Swap pretense for subtext, ho-hum for high adventure on the spirit-filled islands of Haida Gwaii, BC
Far off the west coast of British Columbia, just inside Canada’s border, Haida Gwaii speaks an ancient language only its mist-strewn forests remember. Since before time began, its flowing skirt of sea life — colourful beyond imagination — and its wild, unforgiving landscape have provided food, supernatural encounters and a way of life for the Haida Nation, a race of artists and warriors so iconic in the Canadian imagination that their art adorned the back of the country’s twenty-dollar bill.
I had to experience the Haida House at Tllaal, a popular new lodge and restaurant, after hearing about the unprecedented level of comfort it provides in this bewitching, sometimes bewildering place.
Aileen Hans, a staff member, Haida and life-long resident of the islands, introduced me to artists, singers, dancers, storytellers and chiefs. For residents here, the astounding beauty, generous bounty and their practices and beliefs are part of everyday life. They were happy to tell me tales and show me a special part of their world that almost no other humans have seen: remote hot springs, uncharted coves, or an enormous log mysteriously abandoned 200-years-ago while being carved into a canoe. Electric green moss up to two feet thick tries to reclaim everything here and return it back to the earth. The ancient canoe will become little more than a memory in another 200 years, a reminder to its people that all things come and go.
Masset, Skidegate and Sandspit, economically-limited, but culturally-wealthy villages of not more than a couple thousand people, are the London, Paris and Milan of this mini-continent.
The ruins of their Rome still stand. Ancient totem poles and longhouses are in their original locations in Haida Gwaii’s roadless southern third. The protected area is known as Gwaii Haanas (“Islands of Beauty” in Haida), an archipelago overflowing with innumerable emerald islands, old-growth forests and adventure galore. The place glows with unique light above and below the waterline. Visitors from around the world boat or fly in here, the only national park in Canada protected from the bottom of the sea floor to the top of the mountains, a UNESCO World Heritage Site and one of National Geographic’s top-rated Epic Journeys.
“Transcendent” is what guidebooks call the silvery, carved cedar remains of an empire whose presence was felt as far away as Hawai’i and California before white men arrived and whose innovations were so astute that the British navy applied Haida canoe designs to their own fleet. The mists here seem to dance and speak. They say that bravery, sensitivity and alternate dimensions still belong to humans, if they only choose to look.
To cap off my stay, the Haida House arranged for a seat at Roberta Olsen’s for me to taste a home-cooked, locally-sourced feast. Olsen, a Haida chef, serves visitors in her beachside home where I tasted the best salmon of my life, rounding off multiple courses with her freshly-picked berry pie and wild harvested herbal tea. Wolves, orcas and supernatural beings wove through the conversation that night. As the sun set over the misty isles and the tide rolled out, we could almost see them.
Where to stay: Haida House offers all-inclusive packages, very comfortable accommodations and fine dining, the first retreat accessible by road to do so. www.haidahouse.com
West Coast Resorts operates sport fishing lodges accessed by helicopter — mini four-star hotels in the wilderness. www.westcoastresorts.com
Getting there: For a trip you’ll never forget, drive and hop aboard the BC Ferry route: 30 hours through gorgeous fjords and ocean crossings. Otherwise, it’s a two-hour flight from Vancouver to Sandspit. Visit these remote, Pacific islands between May and September when the weather is best.