Gwaii Haanas National Park, British Columbia, Canada
What does it do to one to leave modern civilization and the modern comforts of home behind? To delve deep into the natural world? To get lost both physically and within one’s own consciousness? Here I am, someone who has always avoided this kind of “hippy crap” yet writing about this, knowing that I have found a place to surround myself with pure, natural beauty. A place to reset myself and make me feel human again. Paddling through Gwaii Haanas was a transformative experience, a cleansing of the soul, whatever that means. Floating amongst a sea of life, passing by mystical, dark forests and towering mountains covered in mist makes for a legendary setting. This is my story of a journey into one of planet Earth’s hidden paradises. This is the ancient land of the Haida: Gwaii Haanas National Park, Canada.
Getting to Gwaii Haanas
Haida Gwaii may be thought of as divided into two separate areas. You have the North, which is from Queen Charlotte to Masset, connected by road and the South, which is the remote Gwaii Haanas National Park, a multitude of beautiful islands only accessible by boat or plane.
There are a few options to consider when exploring Gwaii Haanas. Your best option is to take a guided tour. The region is famed for unpredictable weather and although on a map Gwaii Haanas may look small, it’s not. Traveling alone here would be very difficult and, quite frankly, dangerous.
There are two kinds of tours offered to Gwaii Haanas; Zodiac tours and kayaking. Without sounding too pessimistic, in my opinion, if taking a Zodiac or boat tour, you will not get in touch with the true nature of Gwaii Haanas. In order to fully appreciate this stunning National Park, you must slow down. Kayaking will give you exactly this. Every morning you will wake up to the sounds of the ocean, kayak alongside whales and learn all about this incredible ecosystem. This is the best way to see Gwaii Haanas.
Sandspit: The Gateway to Gwaii Haanas
I entered Gwaii Haanas National Park with Green Coast Kayaking, an eco-conscious company that specializes in immersing their clients into this pristine wilderness. Our starting point was Sandspit, a small community that is a short ferry ride from Queen Charlotte. You can also fly to Sandspit the day before and begin to transition yourself to the slow pace of island life.
I recommend staying at the Bay View Garden B & B. This quaint, family-run bed and breakfast is the perfect way to get the feel of Haida Gwaii life! They offer dorms and private rooms, which tend to be cheaper than elsewhere in the area.
Hot Spring Island: Gandll K’in Gwaay.yaay
After leaving Sandspit behind and driving for about an hour on a rugged logging road, our crew boarded a Zodiac at Moresby Explorers Camp and headed deep into the park. The emerald green islands dotted the horizon, protruding out of the dark sea. We made a couple stops to drop off supplies for some of the Haida Watchmen and to observe a rare sunfish that happened to surface near our destination.
Landing on Ramsay Island, we set up camp before paddling our kayaks out to Hot Spring Island. This was our crew’s first paddle together. We went slowly to get our bearings and acquaint ourselves with the kayaks, preparing for the next eight days of seclusion.
After beaching the kayaks on Hot Spring Island, we walked along a beautiful path through old growth forest. The Haida Watchmen have carefully placed white seashells to guide you through the forest without disturbing the natural environment.
The hot springs themselves are newly repaired from a recent earthquake that devastated them a few years back. Now they sit perched aside a rocky cliff, overlooking the stunning bay. While relaxing in the hot springs, you listen to the sounds of lapping waves and whales spouting in the distance. After leaving the soothing waters of the hot springs, a Haida Watchmen brought me over to show his catch of the day. It was a giant halibut weighing well over 100 pounds. As a gift, he carved us a large piece of its tail for us to eat that night!
Tales of Haida Shamans and Totem Poles – Windy Bay, Hlk’yah G̱awG̱a
Waking early, we packed our kayaks and set off into the wonders of coastal Canada. As we were paddling, a pod of curious humpback whales followed us, emerging from the depths every now and then to take a peek at our kayak troop.
We had fantastic weather for most of the day. The skies were sunny and the water as still as glass; it made for a stunningly beautiful scene.
We arrived at Windy Bay on Lyell Island, known to the Haida as Hlk’yah G̱awG̱a, in the late afternoon. Here, an old Shaman house and totem pole can be seen from its shores. This was the second Watchmen sight we were to visit.
We camped near the Shaman house and the Watchmen told us the story of this particular totem pole and interpreted the meaning of all its figures. This totem pole was erected after the logging protests that ultimately resulted in the creation of Gwaii Haanas National Park.
The next morning, we hiked deep into the ancient growth to a sacred tree that is said to be the oldest in all Gwaii Haanas. The age is unknown, but many estimate it at over 2000 years old. It took our entire kayak crew holding hands to encircle it.
Spirits of the Past in Tanu, T’aanuu llnagaay – Gwaii Haanas
We paddled that evening to a remote island camp, still on the outskirts of Lyell Island. From here, we could see our journey that lay ahead. It was a mystical scene, reminiscent of a watercolor painting. The clouds covered many parts of the islands, but like a mythical giant, the mountain tops protruded above the fog with their ancient growth trees scraping the skies. The ocean was black and still, as if it were hiding ancient secrets.
We left Lyell Island, making the vast crossing over the ocean channel. Here, there was an abundance of massive jellyfish. My paddle would bump one every now and then, interrupting my meditative state of mind.
This day, the weather was much more dramatic. The rain created valleys of fog and everything seemed darker, yet, more intense.
At midday, we landed on the island of Tanu, another Watchmen sight. Unlike Windy Bay, which felt like an active sight, Tanu was an abandoned Haida village that is slowly being taken back by the earth. Walking under the old growth, seeing longhouse pits and totem poles covered in thick, green moss, you could almost feel the energy of the people that once called this place home.
Remembering Gwaii Haanas History
It’s important to remember why these Haida villages were abandoned and left to decay. When colonists came to Haida Gwaii, they brought smallpox, decimating the population. Along British Columbia’s Coast, 60 percent of the Indigenous population was killed by this epidemic.
The Haida are resilient undertaking everything they can to protect what still remains. Tanu Village is one of these places. This is an historical, untouched place where we can learn about the Haida before contact.
You can see more about the Haida Peoples History HERE
Immersing into Gwaii Haanas Nature
It’s hard to recount every moment of my kayak adventure through Gwaii Haanas as time seemingly ceases to exist. Some days we were purely immersed in nature with no signs of human existence. These days blend into one memory, one where I remember where we camped, what animals I saw and the weather that created beautiful scenes.
We camped in picture perfect places. Every photo I snapped could be a postcard and I feel so blissful about having visited these places. Below, I will include a map of each of our stops through Gwaii Haanas.
One evening was particularly special to me. We were camping in a bay with a large, sandy beach. Here, we worked together to catch our dinner. I ventured out in my kayak with my makeshift traditional fishing line and caught several large rock fish as well as an abundance of sea urchins. Returning to camp, we cooked up nature’s bounty and got creative with our local ingredients.
After dinner, watching the beautiful sun set over the bay, our local Haida Gwaii representative shared a “kelp bong” which we all ceremoniously took hits from…. I am not kidding; it was a six-foot-long kelp bong and it worked!
Haida Culture in Skedans, Koona
On our final day of kayaking we landed in Skedans, our last Watchmen sight. Skedans, also known to the Haida as Koona, is one of the most intact Haida sights. Here, there are many standing totem poles, all with a story to tell. The resident Watchmen walked us along an ancient path to traditional Chieftain’s houses, poles with bears, fish, or eagles atop of them and told us the oral stories that have been passed down from one generation to the next and so forth.
Skedans was a magical place and a fitting end to our trip. We camped on a beach in Skedans Bay, nearby the ancient sight. We spent our final evening here fishing, foraging and reminiscing about our experience in Gwaii Haanas, enjoying our biggest beach fire yet.
Digital Detox – Becoming Human Again in Gwaii Haanas
It is so difficult to get away from technology these days. Out amongst the furthest reaches of the planet, I have had cell signal, Wi-Fi or some form of contact. Even deep in Greenland’s Arctic North, I had internet.
In Gwaii Haanas you do not have any of this. No cellphone signal, no Wi-Fi, no means of getting “connected”. This is one of the few places on Earth where it is possible to get a digital detox. Leaving Gwaii Haanas with zero contact for eight days, I felt renewed. I felt as if I had hit a reset button. My mind instantly entered a state of tranquility.
This is the digital detox you need; the reset that Gwaii Haanas can provide!
Green Coast Kayaking is the key to opening the treasure that lies within Gwaii Haanas. This eco- friendly kayaking expedition company is the only way to experience the true nature immersion within one of our planet’s final frontiers. I learned about history, traditional stories and knowledge and as well as about myself from Green Coast and can’t wait to revisit Gwaii Haanas with them next year! They offer multiple tours into different corners of Gwaii Haanas. Check them out here!