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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