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.



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