Abandoned ghost towns with weathered totem poles are a prize sight of Haida Gwaii, the dagger-shaped archipelago off Canada’s Pacific Northwest coast. The UNESCO world heritage site beckons adventurous travellers. But beware of adverse weather conditions.
By Frank Kuin in Haida Gwaii
Two full days later than originally planned, the long-awaited words are finally spoken: Skung Gwaii, straight ahead! The forested shoreline looms of uninhabited Anthony Island, at the southern tip of the Queen Charlotte Islands off Canada’s Pacific Northwest coast. The small tour group on board is excited and relieved. After days of doubt whether they would make it here, the big draw of the trip – a world heritage site – is now within reach.
The face of Hiro Ono, a Japanese traveller, lights up. “Are we there?” He has been concerned about it, for he and his wife Sachiko have travelled far to visit Skung Gwaii. From Singapore, to be precise, where he has a busy job in logistics, with not more than one full week of vacation per year. They wanted to make something special of it, and the Queen Charlotte Islands offered exactly the right mix of the rugged nature of the Canadian West Coast and photogenic indigenous culture – all in a four-day boat tour.
On paper, the itinerary just barely fit in the Onos’ tight schedule: cross the Pacific Ocean to Vancouver in western Canada, and transfer the next day to the Queen Charlotte Islands, a dagger-shaped archipelago just south of Alaska at about an hour and a half away by plane. Then join the camping trip by boat through the islands, nicknamed the ‘Canadian Galapagos’ for their spectacular scenery, untouched by the last ice age and rich in animals such as eagles, sea lions and black bears. Return the same way, to be back at the office on Monday morning.
___ Slideshow: A tour of Haida Gwaii, British Columbia
The highlight of the trip was to be Ninstints, one of three former settlements of the Haida population. This uninhabited ghost town, accessible only by sea or air, is home to the world’s best-preserved group of original totem poles in the renowned, graphic style of the Haida. Weathered and in some cases leaning or toppled over and overgrown with moss, they keep a stern wake for the indigenous people who once lived here, before the Haida population was decimated in the 19th century by a smallpox epidemic. The totems, designated a world heritage site by UNESCO, are hidden behind the cedars of Anthony Island, or Skung Gwaii.
There was just one unforeseen issue, it turned out after arriving in Queen Charlotte City, the hub of the archipelago: the clock of the Queen Charlotte Islands is not always running in sync with that of the logistics multinationals of Singapore. As in all remote parts of Canada, carefully planned travel itineraries are easily upended by adverse weather conditions. As in: heavy fog? Too bad, the bush plane can’t take off. Hopefully it will work out tomorrow.
And so Mary Kelly, the outfitter for the tour, explains on the morning of departure that a severe storm is raging in waters around the islands, which are directly exposed to the Pacific Ocean. “The boat cannot go out,” she says, with a printout of the Canadian Weather Service in hand. It is reporting stormy winds and waves of four meters high. “Hopefully it will work out tomorrow.”
But the storm persists, and the next day is also written off. The passengers are taken out by Dick Bellis, a big Haida guide who claims to “know everything about the islands.” In a rattling van, he takes us over muddy dirt roads to a giant cedar in the rainforest. The tree, with a diameter of five to six meters, is estimated to be 750 years old. It takes a hike to get there, over fallen trees and under wet branches. “Hurry up or we’ll leave you for the bears,” says Bellis. When a black bear appears in the distance, Bellis blows a homemade whistle, causing the animal to stand still in wonderment. “He’s been fishing,” Bellis says.
The remote destination of Ninstints still beckons, while the clock is ticking on the mainland. People have to catch intercontinental flights, make connections at international airports. Kelly has never had to cancel a tour, she reassures her guests. Fortunately, that won’t be necessary this time either, as the next day the tour can finally depart. Two days before the Onos’ return journey, the four-day trip to the uninhabited world of Haida Gwaii finally begins. The Onos will be picked up by a seaplane to make their flight back.
Once ashore on Skung Gwaii, it turns out that Haida Gwaii time doesn’t only put hasty world travellers in their place. It has been as ruthless on the vulnerable totem poles. Stern and imposing, they stand side by side along the shore of a sheltered cove, strangely isolated from the outside world. Carvings of bears, eagles, ravens and orcas are stacked in beautiful Haida style, with big eyes. After more than a century of rain and wind, the bare cedar trunks from which the poles have been made are cracked and have taken on a silvery colour. Some of the poles are deteriorating from the inside. One of the totems has spilled rotten wood that wasn’t there two weeks ago, travel guide Glynn points out.
The travellers’ first reaction is a mix of awe and activism. The totems are so unique, can they not be protected against time? The answer is no, Glynn explains. Most of the totems were once ‘death poles’; they used to have a coffin on top with the remains of a prominent community member. The Haida surrendered those to nature. Sooner or later, the totem would fall over and become one with the earth. They would not intervene in that process. So regardless of the world heritage site designation, the totems are not raised, propped up, or weatherproofed. Within 50 years or so, their raw beauty will vanish forever.
Proposals to resist this natural process have been rejected by the Haida of today, says Jeff Moody, a young member of the Haida Nation who helps guard Skung Gwaii in summer. “There have been plans to preserve the poles, but they are meant to fall back to the ground,” he says. It’s a tantalizing lesson: the test of time is acceptable, decay is OK.
Still, another exercise in beating the clock begins the next morning. At dawn, the Queen Charlotte Islands are shrouded in a thick fog. The seaplane that was to pick up the Onos cannot take off. A race against time begins to bring them back to the civilized world by boat. The vessel departs northwards at full throttle, while the other travellers relax at Haida Gwaii’s hot springs.
A few days later, the rest of the group returns calmly from the boat tour, to learn that things also worked out for the Onos. With screeching tires they had made it to the ferry on the way to the airport, just before the ramp went up. They made it to their flight – and even got so see a whale from the boat. Still, it was clear that in Haida Gwaii, time ticks at its own pace, undisturbed. Resisting that is futile; resignation is probably wiser.
This post is also available in: Dutch
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