||THE SPIRIT OF HAIDA GWAII BEGINS WITH THE JOURNEY
Despite something of a makeover, The Queen of Prince Rupert has all the pretensions of a 1960's legion. To returning residents she is as welcoming as the arms of a slightly dishevelled favourite aunt.
My cosy cabin contains a couple of bunks, a small desk and a refurbished en-suite - though the shower stall has been painted a rather bilious green. Not much comfort during a heavy blow in Hecate Strait!
Two Haida men argue on the back deck. Is it land beyond the mist or just an ominous black cloud? After 10,000 years of inherited grudges, there is still animosity between the Northerners of Old Masset and Southerners from Skidegate.
"Hey, you should be in Rupert in February for the All Native Basketball tournament, eh. Fifty teams from around the province. Blood on the streets man!" grins the chap who clearly won the day when the storm cloud delivers a deluge. "Found myself in a Tahltan house last year. Seems our ancestors stole a few of their women way back eh! A couple of their elders got me out just in time - Phew!"
My new friend is a Haida Guardian whose self-professed mandate is to keep the government's nose out of sensitive Haida territory. These days, smart bands hire archaeologists and surveyors to prove aboriginal title. "These are our islands right?" - Case closed!
In the lounge, a couple of seniors have unzipped a guitar and banjo from well-worn cases, and are belting out "Roll in my sweet baby's arms" to a jolly, singalong crowd. A Haida woman hurriedly sews the last few abalone buttons to an intricately designed black and red shawl.
Next weekend her grandfather's headstone will be installed. Sure, Chief Charles Wesley died a year ago, but it takes money and time to plan such a grand event.
Land is clearly in view now. There is a buzz of expectation. Reluctant kids are prissied-up by fussing mothers. Most passengers are going home. "Amazing Grace" is the last song before the instruments are packed away.
We dock in Skidegate around 9.30pm after a seven-hour journey from Prince Rupert. The rain is coming down in horizontal sheets. There is a muffled sound of drumming and chanting then an announcement on the PA system. "Will the Haida kids greeting party please move back and let the cars off the ship."
There are 60 Haida kids living in foster homes throughout BC. Fifteen have been brought back to the islands by The Haida Child and Family Services. For four days there will be welcoming feasts and celebrations to remind them of their roots. The rest will follow over time.
"Aren't they wonderful" enthused the woman stuck behind me in a battered truck that would never get garage space in the city. "The Haida are so proud of their heritage." Yes, they are wonderful. I drive past big grins, waving placards and young dancers, undaunted by the weather.
Haida Gwaii, consists of two main islands, Graham and Moresby. They are linked by a 20-minute ferry ride. Much of the South end of Moresby, and its myriad offshore islands, is now Gwaai Haanas National Park, managed jointly by Parks Canada and The Council of Haida Nations.
Haida people once numbered 14,000 in 126 villages. The first Europeans passed through in 1774. Fur traders swapped otter pelts for smallpox, and by 1911 the population dwindled to just 589. Villages were abandoned. Northern dwellers regrouped in Old Masset and Southerners in Skidegate. Today, each community numbers in the 700's. The population of the islands is around 5000.
It is mid September and considered off-season. Many tour operators and restaurateurs have fled to sunnier climes. I want to see Ninstints on Anthony Island but splutter at hiring a plane for a cool $1700. I could of course join a group of Japanese filmmakers.
They are shooting a reality piece with stars who have about as much experience paddling a canoe as riding an elephant! "And get this!" grins Heron, the young outfitter charged with supplying the group. "They're circumnavigating Moresby on a diet of rice balls and miso soup! I've a tour going to Skedans tomorrow morning - Wanna come?" That's the clincher. Tonight I'm off to a feast - None of that rice balls and miso nonsense!
Keenawaai's Kitchen, is the home of Haida chef extraordinaire and great grandmother Roberta Olsen. In my city, her operation might be considered a "guerrilla restaurant" whose location would be passed around in hushed tones by those in the know. "I've painted a giant rainbow on the rock out front so it's easy to see. Be here by 7pm. Bring fifty bucks and your own wine."
Far from being secretive, Roberta has taken her Haida feast to James Beard House in New York. Google her name and lose an afternoon reading the accolades. Five people are already seated at the table when I arrive. The local nurse and the manager of the Queen Charlotte Visitor Centre are both here with their visiting mothers.
Walter, a Haida elder with a wicked grin, claims to have caught most of tonight's fare. He is busy regaling an attentive audience with tales of outrunning the RCMP with a fish boat full of illicit booze. "Hey, back then, they needed our vote to open a legion - Then they wouldn't let us join!"
Roberta's grandchildren usually dance for the diners but tonight there's a band in town so no one's answering the phone. Her diminutive 7 year-old great granddaughter is our server. "Are you done?" she asks sweetly, as I gulp down the last delicious morsel of octopus-balls, candied salmon, herring roe on dried kelp and deep fried bannock - and that's just the starter!
Cedar planks, overflowing with cod, halibut, salmon and venison follow, together with bowls of wild rice, sea asparagus and god knows what else. For the grand finale great slabs of chocolate cake slathered in rum sauce, whipped cream and fresh raspberries are passed around.
For just a fleeting moment I feel pity for those Japanese paddlers and their diet of rice balls and miso soup. Oh well - The price of stardom I guess!
7.30 am. I am on the ferry to Moresby Island. Today I am joining a disparate group for the boat trip promised by Heron, the owner of Moresby Explorers. Our van rattles and shakes along a rutted logging road.
We stop just long enough to photograph drooling bears at Pallant Creek hatchery where Haida men are dip netting salmon for their eggs. Carcasses will be shared around the community.
Vivian is to be our guide and captain. Now twenty years old, she grew up on a small island off Queen Charlotte Village. Took herself to school by boat, she explains while changing a plug in the spluttering outboard. You need to be self-sufficient in these parts!
We stop on the backside of Louise Island and hike to an abandoned logging camp overtaken by the forest. Crooked gravestones date back to the 1800's. Cables and carts are covered in tangled roots, moss and "old mans beard."
The inflatable skims off through fields of bull kelp and around the corner to Skedans. Five sensitive sites are guarded by Haida Watchmen - in this case two young women - during the season, with only radios, solar power, and each other for company. Eventually Vivian's call is answered and we hit the beach.
Rows of giant clamshells set out boundaries around ancient long house foundations in what was once an important village - until smallpox hit in the 1880's.
We close our eyes and imagine rows of beached canoes on either side of the point. Nature is having her destructive way with the few totem poles that remain and I wonder how long it will be before photographs are the only evidence of human habitation here.
I spent a week on these remote magical islands. Exploring giant cedars around Yakoun Lake. Beating up my little car on the potholed road to Rennell Sound and the West coast. All alone, I was overwhelmed by the sheer size of TowHill beach - A surfer's paradise on a stormy day.
In Old Masset, I watched master carver Cooper Wilson put the final intricate touches to a Walrus tusk. I toured Chief Mathews school with 7 year-old ambassadors Teanna and Heidi and listened to elders giving language lessons to a rivetted audience.
When nature has returned all signs of an ancient culture to the forest floor, the sparkling new Haida Heritage Centre in Skidegate is superbly setup as a reminder of the past. Pole and canoe carvers are busy in the workshops, with orders from around the world.
10 pm. I arrive at the ferry dock. The line-up is already reaching the road. Container after container will be loaded before any cars can move. Those in the know come armed with foam mattresses and sleeping bags. This will be an all night crossing with no lullabies to soothe away the hours!
I am suddenly very grateful for my cosy little cabin, booked well in advance! A perfect way to end a perfect week!
IF YOU GO:
GETTING THERE BY CAR AND FERRY: Spoil yourself and take the newly refurbished "Northern Adventure" from Port Hardy up the spectacular inside passage. Overnight in Prince Rupert before boarding "The Queen of Prince Rupert" to Skidegate. You then have the option to explore the remote beauty of Northern BC on the way home! BOOK EARLY SPACE IS LIMITED. www.bcferries.com
GETTING THERE BY AIR: Pacific Coastal Airlines has daily flights from Vancouver to Masset in high season. Air Canada Jazz flies daily to Sandspit. There are several options from Prince Rupert. Book ahead for best prices
GETTING AROUND: You need wheels to explore the area. With a local car rental you will be restricted to paved roads only. However, many interesting sights are to be found along a labyrinthe of well signed logging roads. There are 7 car rental agencies listed. (See Invaluable Website, below!)
WHERE TO STAY: Two excellent tried and tested options. In Masset: Copper Beech House B&B. Charming character accommodation run by a similar proprietor! In Queen Charlotte Village (near Skidegate): Dorothy and Mike's Guesthouse. Wonderful views. Charming proprietors. Reasonable rates.
PROVEN OUTFITTER: For boat/kayak tours/accommodation etc. Moresby Explorers based in Sandspit. Locally run. Youthful enthusiasm. Linked to other outfitters.
INVALUABLE WEBSITE: The Queen Charlotte Visitor Centre is a non-profit organisation, which with the cooperation of Tourism BC can package your stay for a small fee or just dispense invaluable information covering everything you need to know - for free! Stuff like: To eat at Keenawaaii's Kitchen you must phone Roberta a day ahead (250) 559 8347