Time, wind and water are slowly wearing away the cedar mortuary poles that stand scattered across SGang Gwaay, once a thriving village of the Haida people.

Most of the 20 houses that once lined a quiet cove are gone. So, too, are towering story poles, taken away to be housed in museums across Canada. What remains of the thriving community of 300 people are these weathered mortuary poles — the keepers of the dead.

The weathered poles were designed to hold family bones. I can still make out eyes, teeth and arms, though parts of the carved poles, such as birds’ beaks, have fallen off. Part of me wants to preserve the animal and human faces that look out from the mortuary poles. But the Haida people — who comanage this park and to whom these poles belong — disagree. They believe that what comes from the land goes back to the land.

I was visiting SGang Gwaay on the first full day of an eight-day kayaking trip to Gwaii Haanas National Park Reserve on Haida Gwaii, an archipelago about 40 miles off the coast of Canada’s British Columbia. The area, just south of Alaska, was known as the Queen Charlotte Islands until 2010.

“I’m not really such a spiritual person, but it was a really spiritual experience being there,” fellow traveler Gisela Curwen of Toronto said later of visiting SGang Gwaay. She was among our group of 10, plus two guides, who were exploring Gwaii Haanas, a magical place that combines stunning beauty and wildlife and is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The blue and green landscape reminded me of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, but with mountains, sea lions and whales. Haida people lived on these islands for 8,000 years, up until the start of the 20th century. Today, descendants of the Haida interpret historical sites for visitors like us who arrive by water to learn more about their past.

I was on the trip thanks to my friend Terri Shefelbine of St. Paul, who first heard about Haida Gwaii while hiking with her husband on Vancouver Island. Kayaking Gwaii Haanas had been on her bucket list ever since.

We booked our trip with Tofino Expeditions, an outfitter that guided our journey and supplied us with kayaks, tents, food and expert advice. Although I’ve canoed Minnesota’s rivers and lakes, I had never sea-kayaked. Nor had I heard of Haida Gwaii, but I gladly accepted Terri’s invitation to join her after learning more. In a little more than a week’s time, we made new friendships, witnessed the unspoiled beauty of a distant landscape, pushed ourselves to meet the physical challenge and learned how an indigenous people fought to preserve this awesome landscape.

Gwaii Haanas National Park Reserve owes its existence to the local Haida people, who were distressed by the destruction they saw as logging companies encroached ever deeper into the islands. In 1985, the Haida linked arms to block logging trucks on Lyell Island, and their protest garnered international attention. In 1988, the southern one-third of the islands received protected status and Gwaii Haanas became part of the Canadian national park system.

Adventurous beginning

To reach our kayaking starting point, we first flew from Vancouver across Hecate Strait to Sandspit, a small town on the Haida Gwaii island of Moresby. It took our 50-seat prop plane two hours to cover the distance, roughly 600 miles. We spent a night at a bed-and-breakfast, then met our group, piled into a van, and were driven along rumbly logging roads for about an hour — until the road ended at Moresby Cove. There, the group — seven women and three men from across the U.S. and Canada, ranging in age from 45 to 72 — exchanged the van for a Zodiac boat.

Though the day was pleasant, our driver instructed us to dress for winter for the 3½-hour Zodiac ride to the southern tip of Gwaii Haanas. As she eased the boat into the water, we donned fleece pants, coats, raincoats and life jackets. Our driver explained the emergency procedures and then we loaded up for an exhilarating but chilly ride of 90 miles, bouncing over waves on the open sea and motoring through stunning mountain-lined straits.

We arrived at Raspberry Cove, a long, rock-strewn beach backed by giant, moss-covered trees, in late afternoon. Our kayaking would start here the next day.

We felt slightly apprehensive as we watched the Zodiac roar away with the previous week’s paddlers.

“My God, is it remote. I’ve never had to take a four-hour Zodiac ride to start a trip,” said Landon Kimmel, one of our guides who happened to be on his first trip to Haida Gwaii.

Our other guide, Jessica Roy, has been leading trips in Haida Gwaii for six years. Her skill and sense of humor instantly put the group at ease. She taught us how to load the double kayaks — personal gear in the bow and stern hatches, communal kitchen gear and food in the center compartment, and tents in dry bags strapped on top. The ever-changing tides meant that we often had to carry the kayaks down to the water or above the high tide line. Even unloaded, it took six of us working together to carry each heavy boat.

A typical day on our trip involved 8 to 11 miles of paddling from one campsite to the next, which usually took five to six hours. We saw eagles, sea lions and seals daily, had breakfast, lunch and dinner on the beach, and spent lots of time chatting and laughing. In the evening, Jess brought out the maps and reviewed where we had paddled that day and explained where we would go the following day. She warned us from the beginning that because of changing weather conditions, she would likely modify her plan several times each day.

After spending the night in tents tucked into the mossy cedar and spruce forest off the beach, we packed up camp and loaded the kayaks that first full day to head to SGang Gwaay, the UNESCO World Heritage Site, which had been occupied by the Haida until the 1880s. We paddled for three hours through a strait that opened to the Pacific, then bobbed gleefully on 6-foot swells before arriving in a protected harbor on Anthony Island, or Ninstints. After a quick lunch of bagels, cream cheese and lox, a Haida Watchman met us to give us a tour of his ancestors’ village.

Part of the allure for my friend Terri was the active role that the Haida people today play in protecting and interpreting the park. Haida Watchmen are present at several sites, accessible only by water, to guide visitors around the remains of the villages. At SGang Gwaay, our guide led us through the forest on a boardwalk to the natural harbor where the Haida had built their village.

The mortuary poles, lining the cove, struck me powerfully. The Haida were great artisans, carving mortuary and family poles from cedar trees that they harvested on nearby islands. The poles could be anywhere from 10 to 65 feet high. At SGang Gwaay, our Haida Watchman explained the meaning of each the mortuary poles, which are slowly deteriorating in the salty, wet climate of these islands.

We returned to our kayaks and paddled across cobalt blue water between rock islands. Cormorants and puffins flew back and forth in front of us as we made our way to a new campsite nestled in a picturesque bay. Before we set up our tents, Jess pointed out a midden — a collection of mollusk shells 2 feet deep and 10 feet wide where the Haida had deposited their unwanted material over centuries.

The rest of our days were filled with paddling and camping in a pristine labyrinth of islands.

One day, a sea lion swam past as a mist rainbow hung over the water. We bathed in a mountain stream. The pace of breakfast — leisurely or quick — was often dictated by conditions; we once rode the ebbing tide out of a campsite into unprotected waters, using nature to help propel us through choppy waters. We passed rusted equipment from a mine, which had closed in 1969.

Throughout it all, we learned about the people who had been here before.

Jess explained that Skincuttle Strait was important to the Haida people because there had been many villages around that beautiful, mountain-lined bay until the 1880s, when smallpox, brought by European settlers, ravaged the land and reduced the Haida population to 10% of its original size. Jess also pointed out a camp of a few brightly painted wooden buildings across the water where the Haida today send their children to learn about Haida history and culture.

Bear eating breakfast

On our last full day, we made it to our final campsite near Burnaby Narrows by lunchtime, giving us extra time to swim, read, write and relax. Terri and I pitched our tent between the beach and the forest. Jess passed by and told us to angle it because the high tide that night would be higher than the night before, leaving little room for error.

Luckily, we stayed dry through the night. I awoke early the next morning and watched clams spitting water in 3-foot arcs along the tidal pools. A short while later, I looked up to see a black bear 200 feet down the beach, overturning rocks and eating the crabs and mussels beneath. Our group watched the bear for an hour as it made its way along the beach, as Jess had predicted it would. We kept our distance but could still hear the crunching of the shells in the bear’s jaws.

We carried our kayaks 100 feet down to the low tide line for our last paddle — a visit through Burnaby Narrows, a beautiful strait filled with sea stars and other marine life. We abandoned a plan to paddle around the islands to the northwest because of the wind, and instead visited a pretty little bay with bald eagles and a creek at the far end. Hiking up the creek to gather water, we passed large piles of bear scat.

As we basked in the sun on the beach, Lisa Curtis of Seattle remarked that the trip allowed her to “reconnect with the living and breathing rhythms of the day, the tides, the weather — how often do you get to sit here and the wings of the raven are so loud?”

In all, we paddled about 60 miles. The time had flown by, each day a new adventure and challenge. My heart sank a bit when I heard the buzz of the Zodiac’s motor as the boat arrived to pick us up on our last morning. A new group of dazed paddlers clambered out of the inflatable boat and unloaded their gear. Though the sun was hot, we bundled up in fleece jackets and rain gear for our cold ride back north. We circled up with Jess and Landon, who would guide for another two weeks, for one last group hug and a cheer, and we were off.

Past gorgeous scenery, with a better understanding of this mystical land, we silently thought our thoughts. Suddenly, the boat slowed to a putter. Ollie, our driver, had spotted the mist of a whale spouting. He turned the boat toward the whale and we watched as it spouted again and then fluked its tail and dove underwater.


Diane Mancini is a Spanish teacher and lives in St. Paul.