvo, Tank (named for both his durability and grinding transmission).  When we planned this trip, we decided that we would make tents our bedrooms, picnic tables our kitchen, and Tank and the odd café with free internet our moving office.

We never quite thought through what we would do if the owner of the café started giving us unkind looks when we, our charging cameras, and our computers had over-stayed our one-cup welcome, or what it might look like on the main drag of a small town when we had to gut the car to find external hard drive cords lost amongst squeeze-jelly jars and stray books.  We were tangled in cords when there was a cultural revival to learn about, a logging hisory history to study, and new terrain to discover.

But although this was not part of the grand plan to travel to the farthest western reach of Canada, committing whole days to, well, floundering is a critical part of making any experience on the road exactly what it is.  And it always seems to work out.  Now, after a shower, a warm meal, and night with our own beds, we are finally getting off to Masset today.

Fresh lingcod, crystal water, broken cameras, peanut butter stains, young activists, untouched wilderness, new faces, new places, old stories and spilled milk.  This is it.  This is the adventure.

Check out our post on the National Geographic Adventure Blog

http://ngadventure.typepad.com/blog/2010/08/sea-kayaking-british-columbia-islands-at-the-edge-of-the-world.html

Water, Part 1

August 6, 2010

by Julia DeWitt

As an archipelago in the northwest of North American, this land is about the water.

Even though we are closer to the Alaska panhandle than we are to the Canadian mainland, the sea is Caribbean in its turquoise hue, and tropical in its clarity. But the color itself also has a unique density and depth to it that makes you always want to look harder at it, to get your face closer and closer to the surface as if something as yet unknown is about to become clearer, but never quite does.

The water is beautiful as well as functional for island residents.  Recently, I was sitting on the beach that was also the back yard of a family who was generous enough to invite this stranger over for fresh lingcod and home-grown vegetables. One son came buzzing up in their boat, back from a day of hunting and fishing, with two crabs the size of my head to share around.  This, he explained, was a fruitless expedition.

I was overjoyed with their bounty, but apparently it didn’t compare to what people usually can draw from these waters.  People depend on it, and indeed the water delivers much of the nutrition that sustains Haida Gwaii residents.  Since then, fresh seafood has come across every doorstep that I have sat on.  Crab and salmon are an everyday, and scallops, sea cucumber, sea asparagus, abalone, and huge lingcod are close at hand.  People literally hand out top-of-the-line fish to anyone that hasn’t been out fishing that day because they can’t eat everything that they have caught.  When I first caught on to this habit, I mentioned that I might get a crabbing permit to a new friend and come by with a few if he would like.  He politely declined.  “We have crab traps set just off the back there,” pointing to his small yard that drops off into the bay.  “People around here aren’t exactly hurting for seafood.”

One can see why the Haida were so prosperous.  As islanders, naturally they were a sea-faring people.  They were known then and now for their impeccably designed and decorated canoes which they took to trade and plunder up and down the west coast of North America.  Some say that they may have even made it as far as Japan.

Haida sea-craft is all the more impressive when one remembers that these are also tempestuous waters, a fact that our kayakers to the south are dealing with as we speak.  It has been sunny and sixty-five, exceptional weather for this region that I have been warned against getting used to.  But down in Gwaii Haanas the Northwesterly has been up, and funneling around, under, and beside smaller islands to create conditions that one park ranger said he had never seen in his twenty years in the park.  Word on the radio is that they have been taking their time and playing it safe, but they most certainly will not make it to their original destination of Rose Harbor.  No doubt they have done a lot of exploring instead.  They will certainly have stories to tell when they arrive back on Saturday.

by Julia DeWitt

Rhubarb

July 31, 2010

by Julia DeWitt

I already had a ride to the ferry  by the time I arrived at the tiny airport in Sandspit, giving me my first taste of the generosity that comes standard among Haida Gwaii residents.  Once across the ferry from Moresby to Graham Island my new friend and local artist Brian figured, oh heck, why not drive me out to my campsite, too and, well, it wouldn’t be any problem to just drop my stuff off and take me back into town to show me around.  I most certainly was not in Boston anymore.

While very kind, showing me around town was a fairly simple undertaking.  Queen Charlotte is the commercial center of the islands, and basically consists of one strip along the one paved road that took all of fives minutes for Brian to orient me to.  There is the grocery, the convenience store, a library (found in the same building that houses the senior center and the community center), a hand full of restaurants that serve things like Chinese/Canadian cuisine and deli sandwiches, a hardware store, and the office supply store, the one source of printer paper and technical support on the islands.

Of course, you don’t move here for the commerce.  You can’t.  Logging has slowed to a near halt as the Haida negotiate a final agreement with the Crown to take over management of the forests.  The question of how to maintain the health of the community’s economy while retaining the place’s cultural vibrancy is in question now more than ever.

When we titled our blog “To the Edge of the World,” we were playing on the translation of an old Haida name for Haida Gwaii.  But now that I have arrived here, the title takes on a whole new meaning.  While lucrative resources place Haida Gwaii on the front lines of capitalism, their remote locale means that people must be self-sufficient out here.  When Eugene, a flannel-clad handyman, pulled over to offer me a lift into town I spotted some oversized rhubarb in the back seat, no doubt nourished by the midnight sun.  He explained that he was bringing it up island to exchange for some home-brewed rhubarb wine.  When I asked about the barter system that Brian had told me about, Eugene replied, “Oh yeah, we gotta have it.  Vegetables sometimes go bad before you get them home from the grocery store.  And if we miss a couple ferries (which happens a lot in the winter due to weather) well, you gotta trade things.”

Eugene remembers a time when the islands were only serviced by floatplane.  When he was a kid they only had to dial four numbers to call anywhere.  He remembers how baffled people were when they had to start dialing seven digits.  Eugene is 31.

Needless to say, I’m sort of out of place.  Still, it is hard not to love the way that people greet each other by name and remember what you bought yesterday in their store.  Not only is it spectacular, but the pace of the place and the way that people spend time instead of money is intoxicating, if not a bit easily romanticize by this newbie.  I’ve been trying to stay clean by dunking in the bay next to my beach-side camp site and then rinsing in the spigot for fear of gaining a reputation for being the stinky stranger, rather than just the stranger.  But in this town of 900, people have already started to recognize me.  The four of together are most certainly going to be a scene.

by Julia DeWitt

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