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


July 25th

July 25, 2010

A first glimpse of the Haida Gwaii.

Last I heard from the kayakers, they were crouched in the corner of the kayak outfitter’s gear shop transferring funds, repackaging pastas and peanuts, and making their last calls to their families.  The stuttering picture that Skype was transmitting to me caught Lauren grimacing with an exaggerated expression of anxiety and Fiona counting cans of beans, reminding me that for all the glamour that one dreams can surround an “expedition,” the preparation for any lengthy backcountry excursion is always more business than fun.  Lauren looked at me very seriously and explained, “We really aren’t in the Bubble anymore,”  (the Bubble, of course, being the buffer that protects liberal arts college students from the facts of life in the “real” world).

A former professor of ours once described the experience of graduating from college as being kicked out of paradise, and, indeed, as these Eves make their transition from that “paradise” to the next, we have found ourselves experiencing the pain of that kick in a variety of different ways.

Still, we have found ourselves bound and determined to hold onto the naiveté that has gotten us this far in the hopes that it amounts to something with just enough gravity to hold us down.  And, indeed, our collaborative efforts won us the funds to do exactly what we want to be doing, and our organization (if at times a bit…round-about) got Tara, Fiona, and Lauren up to Haida Gwaii and onto its coastal waters.

It is July 25th, which means the kayakers are winding down their fifth day on the water.  They put in on the 21st, and finally reached the border of Gwaii Haanas on the 23rd.  They have gotten glimpses of Hecate Straight through the window of Laskeek Bay and they may have seen whales in those forbidden waters.   On the 23rd, they camped with Glady’s, the watch woman elder that stays at the historical sight where they are bedded down.  “Watchmen” are basically Haida campground hosts who are responsible for educating visitors and watching over historically significant sights.  Glady’s not only serves to remind Tara, Fiona and Lauren that they are in environmentally protected country, but that they are in Haida country.  Where her feet meet the ground is where the deep human history of the islands meets the land that has given birth to their traditions.

Tara, Lauren and Fiona are determined to take their time traveling down the coast, so they will spend today in the hot springs in the hopes of spotting “enormous” bears, as Fiona put it.  Maybe they’re singing or bickering, maybe Lauren is trying to figure out how to adjust the ISO on her new camera while Tara explores the potential of her tiny HD camcorder on loan from National Geographic.  Either way, the cans have been counted, the funds transferred, and hopefully Lauren has stopped grimacing.  They have begun.  Whatever this thing we have dreamt up is, it is underway.

by Julia DeWitt

Pre-departure Pre-post

July 7, 2010

We are busy gathering dry bags, mustering our courage, and wrapping up our first round of adventures.  Tara is returning from Italy, Lauren is three weeks into her month stay in the Boundary Waters of Minnesota, Fiona is off of the Washington coast leading sea kayaking trips, and Julia is surfing in California.  We will begin regularly posting here on July 20th, so please do check back in then.  In the mean time, feel free to peruse the pages that we do have up and running.  We thank you much for visiting our blog.