I’ve lost my heart to the Haida Watchmen (and women)

These posts are all a little delayed and out of synch. Thats part of the joy of being on boats and trains in remote places.

So, back to Gwaii Haanas, the national park/biosphere that forms the lower half of Haida Gwaii. Before I keeled over and lay under a tree getting gently nibbled by an array of blood sucking beasties, I was paying attention to the guide and boat driver (captain?). The Haida people have fought for decades to preserve their land and it’s environment. They fought the loggers to stop removing centuries old trees, they fought to protect it with park status and now they are fighting the oil companies.
To protect the land from theft of ancient artefacts or damage to the environment, Haida Watchmen (and women) are posted throughout in cabins and live there in frugal (though beautiful) surroundings. In the 1960’s, before national park status, there were a number of thefts of ancient totem poles and carvings. The Haida Watchman goes way back in cultural history and legends and today also helps the Haida maintain a claim to the land with continual usage.

The Haida – and all of the Canadian inhabitants of the island – are passionate about the environment. They see how their culture and the natural world cannot be separated. When I was planning to come here, I thought it was great as it had two areas of personal interest; natural beauty and wilderness and art/culture. It took me a couple of days to realise that these were completely entwined and, ultimately, all part of the same whole.

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This last picture is taken from the ferry on my last morning.

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Next stop Japan

Today I went on a trip offroad through the centre of the island with Cody; a beardy man with a big wheeled 4×4, an axe and a bag of food. And a nice couple from Alberta.The west coast is pretty inaccessible, and standing on the beach you realise there is nothing else between you and Japan (apart from a few thousand gallons of pacific water). Its pristine and beautiful.

We did a bit of trekking and a lot of beach combing. I might have to buy a second suitcase to cart back all of the driftwood I’ve collected, which I really dont think I can be parted from. Cody built a fire and cooked lunch (even though I thought bears might join in).

But none of that was the best bit: the very best bit of all was I saw a giant golden eagle battling 4 bald eagles over a fish head right there in front of me, a few feet away.  Golden eagles don’t live in Haida Gwaii, so it must have flown down from Alaska. Its hard to describe how it feels when you look an eagle in the eye, in the wild, and as I don’t have a photo you’ll have to do your best to imagine it.

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Party!

I have so much to share, I’m going to have to do two posts (this little phone struggles a bit). I want to tell you about the wilderness, endless sunshine, wild life and all but first – I went to a dinner party! I’m staying at Premier Creek a homey, heritage (vintage/quirky) hostel with additional self contained rooms. I have discount for being vegetarian – I found out why, later.

After a long, hot and dusty walk yesterday I was lolling on their balcony feeding muffin to a raven. Peter, one of the owners, invited me to dinner. I just had time for a wash and to put my last clean top on. All I had to offer was 2/3 of a bottle of wine. But what a great, crazy, kooky evening! There was an australian man who lives outside the village, two men who are building a house together and the brilliant Paul. A reclusive, eccentric genius neuroscientist who lives with 6 cats on a remote island. Oh, and a big dog that snarled and growled at me all night.
And the best bit? At the end Peter and Lenore said they had been complaining together that they hadn’t met anyone interesting all year – and then I walked in (hint: I count as interesting). I have chosen to take it as a compliment…

I have no pictures of dinner, but here’s Premier Creek Inn and my room.

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Moving on

I left Masset on the ‘hospital bus’ this morning – a little van that runs once a day north or south carrying tiny packages for the health clinic, patients or travellers with giant suitcases. I seem to be the only person in on this secret budget travel, $30 as opposed to $175 for a taxi. There is no other public transport. As the driver is also a logger, and he talked about logs for an hour and a half (and I really don’t think he had exhausted the subject) I had time to reflect on the past few days and realised I had shared barely anything! So, in stream of consciousness style here is a mini update and some random pictures.

It has been gloriously, unusually sunny and will be until I leave. No use for the sweatshirt, waterproofs etc that I packed.

I have been staying at Eagles Feast with a Haida artist, April White or Sgaana Jaad, Killer Whale Woman. It has been quite a privilege to share breakfast and learn so much about Haida culture. She has her nephew Charlie living with her, who is half Maori, and is being immersed in Haida culture to better connect with his incredible heritage. It was a warm and hospitable household, and April is related to other local artists who I got to meet.

Everyone is nice and says hello everywhere. Many of them say ‘I like your hair’….

I hijacked an elderly kiwi couple as they had a car and I got them to drive me on a trip for the day. I think they imagined I was their daughter.

Some pictures.

Downtown Masset with the all-important liquor store, far right.

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More anti-oil graffiti. Harper is the prime minister of Canada.

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The most perfect find – organic crepes and stationery!

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The view from Queen Charlotte, where I am tonight. Jealous?

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Haida

It may not be a huge surprise that I had a meticulous spreadsheet for this trip, which hasn’t exactly gone to plan (other than the travel). Firstly, hitchhiking. I’ve knocked that idea on the head as I’m getting a bit too much attention. I think my red hair and pink skin is a bit exotic to the black haired, swarthy menfolk. And I’m a Brit travelling alone. So, I’m walking instead (and getting lots of friendly waves from trucks).

Secondly, the tiny tourist industry is restricted to summer so quite a few things (carving sheds, interpretative centres) are closed.

Thirdly, it seems I have developed a healthy respect of black bears with big claws and teeth ( not absolute terror, honest). As I have spotted 4 on the edge of the village, I am less keen on wandering around the estuary on my own.

I have had a great time going up to Old Massett, a First Nation area, and met a couple of artists. Was lucky to come across Jim Hart at his carving shed working on a monumental whale sculpture.

However, I also became aware of the First Nation battle against Enbridge who are proposing to extract oil, lay pipelines and send giant tankers down the pristine and delicately balanced Hecate Strait. Haida Gwaii is likened to the Galapagos for its uniqueness and untouched wilderness, and the impact could be devastating environmentally and culturally. As the Canadian Government have approved it in part, and generally oil-money wins, I suspect they haven’t got a chance. Just in case, I will be checking to see if Greenpeace have a petition going.

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Sleeping on boats

I’m sitting in a cafe eating second breakfast (a new marine influenced phenomenon) watching sea otters play while I wait for the hospital bus. I just arrived on Haida Gwaii after leaving on Saturday and getting 2 boats.
So after 2 nights, here are my seasoned tips for sleeping on boats:

1. If you find you have booked a cabin with more beds than you need and in a fit of generosity offer your spare key to a bedless stranger on the boat, I strongly recommend – and this is crucial – that you screen them carefully for snoring tendencies. You will rue your generosity and get no sleep!

2. A recommendation to BC Ferries. If passengers want to get off at Bella Bella or Nantu at 2am, make them responsible for setting alarm clocks. Do not announce over the tannoy at half hour intervals that the stop is coming up, is here, has gone.

3. If you really want to get some sleep on your second night or risk having an over tired tantrum, rent a blanket, pull your hood over your face and sleep under the chairs in the lounge. You’ll be so tired that the wild rolling of the boat will stop terrifying you after an hour or so and rock you off like a cradle. And don’t forget the purple satin eye shades as they will entertain the other passengers.

You will be awarded at 5am by an ocean sunrise, the misty peaks of Haida Gwaii on the horizon, porpoise, humpbacks, and the sea otters.

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