The Place and the People. Haida Gwaii’s coasts rise steep and mossy out of the Pacific Ocean, snow capped mountains melt into sandy beaches, and the waters that surround the archipelago define a unique island ecosystem that cannot be found anywhere else on Earth.
Much of the American and Canadian coastline once looked like this, but early extractive industry, particularly logging, decimated the vast region’s ecosystems. Haida Gwaii’s is a rare success story. The beauty of the misty forests that once coated thousands of square miles of North American coast line is preserved in a preserved region of the Haida Gwaii called Gwaii Haanas National Park Reserve and Haida Heritage Site.
It is in the creation story of this park that one finds the true richness of this region. In the 1970’s, under threat of deforestation and years of attack on their cultural legacy, the Haida decided to fight back. The community organized around Guujaaw, a highly esteemed Haida community leader and current Haida Nation President, and coordinated a counter attack against the timber industry and its proposals to expand its domain. Since the fight began in the 1970’s, the Haida have signed a series of agreements with the Canadian government. These designate Gwaii Haanas, the lower section of the archipelago, as a protected region to be co-managed by a board that is equal parts Haida and Canadian government representatives.
A cultural preservation movement arose alongside the movement to protect the land. Once called the Queen Charlotte Islands, the islands were given their original name back, Islands of the People, Haida Gwaii. Haida language classes are taught in Skidegate, traditional carving classes are reminding Haida youth of the skill developed over thousands of years by their predecessors, and the people of Haida Gwaii have regained some of the political clout that was taken from them by European expansionists at the turn of the century.
Most recently, the Haida Nation has joined all other Canadian First Nations in signing a petition to halt the opening of the Enbridge Oil Pipeline and tanker route that would carry crude oil from the Alberta Tar Sands, through the Hecate Strait to the east of Haida Gwaii, and out to China and California. The Hecate is notoriously shallow, dangerous and unpredictable (i.e. not easy for an oil tanker to navigate). The Deep Water Horizon disaster reminds us that oil spills are not a matter of ‘if’ as much as ‘when’ and adds a certain immediacy to stopping the construction of the pipeline for residents of the islands.
The Haida are currently in the process of negotiating one final agreement to take over management of the forests, slowing or maybe even stopping logging once and for all. Many are eager to see logging, an industry that has put very little back into the community that it takes so much from, finally go. But without logging commercial opportunities out here are limited, leaving the future of the community in question. The title of our blog was based on a translation of an older Haida name for the islands, but perched out here on the continental shelf and on the verge of a new economic future, these islands are indeed on the edge of the world.
The Expedition. It is the legacy of cultural preservation, environmental activism, mobilization around this most recent conservation issues, and the beauty of the land itself that draws National Geographic Young Explorers Tara Davis, Julia DeWitt, Fiona Smith, and Lauren Sinnott to Haida Gwaii. Inspired by a love of the outdoors and with the help of funding from by the Ritt Kellogg Memorial Fund, we planned to begin our project with a 17 day sea kayak adventure along the eastern coast of Gwaii Haanas. Following the kayak expedition, we will spend the month of August conducting interviews with the visionaries that fought to protect Haida Gwaii and the activists that continue to speak for its beauty.
We go to Haida Gwaii as curious students of whatever the place and the people have to offer. With the consent of and in collaboration with the owners of the land and the words that we gather in our interviews, we will post what we learn on this blog, on YouTube, and on Facebook so that others may enjoy our adventure as we undertake it.