Breakfast is over as the Island Solitude anchors on a falling tide. Scrambling into Zodiacs, we head for a cove of barnacle-constellated boulders and tie up. We bushwhack across a forested isthmus, crawl under a tangle of blowdown and emerge onto a grassy bench palisaded in fir. Beyond lies a half-moon beach exposed to the full force of the North Pacific, its tideline piled high with massive logs. Tracks of otter and deer crisscross the black sand while ravens and eagles peer from hemlock aeries; the only human footprints on this strand are ours, the first in over a year. Like we’ve found a treasure.
Gwaii Haanas National Park Reserve and Haida Heritage Site provides a rare opportunity to explore the kind of pristine coastal wilderness before us, as well as the history and culture of those who’ve called its islands home for millennia. This crown jewel of Canadian coastal parks comprises the southern tier of the Haida Gwaii archipelago off BC’s north coast. Its isolation requires watercraft to explore, and we’re happy to sail with venerable Bluewater Adventures, renowned for its low-impact approach to coastal ecotourism and its close work with First Nations stewards. But after several days of tracking archipelagic scenery, photographing whales and visiting key Haida cultural sites, we haven’t clambered onto a hidden beach to notch another touristic superlative. Instead, we’re here to give back—by taking away, so to speak. Brandishing burlap sacks, we fan out to collect a winter’s worth of washed-up trash—the myriad jetsam of an ever-shrinking world.
Fittingly, the detail takes on the air of a treasure hunt, as we fish water bottles from between logs and yank buried rope from the sand. During a final tideline sweep I spot something distinctly different from my armload of plastic shards—a mouth-blown, blue-green, glass fishing-net float from Japan, the only place this art is still practiced. I head back to the boat clutching not only my cleanup effort, but a prize plucked from the trash heap of humanity.
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Days before, we’d boarded Island Solitude at historic Moresby Camp, anchoring for the night in a cove ringed by towering mountains. It was early June, and with the sun aloft until 11:00 p.m. at this latitude, we were watching the sunset wash snow-spotted peaks with our new companions. In addition to 11 adventurers from the US, Canada, Germany and Singapore, there was Tyler the barefoot captain, mate Gaelen and crew Leo, cook Carmen and naturalist Anne. The Island Solitude itself already felt like a friend—spacious and comfortable, custom-designed based on lessons inculcated from decades sailing the north coast.
Next day we headed south, rounding Louise Island and anchoring near the old village of K’uuna. Here, we were greeted by legendary Haida Watchman Gitin Jaad (Deedee Crosby). Meeting members of the groundbreaking Watchmen program is a memorable part of any trip to Haida Gwaii (see sidebar below: “The Foresight of Indigenous Guardianship“). The trio of figures traditionally carved atop monumental poles to stand sentinel over Haida villages now form the symbol for a program that provides seasonal employment for Haida aged 16 to 80. In addition to being eyes on the ground with a stewardship mission, Watchmen share Haida knowledge of the land and sea in stories, song and dance. Gitin Jaad not only skillfully unpacked waypoints—trees sprouting from old plank-house corner posts, mortuary poles immortalized in a painting by Emily Carr—but connected them to stories of her grandfather, who hailed from K’uuna. We departed steeped in the main lesson of the archipelago’s human history—yahguudang, the act of paying respect.
Off K’uuna, flights of pigeon guillemots whirred over the waves with a handful of marbled murrelets and the occasional black oystercatcher. We learned more about area wildlife at our next destination, East Limestone Island, where the Laskeek Bay Conservation Society has conducted decades-long studies on everything from whales to deer. The station’s main study focus is the ancient murrelet, a small seabird widespread throughout the North Pacific. With the unique habit of nesting colonially in burrows, it’s also the only bird to raise its young entirely at sea. Within a few days of hatching, parents abandon the precocious chicks and fly to the water; the young emerge from their burrows by night and follow suit overland, identifying their imprinted parents’ offshore voices among rafts of other ancient murrelets. To study this behavior, researchers created a fence at the edge of the forest that funneled the peripatetic chicks past cameras. Observing the gauntlet of roots, logs and cliff-faces these tiny avia must surmount to reach the sea was testament to the life-or-death nature of their journey.
After Limestone, we circled T’aanuu Island as sun began to dominate what had previously been undetermined skies. As clouds fled, the San Christoval Range abruptly appeared on the western horizon, thick peaks with snowy helmets, stern faces and well-muscled ridges—a hulking football team to oversee our night at Anna Inlet spent kayaking at their feet.
We motored away next morning along the north side of Lyell Island, bound for Windy Bay. With rain stilling the air and water, it was an hour before we felt the slow, tectonic surge of oceanic swell pulling us seaward. At Windy Bay, Watchmen recounted the positive impact on the Haida Nation of the 1985 logging protests staged here, then led us to the base of a tree preserved by that action, a Sitka spruce so large that a dozen of us failed to encircle it. Retiring early that night, Tyler promised to wake us for a surprise. The knock came after midnight, as the wind of a rising storm howled through the rigging. Topside, the scene was surreal: Stirred by ocean chop, scallops of purple phosphorescence swarmed the surface as ancient murrelets cried through the wind, their frantic chicks constellating the water. When Tyler trained a light on one it bolted away like a torpedo, trailing strings of mauve.
Eventually we made our way to historic Rose Harbour, once owned by industrial whaling conglomerates. Stepping ashore here channeled the haunting feel of any abandoned outpost born of resource exploitation. Near a slipway where whales were once hauled up by steam-powered winches stood a sienna mound.
Here, hooks, flensers, harpoons and cables had once been tossed in an unceremonious pile to eventually coalesce into a rusting singularity. Along with glass, whalebone and copper artifacts it formed a sombre bricolage of hubris and destruction.
In stark counterpoint, a short walk into the forest revealed an ancient, unfinished Haida canoe that had withstood the area’s century-long whaling history without being disturbed. The stone-tool-felled cedar lay on a downward angle attached to its stump, ensuring drainage that kept it from rotting into the forest floor. The bow was obvious, and the canoe’s crafters had begun to hollow it out from either end with the expectation of meeting in the middle; they’d never finished, and the providence of this preservation stunned us into silence.
Next morning we conducted the plastic-hunting mission that opens this tale. Motoring back to the Island Solitude we see a humpback whale spouting. On board, Tyler raises the mainsail just as a whirl of birds appears to port; manoeuvring toward them, we’re treated to a squall of gulls, cormorants, guillemots and eagles dive-bombing a knot of fish boiling the surface. As we scan past the action for the whale’s tell-tale spout, it suddenly surfaces 20 metres away, mouth open, roiling the fish, slapping the water with its fins. It resurfaces for a few more mouthfuls, watching us intently with a single Argus eye, then disappears as we head toward Anthony Island and the village of SGang Gwaii under a blue sky streaming puffball clouds.
It’s quick passage in heavy swell. On shore, David—an animated Watchman dressed summer-wise in shorts, flip-flops and traditional cedar hat—enthuses over everything, including the sunny weather.
Worthy of his efforts, it’s hard to describe the feeling of SGang ringing tideline with its house foundations and weathered poles being reclaimed by forest. You can’t help but conjure the scene as it once existed: dozens of carved mortuary and ceremonial poles, ocean-going canoes pulled up on the sand, fish racks dotting the shore, garden plots behind majestic plank houses, kids playing everywhere.
SGang Gwaii is a UNESCO World Heritage Site of great archaeological importance: there’s Machu Picchu, remnant of the Inca empire; the great Mayan and Aztec temples and pyramids; and then there’s this lonely outpost in the North Pacific—the only remaining “constructed” artifact of North American Indigenous peoples. As we gaze from the chief’s house toward the idyllic lagoon, a large river otter lopes down the beach, slipping effortlessly into the ocean as if the tide were rising to meet it. With David’s blessing we disperse along the beachfront to sit council with our thoughts, allowing the power of this place to sink in; when we rise to leave only minutes have passed, but my thoughts have raced through centuries.
Back on Island Solitude we sail into the groundswell of open ocean, tracking another humpback trailed by a few wheeling albatross. Hours later we finally spot the Kerouard Islands, a sprinkle of steep, treeless rocks marking the archipelago’s terminus. Surging on the tidal bore through a gap between the Kerouards and Cape St. James, site of an old lighthouse, we pass a colony of Steller sea lions and nesting grounds of tufted puffin, pelagic cormorant and glaucous gull. On the far side we’re treated to a pair of sea otters recumbent on kelp mats, munching sea urchins. Extirpated in Haida Gwaii in the early 1900s, the return of sea otters raises hope for natural control of an urchin overabundance that’s currently destroying kelp forests. All in all, an informative and magical day.
A few days later, clouds sag seaward as we kayak through drizzle in Burnaby Narrows, the tide draining against us at this famous portal to the near-shore world. Naturalist Anne points to decorative bat stars in red, fuchsia, mauve and blue; elsewhere are anemones, urchins, sea cucumbers, chitons and moon snails whose sand-fashioned egg collars resemble clay jars. Above water, a multi-coloured seaweed salad hosts crabs of every description, a bald eagle hunting fish from a rock and mating oystercatchers engaged in animated dance while deer graze the grassy flats above them. Backgrounding it all, clams squirt random, metre-high fountains from mud pockmarked with the burrows of ghost shrimp.
After a long kayak back, the wildlife parade continues. We’ve just hauled anchor when Anne clocks a large bear on a distant beach, rolling logs, sniffing plants, turning an occasional rock. Heading out of the sound, Leo spots a pair of Risso’s dolphins—a rare inshore sighting of an offshore animal that resembles a small, grey beluga laced with scars from battling the squid on which it feeds. When squid are spawning in the shallows as now, the Risso’s follow them in.
Over our final few days we see more critters, pristine forests and those ravaged by invasive deer, old mines, sunken ships, ancient fish weirs and the cultural sites of Hotspring Island, T’aanuu and Cumshewa, assembling a growing bit-map of knowledge about the area’s human and biological history. Our gratitude is huge—to the Haida and to Parks Canada for their pioneering partnership, and to Bluewater Adventures for its low-impact practices, support for local communities, promotion of conservation, and high-level knowledge of wildlife, Indigenous culture and the environment. Sailing Gwaii Haanas has been one-of-a-kind experience filled with opportunities for both learning and action—like the plastic cleanup, which paid immediate dividends by inspiring us to double down.
A few days after our first cleanup, we anchored in expansive Luxana Bay with the intention of going ashore for a leisurely beach walk. Before long, however, we all reflexively started picking up plastic, stacking a literal ton onto the tidal flats over the course of two hours: ropes and nets, floats and buoys, Taiwanese bottles and Russian toothpaste. A Zodiac-load to drop at the warden’s cabin in Rose Harbour, adding to a growing stockpile of cleanup efforts that would eventually be barged out of the park.
It wasn’t hard to understand our behavior. After voyaging into the blue, it seemed only fitting to leave things a little bluer than we’d found them.
The Foresight of Indigenous Guardianship
An effective way to generate both immediate impact and broad transformation is through the kind of Indigenous stewardship of protected areas offered by the Haida Watchmen model. The Haida Nation pioneered the idea decades ago, and the model has spread to every corner of Canada.
Indigenous guardians are experts trained to manage lands, monitor water quality, help restore fish and wildlife, disseminate cultural information and oversee development projects. These programs deliver obvious local benefits while helping Canada meet its commitments to conserve nature, address climate change and advance reconciliation. Research in Australia has shown that for every dollar invested in Indigenous guardian programs, $2.50 is returned in health, social and economic benefit. The sustainable Indigenous economies based on land protections in Haida Gwaii and the Great Bear Rainforest have alone drawn investments of close to $300 million, contributed to upwards of 100 businesses, created over 1,000 permanent jobs, and established 14 regional monitoring and guardian programs covering 2.5 million hectares annually.
Currently, some 60 Indigenous guardian programs exist across Canada, drawing international recognition. As an example, east of Yellowknife, Łutsël K’e Dene First Nation co-manages 26,575 square kilometres of wetlands for migratory birds under a 2019 agreement with Parks Canada and the NWT government that created the Thaidene Nëné National Park Reserve. The program employs people summer and winter, sustains families, reduces public assistance costs and injects money directly into the community. The UN Development Program awarded its annual Equator Prize to the Łutsël K’e as an example to be replicated globally—the first time the prize was awarded in Canada.
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